Thursday, October 3, 2013

In Grief: When We Want Our Loved One More Than God

Yesterday was the "anniversary" (too light a word for loss!) of my son Joseph's death nine years ago. This annual milestone arrived exactly 37 days after the death of my dear brother, just turned 49, from leukemia and its complications. He died on August 27th of this year, and my family is all feeling much grief and sorrow over this great loss to us.

But it's not a permanent loss for his family and friends who are in Christ, as he also is. We are all heading swiftly toward the same destination- away from the body, at home with the Lord, and therefore reunited with each other. For that reason... and because we know that it is God himself who "has fashioned us for this very purpose" (to be "clothed with immortality")... and because "knowing the fear of the Lord" (that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ) we must, like the Apostle, live and speak so as to persuade others... for all those reasons, we must struggle, even in our grief, to honor and please the Lord.

I remember in the weeks after my son's death, as the initial shock began to morph into a relentless ache of grief and pain, I began to consider this. My one desire was to be with my son again. My initial desire had been to die, and be laid in the ground with him! I did not want to live in this world without him. I had other children though, and a husband, and knew I would have to go on. Knowing this, I began to consider how I would "go on"- in what manner? Begrudgingly... depressed... hopeless?

No, I needed hope, and there was hope. I was not at the place that my one, burning desire was to be with the Lord- to see him face to face, to be free from the remaining sin that so hinders our love for him. I didn't yet know enough to have the right affections, but I knew that I didn't know, and was sorry for it. I was engulfed with pain for the loss of my son, and missed him desperately. But I believed God's word, though I couldn't always feel it. So I purposely focused on the hope I could feel: that of being reunited with my son one day.

I began searching the Bible for all that it had to say about this. I came across a great book that was very helpful, Heaven, by Randy Alcorn. This book brought together many things in the Bible that are reason for excitement both at finally being with Christ and with being reunited with all the saints, including our loved ones. I didn't substitute this book or anything else I read for the Scripture. I began becoming a student of God's word, and found rich comfort there.

So for a long while, when I thought of heaven and especially of the new heavens and the new earth, it was the hope of being reunited with my son that gave the most comfort. But I began, somewhere along the line, to confess this to the Lord, who I knew to be tender to our weak frames and an understanding Father. I remember asking him for his forgiveness for making more of my son, in a sense, than I did of him. I even found myself sometimes when being tempted by some desire or another to sin, that I would think about Joseph and decide that no, I will not fall into that temptation, I'll resist and flee from it for Joseph's sake, because someday I'll see him again and I don't want to dishonor him. You see how I almost substituted my son for the affections I needed to have toward God? Yet I knew I did this, and admitted it to the Lord, and asked him to work in me so that my affections became the proper ones I should have, the ones that would most please him and would be most useful to the people left here on earth.

And that did happen- over time, the Lord by his Spirit used his word, which I stayed careful in making use of, he used my prayers which I falteringly but persistently continued in, and he used the passage of time, during which occurred the many testings that try our faith and make it more genuine. He used all those means to gradually change my heart's affections, to make me more genuinely loyal to him and his designs and plans and will for this life, to lift my heart and mind to heavenly things and make me want heaven! and want himself for his own beauty, and power, and holiness. Now, I can truly say that to be reunited with those I love- my son, my mother, my brother- is the wonderfully glad "icing on the cake" of the glorious prospect of seeing our Lord, of knowing him in a state that is free from the hindering sin and wrong desires that so afflict us in this life. Of being at home, brought by grace to be safe at last with him.

It is amazing to me at how unproud God is in this, that he doesn't chastise or condemn the honest heart that sees what the Bible says about loving him supremely, above all else, but struggles with their heart's affections in doing it. He knows it anyway- he doesn't want us to hide it, but to confess it to him. I used my love for my son in those early days of grief to resist temptations to sin, to build hope, to provide an interest in heaven and in heavenly things. The more I read the Bible, the greater my interest became in God himself and in his ways. My love for my son eventually took its proper place, which is the very best thing; I so wish it had had its proper place when he was alive.

I guess the point of this article is to try to help a little with this aspect of grief. For many Christians, they build their grief around the loved one they've lost, due to their faith in God not yet being what it ought to be. I'm saying, if this is the case with you, recognize and confess it early on. Do what you can, when you can, to try to move your affections along toward a right placement of them in God himself, through becoming a student of his word and by prayer for him to help you in it. Keep an honest heart about it! This above all is pleasing to God.

Here's one very practical way I moved toward this in some of the early days; it's a practice I still keep up, that of praying Psalm 119:36-38 (this Psalm is all about God's word, the Scripture, and what it is to us):

"Incline my heart to Your testimonies, and not to gain.
"Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, and revive me in Your ways.
"Establish Your word to Your servant, as that which produces reverence for You." (NASB)

The more I requested this help from the Lord the more I really desired it, and the more he supplied it. May the Lord encourage and help you on your journey through grief, may he incline your heart to his word and establish you in it, as you seek, however falteringly, to know and honor him.