What to Do with Grief

It’s hard, this life.

This summer, in particular, has felt like one gasp after another – personally, globally. Murder is everywhere, in every form. The pre-born, the just born, the born not-long-ago, the bearing, the bearing arms, the unarmed, the armed forces, the forced to bear arms, the forces of faith and fortitude born within me… they’re all being murdered all around us every. single. day.

What do you do when you can’t breathe anywhere?

Our hearts weren’t made to grieve all the time.

But how do you not when pictures of unattached pre-born hands and legs in petri dishes pop up on your screen? You can’t unsee that. You can’t unfeel that.

How are we not swallowed whole by grief when the heads of babies and children and pregnant women are rolling daily on the desert floor, sometimes at the hands of pre-schoolers who should be rolling playground balls instead?

How do we keep our heads above water when our police officers and Marines are being shot in theirs by career criminals and brainwashed terrorists who don’t understand that they are loved by the Creator and are worth so much more than the identities they’ve settled for?

How do we breathe when racism has choked out the breath of unarmed men because hundreds of years of a false sense of superiority keeps getting passed down in white families in our country?

How do we not grieve when we know the one behind each and every one of these incidences hasn’t stopped there but has incited a personal attack inside each one of us, seeking to kill and destroy whatever faith and hope we have in God?

It’s too much, this daily onslaught of heartbreak.

We have two choices, as I see it.

We can let the grief win. Here’s how that process typically looks for me:

  1. Hear bad news/realize Satan has the upper hand in my spiritual life.
  2. Feel like I am suffocating.
  3. Try to combat that uncomfortable, paralyzing feeling with any manner of distractions.
  4. Try to encase my heart with steel in an attempt to not feel anything.
  5. Fail at all of these things.
  6. Feel depressed.
  7. Get angry I am losing the battle against grief, depression, and Satan.
  8. Lament things will never get better.
  9. Stop making any effort at anything whatsoever.
  10. Generally irritate myself and everyone around me.

As you can see, this is a super mature, wise, and productive way to handle grief. It enhances every relationship I have, including my relationships with myself and with God. My loved ones really get the message that I love them, and Jesus is glorified through me.

I may or may not have chosen this approach to grief the majority of the summer, and that may or may not have played a huge role in why I have contributed nothing to this blog for six weeks. (You’re welcome.)

The alternative response to the chronic soul-crushing chaos that constantly threatens to consume us is to use the grief for our good.

We can choose (so I’ve been told) to see grief as a gift.

A grieving heart is one who understands things are broken. And it’s not until we understand that reality that we can comprehend how dire our need for a Savior is. And it’s not until we understand our desperate need for Jesus that we will choose to sprint to Him for holding and healing and hope – for Him. And, of course, it’s not until we draw near to Him that anything will be right at all in our lives and in our hearts. And none of this will happen without our experiencing grief in the first place.

Grief is a gift that leads a willing heart to the heart of God.

And when we get there, He gives us the breath we can’t find any other way.

What to do with grief

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What to Do When Pain Overwhelms You

I’ve had a heavy heart the past week or so. I’ve been blaming gray winter clouds hiding the sun that I need to light me up and the beige walls of my home closing in as winter weather held our family hostage all last week.

And maybe they have something to do with it.

But the Lord brought it to my attention this morning that those things aren’t the true source of my disquieted spirit.

No, my sullen disposition lately is a product of my internalizing a lot of hard news instead of exporting it to the Lord.

I’ve struggled to get the savage murders of the 21 martyrs off my mind. The images of them in orange jumpsuits with knives to their throats are still all over the internet. And today I woke to news that at least 90 more Christians have been kidnapped. We know in our sickened guts which way that’s going to go…

A couple of high school kids drove a rural road two weeks ago and slammed into a tree. Dead. I drive by the gifts laid at the bottom of the giant oak every day. A headlight still hangs on a branch, and part of the bumper lies unclaimed a few feet away. My heart aches for those boys’ moms. My lungs burn when my imagination jumps to “What if my kids…”

Last night a 16 year old in a nearby community took to a highway I’ve driven many times and threw himself off a bridge into oncoming traffic below. Gone. Every overpass I drive under I hurt for his family… his classmates that had to digest the news this morning… his teachers who had to keep it together enough to guide teenagers through tragedy… and the driver who struck the boy as his body fell in darkness…

All of this news is devastating. Although none of it “personally” involves me, I am a person with a soul and emotions and so it goes that I am personally affected by each horrific story.

I think I may have forgotten this.

I took each piece of news as it came. I heard about it, I read about it, I saw images of it, I have tangible reminders of it. But I never processed it with the Lord because I never considered it mine. Sure, I uttered a plea for mercy, “Oh, God,” each time I learned of an event, but I never said, “Lord, this hurts my heart.” I didn’t sit with God and let Him minister to me.

So these pains piled up in my soul. I drove to a ministry this morning where I knew it was highly likely I would face more deadly news. Driving under overpasses and imagining what that boy who jumped must’ve been feeling before he leapt, God connected some dots for me.

I wasn’t even particularly thinking about Him as I drove until my heart got so heavy a sentence fell out of my mouth: “I can’t handle this!” The weight of the emotions inside had become too much. And the Lord responded in turn, “You’re not meant to. I will handle this.”

I marveled. Then I tried to decipher what, exactly, He meant. I had meant that I couldn’t handle the hurt in my heart anymore. And He knew what I had meant. So logic tells me what He meant in His response was I am not meant to handle all these emotions that are too big for me; He is supposed to handle them for me.

After giving me time to come to that conclusion, He continued, “Just bring me your heart.”

Ah. That’s all I’m supposed to do during heavy times. And I’ve known God long enough to know His solution would work. If I brought Him my battered heart, He’d tend to it.

To be honest with you, I didn’t have time to let the Lord stitch up my heart at that moment. I was walking into a war zone where Satan tries to do some of his best work by convincing women who have made mistakes that they are unlovable and that having an abortion will somehow solve their problems.

But I did have time for a quick band aid.

The Lord brought to mind a verse I had discussed with my kids a couple days earlier.

Colossians 3:15, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

Paul was instructing the Colossians on how to live holy lives with one another. I told my girls we can learn three things from this verse.

  1. There is peace that comes from Christ, and God wants that peace to control us because
  2. God expects Christians to live at peace with one another.
  3. And when we don’t feel peace in our hearts, we can get some if we start giving thanks for things God has already done.

Although, linguistically, it doesn’t necessarily follow that thankfulness causes peace to rule in our hearts, I am certain these ideas were put next to each other for a reason. The ideas are connected in some way. And experience tells me, whether this verse does or not, that cultivating gratitude does lead to peace in my heart.

This mini lesson resurfaced in my mind this morning, and I asked myself, “Okay, am I going to do this and live this thing out or not? I have a choice right now, what’s it going to be?” Most days my heart rolls its eyes and the heaviness wins. But not today.

I started thanking God for what I knew to be true about all these tragedies. “Thank You, Lord, that You are in control of all these situations. Thank You that You are willing and ready to comfort all the hurting right now. Thank You that You care.”

That was it. That was all I had time for before I walked through the doors of my clinic and had five counseling sessions with women who were hurting in their own right. But my short act of giving thanks had birthed enough peace in my heart that I was able to offer some to them. 

Pain and suffering and grief are hard. They are big, ugly problems we can’t handle. But we’re not meant to. It’s His job to handle our hearts. We just have to let Him. 

How Far Will God Go to Get Our Attention?

“Sometimes it feels like I am being swallowed whole. Like this life is too much. Like I am too much.”

I said that to God.

And a truth popped into my head almost instantly: there is someone who knows what that feels like.

Jonah was literally swallowed whole… and why?

Because he wouldn’t do what the Lord told him to do (Jonah 1). 

“‘Go to the great city of Nineveh…'” God had said. “But Jonah ran away from the Lord…”

Yeah, Jonah has always understood me… us…

“Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up… they knew [Jonah] was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so… the sea was getting rougher and rougher…”

Yes, things only go from bad to worse when we’re running away from God.

The Lord caused this storm. He will not hesitate to create storms – “bad things” – to get our attention. 

“‘I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you,'” Jonah admitted.

Jonah’s nothing if he isn’t honest.

Am I? Are you?

Are we willing to tell people, “HEY! I AM RUNNING AWAY FROM THE LORD! I KNOW THAT IT IS MY FAULT THAT THIS GREAT STORM HAS COME UPON YOU!”

I don’t read this as Jonah bragging about his disobedience. I don’t think he is wearing it as a badge of honor. I know I’m not. I read Jonah as a guy who is being honest about where his heart is, transparent about his failings. And I hope I’m read the same way…

At his request, the sailors threw Jonah overboard to save themselves from the storm that was threatening their lives – the storm Jonah had caused. The sailors did this reluctantly, fully believing Jonah would die if they put him in that sea. They didn’t do it for Jonah’s good – they did it for themselves – but they were scared to death – scared of death scared of Jonah’s death

Yes, we can – we must – look at those we love who are weathering a storm God caused in an effort to get our attention and say, “THROW ME OVERBOARD! SAVE YOURSELVES, AND TRUST GOD TO SAVE ME!”

And they might believe if they do that we will die. They might be scared to death – scared of death – scared of our deaths…

But they needn’t be. Because we know there is more to Jonah’s story – to our stories – than a cold, frightening swim in a swelling sea.

“They took Jonah and they threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.”

God stopped that storm as quickly as He had started it the second Jonah hit the water. He bobbed like a lure, alone, treading water, but he knew – he knew – God was with him. What other explanation was there for a hurricane giving way to tranquility in the blink of an eye?

Can we believe God can do the same for us?

And for the loved ones we must push over the starboard side of a ship that’s sinking swiftly?

God could have stopped that storm and left it at that. He could have left Jonah in the middle of the calm sea, treading water until his legs cramped and his lungs burned. And then God could have let Jonah silently sink in exhaustion below the surface. He could have let Jonah drown.

But He didn’t.

God caused a life-threatening storm. He allowed Jonah to be thrown overboard. And then, “the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah…”

Swallowed whole.

Swallowed alive.

And the swallowing? It saved Jonah’s life. 

“I will let you be swallowed whole,” the Lord tells me, “not because I don’t love you, but because I do. The best thing you can do is what I am telling you to do. And if you have to be swallowed to be saved – swallowed before you’re convinced obeying Me might be a good idea – then that is what I will allow – that is what I will cause.”

It may feel like we are being swallowed alive – and, indeed, we may be – but salvation is in the swallowing.

Lord, help us trust You.

Why I (Don’t) Believe in God

I don’t really want to write anything about Newtown, Connecticut, given I have no new insight to offer. I don’t need to summarize what you already know about the situation, and I don’t want to offer my opinion on theological debates because it’s all been said ad nauseum. You have your opinion on where God was and what He was doing last Friday, if He even exists. And I have mine.

What I want to talk about, rather, is why I don’t believe in God. And then why I do.

Confused yet? All part of the hook 😉

I don’t believe in God because I can tell you exactly how a benevolent, all-knowing, all-powerful, completely in control God can exist alongside a broken world where terrible things like mass murders of children take place. The truth is, I don’t know how that’s possible.

I don’t believe in God because I can logically explain how it seems I have freedom to make my own choices without limiting God’s power to stop my choices if He doesn’t like them. I can’t understand how that works.

Nor do I believe in God because I can mentally assent to the idea that I don’t have free will but am still somehow responsible for my bad choices. I can’t.

I don’t believe in God because I can intellectually explain why God didn’t stop the Sandy Hook tragedy even though he was in control of the situation. I believe He could have. I see He didn’t.

These theological debates go round and round with no end. And they often keep unbelievers at bay. I once was an atheist who believed if I couldn’t explain God completely with my intellect, He couldn’t exist.

Today I am a whole-hearted Jesus sell-out, but I still can’t answer these questions about free will and pre-destination and sovereignty with much confidence.

I don’t believe in God because I can prove Him in a textbook kind of way.

I believe in God despite that which I can’t know for sure about Him.

I believe in God for one simple reason that trumps intellectual provability.

I believe in God because I have experienced Him. And that experience is proof enough for me that He is exactly who He says He is in the Bible, even if I can’t understand how He can be all those things at once.

A much too simple analogy: I read a book once about fire. The book described it as hot. I went to a science class, and the teacher there told me, yes, fire is hot. We went outside on a frigid day and peered into a bonfire 100 feet away. I felt cold. And the fire didn’t look hot. No matter how many times people told me that fire on that freezing day was actually upwards of 1000 degrees, I just couldn’t fathom it. My senses, my intellect, they all told me otherwise. I couldn’t process how rubbing two cold pieces of wood together could produce a spark of incredible heat. As I drew near the fire, though, I began to feel the heat on my face. I experienced the warmth. My mind still didn’t understand how it was so, but my encounter with the fire trumped my reason at that point. That fire, I knew, was hot. I couldn’t explain how or why, but I didn’t have to in order to believe because my experience was so real.

So it is with God. We will never have all our theological T’s crossed and philosophical I’s dotted. And once we’re ok with that, our hearts open up to experiencing Him.