A podcast listener named Kathy writes in, “Pastor John, I just finished listening to the recent APJ episode titled ‘Glorifying God in Unshakeable Grief.’ Before I ask my question, may I first say thank you to you, Pastor John, and to Pastor Tom Steller for the years I spent at Bethlehem Baptist Church in the 1980s and early 1990s, during which time I was well taught by you both, and grounded in the sovereignty of God. That foundation has been crucial for my coping in recent years.
“My youngest son, Josiah, was diagnosed with bone cancer in July 2013 at the age of twelve. The period of his treatment was really hard, full of intense pain and sickness for him and anxiety for us all. But by the end of his treatment in September 2014, we thought he had come through it. However, at his first post-treatment check, we were told his cancer had returned, riddled his lungs, and he died in April 2015 at the age of fourteen. I am thankful that the Lord had given Josiah a faith that enabled him to face death without fear, and I have confidence that Josiah is now with Jesus. I hold on to the truth that in some way this is part of a plan that makes sense. But the grief has frequently felt unbearable, and now, just over two years later, it still comes crashing in waves that at times feel impossible to withstand.
“My question comes from something I read recently in your book ‘Future Grace.’ At the end of chapter two you write, ‘When faith in God’s future grace is strong, the message is sent that this kind of God makes no mistakes, so that everything he has done in the past is part of a good plan and can be remembered with gratitude. . . . Only if we trust God to turn past calamities into future comfort can we look back with gratitude for all things.’ Gratitude for all things is my question. I can say, ‘Thank you, Lord, for being with us during Josiah’s suffering.’ But it’s difficult for me to say, ‘Thank you, Lord, for Josiah’s suffering.’ I cannot get there, certainly not on an emotional level. Can you help me see what it looks like, or feels like, to be able to say thank you for this deep suffering?”
I will try. First, let me overflow with praise. This praise really is part of the answer.
Beginning with Praise
First, my heart, Kathy, is rising up in praise to God for your words “I am thankful that the Lord had given Josiah a faith that enabled him to face death without fear.” That is a staggering miracle. There are millions of professing Christians who claim to have walked with God for years who don’t come close to that kind of faith.
“We live in a horrible, horrible, horrible world. Paul calls it ‘this present evil age.’”
Few things, if any, cause me to stand in awe of the grace of God more than a 14-year-old with genuine faith — real, authentic faith that gives him peace in the hour of death. That is glory upon glory upon glory, and I say it not oblivious of the horror upon horror upon horror of the process of dying and perhaps a worse experience for a mom watching a child die.
In fact, it’s the horror of it that makes the faith so unspeakably amazing. That’s my first overflow of praise.
According to Plan
My second one is for your words, Kathy, “I hold on to the truth that in some way this is part of a plan that makes sense.” Well, that holding on to God’s word is another amazing miracle of God’s grace, which I suppose in a mother’s heart is only a little less marvelous than her son’s own faith.
Kathy, let it sink in right now that what you have been through and what Josiah went through is in my heart here in Minneapolis in 2017, in my mouth of praise, and on this podcast reverberating out to thousands around the world. What is here is the reason the universe exists. They lead praise to the glory of the grace of God in and through your family. Realize that.
Then, Kathy, let me draw out an implication from something the apostle Paul said that you are very familiar with but maybe haven’t thought of in quite this way. You remember that he reminded the Thessalonians about deceased believers and the second coming.
“The feeling of gratitude for something horrible changes over time with greater and greater closeness to God.”
He said that it was a glorious thing — namely, the second coming and their resurrection — and it is so that you “may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We sometimes cite this at funerals to give permission to believers to grieve. That is exactly right. We should.
What is not as often noticed, I think, is that the word grieve in the Greek is a present tense, which implies that grieving is not a moment; it is not an event. It is ongoing experience. That’s the implication. A continuing activity, which I think means that when you say that the grief has frequently felt unbearable, and now just over two years later, it still comes crashing in waves that at times feel impossible to withstand, Paul would know exactly what you mean. Just as I know what you mean. I think he would say, “I spoke these words for that grief as well.” You will be grieving Josiah’s death the rest of your life. Because his loss to you and all the potentialities of his life which were lost will be real and lost for the rest of your life.
Grief is not a moment. Grief is an emotional experience of painful loss. That loss never ceases to be loss in this world. So, Kathy, we are already deep into answering your all-important question — namely, Can you help me see what it looks like or feels like to be able to say, “Thank you” for this kind of suffering?
Thankful “For” or “In”?
God’s strange timing in taking your precious son does not mean that this was not a massive loss. That’s the first part of the answer that we’ve already seen. It is a loss worthy of being grieved until the day you die. It is possible — this is the mystery — emotionally possible by the work of the Holy Spirit — the kind, powerful, gentle Holy Spirit — to feel thankful for something painful while being almost emotionally overwhelmed by the pain.
Now there are two more things I want to say about that. But before I say them, let me say this. My guess is there are some listeners who heard your question, and they are saying, “Whoa, she misquoted the Bible when she asked about being thankful for this horrible thing instead of being thankful in it.” Of course, you know and I know that you are right. It is both.
First Thessalonians 5:18 says, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” Ephesians 5:20 says, “Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus.” You know what you are talking about.
It’s a real question, and you have the right to ask it.
The Loss of a Son
Here are my two last things that are on my heart to say.
First, God knows what it is like to give his Son in horrible suffering and death. Romans 8:32 says, “He did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.” In those words, in “he did not spare,” we are supposed to hear something of God’s heart in the giving and the loss of his Son in suffering and death.
Then we read in Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Now, when we put those two passages together, the love of God for us is magnified both by the immeasurable cost in God losing his Son in death and by the fact that he embraced this loss for people who didn’t deserve it. Few things make my blood boil more than hearing leaders of God’s people describe this greatest act of love for us as cosmic child abuse.
We live in a horrible, horrible, horrible world. Paul calls it “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). I say that even though at this very present moment I am looking out my window on a gorgeous, bright, beautiful summer day. There is a magnificent green shining maple tree in my front yard, and through it a beautiful cityscape of Minneapolis just beyond. There is air conditioning in my own home, and as I sit here, believe it or not at age 71, not one pain in my body as I record this.
But when I look at the cross, I conclude either this world is horrible, horrible, horrible — in the bondage of eternally damning sin — or the death of the Son of God was a wild overreaction or a myth.
Well, God be praised, it was not an overreaction, and it is not a myth. God does really have an infinitely precious Son. He really does love him beyond all imagining, and he really did give him up. He did not spare him in death for undeserving sinners, and he, in the loss of his Son, he knows what you feel. That’s the first thing.
New Emotional Possibilities
One more thing: What does it feel like to be thankful for a painful loss? The last thing I want to say is over time it changes, Kathy. It changes what it feels like. I’m talking about the feeling of thankfulness now — not the unchangeable objective reality of God’s good and wise purposes which you are holding fast to.
Consider the analogy of chemotherapy for a fatal and malignant tumor that you have. Suppose the doctor can assure you — I know this is imaginary, but let’s do it — suppose the doctor can assure you that if you endure these treatments, you will be cancer free.
“Grieving is not a moment; it is not an event. It is ongoing experience.”
As you begin, the tumor is the size of a baseball. You lose your hair, you break out in horrible rashes, you experience nausea most of the day week after week, your mind is confused, you are so weak you can scarcely drag yourself through the day, your face changes color, you look like you are almost dead already, and you are supposed to be thankful for this treatment.
At first, that feeling of thankfulness is simply the emotional confidence you have in the doctor’s promise — not much more. Three months later, after a CAT scan, he says the tumor has shrunk to the size of a walnut, and something happens to your feeling of gratitude in the midst of all that pain. It takes on a new emotional possibility, and when you go in three months later, and he says, “No trace of cancer,” your feelings about those horrible treatments are very different.
All I’m saying by that analogy — don’t press every point of it — all I’m saying is that the feeling of gratitude for something horrible changes over time with greater and greater closeness of God and the revelation of what he’s doing. Two years after the loss of your son is a very short time. Hold fast to the doctor’s promise. He will show you little by little, though not entirely in this life, what he’s doing.