This December 29th came and went without any major event. I’m not surprised. For most people it’s just one of those days between Christmas and New Year that bears little significance to it. For myself, it both is and isn’t an important date. My father passed away on December 29th, 2007, so this last December 29th marked the ten-year anniversary of his death.
The day came and went, just like many days do. It brought with it no particular emotional heaviness. I wasn’t tempted to dwell too long on the notion that ten years had passed, and I wasn’t overcome with grief. Perhaps that’s the way it should be after ten years? Ten years is no short amount of time. When I was 20, ten years was half my life, and now it’s just shy of a third of my life. Ten years is a lot of time to process and recover from loss. I remember my psychology professor said that the average time of bereavement for a widowed spouse is 1-2 years. I don’t know if that’s true, but I suspect that it’s a close approximation.
But to say that a time of bereavement is over doesn’t assume that all grieving is done, or that one will no longer mourn a loss. Simply, the period marked by the greatest intensity and frequency of feelings of grief has passed. And just like how after a major earthquake occurs, there can be tremors and aftershocks for weeks, months, and years, so also once the initial experience of grief has subsided, one can experience that grief all over again at different moments and times of life.
When does it end?
This brings me to the observation that grief is something that will always be present in this life; something we will always carry with us. People who have experienced significant loss have described it as feeling as if they’ve lost a limb, as if they’ll never be whole again. An amputee may heal, but he’ll never regrow or regain the use of that limb. And that is likely how they genuinely feel at that time, especially if their loss is recent.
Paul’s famous exhortation in 1 Thess. 4:13-14 instructs Christians to not grieve like non-believers; people who have no hope of resurrection in Christ. This assumes there is still a time for grieving in the Christian’s life. Only, there is a manner in which we must grieve that honors our Lord, and there is a manner in which we mustn’t grieve because it dishonors Him.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us “there is a time to weep and a time to laugh; there is a time to mourn and a time to dance” (3:4). But these times aren’t differentiated by clear markers of transition. They’re much more like the rising and setting of the sun. During dusk and dawn it can be hard to say whether it is still light out or if the night has begun. So it is with human emotion and periods of grief, there are times when we truly feel like we’re in the dark of night, and grief pervades our lives; and there are times more like dusk and dawn where we’re not sure how we feel; at times hopeful, but also as if the darkness of grief still casts a shadow on us.
The promise that grief and mourning will end doesn’t come to fruition until Revelation 21. There the Apostle John records His vision of a future time when God will consummate all human history in His judgment upon all creation, and begin His re-creative work in making a new heaven and a new earth. Much like the original Garden of Eden, this new heaven and earth will be without the stain of sin and corruption. There, John says of God, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” (v.4).
To reiterate, it’s not until God consummates all things at the end of history, and makes the new heaven and new earth, that grief and mourning and death will end. It will be something even the most faithful Christian experiences throughout this life. This is not a pessimistic view, I feel, but rather a theological-realist view. It accounts for both, the ongoing reality of the nature of this world and mankind, and the future promise of God’s plan to sanctify all creation.
But there is also reason to hope for God’s grace in present experiences of grief and death, which goes beyond trusting in Christ solely for our ultimate redemption. For some this might be a stretch or a weird connection to make, but I’m convinced that this is similar to the way in which He is gracious to us through the process of sanctification.
Justification, Sanctification, Glorification
Many theologians will describe the work of salvation as having three distinct aspects: justification, sanctification, and glorification. It is our human disposition, I think, to revel in the first and last of these without acknowledging the very important process of sanctification. As Christians, much theological debate addresses the manner in which we are currently justified, and much speculation is made about the manner of our future glorification (e.g. what will heaven be like). But all too often, very little attention is given towards our present sanctification; which, in reality, is the aspect that most involves our daily lives.
Sanctification is like being made holy or perfect. Being sanctified has to do with putting to death the sins and temptations of the flesh. It is having the mind of Christ. God’s grace is intimately involved in this sanctification process because there is a lot of giving in strength, and forgiving of sins (or looking over future sins which He has already forgiven us of); all of which we do not deserve. Beyond our initial decision to follow Christ, God is gracious to us in countless ways as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:12). Simply, His grace carries us through this life of failure and success as we battle sin, and are being conformed to the image of Christ.
What am I saying?
What I’m saying is that God’s acts of grace do not end at the cross, or at the resurrection, or at His calling us to faith. Instead, they are present with us day-to-day as we are transformed into the image of Christ. In the same way, as we experience grief in our lives, God’s grace does not act like a light-switch, turning off feelings of grief when a prescribed time of mourning is met. Rather, His grace permeates our lives in such a way that when we are drawn to grief His grace is there ready to address those emotions. God doesn’t simply flip-a-switch for us so we won’t have to feel anymore. Instead, He gives us strength to walk through that time without it destroying us. He gives us faith to believe in His promises and His goodness.
Similarly, God doesn’t flip-a-switch to make us immune to sin and temptation. He disciplines us, He gives us His Spirit, and He strengthens us in faith. Because we haven’t committed a particular sin in so many years doesn’t mean that we are no longer prone to that sin. Certainly, we still are, and we have to be on guard against temptation whether it’s been 20 minutes or 20 years. In the same way, I think, we are never truly free of grief. Times of mourning will pass but there will always be times when we are reminded of loss. It’s during those times of remembrance that that grief can resurface. And just like the way in which God’s grace helped us to get through that initial time of mourning, His grace is there ready to combat those feelings at later times.