Blessed are those who mourn.
That promise, from Matthew 5:4, has never been one of my Bible favorites. The second half of the verse is a little more upbeat – for they will be comforted – but, if I’m being honest, I gotta say that I’d just as soon skip the whole thing. No mourning, no need for comfort. Done.
But if you’ve been keeping up with this blog series about waiting on God, you knew I’d get around to mourning, eventually. And last week I promised to tackle one of the thornier questions that can attach itself to the waiting process: What do we do with the grief, or even the anger, that can box us into a corner when our prayers seem to go unanswered, or when the outcome doesn’t look like we expected (or wanted) it to?
The short answer is to remember how much God loves you. Go ahead and take your hurts to him – tell him just how you feel – and then let him hold you. Mourn, and be comforted. If that’s all the blog you can process today, that’s enough.
If you’ve got time to dig a little deeper, I’d like you to meet my guy Asaph. He’s the fella who wrote Psalm 73. He sees all of the arrogant God-mockers getting healthy, rich, and popular, while he feels like he is being “punished every morning,” and he is shaking his head. He’s grieved, and he’s bitter. He’s mourning, and he’s mad.
Not a fun place for a believer to be.
In the end, though, Asaph realizes that he has it all backwards. The bad guys are on slippery ground. Their destiny is destruction; his future is secure. Asaph has the blessing of God’s guidance, the certainty of his love, and the promise of his presence. And that’s all he needs. “Whom have I in heaven but you?” he asks. “And earth has nothing I desire besides you.”
There was a time when I would have read a statement like that and thought to myself, “Yeah, right. God’s presence is nice and all…but I would have rather had the pony.”
Lately, though, as I’ve wrestled with the problem of pain and the questions that come with things like unmet longings and unanswered prayers, I’ve begun to appreciate the blessing of God’s nearness. Here’s why:
I was raised on verses like Romans 8:28 (which says that God works in all things for our good), Jeremiah 29:11 (his plan is to prosper us and to give us hope), and Job 42:2 (no purpose of his can be thwarted), and I struggled over the fact that I felt sad when things didn’t turn out like I wanted them to, or when God seemed to be silent in the face of my prayers. If I truly believed that God was working for good, that his plan was for hope, and that his purpose would prevail, then I had no business being anything but grateful. Even if I didn’t understand what God was up to, I felt like I should be excited about it.
But I wasn’t.
And because I wasn’t, I felt like I should apologize to God. I figured that, since he already knew my heart, I could just go ahead and be honest. So here’s what I wrote in my prayer journal (and I’m sharing this partly so that those of you who think that you need to be all holy and eloquent when you talk to God will maybe feel a little bit better about just letting it rip):
“God,” I said, “I am sorry to be so spiritually lame. I really am trying to trust you. And I don’t mean to be sad. I know all your promises about how good and powerful you are, and about how much you love me, and I guess if I honestly believed these things – ”
“It’s okay.” (Have you ever been interrupted by God? Because that’s what I think happened to me. There I was, telling him how lame I was, and he just cut right in.)
“It’s okay,” I sensed God say. “Go ahead and grieve. Your sadness is real. But it’s not a bad thing. Bring it to me, and let me comfort you.”
Wow. Talk about a game-changer. There I was, trying to push my pain into a manhole and put the cover on, and God said not to. He wanted me to come to him the way that I wanted my children, when they were younger, to bring me their skinned knees and fevers, so I could hug them and bandage their hurts. Or the way that I want them to now, with their worries and fears, so that I can pray and let them know they’re not alone. And I realized that day, as I basically climbed into God’s lap and let the tears come, that I was just like Asaph. I had it all backwards.
I thought that disappointment and anger were bad things. Things to be avoided. Things that didn’t have a legitimate place in the life of a “real” Christian. (And just as a sidebar, if we allow these things to shape our identity, dictate our perspective, or become our life’s focus, I think they are bad.) But if we can learn to see them as tools in God’s hands, we will discover that our grief and our questions are actually blessings. In drawing us into God’s presence, they are the cords that he uses to bind up our broken hearts (Isaiah 61:1), to let us know how much we are loved, and to show us that even in mourning, we are blessed.
Next week, in the final post in this series, I will introduce you to a couple of folks who have lived this stuff, and who express it so much better than I can. I realized (when I saw my friend Michelle’s organic turkey in a bag in her driveway) that Thanksgiving is almost upon us. And my hope is that, together, we can celebrate the holiday from a place of genuine gratitude, a place where waiting on God (and trusting him, even when we aren’t sure what he is doing) becomes something we can really enjoy.
Like Asaph, I want us to be able to bring all of our questions and complaints before God and find our joy not in his answers, but in his nearness.