Loss is a gift to the living, who find in grief the opportunity to truly know joy, in tears to embrace a hearty smile. Without loss, we would have no pain to compare to gladness. It would be a dull world indeed if every day was just the same without low points or high points. In the human condition, we must have low points in order to understand the highlights.
But none of this logic is very comforting in the midst of despair. Even though in despair is exactly where we should be most vigilant with our walk by faith, it is often in the valley of the shadow that we lose our way entirely. In the time of our greatest grief, we will lean heaviest on what is familiar. If we have spent our lives reaching for the one, true God, we will not have far to fall before we find Him. Where we strain most in darkness, His is the brightest light.
In February of 2015, a season of grief and shadows began in my faith walk. My grandmother passed away, my last remaining grandparent. At the funeral, my mother explained that she was having trouble using her hands, a worrisome affliction. Shortly after, my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. In a few weeks, we learned the condition was terminal. In October, my mother’s condition was much worse. She had been for many tests and finally came to a specialist in Houston, who diagnosed her with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Right before Christmas, my brother-in-law, who had been battling liver cancer since August of 2014, succumbed. Not even two weeks later, my father-in-law also died.
So, today, when my best friend asked me to help her with verses for her unborn grandchild’s funeral, I had to sit down to reflect, and I do my best reflections when I write. This feeling is ironic because in the aftermath of my mother’s diagnosis and my husband’s family tragedies, I have given in to the feeling that for the first time in my life, words have failed me. Grief may make you bitter or angry or sorrowful, but it can make you feel like a cheat, too.
First, you are a cheat in grief because you are the survivor, the one who didn’t get the fatal illness or have the mortal accident. But, the pain of grief can also make you feel like a cheat because, despite all your high-handed, faithful words in the past, there are moments, long moments, when you don’t feel in great accord with God as you grieve. You may feel like He is punishing you (not Biblical) or has promised You a life without this pain (also not Biblical). You may even, in your heart of hearts, be just a little bit angry with Him for allowing the world to be this evil place where bad things happen like people dying!
And, when you feel these feelings, the last thing you think you are capable of doing is telling somebody else what kind of faith they should be having in God. You don’t want to be a fair-weather friend to the LORD-All-Powerful, but you don’t feel so buddy-buddy, either.
Finding the Light in the valley of the shadow began for me with simple things, like hearing people on television discussing their own struggle to break out of a season in the slumps. One mantra, “Today is a good day for a good day,” helped me tremendously early on. By choosing to think about the good in the day I was in, I managed to while away the hours and even smile now and again.
Luckily for me, I have always spent a lot of time studying the Word and reading a wide variety of thinkers about their take on God. Long before this season of tragedy, I had read Philip Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts?. I had taken many Bible studies with Beth Moore. I had studied the Word with Augustine and Randy Harris and Max Lucado. These foundations have helped me understand the process I am going through. I still have much to learn, much of which I will only learn by going where I have to go.
In the poem, “The Waking,” Theodore Roethke compares the process of living and dying to that of waking and sleeping. “I wake to sleep,” he writes, “and take my waking slow. I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. I learn by going where I have to go.” Because death is inevitable, the poet argues, the thing “Great Nature has to do to you and me,” we might as well embrace life in full knowledge of our coming death.
Even though life should be savored, I’ve come to understand, like A. E. Housman, that our post-death always may be ever more important. In Dead Lie We, the poet explains, “life to be sure is nothing much to lose, but young men think it is, and we were young.”
What do you say to a young woman who has to struggle through childbirth for a five-month fetus who has no beating heart? Philip Yancey puts it this way:
The notion of suffering as productive brings a new dimension to our experience of pain. Human beings undergo goal-directed suffering quite willingly, as athletes can attest. According to the Bible, a proper Christian response to suffering gives similar hope to the person on the hospital bed. As we rely on God, and trust his Spirit to mold us in his image, true hope takes shape within us, “a hope that does not disappoint.” We can literally become better persons because of suffering. Pain, however meaningless it may seem at the time, can be transformed. Where is God when it hurts? He is in us–not in the things that hurt–helping to transform bad into good. We can safely say that God can bring good out of evil; we cannot say that God brings about the evil in hopes of producing good.*
This transformation, this waking to sleep, is as old as the ages and takes as many forms as there are those who grieve and yet reach for the love of the ever-present God. In His Word, you will find examples of those who stood strong in faith despite tragedy, like David, those who railed against God in their despair, like many of the Psalmists, and those who put the will of God before their own needs, like Christ Himself.
As David proclaimed,
The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Psalm 18:2)
Only by establishing strongholds in God, either before tragedy or after, will you truly let God in to do his work of transforming you to the stronger person you are meant to be on the other side of the valley of shadow. Wounded hearts may never fully heal, but they feel much better when they are held in the loving hands of our all-powerful Father.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)
*From Where is God when it hurts? by Philip Yancey. Copyright 1990, 1977. Zondervan Publishing, p.109.