Recently I experienced the loss of two friends, who died at what most would consider too young an age. I find it curious that these two bookend my life. The first was a relatively recent friend I met through church and got to know better after he joined our Tuesday morning Bible study. The second was one I would describe as a “first friend”, someone I knew as a grade school and high school classmate. I was not either man’s best friend but thought a great deal of them both.
The more recent friend had been struggling with cancer for about five years before finally succumbing, after an amazingly graceful attitude toward it all. The friend I knew longer died suddenly, in his sleep. That seems the more difficult to process, as no one saw it coming. There is also something unique about a “first friend” as these are people that keep us connected to who we are and where we came from. Even, if as in this case, you don’t see that person frequently and mostly just exchange Christmas cards. However, the very presence of these people in your world maintains a connection to your life “back in the day”. To lose this type of friend creates a unique grief. If you lose enough of these folks in your life you start to feel like a Jenga tower late in the game with a lot of pieces missing and in danger of collapsing and becoming unrecognizable. Now, this grief pales in comparison to those who knew these people better and loved them best, but it is grief, nonetheless.
The question that most often comes up at such times is, why. Why is there such loss, why do good people get cancer and suffer? Why does a good man die in his sleep? These are difficult questions. These are not like the questions about war, theft and general mayhem in our world. Those are easily identified as being caused by the general shittieness of humanity. No, these are truly head scratching questions about good, decent people victimized by an unjust shortening of their lives and the searing pain that is left behind in the form of the grief visited upon their loved ones.
This is however, I think, the wrong question. It is the wrong question if for no other reason than there is no answer. We simply do not and cannot know why. There is a line above which God has not revealed Himself. God, above this line, in His domain, is the complete other, the ultimate unknowable. To seek what is above that line is to try to discern the mind of God and that never ends well. There is, however, for us as Christians, a line below which God has revealed Himself, the life death and resurrection of His son Jesus the Christ. It is in this direction that we should turn to for answers as Jesus is our exemplar extraordinaire. To, as feebly as we can, live a Christian life is to live one in imitation of Jesus. So, what does Jesus teach us? As discussed before, we need not ask “what would Jesus do?” but rather, simply look at what He actually did.
The first thing to notice is that Jesus does not even ask the question, why is there loss. He simply accepts it as a reality. There is much that Jesus does NOT claim regarding God in His domain, such as when the end is coming. Jesus says it will be like a thief in the night (that is unannounced) and that our role is to simply be prepared. In the garden, Jesus does not ask His father why He must suffer and die, simply that if it be His will then he will drink from that cup. This silence regarding the mind of God is best brought out by Paul in Philippians 2:6 “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” If Jesus does not want to grasp equality with God, then we better not even think about it. So, the question then becomes, not why but what now?
The ”what now?” for Jesus is to deal with the reality of loss as a part of our (and His) humanity. The response of Jesus to loss is as human as it gets. He grieves. He wept over Lazarus, He wept over Jerusalem. He grieves at all the kinds of things you and I grieve over. Jesus was fully human; He laughed, He got angry, He worked and played and yes, He grieved at the loss that all humans experience. He fully understands that we should do the same. It is necessary that we grieve and that we give voice to our pain. It is critical that we gather around those in mourning to lift them up and sustain them. The critical aspect of all that Jesus did is to meet us wherever and however we are and to gather us into a community that can carry us through these painful times. That is always what Jesus did and that is what we can and should do ourselves.
This should point us toward another reality of grief, that we grieve for ourselves. If we are of a faithful bent, we should be honest. The loved one we lost is fine. They are in the arms of God. No, we grieve for ourselves and what we will miss about that person in our lives. There is nothing we should be ashamed of in this. Yes, we trust we will all be together at the banquet at the end of the age but that does not lessen our pain now. However, doing what Jesus did can lessen the pain, if for no other reason than that we will grieve in community. So, unabashedly and unapologetically grieve the loss you suffered.
In the midst of all of our loss, Jesus points the way forward for all of us. He keeps His eyes on the eternal promise of a God that will not forsake us, even in times of great loss. That He will pursue us and seek a relationship with us, no matter the circumstance. That relationship will be made manifest by the relationships we have here with each other and by the love and care we provide to each other, especially in times of great pain.
It is also helpful to keep in mind the big picture. No matter, how awful things get on planet earth, God will bring His people home. This is why God sent Hs son, to show us the path toward that eternal relationship and for Jesus to pave the way for us, to remove all obstacles in our path to that relationship. That is why in times of grief and loss we should turn our eyes toward the Cross and the empty tomb behind it.
There will be those who claim that this is cheap pablum offered by Christians to explain away a God willing to let His people suffer. This implies that we can know the mind of God and denies the possibility that all this is a part of a plan for the merciful redemption of His creation that we cannot possibly understand. It is also important to keep in mind that nothing God asks us to endure, He did not also ask His own son to endure. There is nothing cheap in what God achieved through his son as He sacrificed the blood of His only son for the sake of all humanity. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “nothing is cheap which is costly to God”. It is not pablum when you recognize that what is difficult for us was also difficult for God in human form. Ours is truly a God that is with us start to finish.
The faith in all of this does not make the grief any less real at the loss of friends nor for their families. It does however allow us to hang onto a truth that can carry us through this grief. Just remember to notice that Jesus died for us with His arms wide open, that His saving, sacrificial love might embrace all of us for all time.
Praise Be to God