(One year ago today, after spending the night by my brother’s bedside, we said our last goodbyes just twelve hours before he passed into eternity. As I reflect upon his final years as he struggled with various illnesses triggered by diabetes, I have no doubt that our conversations about faith helped inspire my decision to establish this blog. If you or anyone you love has been impacted by severe affliction, I trust that this post, which is adapted from my remarks at Ronnie’s funeral, may resonate with you no matter what trials you may face.)
“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
In the weeks leading up to Ronnie’s passing, I was drawn not only to God’s Word for comfort and inspiration, but also to some of the writings of one of my favorite Christian authors, Philip Yancey, who offers uncanny insight and wisdom on the subject of pain, suffering, and grief with books like “Reaching For The Invisible God”, “Where Is God When It Hurts”, and “The Question That Never Goes Away”.
You cannot talk about Ronnie’s life without addressing the suffering he endured when diabetes entered his life. Yancey reminds us that while the Bible is certainly a source of great comfort in times of trouble, sickness, and grief, it never gives clear answers to many of those troublesome Why? questions we all face in this life. Even at the end of the Book of Job, where God had the perfect opportunity to address the problem of pain and suffering- the longest speech by God in the entire Bible- he seems to avoid the topic entirely. God’s reply to Job in a nutshell is that divine providence is a mystery that only God understands.
In his initial struggles with the diabetes that would dominate his life, Ronnie wrestled with those unanswerable Why? questions. He had difficulty sensing God’s presence or even accepting that God heard his prayers. He felt unworthy of God’s forgiveness for past transgressions. But through the years, as he focused on God’s Word, and as he drew closer to God through his affliction, he began to recognize the presence of God, experience the reality of God’s forgiveness, and receive the assurance of his salvation. And those things made a tremendous difference in his outlook.
Only God knows whether it required years of affliction for Ronnie to come to that assurance. But God’s Word informs us that he works all things together for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28) I saw that Biblical truth exemplified in Ronnie’s life. After one of his last hospital stays, he told me that looking back on all that he had been through, he could see the hand of God guiding all the circumstances of his life. That is evidence of a mature faith- the ability to reassemble all the events of our life around trust in a loving God, believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.
As I examined his Bible before preparing my remarks for his funeral, the verses from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 that are cited at the top of this post clearly had very special meaning for him. He had started to view this life from a heavenly perspective.
Lessons from the 23rd Psalm
In times of grief, we often quote the 23rd Psalm, a psalm most of us likely memorized in our youth. But I doubt if many of us have ever noticed a subtle transition in that psalm. It begins with those reassuring words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” But then the subtle shift occurs, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (KJV)
Have you ever noticed the subtle shift in perspective there? When the psalmist spoke of experiencing green pastures, still waters, and paths of righteousness, he spoke of God more distantly, using the third person, “He maketh me to lie down, he leadeth me, he restoreth me”. But when he begins to speak of the valley of the shadow of death and the presence of enemies, notice how his tone becomes more personal, referring to God no longer as “He”, but as Thou or you. “Thou art with me … thy rod and thy staff they comfort me … Thou preparest a table before me … thou anointest my head.”
God had drawn closer in his trials. Yancey says that those reassuring words, “Thou art with me” are the best biblical answer to the question that never goes away in difficult times. Where is God when it hurts? … He is with us. No matter the circumstances, we have the assurance of “Immanuel”, which simply means “God with us”.
Grieving With Hope
Since delivering my Mother’s eulogy eleven years ago, I have spoken at several other funerals, including those for my sister, Paulette, my Uncle Frank, my Uncle Ralph, my dear friend, Jay, and most recently, my Aunt Carolyn- the last surviving sibling of my mother and father. As I look back on those messages today, years after their passing, I still grieve. Tears come to my eyes. I can be sitting in church, and the choir starts singing “In Christ Alone” which was sung at Paulette’s funeral, and I rarely get through it without choking up.
A few years ago, at our church in Hendersonville, we hosted a singing group called “This Hope”. I love that name- it is based on Heb. 6:19 which says “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” They sang a song I had never heard- “There Is A Heaven”. The lyrics hit me like a brick. The writer laments about a friend who has died too soon. He talks about the days they could have had together. But then he reflects on his friend’s destination as he gets to the chorus, singing “But I know there is a heaven. And one day I’ll see you there. Where Jesus holds us through forever. There will be no goodbyes when I see you in Heaven. I close my eyes and see you basking in the presence of our Lord. The fullness of His grace you now know face to face.”
As I processed those words, I began to cry once again. But for the first time since my sister and mother’s deaths, they were not tears of grief or sadness. They were tears of joy as the thought of them together in their heavenly home overshadowed my grief.
As I remember those loved ones, I grieve only for myself and those of us they left behind- but not for them. They are basking in the presence of our Lord. The fullness of His grace, they now know face to face. While times of grief are always times to reflect on experiences from our past, as Christians we must remind ourselves that there is also a future. Based on God’s promises, we grieve knowing that because of our faith in Christ and the promises of God’s Word, we’ll be together again one day with all those loved ones who preceded us in death knowing Christ as their Lord and Savior.
And my prayer is that because of your relationship with Christ, you can be as confident of that as I am. And that on the day The Lord calls your name, you can face it with the same dignity, grace, peace, and positive expectation that they did.
In memory of Ronnie and all those loved ones who are awaiting us in Glory, please enjoy “I Will Rise” performed by Chris Tomlin.
Note: All Scripture references from the New International Version (NIV)