A few months ago, one of my best friends moved away, and I was plunged into some of the deepest grief I have ever experienced. It sent me spiraling into a season of depression and provoked one of the deepest questionings of my Christian faith. At times, I cried out to God, pleading for an answer that would give me the peace and closure I needed to move on. At other times, I was filled with pride and arrogance, demanding an answer from God and refusing to trust Him again until I got one.
In the following paragraphs, I am going to be very open about my struggles because I believe that is what the church needs. For too long, we have kept inside what we should be sharing. In Galatians 6:2, Paul commands us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Most relationships in the church barely scratch the surface, either because we are too afraid to share with others or because we don’t know how to respond. My hope is that this article will help both those who are grieving and those who want to minister to others.
As I wrestled with my feelings, naturally I looked for others who had experienced something similar. I stumbled across C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed one day and decided to give it a read. I have read several of C.S. Lewis’ works in the past, most of which are either allegories or apologetics. A Grief Observed was very different, almost like a deeply personal journal that was not intended for public reading. Originally published under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed after his dear wife Joy died of cancer. They were married for only four years before she passed away.
Now, I have certainly not experienced the death of my friend. Nonetheless, there is still incredible grief from his absence. Growing up as an only child, I always wanted a brother. The Lord most definitely filled that desire through my friend. For the past four years, we spent nearly every day together. And through my friend, I repeatedly experienced the unconditional love of God as he forgave me when I was wrong and saw past all my many faults. And now, suddenly, he is gone. I am thankful that we still have the ability to communicate and visit each other. But the fact is that my friend no longer lives close by, and things will never be the same. That void is often overwhelming.
As I read A Grief Observed, I found myself identifying with many of the feelings this giant of the faith experienced so many decades ago. At the start, Lewis addresses God’s apparent silence in our grief:
But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
Thankfully, these are only thoughts that crossed Lewis’ mind and not anything he actually came to believe. I know such thoughts have crossed my mind during the last few months, and I’m sure they have crossed yours as well during a time of grief. Later, Lewis acknowledges that grief is one of God’s methods to test our faith, to show us who or what our trust is really in:
God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.
Now, I admit, my suffering pales in comparison to that which so many others have experienced, for which I am very thankful. But I have often wondered why a good God would allow some of His choicest servants to experience such indescribable suffering. I have seen families lose loved ones in tragic car accidents. I have seen godly people endure excruciating pain from cancer. I have witnessed individuals forever scarred by years of abuse. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis describes our suffering not as punishment from God but rather as a loving act from our Sovereign Creator:
Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. We’re like blocks of stone out of which the Sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect. The suffering in the world is not the failure of God’s love for us; it is that love in action. For believe me, this world that seems to us so substantial, is no more than the shadowlands. Real life has not begun yet.
As I’ve stumbled through this grieving process, I did some research on how Christians deal with grief, looking for similarities to what I was experiencing. My research concluded that there is indeed a cycle of shock, denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance—all of which I have experienced in this process and which C.S. Lewis experienced as well. He described grief as “not a state but a process. Grief is like a winding road where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” He also goes into detail describing the stages of grief and how they repeat, manifesting themselves differently in every person:
For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it? How often—will it be for always?—how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time.
It’s also important to realize how grief can cloud our judgment. Sometimes, we are so overwhelmed that we can’t receive the help we really need. Lewis described it this way:
The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just that time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.
While C.S. Lewis experienced a deep and terrible questioning of his faith in his time of grief, similar to what I and many others have experienced, thankfully, Lewis had the hope of Heaven just as we do today:
Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem.
I confess that I still don’t have all the answers that I want from God. I still don’t fully understand why He called my friend to move away, and I’m still not completely at peace with His plan. The life that we lived together was incredibly special, and the reality that this stage of life is over is very difficult for me to accept. But I have been reminded of three precious promises as I’ve grieved over the last few months:
- God loves me unconditionally despite my doubts and lack of peace.
- God’s ways are higher than mine. Isaiah 55:8-9 tells us that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
- I know God is close to those who have a broken heart. “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
For five months, I prayed that my friend wouldn’t leave. I begged God every single day that He would allow him to stay. But that was not His plan. And then came the day I prayed would never come; it was not the answer I had prayed for, wanted, or understood. I was devastated, and I still am. I’m not sure when I will stop grieving. I still don’t understand, but I know that I have a loving heavenly Father who has plans so much more than I can imagine, holds my broken heart, and wants me to trust Him completely.
One of my favorite quotes from John Piper describes how to grieve well: “Occasionally, weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Feel the pain. Then wash your face. Trust God. And embrace the life you have.” That’s a choice we will all face at some point. We have only two options—trust God or lean on our own understanding (Prov. 3:5-6). This is certainly not the life I hoped would be. At times, I still weep deeply and continue to grieve, but I am desperately trying to trust God’s sovereign plan. Grieving is completely natural, but I want to do it well. I don’t want to waste this time of suffering and miss what God is trying to teach me. My prayer is that, like Job, I will submit to God’s will and “come forth as gold” (Job 13:15; 23:10).
Whatever trial you are facing today, know that God has a purpose for your pain beyond your understanding. Know that He holds your broken heart in the palm of His hand. Let Him use your trial to refine you and minister to others. Better days are ahead, if not here, most assuredly in Heaven where all crying, sorrow, and pain will be gone (Rev. 21:4). And then, we will clearly see the purpose of what today seems so mysterious.