Comment on “Providence, Death and Grief”

Yesterday I posted two articles by my hand from the 1981 Gospel Advocate. These were my first atttempts, at the age of twenty-three, to write (even publicly speak of) the loss of my wife in 1980.

Reading them again after so long–I don’t think I have read them or perhaps even thought of them in over ten years at least–was an enlightening but also painful experience. As I have thought about the personal, theological and spiritual shifts in my life during my twenties, I was not surprised to see some dimensions of my soul appear in these articles. My comments below are intersubjective and do not intend to address anyone who holds the views articulated in the articles; I am reflecting only on my own experience.

The articles have a distasteful air of triumphalism as I read them today. There are hints of arrogance which I see in the words “proper” or “properly.” I write as if I have it figured out; at least it appears that way to me, knowing my own journey and heart at the time. There is a presumptuousness that understanding providence enbales one to overcome grief.

As I look back on my twenty-three old soul, I give myself lots of grace. It was a soul burdened with grief, reeking with anger against God, and spiritually sick with rebellious feelings. But you didn’t hear that in the article, did you? Well, of course not. It could not be spoken; I would not have spoken it. It would not have been printed. I did not speak it to anyone. I was too ashamed of my feelings, too afraid of judgment by others, and too sick to truly know myself.

I was too much of the hero…playing the hero…to speak such things. I knew what I thought others expected of me, and what I expected from myself. I was supposed to be the hero. It had been my role for some time, and I did not know what to do with my feelings of anger and grief other than feel guilty about them. So, I stuffed them, put on my “theological” face and wrote two relatively detached articles about providence and human life.

I still substantially agree with the articles. I have a high view of sovereignty and trust is a way to healing. I don’t like the distinction between miracle and providence so much anymore, but would rather speak of God’s constant activity. 1 Corinthians 10:13 does not provide the comfort that it once did (or seemingly did in this article)–not sure what is going on with that (it does not “ring” true in my experience). I do believe that God is in control; and he lovingly rules his world for the sake of his people and his creation. While the idea of “divine compliment” seems appropriate, I don’t think of it so much as a “compliment” anymore. Perhaps it is a means by which God garners witnesses in his world to his love, grace and care, but “compliment” is not a healthy word for me now.

The articles leave the impression that I have won. I have overcome. I trust. And everything has settled down. But that is far from the truth. My life was a mess at that moment. I was pursuing my Ph.D. at Westminster, living alone in a one-room studio in Ambler, PA, and making some terrible personal choices. Those choices were the outworkings of my anger and rebellion. Even now shame and guilt surge forward when I think about it even though I know those moments are long forgiven and erased from the heart of God.

What the articles lack–and what I lacked in my life at that time–was a deep sense of lament. I had not learned to lament. I did not know what faithful lament was. I did not know I could be angry with God, even complain and question and doubt, and yet at the same time remain faithful and beloved. I did not learn that (as much as I could “learn” it then) till the summer of 1981 when a friend turned my attention to the Psalms and then Job.

My approach to Job in these articles is about faith and the divine compliment. I had not processed the material between Job 1-2 and Job 42; it was not part of my world. I only “theologized” about sovereignty, the trial of Job, the faith of Job (“Blessed be the name of the Lord”) and God’s “reward.” The laments, bitterness, complaint and horror of Job’s experience had not yet connected with my own. Job 3-41 was terra incognita.

My articles in 1981 are heroic and triumphalistic. They contain much that I still believe, but they are only true if balanced with Psalmist and Jobian laments. They are only true if we excise the arrogance and presumption. They are only true if we remove the detachment and place those truths in the world of lamenters–those who deely feel the injustice of life and the seeming abandonment by their God. Job and Psalms became my Bible after I discovered their laments.

But I give myself a break here (though I find that difficult to do at times). I did not know the laments; I had not experienced the laments of Scripture. I had not learned to pray Scripture. I did not know how to grieve, and in some ways I have only learned to truly grieve in the last year (if even now). I only knew how to project my heroism; and I played it well. I give myself credit for that.  :-)

So, as Don commented yesterday, we need the combination of learning (theology) and suffering. I only see theology in these articles, but I knew the suffering was present in my heart. Now I–and at points in the past I have to some degree–intend to “do” theology with the honesty of a suffering heart. That is part of what I have done on this blog in the past year.

That is what is lacking in those articles. I did not know how to do that then; I did not know what to do with it. The articles are good as far as they go, but they are too detached to resonate with hearts that are angry, grieving and abandoned.  Those articles did not tell the full story of my heart in 1981.

They need a significant dose of biblical lament. We all need that and let us not deny it to those who feel lament; let us give the hurting full opportunity to speak their hurt even if our ears burn and our theologies are offended.



14 Responses to “Comment on “Providence, Death and Grief””

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Blessings again!

    There is a part of me that hears echoes of myself, as I remember trying to use the Bible to defend and justify God after my son died by trying to explain the reason for suffering (I even read a book by a certain author called “Yet Will I Trust in Him” :-) ). Looking back it all seemed like an effort to make the pain go away, with such subversion allowing me to escape the reality. Of course no matter how much I tried, I could not subvert the reality enough and trying to was one of the moves that unhinged my faith in God (at least in a good, loving God).

    Any ways…I was wondering if, looking back, writing these articles were cathartic in any way. I am not sure how long it was between the death of your wife and the discovery that your son Joshua was ill and not going to recover but I wonder at what point did you come to realize that playing the theological hero was not helpful in dealing with such loss(es). You mentioned the Psalms and specifically lament and I am sure that discovery was more of a process than a single moment, did this initially make a difference as you dealt with more suffering in your life?

    My interest is just trying to learn from others (as much as myself) on how to help people both as a pastor and friend in their grief, especially in the initial journey. It seems that so many of us who are dealt a hand of suffering look for cathartic ways of coping and often reach for unhelpful things (e.g., playing the role of a theological hero, drowning grief in drugs/alcohol, and many other ways). I find it hard to be suggestive to others on how to grieve in a healthy way since, despite having suffered the loss of a child, I feel like “who am I to suggest to someone else.” Yet there is another part of me that feels like someone needs to speak in a loving and sensitive way to help the sufferer find the healthy path to journey on, so that they do not inevitably do more harm.

    I hope that makes sense. And I know that I am asking some questions that seek more personal reflection, so if you do not wish to answer them then I understand.

    As a last thought…

    I am thankful that “When [we were] in distress [we were able to] seek the Lord…” for it is God who “…kept [our] eyes from closing [when we were] too troubled to speak” (Psalm 77.2, 4).

    May the grace of God and the promise of his salvation give us peace as we live and await the return of Lord Jesus!

    -Rex

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Rex,

      I think they were cathartic, but I think it would have been better to do it through journaling or talking with others. Going into print was more an act of heroism, approval-seeking and a desire for affirmation. I was still in some old ego-centric patterns at that time. I fear that I still am on many days. Sometimes I wonder if blogging is not driven by similar motives. The heart is deceitful above all things, and thanks be to God who knows our hearts and yet does not condemn us because he is greater than our hearts.

      Blessings, my friend.

      John Mark

      •   K. Rex Butts Says:

        JMH,

        One of the more subtle differences between the old stuff you have uploaded and your blog entries, books (from the last 15 appx. years), and teaching as well, is the certitude. While you present all of your material with conviction and a depth of understanding, you also project a level of humility that still seeks to learn and values the insights of others whether they agree or disagree with you, are your student or colleague, and so on. I always thought that was a great quality to professors to have and pass on to their students.

        Any ways… In an ironic sort of way, after reading and commenting on your blog yesterday, I spent a couple of hours with a fairly new Christian lady who has experienced a lot of suffering which continues to plague her with physical and emotional problems. She has recently been in the hospital but was released. So we spent some time talking about how she has been feeling (grief, anger, disappointment, etc…) and she mentioned how she has been reading the book of Job. So we talked about lament in the Bible and how such laments validate our feelings. I think our time together was a real blessing to her and I am thankful that she also has a wonderful Christian lady that is mentoring her in the faith, who does not judge her for some of the feelings she has to her suffering.

        For the glory of God,

        Rex

        • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

          Thank you for your kindness, Rex.

          Learning to lament is a key to healing, at least in my own experience and those with whom I am close in such journies. I so appreciate the point about the validation of feelings–the laments have done that for me on many occasions.

  2.   randall Says:

    Thanks for being so transparent. Yesterday you said there would be more to come so I was anxious to hear your thoughts – and I do hear them.

    Over 40 years ago I had Lemoine Lewis at ACU for a class on Job through Malachi and he spend some time on Job. He discussed all the theories of suffering and it was clear that all explanation, however biblical and comprehensive, is still inadequate.

    I know God will never leave me or forsake me, but that doesn’t mean I will understand why it had to be or be able to explain it. So I will still sit near you in cyberspace and hold my tongue and simply grieve with you.

  3. Avatar of Janice Tharp Garrison  Janice Garrison Says:

    I appreciate your honesty. We are familiar with the saying “Hind site is 20-20″. I can certainly say hind-site has visited me often.
    I have shared my painful past with many, and it was not easy in the beginning, as I didn’t want to deal with rejection, judgement and all the other yucky things people do to you when you make them uncomfortable.

  4.   Matthew Says:

    Reliving the past is a interesting experience. I always wanted to have a journey but never had the discipline to write it everyday so I started a blog. It was my little way of being able to go back. After, I finish the D.Min, I plan on going back to NS to travel through some of the old spots. I guess to remember the past and what has come from it.

  5.   WesWoodell Says:

    Thanks for sharing.

    I really appreciate how you often go back and share the motives behind things you said or did as a young minister.

    Being a young minister myself, reading posts like this has really helped me be introspective about the things I say and do now.

    Again, thanks for sharing. I mean it.

  6.   Carisse Says:

    When you said above, “a means by which God garners witnesses in his world to his love, grace and care,” I remembered hearing you say at my daddy’s funeral that through his long disability, God perhaps was saying, “Can I get a witness?” You did not understand how deeply Daddy himself understood the witness he bore; you only saw that Mother and I testified to God’s care. That was enough, and of the many things said at the funeral, it is the one I most often remember and give thanks for.

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      I remember that statement at the funeral as well. I think it still rings true in your life, my friend. “Can I get a witness?” is part of African American church culture and a practice I wish more of us would be comfortable adopting.

      Thanks for the memories.

      John Mark

  7.   remackenzie11 Says:

    Thank you. Part of this, I feel, is connected in part of my own journey. No, I have not experienced the pain you have but I feel connected to your message about “certainty”. Thank you.

  8.   Stan Says:

    I join the others in saying thank you. Your thoughts help me recognize things in myself that I need to see. Dealing with both grief and the sinful nature is a double whammy.

  9.   Rich Says:

    How bout this. On a phone in court registraion ticket 3 hours now. Toö much111 fun

  10.   John King Says:

    JMH,

    Thank you for your transparency. You have revealled your past pride, your discomfort with that today and your caution that even now you may have mixed motives. You model humbling oneself before God.

    Some have asked what to do to help others (even ourselves) to grieve in healthier ways. Give permission to lament is the answer I learned from you and always share. “It’s okay to pour out your anger to God. You feel that way and he knows it, why not be honest about it with him. He’s big enough to take it.” is how I put it to them. Those are shocking words to many because our heritage nurtures false faces and pretending everything is alright.

    AA and other 12-step groups are probably more like church ought to be, in this very area. You don’t have to hide your stuff. You can come clean without concern for someone telling you, “You shouldn’t feel that way!” Thanks for being an example of honesty within the family of faith.

    What else could I say to a family who’s daughter drowned while with her grandmother after her dad was concerned his mother-in-law was not careful enough to send the girl to be with her? What else could I say to the family who buried their son after a protracted death due to a genetic condition? Why didn’t God heal the broken home of my childhood? Being open to true lament is our only hope for faithful grieving.

    Thanks brother,
    John King

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