Grief as a sanctifying experience.
Soon after my son died, someone made the comment to me that grief is a sanctifying experience. My expression changed so drastically that he later asked whether he had offended me. Although startled, I wasn't offended. In fact, I had no doubt that God would use the experience of losing Stephen, not only to draw me closer to Him, but also to refine my faith and strengthen my character. However, it did make me wonder. Was I so stubborn, was I so hardheaded, was I so unteachable that God had to take Stephen in order to get me to the point where He could work with me?
The experience of grief was like a powerful spotlight that was shining mercilessly on the weaknesses of my spiritual condition and exposing them. I did not like what I was seeing.
Yet, this application of grief seemed like over-kill. Using the death of a child to create spiritual growth and holiness seemed analogous to using a bulldozer to weed a vegetable garden. It was like using a chainsaw to trim shrubbery. If this was the purpose of my grief, it seemed more like chemotherapy, which not only annihilates the targeted cancer, but also destroys your immune system.
Grief for the Christian.
Well, realistically, just as no one can know the mind of God, I'm sure God had many reasons for taking Steve. We may never know all the ways God was pleased to use this tragedy to touch people and encourage them. However, I also know that my own spiritual sickness was worse than I realized. Chemotherapy is a radical cure, given to people who are very, very sick, and I was spiritually sick enough to require a radical cure.
Nevertheless, I thank God that for the Christian, the God-ordained administration of grief is not clumsy and imprecise like chemotherapy, the bulldozer, and the chain saw. No, for the Christian, grief is the surgeon's knife in the hand of the master physician. Jesus is the master heart surgeon, and grief-work is heart-work.
My sinful condition.
Although a Christian, I needed for God to change my heart. I'm not speaking of regeneration, here. I'm not talking about being born again. Rather, I needed for God to break through a particular heart problem, a particular sin problem, and heal it.
This condition was ever before me, as I would walk down to the park where Steve's accident took place. I have used that place in the park for a lot of different things. Sometimes it was a place for mourning. Other times it was a place for prayer: praying for the lost, praying for hurting people, personal strength, etc. These were all things that I could do. But there was one thing I could not do. I could not look at my salvation and say, "It is enough." I was not content in Christ alone. I needed more than Christ to be happy. I knew this, and I knew it was wrong. My sick heart required more than Jesus Christ.
During this time, a song by Horatio Spafford was constantly on my mind, "It Is Well With My Soul."
Remembering Horatio Spafford.
Horatio Spafford lost his four daughters in a shipwreck off the coast of Newfoundland. Prior to this, he had already suffered tremendous loss in the death of his son, further aggravated by the great fire that devastated Chicago in 1871.
After the shipwreck, his wife, one of the few survivors, sent him the two-word telegram, "Saved alone." During the journey to join his wife, the captain called him up to the deck when they crossed the place where his daughters had perished. Either there or later he penned the words to that hymn that has comforted many, many people over the years, "It Is Well With My Soul."
Lots of people love this song. As for me, well I liked part of it. I enjoyed woefully playing the part, "When sorrows like sea billows roll." However, I found the rest of the song to be kind of monotonous and redundant. Further, I was more irritated than impressed with Mr. Spafford.
As I thought about him looking over the bow of that ship where his daughters had perished, as I thought about how he had penned those words, "What ever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul," I got irritated.
Is this all he can say? Is this all he has?
It seemed pathetic. After all, I had been a Christian ever since I was in the third grade. I knew many Christians, and there didn't seem to be anything particularly novel about being a Christian. Obviously, I knew that Christianity was very basic,For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Mark 8:36 (KJV)But my faith was at the lowest and most basic level of my hierarchy of needs, closely followed by food and shelter. On top of this were all kinds of needs for comfort, pleasure, and fulfillment.
However, as I got older and grew in my faith, I realized that my attitude was wrong. Indeed, I marveled at some of the stories I had heard from the suffering church where saints, even in the lowest bowels of the darkest prisons, were able to be content in Christ alone. For me this seemed unreachable.
Surgery of the heart.
When the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, some things are just a matter of changing behavior. There are some things we can just do or stop doing. For example, if someone were pilfering office supplies, the response would be to stop stealing. If someone were provoking his children to wrath during discipline, the response would be to discipline with kindness. The outward response would be obvious, although the person would still need to trust God for the strength to remember and to obey.
However, underlying beliefs and attitudes are a different matter. When the Holy Spirit shines the light of scripture on the sinfulness of our beliefs and attitudes, these things are more difficult to change.
For me, the sinful underlying attitude was clear: Christ was not enough for me. I could not be content with Christ alone. I could not stand with Horatio Spafford and say "Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul."
When faced with a challenge like this, several responses are possible:
Against this awesome spiritual challenge stands a verse, which in recent days has been a tremendous source of comfort:
- Shrug it off and ignore it.
- Struggle without God's help.
- Cry out to God.Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled (Matthew 5:6, KJV).God taught me to not only hate my sinful condition but also to hunger and thirst after His righteousness. I wanted to be changed. I wanted to have that fervent gratitude that Christ so deserved. I wanted Christ to be that pearl of great price in my heart, the true source of contentment, so precious and so valuable that nothing could steal my joy.
For most of my life I had just shrugged this off as something that was not for me. However, after Steve died, I couldn't get away from it. By God's grace, I took the third option; I continued to cry out to God to heal my sinful heart. In addition, I took special note of hymns and Bible verses that provoked feelings of gratitude. The most drastic action I took was to buy a six-page concert version of "It Is Well With My Soul," and commit myself to six months of piano practice in order to learn it. But that wasn't enough. I needed divine help.
On October 15, 2001 I worked from home. The house was empty except for our dog, Blaze. As I worked I could hear Steve Green's CD For God and God Alone playing in the background.
Mr. Green's music had been a real source of comfort to me as my heart was drawn in by his passionate, God-centered praise. I had also recently read his testimony and was considering what a wonderful thing it was that God had called him out and saved his soul. But as I listened to the music, a different thought went through my head:I did the same thing for you.Suddenly I started crying. At first I tried to stop. Then I didn't want to stop as I realized God was doing something. So I prayed, "Please God, don't stop. Don't stop. Make me grateful. Make me grateful."
Beyond that I'm not sure what happened, except that for the next several hours I could not even think of the cross of Jesus Christ without being moved to tears. Certainly there was nothing unusual about having this thought. I knew that Jesus had died for me. And by now I no longer viewed my salvation as a common thing. I realized that while many are saved by sovereign grace, many others are passed by. But on this occasion it was as if God took the tender plant of understanding that was in my mind and gave it deep roots of gratitude that penetrated and nourished my very heart and soul.
In a way that is beyond my comprehension, God gave me a deeper sense of gratitude for what Jesus did for me on the cross, a gratitude that could sustain contentment during hard times, yes, a gratitude that would at last make me able to truthfully say, "Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul."
Interpreting the experience.
Experiences like this, while precious, have to be interpreted carefully. It is important to distinguish between what is applicable to other people (general concepts) and what applies only to me. It seems obvious that God used Steve Green's music to minister to me in a way that was very specific to my situation.
However, there is a general application, and I think it is this: that the same God who commands us to train ourselves to live godly lives, provides divine resources for bringing this about.
- It was God's grace that made me realize that I was so drawn to the things of this world that I could not be content in Christ alone.
- It was God's grace that made me grieve over the sinful state of my soul.
- It was God's grace that made me hunger to have a heart that was truly grateful.
- It was God's grace that sustained me as I agonized over this in prayer.
- It was God's grace that made his word come alive to me as I struggled.
- It was God's grace that motivated me to cry out to Him for help.
- It was God's grace that touched me and changed me so that I could be content in Christ alone.
Of course this does not end the struggle. I still have to be careful to remember what God has taught me. By analogy, just because you have survived driving fifty-two miles to work in driving rain doesn't mean the problem is solved for the next rainstorm. Surely there will be many emotional rainstorms in the days ahead. But now God has given me shelter from the rain in this: that Christ alone is enough. Let the rain beat down around me. Safe inside this shelter, Christ alone will be that wellspring of contentment that nothing can destroy.
I can't fully understand what Mr. Spafford went through. I don't know what it is like to lose four daughters. However, I think that, now, I could, in a sense, walk up to him on that ship and say, "Mr. Spafford, I kind of know what you meant now. I kind of know what you meant when you said, "Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.""
Have I now arrived? Is my sense of gratitude to Christ all it should be? I don't think so. While God did a major work of healing to my heart, this gratitude needs to further deepen into a passionate motivation for obedience.
In addition, there are other sins that need to be dealt with. The battle against the remaining principle of sin will never end in this life. Nevertheless, the same God who commands me to actively and deliberately walk in holiness is committed to creating holiness in me. I'm not alone in this struggle. This gives me courage to readdress other sin problems in my life, sins that I previously had just shrugged off to temperament or environment.
Am I ready for God to continue his work in me? In May of 2001, Nan and I went to Florida on vacation. While I was sitting on the balcony reading the Bible and noting some of the stringent requirements of the law of Christ, I got kind of frustrated and said, "I don't know how to do this." Then this thought went through my mind:Now, are you ready for me to change you?
I wept quietly, because I knew the cost would be high. With the loss of Stephen, it had already cost more than I would ever have imagined. Will it be worth the cost?
Several years ago Esther K. Rusthoi wrote a song with these words, "It will be worth it all when we see Jesus." I think she was right. Whatever hardship, suffering, and grief we are called to experience in this life, someday it will be worth it all. Until then we struggle. Sometimes we struggle with great energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes we struggle weakly at the threshold of defeat. But whatever happens, may this be our enduring source of contentment, that Christ alone is enough. And may his sustaining power keep us, even as he has promised.
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