This is part eight of our continuing story of Alan and Lynn that began as In the Shadow of Death. Now Lynn has passed away from metastasized breast cancer in the face of a promise they both held in their hearts for her healing. Alan is left to deal not only with his grief, but his view of a God he was certain would heal her.
From Alan June 22, 2019 (57 days after first email):
I am hoping we will stay in relationship even if there comes a time when I am “ok.” God has used you more than anyone else to help me, and I appreciate it more than I can say.
Today is one month since Lynn died. I have been weeping again and crying out to God. My eyes seem to be opening more and more to how wonderful Lynn was and how much she loved God. I knew what I had as far back as when I first fell for her in the mid-1980s. I knew she loved God deeply, but I am learning as I read some of her devotionals just how much she adored Him. And I am seeing how much she loved me. So I am still in whatever the grief experts would call the weeping and wailing stage. The reality of how permanent this is, is like a well-placed punch in the face, landing squarely over and over.
Wayne, I do not know if I can do this. I need her so desperately, yet I cannot feel her hand in mine, cannot hear loving words of encouragement, and cannot look into her big brown eyes, lit up with her smile that captivated my heart so many years ago.
I’m not ignoring your encouragement. I read it over and over. Today I’m having a horrible time as I realize that this is my reality now – single, widowed, alone.
Yes, you’re only a month into this process. In grief time, that is barely a blip, unfortunately. Let the tears flow. Hold your grief on the lap of a loving Father. Celebrate her life as best you can. Look back at the joys of having known her, not at the unknown future without her. One will help you heal, the other will drive you to despair.
Have you noticed that imagining what our futures will be like, is never helpful? For one, we’re mostly wrong. The future is always unknown. Certainly, Lynn won’t be there, but you have no idea yet what will be—how God will make himself known to you and what gifts he will yet pour into your life. I heard one man say that the reason we are so stressed and in pain about our future is because humans cannot imagine grace. So, when you contemplate the future, do you notice how alone you are in it—not just without Lynn, but also without any real understanding of how God will be with you in whatever circumstances come.
Grace can only be assimilated one day at a time. Do you have enough for this day? Tomorrow will be another challenge, and there will be grace for that one. And the next, and the next. Take it in one-day bites, not trying to find all you need for all the potential outcomes of life from here on out. You can’t try to live the feared challenges of tomorrow on today’s grace. We’re not built that way. Again, nothing about this took God by surprise. He has whatever it will take to heal the wounds of her passing and still give you a hope and a future.
Alan, I’m so sorry for what you’re going through and don’t know that I would negotiate it any better if my wife had passed a month ago. However, I am concerned that you talk about her as if you’ve lost your God, the only source of love and support, and are hopeless without her. Is it possible that somehow her memory is supplanting God’s presence with you, or at least the hope that there are joy and life to be lived beyond her? If I were talking to a married couple that expressed this kind of dependency, I would consider the relationship unhealthy. If we want our spouse to be all the things that God said he would be to us, then we’re missing out on the greatest gift in the universe. Lynn was a great gift, but she is not the greatest gift. Are you thinking much about that? Have you elevated Lynn to a place in your heart that only God can fill? It may just be your grief talking, but that’s what I’ve heard in the last couple of emails.
Your reality might be “single, widowed, and alone” in a human sense, but you are far from alone. If you define your life by those three words, they will own you. Though the first two are real enough, the last one is not, and if you focus there, it will drown you. You are not alone. You are the beloved son of a gracious Father, who is also Maker of heaven and earth, and who has adventures still to share with you in this life.
You’re a father, whose kids desperately need a dad to love them, and you’re a follower of Christ with hope to speak to others who are in pain they don’t think they will survive. My prayer is that in the grief, you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Your life is not over here; it’s just changed. You had 25 years or so of a great gift, and hopefully, that gift made you a better person and will benefit you in days to come.
More of your treasure is in heaven now, that is for sure. But the greatest treasure—Christ in you—still lives on. Methinks there’s more to discover there that will help you through this season.
From Alan June 24, 2019 (59 days after first email):
I appreciate your pointing out that I may be focusing too much on Lynn. Thank you for feeling comfortable enough, for being honest. I’ve thought about this all day and what I believe is coming out is what I first started with – a severe feeling of disappointment and of being let down by God. I have started trying to receive His love again and have been praising Him when I think to, but as I wrote before, I feel like I have suffered a huge punch to my spiritual face. Still, I am asking that He reveal His great love to me again.
You helped me begin to give my theology a re-think, but I am still wondering things like, “What is the use of praying if God is not going to answer?” I’m still not past the nagging thought that He could have intervened but chose not to…how can I look to Him for comfort in something He allowed to happen? Not to be irreverent, but it’s like saying, “Wayne, I didn’t deposit your paycheck as you asked. Now, tell me how bouncing checks, as a result, messes up your finances.”
You wrote that somehow he could not give me the answered prayer I desired. But, what of “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, you shall ask what you will, and it shall be done for you?” What of, “By His stripes, we are healed?” Like I said previously, there are so many affirmative verses, Scriptures that lead to a climactic, “The promises of God are yes and amen in Christ Jesus.” That sounds like “If God is supposed to be for us, who can be against us?” In other words, there should be something we can count on in the Word without having to default to, “Well, His ways are higher.” Or, “We live in a fallen world.”
I have been chewing on what you wrote about creation and this broken world. It is unlike anything I have ever read. I think you are right. But there are also things like this paragraph in a daily devotion I received this morning from Joseph Prince: “My friend, don’t fix your eyes on how much or how little faith you have. Fix your eyes on the One who loves you, who has already given you what you need. When you come to Him, simply believe that He is waiting to meet your expectation. He will say to you, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.”
Wayne, there has to be room for faith and expectation and answered prayer. I know God is not our genie. But he has promised an awful lot to “him who believes.”
Please don’t get weary of my struggle. I really do study and meditate on what you write to me because I believe God put you in my life to help me get through this nightmare. I thank God for you.
And a day later, before I could respond, Alan wrote this brief email:
I have felt terrible since sending you that cynical, doubt-filled response. I apologize. I want to sense God’s love and grace again and even in greater measure than ever before. I will try not to let my pain dictate my belief and/or how I respond.
Don’t feel terrible about asking honest questions, especially ones that arise with pain. How else will we learn when God identifies the illusions in our theology if we can’t ask the honest question and seek him for answers? That is not cynical or doubt-filled; that’s reality, a place where the Spirit loves to work because that means you and Father have some sorting out to do.
I think it takes more faith to ask God the brutal questions than it is to pretend to believe things that are not real in our heart. And don’t worry that I will tire of you. I think Father has had something for us in this conversation that will touch others as well, and that makes it easy to give my time to it.
Now let me try to respond to your previous email.
I wasn’t trying to get you to not focus on Lynn. That would be like telling you not to think about an orange. That’s all you would think about. Instead, as you think about Lynn, let God move you from how much you’ve lost, to how much of a treasure she was. Be grateful for all she added to your life and that you got to share together. But also look beyond her to the Father who loves you far more than she did. All that you need to get through each day is in him, and far more. He has encouragement, affirmation, wisdom, and joy for you to discover still. It will take some time, but he wants to be the source of your life.
You quote a familiar litany of verses from which it is easy to conclude that getting the answer we want in prayer is a transaction. If I do this, God will do that. But it rarely works that way, so don’t we have to wonder if it was ever meant to? Would Jesus just say those things to torture us, or do they all hang on deeper realities with less certain outcomes? At the heart of these issues is what it truly means to believe in Jesus.
Take the Joseph Prince quote, for instance. Jesus is already looking at a specific individual, in this case, the centurion. He knows what he wants and affirms he has his answer. We take that and extract a principle that if we just believe as he did, we’ll get our answer too. That’s what is so dangerous about this kind of teaching from those who claim to preach the Scriptures. We tell them what they want to hear, but don’t tell them the truth and leave them to be disillusioned when it doesn’t work out the way they wanted.
Just because we believe hard for something we want, doesn’t mean it will happen. That’s not what Scripture teaches. Our belief is not vested in things; it is vested in him. We believe in him, which is not the same as believing him for the things I want or think I should have.
One of my favorite lines these days I’ll be using in a future book is Jesus saying to someone, “I simply showed you what was real, and you dared to believe me.” That’s what belief is. It isn’t trying to achieve our preferred reality and getting Jesus to help us. It isn’t a creedal assent to the nature of Jesus or expressing our conviction that he is trustworthy. Believing in Jesus is believing his view of the reality we live in. Remember when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the Living God, and then two paragraphs later, he is arguing with Jesus about going to the cross. He believed he was the Son of God but didn’t believe Jesus when he spoke about what was about to happen. “Believe in him” without believing him, is just so much religious gobbledygook.
He wants me to believe his reality. I know you both thought you’d been promised Lynn’s healing. If you had, it would have happened. Part of the way we learn to follow him is realizing, we get it wrong sometimes. I have wanted things so badly, I convince myself that he wanted it to turn out that way, even though everything kept pointing to a different outcome. I don’t believe that was because Jesus didn’t want to heal her or made a choice not to; she was a casualty of the brutal war between fallenness and the coming kingdom. Seemingly you both got far longer than you otherwise would have, which is a testimony of his working. Sadly, however, you didn’t get all you wanted. I have no idea why, but a God that “allows” such things is not the God of the Bible. Somehow it was a consequence of other things we can’t see or part of a higher purpose. Sometimes we get to know, sometimes we don’t, but what doesn’t change is my trust in him in all the realities I experience.
All those answered prayer Scriptures are predicated on our being inside him and his unfolding purpose in the world. Abiding in his words is not just reading Scriptures, but believing what he says about the people and situations I am in. It’s steeping myself in his reality and the way he thinks so that I’m a partner of his in his unfolding work. ‘By his stripes, we are healed”, is not the prooftext that Christians don’t have to get sick or stay sick. It’s a statement of the reality of his kingdom that will bring healing to us all and the greater cosmos through his suffering. Some of that happens in this world; some of it happens in the next. This is the tension between the kingdom come, and the kingdom-yet-to-come. Currently, we live in a war zone. There are casualties just because of the gravity of darkness and evil in the world. But by his stripes, we will all be healed, isn’t about disease alone, but redemption, transformation, and ultimate freedom from sin and evil. It’s incomplete in this realm; it won’t be in the next.
What’s the use of praying if he’s not going to answer? He does answer, though not always with what we want. We don’t pray to get God to do what we want, but to tune our hearts to his wants. It’s to listen and where he shows us to exercise our role as his joint-heir to help bring it into being. But that doesn’t mean we’ll always get it right, that each of us is promised 85 years of sickness-free living. It just has never worked that way, which means we have twisted Scriptures to try to say that. Part of listening to him is seeing how circumstances play out. If he tells me he will heal someone if I pray and he does, that’s awesome. If I think he tells me that and in praying they don’t get healed, then I have to conclude I missed something there. He doesn’t change. I believe him and that he is bigger than how any circumstance turns out.
Where I feel let down by him is only a result of my limited perspective. He never lets us down. He’s always working for the highest good, which doesn’t always fit what we want. He’s my refuge to run to when I’m disappointed, frustrated, and angry. His love is the only certain reality in my life. Everything else is negotiable, but when I begin to doubt his love for me and his greatness in the universe, I start to sink into the despair of the enemy’s lies. I can fail. Others can fail me. I can be confused and disappointed, but the one thing I have known for the last twenty-five years is that I am deeply loved by the God of the universe and I am learning more every day how to believe his view of reality instead of my own. When I know how he does his work, I can better understand how to participate with him.
All is not lost, Alan. You’ve suffered a horrible blow, not only taking your wife from you but now meant to devour your faith and render you spiritually impotent for the rest of your days. However, God has better ideas for you. He gave you a fantastic gift for twenty-five years. For reasons we won’t know here, this was her time, and now you get to grieve her loss in your life. God understands your pain to the core. He hates death, too. Remember, it is the last great enemy he has yet to destroy, and we’re all going to go through it short of his coming again. But then, no more. Death will no longer hold sway over us.
So, when the time is right, you’ll be able to shake off the hurt, celebrate the joy of Lynn’s gift in your life, and join Jesus yet again on the battlefield only to discover that this, too, will make you stronger in his hands, freer in this life, and gentler in your ways.
To be continued…
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