Saturday, 19 August 2017

God's sovereignty and goodness: Comfort in grief

Sometimes I am acutely aware of dates and anniversaries, and at other times they creep up on me. For us, because we have lived in some very different cultures and climates, some of the usual 'triggers' are not there, and in our current location close to the equator where there seem to be so few changes in season, we often don't really appreciate what time of year it is at all. So perhaps I have been a little surprised at how aware I am that it is August, and that 10 years ago, we discovered we were expecting our first child.

I remember those days... Feeling tired, really tired, but very happy. Having a secret (we didn't tell people around us that I was expecting until it was obvious, and people in our passport country until we came home for the birth), but feeling very thankful for this gift of new life. One of the reasons we didn't tell people was because of our awareness that life is fragile. I had miscarried before, and I knew quite a number of friends who had suffered miscarriages at all stages of pregnancy (not just before that mythical 'twelve weeks' at which time many people tend to assume that they are 'safe'). I remember a quiet thankfulness and awe, and I would often reflect on Psalm 139 - how God knows about all life since even before conception, and that it is all perfectly in His hands.

Fast forward ten years... Three boys are working on electronic circuits whilst my two year old daughter sleeps. It is a peaceful Saturday where none of us have had many pressing tasks to achieve, and we've been able to sit under palm trees drinking strong black coffee, talking over the next few months and reading adventure stories aloud to the children. Shortly I'll go to church for music practice, we might go running in the cool of evening before sunset. Again, I am overwhelmed with thankfulness and all that God has given me.

It is not how I would have expected things to be. Sometimes I look back to ten years ago as to days of innocent hope, to a world that felt different. Life had not always been easy up to that point, and we'd had to grapple with questions about why a God of love would allow pain and suffering - yet somehow the trials that we had known until that point could clearly be related to sin (either our own or somebody else's). The illness and death of our daughter was different - excruciatingly painful, yet free from complex feelings of guilt, shame or blame.

Over the past ten years, I have interacted with many families who have grieved the loss of a loved one, including many where the person who died was a child. I've wept with them as I have sought to bring comfort from what we learnt as we also walked through those deep waters. Lately, I have been reflecting on what really helps a person through that grief. Three years ago, I reflected on what a 'wish list' of a bereaved parent might look like several years down the line, and whilst I would say much the same things today, I have been thinking at a deeper level. What is it, deep down, that helps a person come to terms with excruciating loss and move forward with hope, joy and thankfulness?

I think much can be summarised in a single phrase: The sovereignty of God'. Or two phrases: 'The character of God' and 'the sovereignty of God'. Let me explain.

Psalm 139 verse 16 reads, 'All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be'. Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that God would ordain some people to have many thousands of days, and others to have only one or two, or indeed no life beyond the womb? But in considering that, do we really believe that God is good? That He is love? I know some people who have walked away from the church or any desire to seek or know God because they come to consider him as a 'capricious being who throws dice'. They cannot come to terms with the fact that God knew in advance the tragedy that would befall them, and yet in His wisdom, permitted it to happen.

I think there are several reasons for this. In part, I think it can be easy whilst living in this world to lose sight of eternity. Yet throughout the Bible we are encouraged to keep our eyes on the bigger picture, on the long game. In the words of the Apostle Paul, 'Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal'. 2 Cor 4:16-18. I find it absolutely fascinating to read what Paul described as being 'light and momentary': 'I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day on the open sea. I have been constantly on the move, I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and often gone without sleep, I have known hunger and thirst and often gone without food, I have been cold and naked'. 2 Cor 11:23-27. I wonder whether many modern Christians, facing even one or two of those circumstances, would consider their trials 'light and momentary'? But Paul had his eyes fixed on the final goal, on eternity, and on God's purpose through it all, and therefore he did not lose heart. One of my favourite verses, especially when my heart feels like it is breaking, is in the description of heaven found in Revelation chapter 21: 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' Rev 21:3-4

But Paul didn't just have a blithe acceptance that somehow all the suffering and pain would one day be erased. He understood that God was working in and through these trials for His glory. Similarly, the Apostle Peter wrote to a church who was facing such severe persecution that many Christians had needed to flee, and so the church had been 'scattered'. He described it thus: 'In this you greatly rejoice though now for a little while you have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuiness of your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end of your faith, the salvation of your souls' 1 Peter 1:6-8. So, trials prove our faith genuine. Does that mean that a person who struggles greatly in the face of a trial does not have faith? Not necessarily, but I do think there may be a misunderstanding of God's great purposes throughout history and through our lives. (I am fully aware I am not addressing this issue fully!)

Throughout the Bible, we are never given any assurance that knowing the amazing love, grace, forgiveness and salvation of Christ will mean our life in the here and now will be easy. Indeed, one of the last things Jesus told his disciples before his death on the cross was this: 'I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world'  John 16:33. We are warned of conflict within families, misunderstanding and potential rejection by our communities. We are told that we will be like pilgrims and strangers in the world - which may sound poetically idealistic, but in fact might often be cold, lonely and fraught with challenges.

I love to read writings of the Puritans. I've recently remarked on reading a simple novel written by a Puritan, where there is a strong worldview of God's sovereignty radiating off the page. Read many biographies or commentaries written in that era, and this is an overwhelming strength of their faith. You read of families where 19 children were born but where only 8 survived to adulthood, and yet the family rejoices in God's goodness. You read of real hardship, of poverty, of illness, of the toil and grind of daily life in the pre-industrial era, and yet a real thanksgiving is apparent. More latterly, one can read of Christians like Elisabeth Elliott whose first husband Jim was killed with several friends by the Auca Indians to whom they were seeking to bring the gospel. In the wake of this, Elisabeth remained among that tribe and saw many come to a genuine faith. Her writings are strongly Biblical, and often filled with a real pragmatism: life may be difficult and painful, yet we need to look to what God has called us to do. And that is inspiring!

But such a strong confidence of God's goodness in the face of extreme trial seems less common today. In many parts of the world, life is much less troublesome and traumatic, and those who face trials such as the death of a child or the premature death of a spouse are seen as unusual. There is no quick or easy answer to these situations, and so loved ones, and indeed often fellow Christians may step away, lacking the confidence and assurance required to address these deep questions in a loving, but Biblical way. 'How can a God of love allow this?' is one of the deepest, most heart-felt questions a person can ask, and yet many Christians today seem ill-equipped to answer.

Many modern Christian songs focus more on us or our response rather than on God's goodness and sovereignty. Erroneous prosperity teaching does not just relate to matters of finance, but also to areas of health, wellbeing, relationships and comfort, and our current generation often has a sense of entitlement (for more about this, read this book!). And these are errors which diminish appreciation of the true power and glory of God. The gospel was never about us having an easy, long, comfortable and healthy life in this world, but is to do with the amazing freedom that arises from having our sins forgiven and being able to approach God with confidence and boldness, having that relationship restored. It is about peace in the face of trials, and an incredible everlasting hope.

My prayer is for a generation of Christians who can really get to grips with God's sovereignty without losing sight of his perfect love and goodness. For me, these are the elements that enabled us to see our daughter's life as a precious gift, and to have been a life which pointed many towards God's glory.




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