The Goodness of Grief

"Sorrow is better than laughter because a sad face is good for the heart" (Ecc. 7:3). This verse is one that flies in the face of everything we tend to chase after. We are at first resistant to even considering sorrow as good, but if we will let truth be our guide, we can move from being resistant to curious. Could sorrow and grief be good for us, and if so, how? 

I think I am beginning to understand. Some of it has to do with age. When I was young, I disliked funerals and the sorrow it brought forth, but as I have gotten older, funerals are actually energizing for me. In my tears, I find not just release for grief but empowerment for life. This same energy occurs as I face the power behind death—sin. Lately, I have been walking through a season of grief over my own sin, how I have repeatedly broken the law of love, both by omission and commission. Again, I have experienced both release and empowerment. I know it has been good for my heart, but what is the explanation for this odd surprise?

The goodness of grief lies in finally admitting reality.

The ever-looming specter of our death is something we subconsciously avoid, but as we grieve over the death of others, we start facing our own death and what our hearts long for in this life. In the same way, the ever-pressing offense of our sin we also avoid, but in admitting it, we find forgiveness and acceptance by God. In both cases, grief opens the heart in an expansive way, allowing us to feel the way things really are—that this life is short and often disappointing, that we are all a part of that disappointment and in some aspects responsible for it.

In all of this admission, we will be surprised by what can happen next: we meet Jesus.

Isaiah tells us that Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. This was the grief of His Father over the sin of the world and the grief of carrying that sin on the cross. To meditate on our death and our sin leads us in a strange way to feel connected to Him. Our willingness to feel sorrow can now be directed outside of ourselves to Him—first to feel sorrow over His crucifixion and then over a world decimated by evil and corruption. 

Here is how Jesus restated that verse in Ecclesiastes: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matt. 5:4). The ultimate reason why grief is good lies right here: it leads us to the Jesus, who longs to comfort us. In that comfort, we begin to understand how much we are loved—even in our sin. And in that love, we have the capacity to feel for others in their sin and sadness and offer them comfort as well.

Finally, grief leads us to the biggest surprise of all—joy.

The joy will sneak up on us in a moment of profound gratitude or loving praise or quiet surrender to God. But the route to this joy always wanders through the landscape of grief, a journey that begins as we meditate on our sin and death. But if we choose to go here, we will wander into joy, and behind the joy, we will find Him, guiding us all the way.

 

What Does God See in You?

During my first few years of high school teaching, I was unsure about so many things. There was one interaction, however, that jarred me out of my insecurity. The principal stopped me one day in the hallway and asked if I would consider being the assistant principal. I was dumbfounded. What could he possibly see in me that would make such a request plausible, even credible? Perhaps he had made a terrible mistake in his choice. After considering his offer, I graciously declined because I knew my place was in the classroom, yet that one moment has stayed with me all these years. He saw something in me that I didn’t see and called me out as a leader.

Recently I read the story of the calling of Moses and recognized the parallel. Moses saw himself as a murderer, a fugitive, resigned to end his life as a shepherd in the desert, but God saw something more. He saw a leader, and the one He had chosen to rescue His people. Moses was also dumbfounded at the offer: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11). Moses was resistant, thinking God had made a terrible mistake, but God eventually overcame his resistance. The rest of the story is one of the great redemptive epics of all time.

Moses’ story is unique, but the way God dealt with him certainly isn’t. God created us out of love, put distinct gifts in us, and knows what will give us joy. But we are blinded by our insecurities and fears. We cannot see ourselves as He sees us and so respond to His initiatives with resistance. But what if God is calling us out to do and become what we were created for? What if His calling is our deepest joy? What if answering that calling, even if it means walking into terrible unknowns, is the life we have been looking for? Yet, how do we know for sure? What guarantee are we given if we jump?

The answer to this question is the answer Moses got. God didn’t give him a litany concerning his preparation and gifts for such a job. Instead He responded with five words: “I will be with you” (v.12). If we follow His calling, we get His company, His voice, His coaching. It’s what we need to live out our destinies. It's all we need to live them out.

So what does God see in you? It's undoubtedly more than you see in yourself. To answer His call is to start becoming that person.

It's All In The Eyes

During the beginning stages of Landmark Journey Ministries, I struggled at times with attacks of anxiety. There were many causes, but I'll never forgot one of the surprising solutions.

It was all in the eyes.

During one of those anxious days, I went to have coffee with an older man who had been such an encouragement to me. When we greeted each other, he put both hands on my shoulders, looked into my eyes, and asked, "It's so good to see you." We then talked about our lives as my eyes continued to lock in on his at moments. But somewhere during the conversation, I became aware that my anxiety was lessening, and by then end of our time, it had just vaporized. Instead of anxiety, I felt I had been heard and loved by my friend.

I was all in his eyes.

Feeling heard and loved by others is so critical to our emotional health, but this experience is also woven into the fabric of the gospel. In fact, it's the whole point of the gospel. The older theologians called it the beatific vision. Paul spoke of it this way: "But now He has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation" (Col. 1:22). There it is—in God's sight, in His eyes, we are perfectly holy. There is nothing left to separate us from His love. We are perfect and cleared from all charges. In that love we are sustained, guided, nourished, and comforted, but most of all we are known and heard. 

One day, our eyes will fully see His eyes of love for us, but for now we can all start to glimpse that experience. We can enter prayer knowing that we are heard. We can walk through the day aware that His eyes are upon us. We can approach Jesus in our minds and imaginations, seeing Him seeing us. We can allow ourselves to "waste time" in His presence, enjoying His enjoyment of us as His sons and daughters. This posture is not just the remedy for anxiety, fear, and loneliness, but for something far greater, an answer to the aching disconnection in the human soul. Ultimately, we all long for union with God. To be seen and loved in His eyes moves us tenaciously toward that union.

It truly is all in the eyes.

Entering the Story of Jesus

In the last blog, I wrote about four things that typify the story of Jesus: unique, beautiful, heart-centered, and opposite to our fallen stories. It is surely important to know Jesus' story in the Bible, but when He asks us to follow Him, He opens a door and asks us to enter that story. This is how we are transformed, healed, and empowered. But how do we leave our stories and enter His? There are two words that form the core of this critical movement in our lives: surrender and contemplation.

Surrender: Chariots of Fire is the epic film about Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner who took the world by storm when he refused to run the 100m prelims on Sunday in the 1924 Olympics. Instead, he ran the 400m on another day—and in world record time! What you may not know is the rest of the story. He hung up his track spikes after that race, went to China to be a missionary, and was eventually captured by the Japanese as they occupied China. After being put in a POW camp, he ministered to adults and children, inspiring and encouraging them, but died of a brain tumor before the Allies could rescue him. His last recorded words were these: “Surrender, absolute surrender.” This surrender to Jesus' story is what made Eric Liddell so great, a story that would become known around the world through the award-winning movie.

The story of Eric Liddell is so parallel to the story of the disciples. When they chose to follow Jesus, they were choosing to leave their own self-constructed stories and enter a new one. Here they would face many trials and dangers, but they would also find out who they really were and what they were supposed to be doing in this life. By entering the story of Jesus, they both changed the world and were forever changed as well. This is what happens when we surrender to Him, a surrender that happens once when we first come to Him and then must continually happen each day. Here we find out who we are, what we are supposed to do, and end up changing the world in ways we could not have imagined. This is the resurrection power of Jesus working in us and through us. 

Contemplation: This is the second word that helps us enter His story. When I speak about contemplation, I mean the inward motion we experience as we focus on something outside of ourselves, letting it fill our hearts and minds. It is the opposite of self-absorption, something we are all prone to in one way or another. In our fallen modes of being, shame makes us painfully self-conscious, and we easily become narcissistic, constantly brooding about ourselves. LIfe becomes all about us, as reality is warped around our souls, much like light warps around the sucking power of a black hole.

So what is the route out of self-absorption? It is contemplation. This may happen first when we contemplate God’s creation: we are lifted up out of ourselves and into something more lofty and wondrous. But contemplation deepens as we come to know God through Scripture, thinking and praying through verses that change our inner habits of being. We are no longer just thinking about ourselves, but about God's Kingdom, His glory, and the larger story He is writing. But a further step happens when we begin to contemplate how Jesus is already working in our lives each day, trying to pull us further into that story. Each day we can either surrender more fully to Him or resist Him. Each day we can live more deeply in His love or turn away. I have been practicing a simple discipline each morning for some time now: I walk back through the previous day, calling to mind both the moments I experienced His presence and the ones when I forgot Him and went my own way. This simple discipline (called the Examen and first devised by Ignatius in the 1500's) can help anyone enter His story more fully. 

So the door is opened for us today, and we are asked to enter through surrender and contemplation. To choose to walk through is always the beginning of a great adventure.