grief, love, and hope

Like many of you, our family has enjoyed watching Wandavision on Disney+. It’s quirky and weird and mostly good. Without getting into the specific details of the show, there was one particular line in the last episode that has resonated deeply with many people.

What is grief if not love persevering?

Coming from Paul Bettany, a classically trained British actor, the line sounds positively Shakespearean even if it is on the lips of a red humanoid. Vision, like Data from Star Trek, C3PO, or Wall-E, exists in a long line of fictional robots whose chief function is to teach humans something about what it means to be human. It’s an objectively great line, but the more I’ve been thinking about it – especially given some recent events in my life – it has started to sound a bit hollow. Sort of like an action movie with a giant hole in the plot which you don’t discover until thinking later about the movie, I believe there is something of great importance missing from this line of dialog. In fact, the line has begun to sound like exactly the type of thing that a robot would say in an effort to understand grief. Bettany, I’m sure, didn’t write the line, but he is a person who is not unfamiliar with grief. My heart broke for him when I read that he tragically lost his younger brother when he was just a teenager. At some point along the way he also lost his faith and became an atheist. I wonder if this robotic reflection on grief is also precisely the way that a person who has lost his faith would explain grief.

Grief is indeed the echo of our loves. When I lost my sister as a teenager, I would often tell people that I had a strange affection for my moments of grief because those moments reminded me of my love for my sister. In my grief, she was still present in my life. Most people who have dealt with loss will give you a very similar testimony. But is this enough? Is it enough to say that my grief is just a reminder of my love? I don’t believe it is. It’s not nearly enough. For all of the poetry of the line, it is still hopeless. We are left with unresolved pain. Our love is reduced to the phantom pain of a severed limb, never to be restored and serving no real purpose other than to remind us of the loss.

All of this is very fresh for me and for many who are very close to me. Our community suffered an unimaginable loss this week. Our dear sister, Sevie, died tragically in a car accident as she was driving home. My wife and I have known Sevie and her husband Tyler for many years. They both came up through our youth group. Sevie was in my wife’s discipleship group in high school. They had both attended and recently graduated from Ozark Christian College. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but we do. Tyler and Sevie were two of my favorites. They were a solid, committed, passionate, and godly couple. They were preparing to move to Japan to help plant a church and tell people about Jesus. And now, in an instant, that dream has been shattered with deep, relentless loss.

It’s completely natural to ask a lot of questions when something like this happens. It’s completely natural to experience frustration and anger at God when something like this happens. I will never get over the cruel irony that my sister died in a car accident while on her way to church!* It just doesn’t make any sense. Why take her? Why take her now? In our innermost thoughts we start cycling through the names of those people who would have been better choices. I’ve been teaching apologetics for a while now. I’m well acquainted with all of the various theodicies meant to explain why bad things continue to happen in a world governed by a sovereign God.** Those theodicies often look different in a college classroom than they do in an emergency waiting room. A theodicy is sort of like explaining why a person drowned after the fact. It’s not a bad thing, but in the moment of crisis, as a person is struggling for air, what is needed is help not an explanation.

It is a surreal thing when you are new to loss. It feels like you are in a waking dream. At any moment, you’re hoping to wake up. In that cloudy time in my life 25 years ago, I also experienced some surprising moments of clarity. At the young age of 17, when most kids feel somewhat invincible, I was given a glimpse into the realities of life and death. I was forced to confront what was real and unreal, what was significant and insignificant, what was eternal and what was temporary. That confrontation was not always inspiring and polished like a movie or tv script. It was awkward and fumbling. (Not a lot of people talk about how awkward it is to deal with loss.) In the midst of that loss, a truth started to wrap itself around me. This truth kind of felt like it was keeping me from exploding. It wasn’t some profound philosophical or theological truth. It was something I had accepted since I was very young, but had only come to know in that time when nothing else made any sense. The truth was simple. Those who know Jesus do not grieve without hope. Don’t get me wrong; I was angry at God at times, but I could not imagine going through that season without God and without the hope that we have in Jesus.

Times of crisis and loss always bring me back to the words of Peter in John 6. Jesus says some difficult things about what it means to follow him and many people left him as a result. As the crowds are leaving, he turns to his disciples, his friends, and he asks them if they are planning on leaving too. Peter responds by saying “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” The best theodicy, the only theodicy, is a person; Christ crucified and resurrected. The best theodicy is the one who a few chapters later in John’s gospel announces himself as both the resurrection and the life. I have encountered people who have walked away from faith because of tragedy. While I guess I can understand the sentiment, it also makes absolutely no sense to me. Why in the world would you walk away from hope in the very moment when you need it the most? Such a decision doesn’t heal your loss; it only makes your loss more meaningless and your despair impossibly dark.

No, it’s not nearly enough to say that grief is love persevering. If that is all we can say, then we are without hope and are intractably stuck in our grief. We will either learn to slowly abandon our grief (and therefore our love) and “get on with our lives” or we will be overwhelmed by our grief and our sorrow. No, our grief is love persevering in hope. Hope turns our grief into an anticipation, our sorrow to joy. Yes, today I’m full of sadness, frustration, even anger, but also sweet hope, hope found only in Jesus.

*When you suffer tragic loss, you often find it impossible to get out of your own mind replaying scenario after scenario wondering if perhaps you could have done something to prevent it. For a very long time I lived with the guilt of not waking my sister up for church thinking that if I had just woke her up earlier she wouldn’t have been rushing to get to church. It’s natural for us to have some of the same thoughts in regards to God. “God, why couldn’t you have done this one thing differently so this tragedy didn’t happen? If everything is under your control, why didn’t you seem to be in control in that awful moment? Or, did you perhaps will for this awful moment to happen? If so, can I ever trust you again?!” People suffering loss will naturally ask these kinds of questions and more. In my experience, there is no better time to be quick to listen and slow to speak. A quick answer in the moment will often come off as either platitudinous or foolish.

**A theodicy is a philosophical or theological argument designed to explain the co-existence of God and a world filled with pain, suffering, and evil. The two most common theodicies are the free will theodicy which says that much of the pain in the world is the consequence of human beings exercising their free will to chose sin and the soul making theodicy which says that we don’t always know the cause of pain and suffering in the world, but we do know that these things are used by God for our development and sanctification.

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