EHS 5: Enlarge Your Soul Through Grief and Loss
5/23/2018 2:41:36 AM
May 20, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Hebrews 5:7-9
Owain has Down Syndrome. Owain is my friend Bob’s son. Bob is a pastor near Ottawa, but I actually know Bob from Nova Scotia. He was one of my Dad’s students in seminary and I got to know him through the InterVarsity group on campus.
Bob and I recently spoke about Owain. Bob told me that he and his wife, Michelle, struggled with grief when Owain was born. Part of their struggle was that they felt like they were grieving Owain, and that felt wrong and came with guilt. Then they came to understand that what they were truly grieving was all of their lost hopes and expectations for Owain that they held. Owain was not likely to fulfil many of their expectations or the things they projected onto Owain. They realized that wasn’t Owain’s fault, that was theirs. Their expectations and projections onto Owain were their own “junk” not Owain’s. When they realized that and were able to grieve and overcome their “stuff,” their “junk,” they were able to love and enjoy Owain on his own terms.
Now, here’s the remarkable insight Bob shared with me: all parents grieve their unfulfilled expectations for their children, they just usually spread that grieving and mourning out over 20 or 30 years as their children grow up! Bob and Michelle were able to mourn those losses up front. That then freed them to love Owain on his terms, not theirs!
Bob and Michelle grew and matured through their grief and loss. They brought it to the Lord and discovered that much of what they were mourning was junk in their own hearts, not stuff in Owain himself. They have come to love their child with a disability in a profound way and, I suspect it has shaped how they love their older daughter too!
Grief and loss, mourning, are not bad things in and of themselves. In fact, we can grow tremendously through them, if we allow God to use them to shape us and refine us to be like his Son. Jesus himself learned through grief and loss. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus wrestled with God in prayer. He prayed and wept that he would not have to go through the crucifixion, but even as he asked that God would “Take this cup from him,” he continued, “Not my will, but your will be done.” These events are described in the Gospels, but is further discussed in the book of Hebrews. Let’s take a look.
Turn to Hebrews 5:7-9. By way of context, the author of Hebrews is talking about Jesus becoming our high priest. The process through which he was appointed to be our high priest, our mediated between us and God, was not based on his Sonship, but his obedience. The process included grief and loss and was not just based on his identity as the Son of God. Rather than becoming our high priest through his relationship with God, Jesus’ path was one of suffering, obedience and endurance. [George H. Guthrie, Hebrews, p. 189]
He prayed to the one who could “save him from death” we are told, and he was “heard.” But was he heard? Didn’t he die on the cross? Jesus was saved from the eternal consequences of death. Jesus was saved through the resurrection. He was saved on the other side of suffering rather than saved from suffering. [Guthrie, p. 190]
We are told he was heard, and thus saved, because of his reverent submission. “reverent submission” can be translated literally as “fear of God” or “piety.” [Guthrie, p. 190] Piety is not a word we use much anymore. It means religious devotion, spirituality and humility. Fear of God does not mean abject cowering or terror. Rather, it means healthy respect. I remember when I was a kid I did some horseback riding from time to time. I remember being afraid of the horses. They were huge, powerful and I knew they had a mind of their own. It was a healthy fear, I still got on and rode. It was a respect for their power. In the same way, Jesus had an appropriate fear of God, and a healthy submission to God as a response.
The Father responded to Jesus’ cries because of Jesus’ posture of complete submission and abandonment to the Father’s will. [Guthrie, p. 190] It was Jesus’ humility, his complete reliance upon God and submission to
him that resulted in his salvation, not from death, but through death as resurrection. How often do we assume a posture of complete submission to God’s will?
Jesus’ Sonship did not make his path to being high priest an easy one! He still suffered and had to be obedient, clinging to God, even when it was difficult.
We are told that Jesus “learned obedience.” This does not mean that he had been disobedience and then learned obedience. Rather, it means that he “arrived at a new stage of experience” of obedience. [Guthrie, p. 191] Jesus graduated from the school of suffering with a new experience of obedience and this lead to the “perfection” of v. 9.
“Perfection” carries with it a sense of completion. Jesus was perfected means that he finished the course, he walked to the end of the path laid out for him by the Father. [Guthrie, p. 191] This completion, this perfection, lead to the resurrection, which opened up the way to salvation for the rest of us! If, that is, we obey Jesus. That is, if we are willing to walk the path of obedience that Jesus walked, the path of complete submission of our will to God. Are we willing to submit our will, our understanding, our conduct and allegiance to God even if it means walking the path of suffering?
What It Means
There’s a lot going on here! Let’s take a closer look at what it means. First, what does this teach us about Jesus? Jesus deserves our praise! [Guthrie, p. 196] He walked the path to the end, he ran the race and finished, he graduated from the program, he completed the mission! Without his perseverance we would not have the road to salvation opened to us! And Jesus persevered beyond what any of us endure.
Second, Jesus can identify with us in our suffering and temptation. [Guthrie, p. 196] This is why he is such a great high priest! This is why he is such a great mediator between us and God. He knows what it is like to grieve, to suffer, to be tempted, to endure. So he can represent us to the Father so well.
Jesus also sets an example for us in perseverance. [Guthrie, p. 196] Temptation beats us because we do not persevere. We give in to temptation because we to not persevere. For example, grief and loss overwhelm us and we are lead into temptation to “curse God and die” in the words of Job’s wife. We are tempted to abandon God, or to stop submitting to him and take matters into our own hands. We are tempted to abandon the faith because God has not lived up to our expectations. But Jesus persevered. And in Jesus we see that perseverance teaches obedience and we complete the mission, we run the race, we walk the path to the end that God has laid out for us. In the end, we are perfected, or completed.
Finally, grief and loss teach us how to submit our will to God’s. Take note of Jesus’ prayer. He made his requests, that the cup be taken from him, but always in the context of submission, “not my will but your will be done!” This shows a maturity in prayer. So often our prayers are centred on our will, “bless me, hear me, heal me, answer me, provide for me… etc.” These prayers are most frequently about God doing our will. But with Jesus, it was the other way around! How do we learn to submit to God’s will? Are we willing to submit to God’s will when the “feelings are dried up and there is nothing left but the naked will clinging blindly to Him?” [HA Hodges, in Guthrie, p. 199] It is through this kind of struggle, clinging to God, that we are purged of vanity and conceit and trained in pure love. [Hodges]
There are two levels at which I want us to apply this message today. First, is the level of the individual, the person who is going through grief and loss, which all of us will experience at some point. The second level of application is that of the church broadly speaking. There are lessons here about discipleship and evangelism that we must not miss. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to follow Jesus?
But first, the application to the individual. We first must realize that grief, loss and mourning are not in themselves bad. Grief is not evil or bad, it is unpleasant. There is a world of difference! We in the West, though, have become allergic to discomfort. Comfort and ease have become our gods. So when things get tough, we rebel and shy away. We avoid grief and loss. This is a mistake!
Grief and loss can be pathways to intimacy with God. They can be paths to refinement, paths to obedience and to being made more like Jesus. God brings new life through pain and even through death. We must not deny, stuff down or avoid grief.
Some think that being a Christian means always being joyful. They cite verses like, “Rejoice in the Lord in
all circumstances.” But rejoicing in the Lord means finding joy in the Lord in all circumstances, even bad, painful circumstances. It doesn’t mean that we think bad circumstances are actually good. Jesus never taught us to stuff down, deny or ignore grief and loss. Paul even commands, in Romans 12:15, “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.” We are to experience mourning, grief with one another and to join together in times of loss to express our grief. It doesn’t mean “don’t be sad.” Jesus himself expressed grief over Jerusalem, over the crowds who were like sheep without shepherds and over the death of Lazarus.
Jesus identifies with us in our grief. Times of grief and loss are not times to withdraw from God. Rather, they are times to draw nearer. Many people reject God, or move away from God during times of grief. They think God has abandoned them. God has not lived up to their expectations. They cannot reconcile that God who loves them would allow them to go through this. But God lead his own Son down the path of suffering in order to bring glory and salvation through resurrection. And he can bring that to our own lives if we obey him and cling to him through our grief and loss. In so doing, our souls are enlarged and we are matured.
Times of grief and loss are opportunities. They are opportunities to bring these issue to God. They are opportunities to learn submission and obedience. They are opportunities to surrender to God and be matured to be like Christ. Are we good at reverent submission? Not often. Or are we strident in our demands, “take this cup from me!”?
In another garden, the Garden of Eden, the original sin was fuelled by the desire to be like God instead of submitting to God. So often we want to be in charge, even of God, dictating to Him what he should allow us to endure.
But we see in Jesus that the road to intimacy with the Father is the road marked with suffering. That is the road that Jesus trod. [Henry Cloud] Thus we can actually enlarge our soul through grief and loss. We can become closer to God and refined to be more like his Son when we endure grief and loss by bringing them to God, submitting to him and enduring by clinging to him more tightly.
Grief and loss are signs of our limits. They remind us that we are not God. [Pete Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, p. 130ff] Again, referring back to Adam and Eve, they wanted to be like God but were not. That was their sin- to take matters into their own hands in order to be in charge, to put themselves in God’s position. But we are not God. There are limits placed on us which bring grief and loss. We all have physical limits. There are limits on our time, our talents, our resources, our intellect. Remember Owain? His limits were more immediately visible to his parents, which compressed their grieving time. We all have limits placed on us. If nothing else, we will all die. We have limits that lead to grief and loss. We need to embrace these limits, stop trying to God and let God be God. This is how we learn humility and submission. Often God uses these limits, these periods of grief and loss, to shine the light on our heart in a place we would never think to look. If we cooperate, God can use these times to show us what he would have us change in us with his help. We would never look if it wasn’t for the grief or loss!
Furthermore, grief and loss are signs that the world is not as it should be. Until Jesus returns, sin will still reign in the world. Sin will still hold sway over us and in us. We have been saved, but we are still looking forward to being saved. All of creation still groans for redemption, the return of Christ and resurrection. Sin entered the world through human disobedience. To deny grief, sorrow and loss is to deny sin and its effects! Jesus grieved over Jerusalem, the crowds and Lazarus’ death. We, too, should grieve over those things that grieve God’s heart. In this way, our souls are enlarged, our hearts are grown and we are matured.
These are a few ways to approach grief and loss from an individual, experiential standpoint. But we can also apply this to the church broadly speaking. This needs to inform our approach to discipleship and evangelism. Discipleship means to radically follow Jesus. And Jesus said on more than one occasion that to be his disciple one must “take up his cross” and follow him. The cross is a sign of suffering and death! Jesus said blessed are we when we are persecuted, cursed and ridiculed for following him! Discipleship, then, includes suffering, loss and mourning. Jesus said so himself!
In our evangelism and discipleship, we must address grief and loss. Grief and loss show that things are not right in the world, that there is a problem with sin. But furthermore, we must acknowledge that even Christians experience grief and loss! Why is this so important? Because “what you win people with, you win them to.” [AW Tozer] If you win people with promises of ease, blessing and comfort, that is what you win them to- an
expectation of a life of ease, blessing and comfort. This is the problem with the prosperity gospel! They promise prosperity and when grief and loss come along people flee.
If you win people with flash and glitz, they are won to flash and glitz. But when grief and loss come along, flash and glitz don’t help. When the flashiness fades, what is left? If you win people with simplistic offers, like “all you have to do is pray a prayer,” that is what you win them to. They have a simplistic commitment. Why bother going to church? Why serve? Why give money? They were won with “all you have to do is pray one prayer.” That is all they are won to.
These ways of winning people create a “bait and switch” sensation. In evangelism, we promise one thing, then, when they commit, we change everything and tell them what the expectations really are! No wonder they drift, fall away or are non-committal!
Contrast this with Jesus’ honesty up front, “take up your cross and follow me,” “the Son of Man will be executed and on the third day raised again,” and “blessed are you when they persecute you for my sake.” Jesus presented people with the truth so they would not be surprised when the truth came in the form of grief and loss.
If you win people with appeals to emotion, that is what you win them to- feelings. What happens when the feelings fade?
In conclusion, don’t hide from grief and loss. Don’t avoid them, stuff them or deny them. Instead, embrace them and bring them to God. When you do, he can use them to enlarge your soul! Jesus himself learned new experiences of obedience through them. Are you better than your Lord?
Instead of denying or avoiding grief and loss, let them enlarge your soul by learning to grieve for what grieves God in the world and in your own heart. Let God purge your heart of those things in there which cause him grief. Surrender to him in piety, reverent submission, and allow him to lead you through the suffering to the new life and resurrection on the other side. Amen.
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