A couple of months after my wife, Carol, died, I stood in our laundry room facing a significant pile of laundry. It had been a long day at work—not the best day—and I had just made dinner. I was tense, and I broke.
I looked at the mound of clothing and towels and thought, I can’t do all this; I don’t want to do all this. Where did Carol go? She always did the laundry! Why has this happened? I don’t want to cook. I can’t run our house and take care of the kids. I don’t want to be a single parent. This is impossible!
Raw fear swept over me as my mind darkened and my stomach tightened in one big knot. Then God intervened—right there in my laundry room! Immediately the laundry room became a symbol of everything I hated and everything I needed. There was no audible voice, but I distinctly heard God tell me, Rob, you can do this; I will get you through this. Immediately I was flooded with a sense of peace that, remarkably, has largely continued to this day. I remember that moment as if it were yesterday.
There’s no getting around it: Deep pain brings us to the end of ourselves and, more times than not, face-to-face with overwhelming fear. This struck me again not long ago when I spoke at a funeral for a 26-year-old man who had committed suicide. I had conducted services for suicide victims before, but this one was off-the-charts sad because this young man had off-the-charts potential. He had simply lost his way. That afternoon I shared some of the bedrock truths God had been teaching me about disappointment and loss. Truths that helped my laundry room become a sanctuary. Truths that gave me peace in the midst of my nightmare.
Please don’t misunderstand: Recognizing these realities won’t make the agony of death—especially suicide— go away. It won’t immediately take away all your anger over a job loss, divorce, or a child who has strayed. Nor will it answer the “why” questions. I do not want to oversell. But I can and will tell you what I told those heartbroken family members and friends about working through tragedy. And make no mistake, it is work … faith-work … that enables a person to grieve without losing heart.
So as I addressed the grieving, hurting people who had gathered at that young man’s funeral, I offered what I hoped would be something of a lifeline. Here are three of the truths that I’ve learned to cling to.
Truth #1: We live in a fallen, sinful world. Cornelius Plantinga’s well-written book on sin is called Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. I love that title! Suicide, earthquakes, tornadoes, terrorism, war, poverty, rape, murder, self-centeredness, hate, hypocrisy, abuse, adultery, addictions, and human trafficking—they’re all products of living in a fallen, sinful world. This isn’t pessimism: It’s realism, biblical realism.
At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, let me suggest that too many of us expect too much out of life. Our expectations are unrealistic because our view of sin and its pervasive consequences is minimalistic. As a result, we unintentionally set ourselves up for disappointment whenever difficulty comes. So listen carefully, and I say this gently: There’s a sense in which we, as followers of Christ, need to lower our expectations, relative to what this life offers, relative to what this life will be like.
Truth #2: God is wonderfully and completely sovereign. After my wife, Carol, died, nights were the worst. I hated going to bed, hated being alone. The questions and fears always intensified at night when I was tired and it was dark and quiet. I thought morning would never come. It’s easy to panic in the middle of the night.
Perhaps that is why a second truth was, for me, so significant: God is sovereign, and He invites us to rest, really rest in and cling to His sovereignty. Let’s look at a biblical example. Joseph, whose story is told in the book of Genesis, spent some of the best years of his life in an Egyptian rat-hole of a prison. And this for crimes he did not commit! I can’t imagine his disappointment. But amazingly, neither bitterness nor self-pity seemed to gain a foothold in Joseph’s life. Years later he would say to the very brothers who betrayed him, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
Wow! Joseph refused to remain stuck in unforgiveness because he was resting and trusting in the sovereignty of God. Joseph saw past his personal tragedy to the living, active, personal God of the universe who both transcended and trumped his circumstances.
During Carol’s illness, we were given the same gift. We both had a deep, overwhelming sense—better, a conviction—that God was in control and that His good plan for our lives would not fail, regardless of whether Carol lived or died. We weren’t pretending and we certainly weren’t plastic; we were simply believing and attempting to live in submission to our loving heavenly Father. This is why Carol was upbeat even when she was in severe pain and why I didn’t collapse in bitterness and self-pity, especially during those late nights when I had to rush her to the hospital’s emergency room.
Joseph, like all spiritually healthy people, was God-centered, not problem-centered, not disappointment-centered, not man-centered. He was convinced that God had a plan and that God was working that plan.
Truth #3: The believer is not home yet. Jim Harrell, a member of our church and a good friend, began experiencing pain in his left calf in 2001. Always active, Jim assumed he had suffered a minor athletic injury. After all, he seemed to be in the prime of his life. He and his wife, Linda, had been married for over 20 years and had four children, the oldest of whom was in his early teens. He was respected for his work as a consultant on railroad labor relations, and he was loved by his friends for his big heart and practical jokes.
Gradually, Jim realized that the pain in his lower leg was not going away with rest and physical therapy. After running batteries of tests, his doctor called him on a Saturday morning in early 2003 with a grim diagnosis: Jim had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A terminal illness, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes the brain to lose the ability to initiate and control muscle movement.
The illness progresses at different rates among ALS sufferers. Jim lived nearly seven years past his original diagnosis—years beyond normal life expectancy with this disease. Yet its effects in Jim were no less brutal. One day near the end of his life when I was with Jim, I noticed that one of the few parts of his body that he could still move was his right hand.
As physically weak as he became, Jim taught me a significant principle for handling tragedy: We, as followers of Christ, are not home yet. Jim would tell you he didn’t get that immediately. For the first year after he learned he had the disease, he really struggled. Then a friend asked him to speak to a church group about living as a Christian in the business world. Near the end of his talk, Jim mentioned how much easier it was to talk about God with non-Christians now that he had a terminal illness. Jim’s suffering was drawing him to Christ, making him more like Jesus.
In fact, after his diagnosis, Jim had begun leading neighbors to Christ—lots of them. He also wrote countless e-mails lifting up Christ and accepted dozens more speaking engagements, sharing his story with business groups, high schoolers, and college sports teams. I had him share his story in our church’s morning worship services several times from his wheelchair as well. When his disease had progressed to the point that public speaking was nearly impossible, Jim produced a DVD of his story, which he had boldly sent around the world and to such places as the White House.
And what was Jim’s primary message? Although he’d been a Christian since college, he admitted that, like so many of us, he had spent most of his adulthood more focused on his life here on earth than on what would come next. His prognosis—a few more years at best to live on this earth—changed everything.
Climbing out of the pit of grief
I am a hard-charging, constantly-in-motion, easily reactive controller. A type A. Perhaps that’s why the experience in my laundry room just after Carol’s death affected me so deeply. In those moments I knew I couldn’t do what I needed to do. Not anymore, not without Carol. In effect, the laundry room personalized the death of my wife. It was my tipping point, in the worst way. I felt stripped, hung out to dry, powerless, and overwhelmed. Carol had carried me in so many ways; she was the music of my life. And now the music was over.
But God stepped into my despair, assuring me of His presence and power in a very personal way. My panic gave way to peace, my sorrow to joy, my confusion to conviction.
These three truths are basic Christianity—principles we easily assent to when times are good. Yet each one of them took on new meaning for me as I climbed out of the pit of my grief and began to make sense of life in the aftermath of incredible loss. These truths have, in ways I never experienced before, become deep and sustaining friends. Now I know, based on personal experience, that they will not fail. That why I commend them to you.
Taken from When the Bottom Drops Out by Robert Bugh. Copyright © 2011 by Robert Bugh. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.