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Written by: Hybells, Bill    Posted on: 04/01/2003

Category: Sermons

Source: CCN


From Preaching Today Tape #108

In the last few weeks, I've been aware of infant deaths, horrible accidents, marital breakdowns, impending divorces, loss of employment, medical traumas, emotional melt downs. I can say with great authority that you have some losses coming your way. So do I. It's prudent for us to enroll in a grief management course today. But we better enroll in the right course because the stakes are high, and there's more than one course being offered.

Our key verse is 1 Thessalonians 4:13: "Brother, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hopes." The verse suggests there's more than one way to grieve losses. The text also suggests that the biblical approach to grieving is a hopeful approach, and maybe the others aren't quite so hope filled.

Allow me to summarize society's approach to grieving and contrast that with God's approach to grief management. You decide which is better.

First, here is society's approach to grief management. John James and Frank Cherry, in their book on grief recovery, trace the story of a boy named Johnny. When five-year-old Johnny's dog dies, Johnny is stunned, and he bursts out crying. His dog was his constant companion; it slept at the foot of his bed. Now the dog is gone, and little Johnny's a basket case.

Johnny's dad stammers a bit and says, "Uh, don't feel bad, Johnny, we'll get you a new dog Saturday." In that one sentence, Johnny's dad is really offering the first two steps in society's grief management program: Bury your feelings; replace your losses. Once you have the new dog you won't even think about the old dog any more.

Later when Johnny falls in love with a high school freshman girl, the world never looked brighter, until she dumps him. Suddenly a curtain covers the sun. Johnny's heart is broken, and this time it's big time hurt. But mom comes to the rescue this time and says with great sensitivity, "Don't feel bad, John, thee are other fish in the sea." Bury the pain, replace the loss. Johnny has steps one and two down pat now. He'll use them the rest of his life.

Much later, John's grandfather dies--the one he fished with every summer and felt close to. A note was slipped to him in math class. He read the note and couldn't fight off the tears. He broke down sobbing on his desk. The teacher felt uncomfortable about it and sent him off to the school office to grieve alone.

When John's father brought him home from school, John saw his mother weeping in the living room, and he wanted to embrace her and cry with her. But his dad said, "Don't disturb her, John, she needs to be alone. She'll be all right in a little while. Then the two of you can talk."

The third piece in the grieving puzzle was now making sense to John: Grieve alone. So he went to his room to cry alone, and he felt a deep sense of loneliness.

Eventually he buried those feelings, and he replaced the sense of loss over his grandfather with a whole host of athletic involvements. He tried his best to function normally. But he found himself many months later constantly thinking about his grandpa: the fishing trips, the Christmas Eves, the birthdays.

His preoccupation went on for months until he finally told his dad about it. His dad said, "John, give it time." Translation: Time heals in and of itself. This became step four in John's understanding of grief management.

Have you been keeping track? Bury your feelings, replace your losses, grieve alone, and give it time because time heals.

Well, John gave it time and more time, but somehow he felt trapped in a cell of sadness. What made matters worse was that as he relived his relationship with his grandfather, he realized that he had never really thanked his grandpa for the fishing trips, the sack lunches, and the late afternoon swims when the fish weren't biting.

He had left so many things unsaid--even the big one: "I love you, Grandpa." He didn't get to say it. John said to himself, What can I do about it now? I guess I'll just live with regret the rest of my life. That became the fifth piece in his philosophy toward grief management: If there's unfinished business, plan to live with regret; there's absolutely nothing you can do about it.

As you can imagine, with all the trauma, John does a little elementary relational math, and he reasons to himself, Close relationships expose me to the possibility of deep pain; therefore, the way to make sure that this kind of anguish is never experienced again is to keep an arm's distance from any close involvement. Translation of step six: Wall up and never trust again. Don't get so close to people that their absence could hurt you deeply. The sixth step makes the conventional grief management approach complete.

Let's review. Bury your feelings; replace your losses; grieve alone' let time heal; live with regret; never trust again. How does that sound? It sounds familiar. It's been society's approach for years.

Eighty-five percent of us have most of those pieces in place in our system. Is grief recovery happening, or might there be lots of people walking around with wounds on the inside, which distort the way they live their daily lives?

In the reading I did on this subject, I was shocked to learn how many grief-laden people wind up in the ditches of alcoholism, workaholism, broken relationships, and compulsive eating and spending patterns--all seemingly driven by an inability to recover and rebuild their lives after incurring a devastating loss. The message to me was loud and clear: If you grieve right, you can live right afterwards. If you grieve wrongly, all bets are off.

Relief pitching ace Donny Moore couldn't seem to resolve his anguish over losing an American League championship series game a few years ago. In a moment of total torment, he shot his wife and then shot himself.

Compare that with Dave Dravecky, who loses not only a game but a career, a livelihood, his pitching arm, and his shoulder. HE is energetically rebuilding his life and looking forward to whatever tomorrow might bring. You tell me how important it is to grieve appropriately.

I have given you a peek at society's approach to grieving. You've tasted that. Let me give you a taste of God's approach to grieving. The way I can serve it up to you is by contrasting society's approach with God's approach, point for point. Society's approach says, step one, bury your feelings. God's approach says exactly the opposite; he says, "Feel your feelings and express them. Don't stuff, bury, deny, discount, or put on a false image of bravery."

1 Thessalonians 4:13, our key verse, begins with the one word: grieve. Don't grieve inappropriately, but grieve. There is hope beyond grief if you work through grief.

One day Jesus hears that his close friend, Lazarus, had died. Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, were special friends to Jesus. Jesus travels to the town where he meets the two sisters. The crowd is waiting, holding their breath, wondering what the Son of God is going to do when he stands outside the tomb of one of his closest friends. The Scripture says, "Jesus wept."

Those two words speak volumes about grief management. I think people all over the world and throughout history would be well-served by watching Jesus weep. It might give them permission to weep. .Weeping is called the language of the soul. The cleansing river of emotional release.

A friend of mine has a brain-damaged daughter. Sometimes the sadness she feels over her daughter's condition overwhelms her, as it did recently. She wrote me this letter and gave me permission to quote from it:

"Bill, I can hardly bear it sometimes. My most recent wave of grief came just last year before her sixteenth birthday. As the day approached I found myself brooding over all the things that she would never be able to do. What did I do. What I've learned to do again and again; I did what I believe is the only thing to do to conquer grief, and that is to embrace it. So Bill, I cried and cried and cried, and faced the truth of my grief head on."

People who feel their feelings and express them freely begin the journey toward hope. I wonder how many of you have felt free enough to grieve your losses--not just death, but lesser losses: childhood traumas, parts of your past, health losses, relational losses, financial losses. God says to you this morning, "Look how my son, Jesus Christ, responded to a searing loss. He wept. So go ahead, let the cleansing rivers flow."

Society's second step is to replace the loss as soon as you can. Turn the page. Fix it quick. Move on. Don't hang out in sad places because it'll ruin your karma. Scripture teaches exactly the opposite. God's approach, step two in the grieving process, says, "Don't just replace the loss, review the loss." Hang out in the sad place long enough to allow the full effect of the loss to settle into your soul.

I had a three-hour lunch with a seasoned Christian counselor this week. I asked her to talk to me about grieving. I asked her to tell me what she advises people to do when they're dealing with losses. She said, "Of course I tell them to feel their feelings. But then I also urge people to reduce radically the pace of their lives. I urge them to review their loss, talk about it openly, think about it thoroughly, write about it reflectively, and pray through it."

She continued, "It's my experience that people want to run from their pain. They want to replace pain with another feeling as soon as they can. To recover from pain, you have to face it. You must stand in it and process it before it will dissipate. That's God's way."

I didn't do that when my father died. I replaced that pain real fast. I think I missed only four days of work. And I just replaced the feeling of loss and disappointment with a frenzied ministry schedule. And I ran from it. That was a bad move for me and for other people around me. I wonder how many of us do that. Anybody running from pain today? Are you trading in your pain prematurely for some other feeling? It's not God's way.

The third step in society's approach to grieving is to grieve alone. God's approach is exactly the opposite: "Grieve in community."

The Bible has hundreds of texts urging the brokenhearted to band together with family and friends in order to grieve in community. Once again Jesus, when his upcoming death was looming large in his mind, grabbed Peter, James, and John, and he said, "Come to a quiet place with me. A loss is coming, and I need some brothers around me. So pray with me, and hold me up."

Apparently Jesus' followers learned well to grieve in community, because after Jesus' crucifixion, Christ's followers were grieving together in community when the knock on the door came announcing the resurrection of the Savior. Grieving in community can bring both healing and bondedness. Many of us would give attestation to that.

When my father died, Don Cousins was one of many who drove 180 miles. He stood at the grave site, wrapped his arms around me, wept with me for about five minutes, and walked away. I don't think he said a single word. But I'll remember the embrace until I go to my grave.

Society's approach, you remember, is bury your feelings, replace the loss, grieve alone. God's approach is feel your feelings, review your loss, grieve in community. Step four, society says, is that time will heal. Step four in God's approach is that only the Holy Spirit will heal. He's called the Comforter.

Fifty years ago industrialists thought they could just bury toxic waste and it would go away. We have since learned it doesn't just go away. It makes trouble. It leaks into the water table, contaminates crops, and kills animals. Buried grief does the same thing. Raw time doesn't heal a thing. Buried pain leaks into our emotional system and wreaks havoc there. It distorts our perceptions of life, and it taints our relationships. That contamination happens subconsciously.

Many times people don't know what's making their world so cloudy and why there's a river of sadness underneath it. They say, "It wouldn't go back to the loss in my childhood, or the loss nine years ago, would it?' Don't be so sure. Time itself doesn't heal a thing. God's approach says feel your feelings, stand in your pain, review your loss, grieve in community, and humbly ask the Holy Spirit to heal your broken heart in his time.

That doesn't mean you're not going to carry some scars. You won't ever be the same after a tragic loss. But you'll be able to move forward without the mysterious contamination that I just described. Your emotions can start working properly again. Your perceptions and relationships can get cleared up.

Sharon Morris writes, "Finally, a remarkable thing happens. You notice that for short periods of time the hurt is not so great any more, and this signals the beginning of healing." That's what the Holy Spirit does.

Fifth, society's approach says if you have unfinished business with someone who dies, get used to living with regret because there's not a thing you can do about it. God's approach to grief management says, "Oh, yes, you can still express your regrets."

There's a theme running like a river under the whole story line of the Bible. The theme is reconciliation. Of course, the major motif of the Bible is for all people to be reconciled to God through Christ, his Son. But close on the heels of that major motif is the call for people to be reconciled to one another, to speak the truth in love, and soften their hearts toward one another so that they can be in relationship with each other.

The Bible offers an amazing provision for people who have unfinished business with someone who won't or can't reconcile because they're recalcitrant or because they've died. The provision is found in Romans 12:18, which says, "As far as it depends upon you, be at peace with all men." This verse teaches that you can finish your part of the unfinished business with anybody. Subsequently you can live without the nagging feeling that you won't ever be able to bring closure to that relationship.

A friend of mine had a tension-filled relationship with his father. In the middle of all the hostility, his dad died of a heart attach. The sadness over all that unfinished business just about overwhelmed my friend. Year after year I could see it was destroying his life. Finally a wise Christian counselor took him to Romans 12:18. Over the next six months, he and that counselor discussed all the destructive dynamics of his relationship with his dad. They processed all the pain. That led the counselor to challenge the young man to write a final letter to his dad in order to express the unexpressed and bring closure to the relationship.

My friend told me that was the most difficult assignment of his life. He wrote a thirty-page letter, which he read word for word to his mom, and his brothers and sisters, in the presence of the counselor. He said, "When that was over, a weight was lifted that I had carried for almost a decade." He made peace on his side of the equation.

God's approach says you don't have to carry a backpack of regret the rest of your natural life. You can still reconcile your side of the relationship. You can still say what you need to say before God and a few trusted friends. Some of you need to cut off that backpack. You need to grieve God's way.

Finally, society's approach says, once burned, twice smart; once a loss cut you deeply, wall up and never let it happen to you again. Now, listen to me carefully. This last point makes perfect sense to me. I think it's sound counsel for anybody who doesn't have Christ at the center of their lives. Let me explain.

A few years ago, a couple I know lost their house in a fire. Fortunately, they were able to snatch all the kids out just before the whole thing collapsed. They stood out on the sidewalk hugging and kissing and thanking God. Why? Because despite the fact that they had lost their shelter, they had not lost their treasure, which was their kids.

That loss was a knock down but not a knock out. The Bible teaches that when a sinner recognizes his sin before God and looks to God for forgiveness and grace, God will grant it on the basis of what Christ did on the cross. When that salvation transaction occurs, that man or woman suddenly realizes the centrality of Christ in their lives, He becomes their treasure. The Bible then promises, from cover to cover, that Jesus Christ, the treasure at the center of your life, is not vulnerable to any destructive force or power in this world. Jesus said, "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Translated, "You might lose your shelter or your fortune or your spouse or your kids or your health, but you will never lose me. Never, never, never. I am not vulnerable."

Because Christians never lose what is central to their being, they are capable of recovering from any loss that comes their way--not easily, not overnight, but eventually through the steps that I've outlined in God's approach to grief management.

Sometimes people outside the family of God do a very dangerous thing. They put something or someone in that central place of their heart, where only Christ should be. Some people outside the family of God put something or someone in the center of their life and make it their treasure.

Friends, when that treasure gets ripped out of their lives, the anguish is unbelievable. Their lives cave in. The reason for living goes up in smoke or gets lowered into a six-foot hole. It only stands to reason if you lose the center of your life, there's only one thing to do: Wall up and never put yourself in that position again. Once burned, twice smart.

God's approach to grieving says, "People, you matter to me whoever you are. I know how I made you. You're too fragile to have your treasure ripped out. So, do yourself a favor. Admit your need for God and for forgiveness. Make Christ your treasure. He will be secure and invulnerable."

That will change your whole perspective. If you take some hits and losses, you'll know that all is well in the center of your soul. After a time of feeling your feelings and reviewing your losses and grieving in community and allowing the Holy Spirit to heal you up and reconciling all your regrets, because of the strength at the center of your life, you will be able to engage in relationships again. Life can go on.

There you have it. Two approaches to grief management. Society's approach and God's approach. They're distinctly different. You've got to make a choice about it.

A man we've tried to hire two times to work on our church staff was riding home from a family function two weeks ago, and a drunk driver crossed the center line going seventy miles an hour, hit his car head on, and within an instant that man lost his mother, his wife, and his four-year-old daughter. Three generations of women in his life were killed before his eyes. When I heard the news, I felt as if someone kicked me in the stomach; I almost vomited.

How do we counsel him to grieve? Society's approach or God's approach?

What are you going to do when the phone rings and brings a message that kicks you in the stomach? What are you going to do when the doctor walks out of the room with that ashen look on his face, or your boss says, "I'm sorry, I tried?" When the person you love says, "It's been real; I'm out of here?"

What are you going to do? Which way are you going? The stakes are very high. I hope you make the right choice, and so does God.

Copyright 1995 (c) Christianity Today, Inc./LEADERSHIP JOURNAL


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