Friday, January 31, 2014

Walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Grief is a very real thing that almost all of us experience at one time or another. There may be times when you feel completely crushed and the very fabric of your life is shaken. But listen to what God has promised us in His word. “The Lord is close the broken hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet My unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor My covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:10). 

What is Grief?
Let’s begin by getting a definition of grief. Grief is an overwhelming feeling of sorrow, pain, regret, and sadness. We feel as if our hearts are broken, that nothing will ever be the same, or that happiness will never be possible again. Grief is a normal response to the loss of any significant person, object, or opportunity. Here are some circumstances that cause grief: Death of a loved one. For some people the death of a pet, divorce. The loss of a job or church change, a financial setback or a child leaving home all can cause grief. Grief can affect our thinking, behavior, emotions, relationships, and health. People may experience sleeplessness, exhaustion, indigestion, lack of appetite, or memory lapses. When we lose someone or something significant we are also face with what some have called a set of secondary losses. Life has been turned upside down. We may think that we have lost our identity asking, “Who am I with him or her? We may feel a loss of security, thinking, “How am I going to make it on my own?” 

Grief is often messy and unpredictable and follows no set time table. But grief is a process that allows us to recover from loss. Someone has said, “Grief is itself medicine.” Some else has described the grief process is like sailing across a stormy sea. When we first experience a great loss, we are launched into a tempest of emotions. We feel surrounded by darkness and heavy waves of anguish. Comforting words are drowned out by howling winds of sorrow. We feel lonely and out of control as we are swept toward a new destination in life. 

When we are faced with grief, we must allow ourselves time to face and experience grief in order to begin the journey toward healing. Grief is necessary. It is a prerequisite to healing. The Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt. 5:4). According to this verse, there must be a time of mourning before a person can experience comfort. If you are in a situation that is causing you grief, you must allow yourself time to mourn and grieve. 

A good example of this in the Bible is when Joseph’s father, Jacob, had died, Joseph “fell upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him.” Joseph was hurting inside at the death of his father and he knew the importance of the grieving process. When his father died, he didn’t rush himself, nor did he deny his feelings. In fact, the Bible says that Joseph and the Egyptians mourned for 70 days (Gen. 50:3). How long does the healing process take? It could take months, years, or possible a person may never fully get over the death of a loved one.

Stages of Grief
When people grieve, they normally go through many stages, but not necessarily in this order and not everyone goes through all these stages. The first stage is Denial or Shock. This is a numbness or feeling of unreality. We try to avoid the reality of the loss. Usually this stage does not last very long.

The next stage is often Anger accompanied with Anxiety. The hurt inside is so deep that you get anger instead. You may get mad at the person who died. You may get mad at yourself for things that you shouldn’t have said or what you should have done and didn’t. You may even get mad at God (Ps. 13).

The third stage of grief is Depression. It is when the reality that the loss is permanent. This results in extreme sadness, emptiness, and loneliness. You may not want to go anywhere, see others, or engage in normal activities. During this stage, guilt normally enters into the picture. You start saying, “Why didn’t I…?" "Why did I…?" "Or If only I had…”?

Another stage of grief for some might be the stage of Bargaining. This is where we try to in vain to get back the loss that cannot be retrieved.

The final stage is Acceptance. This is the stage where we learn to live with the loss. Things do not go back the way they were before the loss (they never can), but the Lord helps us to find a way to move forward in our life. This is sometimes described as finding a “new normal.”

Grief is Normal
Ecclesiastes 3:1,4 says “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Many Bible stories demonstrate how God comforts His people in times of sorrow and loss. Job clung desperately to God, despite catastrophic loss and unhelpful friends. David, a man after God’s own heart, openly grieved the death of his son.

The Lord Jesus is the best example of combining faith and grief, as revealed in John 11:1-45. When He saw Mary and Martha in anguish over the death of their brother Lazarus, He wept and groaned. Although Jesus knew He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, He still allowed Himself to feel and express the depths of human sorrow.

We can take comfort in knowing that Jesus has experienced all of our pain, including loss, rejection, betrayal, and dying. As our Savior and Redeemer, He took all our sins to the cross and forgives us when we ask. As our Good Shepherd, He leads us safely through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). Remember, a shadow indicates that there is a light on the other side!

Deep faith in Christ does not prevent grief when a believer dies, but it infuses grief with hope! For Christians, death is a passageway to eternal life (see John 5:24). Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). He also said, “I want you to know what will happen to the Christians who have died so you will not be full of sorrow like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus comes, God will bring back with Jesus all the Christians who have died” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

Well meaning people may say, “Jesus took your loved one away,” but that can cause people, especially children, to be angry at God. 1 Corinthians 15:26 says death is our last enemy. Therefore, we can say, “Death took our loved one away from us, but Jesus took our loved one away from death!”

If we don’t know whether our loved one believed in Jesus, we must simply trust God. The Bible says, “The Lord ... is long suffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). The thief on the cross turned to Christ in the last hours of life (Luke 23:39-43). We do not know what happens in a person’s final moments between life and death, but God does and He decides who enters His heaven.

The Holy Spirit is called the Comforter (John 14:26) and can give us God’s peace, even in the midst of suffering. Philippians 4:6-7 tells us, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” The peace of God does not come from our circumstances, but from drawing close to our Father who invites us “cast every care upon Him because He cares for us” (1 Peter 5:7). He urges us to come into His loving arms so He can heal our wounded hearts. He has mercy on those who are in distress (Psalm 31:9). 

Steps Forward 
Just as there are stages of grief, the Lord has steps forward for us as we pass through this valley called the grieving process. The process itself may feel likes it is never going to end. But the darkness does not have to last forever! There is light in the God of all Comfort who desires to comfort us. So I would like to suggest five ways He comforts and blesses us as we pass through the deep valleys of grief.

First, He is the God of all comfort! 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 reminds us, ’’Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.’’ As the God of all comfort He catches all of our tears in a bottle (Psalms 56:8) meaning that He is intimately aware of all our pain, sadness and depression. Psalms 147:3 says, “He is the healer of the brokenhearted. He is the one who bandages their wounds.” 

Secondly, He and He alone can remove our burdens and lift us up. Grief can be a huge weight to carry around with us all the time. But the Lord invites us to hand it over to Him! In Matthew 11:28 the Lord Jesus said, “Come unto Me, all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest” and in Psalm 55: 22 we are invited to “Cast your burden on the Lord.”

Another thing that the God of all comforts does for us is provide Strength. Grief and sorrow can be very exhausting emotionally, physically and spiritually. David felt grief and knew that God would supply the strength he needed when he cried out, “My soul melts from heaviness (or grief), Strengthen me according to Your word“ (Ps. 119:28). In Isaiah 41:10 the Lord encourages us to "Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”

Closely related to that the Lord promises to renew us. In Isaiah 40:30 we read “they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

The fifth thing the God of ALL comfort does for us is to turn our weeping into joy and our mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:5, 11). The grief will not last for ever!

Helping Others through Grief 
Everyone grieves differently, depending on personality, religious beliefs, maturity, emotional stability, and cultural traditions. How do we help those who are grieving?

First, Be There! During times of grief, most people don’t remember the words you say to them. But they do remember if you were there. Never underestimate the power of your presence with someone in his or her time of grief. Be there. You will never know how much that will mean to them. 

Second, Listen! One of the best things you can do for a person who is grieving is to simply listen. A grieving person needs to talk about the feelings that he or she is experiencing, the details of the death, funeral, and the past memories of their loved one. Encourage them to share his or her feelings, be a good listener and don’t judge what is said. Romans 12:15 says, “Weep with those who weep.” Tell the grieving person that it is O.K. to feel anger, hurt, and pain and that God understands their feelings, because God knows what it is like to experience grief.

Third, ask the Lord for guidance when you do speak. Avoid platitudes. Let the person feel sorrow without implying that he or she should “cheer up” or “be joyful in the Lord,” as this could give the impression you are questioning the person’s spirituality. Right then may not be the time to quote Romans 8:28. They need your open heart!

Fourth, share God’s Word. Never tell a grieving person that it was God’s will that their loved one was taken. It minimizes a person's death. Don’t push or preach, but if the person indicates an openness, pray and share meaningful Scriptures.

Lastly, do simple things without being asked, such as bringing a meal, doing the dishes, baby sit, mow the lawn, fix any repairs. By doing these practical things we display the compassion of the God of all comfort

Grief will hit all of us at one time or another! It will affect those around us. But the Lord promises to be with us forever, even in the midst of our darkest hours. He has promised never to leave or forsake! Be encouraged this to will past, but He is here to stay with you!

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