The Good In Sorrow (!?!)

I certainly don’t know all the thoughts and feelings of other Christians as they’ve suffered hard through trial and affliction. But I do know that some Christians have remarked that God blessed them greatly during their suffering. Sometimes when we suffer we experience the comforting presence of God in an unexplicable way. Other times God’s people step up and surround us with tender love when we suffer. David said that it was good for him to be afflicted because then he learned God’s rules (Ps. 119:71). When Paul was weak under affliction, he learned more of God’s strength and grace (2 Cor. 12:9-12).

While God has spared me from many trials and hardships, I know what it’s like to plow through a hard, heartbreaking, and somewhat lengthy affliction. I can say for sure that for Christians, there is some sweetness in suffering. I don’t mean suffering itself is sweet. I mean what Paul said when he explained how suffering was productive (Rom. 5:3-5). In God’s mysterious providence, suffering is not a waste. Here’s one helpful angle on this topic written by a Christian man who lost his daughter, wife, and mother in the same car accident:

[Sorrow] enlarges the soul until the soul is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, or feeling the world’s pain and hoping for the world’s healing at the same time. However painful, sorrow is good for the soul.

Deep sorrow often has the effect of stripping life of pretense, vanity, and waste. It forces us to ask basic questions about what is most important in life. Suffering can lead to a simpler life, less cluttered with nonessentials. It is wonderfully clarifying. That is why many people who suffer sudden and severe loss often become different people. They spend more time with their children or spouses, express more affection and appreciation to their friends, show more concern for other wounded people, give more time to a worthy cause, or enjoy more of the ordinariness of life.”

These words were written by Jerry Sittser in his excellent book, A Grace Disguised. It’s a tough book to read because Sittser’s story contains such deep sorrow. But it also explains in a God-centered way how to press on through sorrow and find the sweetness God often provides in and through sorrow.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Regarding the Death of Calvin’s Wife

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.) John Calvin’s wife Idellette died in 1549 from a lengthy illness.  They had been married for 9 years when she died; Calvin was 40 years old at the time.  Not long after Idellette died Calvin wrote a letter to Farel telling him of the news.  Here are some excerpts of that letter:

Intelligence of my wife’s death has perhaps reached you before now. I do what I can to keep myself from being overwhelmed with grief. My friends also leave nothing undone that may administer relief to my mental suffering.

…About the sixth hour of the day, on which she yielded up her soul to the Lord, our brother [Rev.] Bourgouin addressed some pious words to her, and while he was doing so, she spoke aloud, so that all saw that her heart was raised far above the world. For these were her words: “O glorious resurrection! O God of Abraham, and of all our fathers, in thee have the faithful trusted during so many past ages, and none of them have trusted in vain. I also wall hope.” These short sentences were rather ejaculated than distinctly spoken. This did not come from the suggestion of others, but from her own reflections, so that she made it obvious in few words what were her own meditations.

I had to go out at six o’clock. Having been removed to another apartment after seven, she immediately began to decline. When she felt her voice suddenly failing her she said: “Let us pray: let us pray. All pray for me.” I had now returned. She was unable to speak, and her mind seemed to be troubled. I, having spoken a few words about the love of Christ, the hope of eternal life, concerning our married life, and her departure, engaged in prayer. In full possession of her mind, she both heard the prayer, and attended to it. Before eight she expired, so calmly, that those present could scarcely distinguish between her life and her death.

Calvin then shared his grief – and faith – with Farel:

I at present control my sorrow so that my duties may not be interfered with. But in the meanwhile the Lord has sent other trials upon me. Adieu, brother, and very excellent friend. May the Lord Jesus strengthen you by His Spirit; and may He support me also under this heavy affliction, which would certainly have overcome me, had not He, who raises up the prostrate, strengthens the weak, and refreshes the weary, stretched forth His hand from heaven to me.

If you’re a child of God struggling with grief, I pray that you find the same comfort that Calvin did – comfort in the loving and almighty hand of God.

The above quote is from Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 204–205.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Comfort for a Grieving Widow (Chrysostom)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers First Series, Volume IX
Chrysostom (d. 407 AD)

A young Christian woman was grieving the death of her husband. It was a hard and heavy blow. John Chrysostom knew of her grief and wrote her a kind letter to direct her gaze heavenward, to the Lord. In this part of the letter (dated around 380 AD), Chrysostom echoes biblical teaching that “to die is gain” and that the glories of heaven are better than the glitters of earth:

Now if it is not the name of widow which distresses you, but the loss of such a husband I grant you that all the world over amongst men engaged in secular affairs there have been few like him, so affectionate, so gentle, so humble, so sincere, so understanding, so devout. And certainly if he had altogether perished, and utterly ceased to be, it would be right to be distressed, and sorrowful; but if he has only sailed into the tranquil haven, and taken his journey to Him who is really his king, one ought not to mourn but to rejoice on these accounts. For this death is not death, but only a kind of emigration and translation from the worse to the better, from earth to heaven, from men to angels, and archangels, and Him who is the Lord of angels and archangels. For here on earth whilst he was serving the emperor there were dangers to be expected and many plots arising from men who bore ill-will, for in proportion as his reputation increased did the designs also of enemies abound; but now that he has departed to the other world none of these things can be suspected.

Wherefore in proportion as you grieve that God has taken away one who was so good and worthy you ought to rejoice that he has departed in much safety and honour, and being released from the trouble which besets this present season of danger, is in great peace and tranquillity. For is it not out of place to acknowledge that heaven is far better than earth, and yet to mourn those who are translated from this world to the other? For if that blessed husband of thine had been one of those who lived a shameful life contrary to what God approved it would have been right to bewail and lament for him not only when he had departed, but whilst he was still living; but inasmuch as he was one of those who are the friends of God we should take pleasure in him not only whilst living, but also when he has been laid to rest. And that we ought to act thus thou hast surely heard the words of the blessed Paul “to depart and to be with Christ which is far better.”

John Chrysostom, “Letter to a Young Widow,” in Saint Chrysostom: On the Priesthood, Ascetic Treatises, Select Homilies and Letters, Homilies on the Statues, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. W. R. W. Stephens, vol. 9, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 123.

Perhaps these words can be of comfort today for those who have lost a beloved Christian spouse, family member, or friend.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Cancer, Grief, and God (Groves)

I’m nearly finished reading an excellent book that honestly walks through the suffering of cancer while resting in the hope of God.  It’s called Grief Undone and it was written by Elizabeth Groves whose husband, Alan, died from cancer in 2007.  As some of our readers may know, Alan Groves served in various departments at Westminster Theological Seminary.  This book is something like an autobiography (Elizabeth’s) and a biography (Alan’s) together in one, but ultimately it is a testimony of God, our only rock and refuge in time of storm.

I appreciate this book because it is a real-life account of dealing with cancer.  Having children of my own, I could totally relate to many stories Elizabeth told – the stress, the sweetness, and the bitterness involved.  Elizabeth didn’t just say everything was fine since her and Alan were Christians; she tackled the hard issues of pain, broken hearts, questions, uncertainty, and so forth.  Here’s one way Elizabeth put it:

“Daily and hourly we set our hope in the certainty of our Father’s love in the midst of uncertainty about what would happen to Al.  I don’t know that that was a measured, intellectual decision on our part as much as it was just the natural cry of desperate children who know their Father is the only one who has answers and help” (p. 18).

Or, as Alan said it before he died,

“It is not being healed from cancer in this life in which I ultimately hope.  Rather, it is in Christ now and forever that I find my hope.  I have been healed and raised in that ultimate sense by all that Christ has done.  Blessed be his name” (p. 43).

You can’t read this book without being moved.  Having lost friends and family to cancer,  I had to put the book down a few times because it squeezed tears from my eyes as I remembered the suffering of it all.  But in the midst of suffering there is hope that shines brightly through.  It’s not a false, flimsy, or “better place” type hope.  It’s the hope that Elizabeth leaned upon, that Alan rested in, and that all Christians can take comfort in.  It’s a “living hope” that we have through the resurrection of Jesus, a hope that we can hold fast to because “he who promised is faithful.”  It’s the hope of eternal life in Christ; the hope of a renewed, resurrected, and imperishable body; the hope of being with the Lord forever in the new creation where there will be no more tears.  This book testifies of that hope!

Elizabeth Groves, Grief Undone (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2015).

Shane Lems

The Sweet Bitterness of Grief

Product DetailsI mentioned this excellent book awhile back: A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser.  He wrote it after he lost his mother, wife, and daughter in a car accident.  On the topic of grief this book is one of the best.  Here’s a quote that got my attention in a big way:

“The accident itself bewilders me as much today as it did three years ago.  Much good has come from it, but all the good in the world will never make the accident itself good.  It remains a horrible, tragic, and evil event to me.  A million people could be helped as a result of the tragedy, but that would not be enough to explain and justify it.  The badness of the event and the goodness of the results are related, to be sure, but they are not the same.  The latter is a consequence of the former, but the latter does not make the former legitimate or right or good.  I do not believe that I lost three members of my family in order that I might change for the better, raise three healthy children, or write a book.  I still want them back, and I always will, no matter what happens as a result of their deaths.”

“Yet the grief I feel is sweet as well as bitter.  I still have a sorrowful soul; yet I wake up every morning joyful, eager for what the new day will bring.  Never have I felt as much pain as I have in the last three years; never have I experienced as much pleasure in simply being alive and living an ordinary life.  Never have I felt so broken; yet never have I been so whole.  Never have I been so aware of my weakness and vulnerability; yet never have I been so content and felt so strong.  Never has my soul been more dead; yet never has my soul been more alive.  What I once considered mutually exclusive – sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure, death and life – have become parts of a greater whole.  My soul has been stretched.”

“Above all, I have become aware of the power of God’s grace and my need for it.  My soul has grown because it has been awakened to the goodness and love of God.  God has been present in my life these past three years, even mysteriously in the accident.  God will continue to be present to the end of my life and through all eternity.  God is growing my soul, making it bigger, and filling it with himself.  My life is being transformed.  Though I have endured pain, I believe that the outcome is going to be wonderful” (198-199).

Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised.

rev shane lems