"Sorrow is better than laughter, for the heart is made better by a sad countenance."
My best friend shared a wise proverb with me the other day: Life is a cruel taskmaster. She gives the tests first, and then teaches the lessons.
We all face the Taskmaster at one time or another. My call came when the Lord took my wife Home just before our twenty-fifth anniversary.
Twenty-five years seems like a long time on the one hand. How often do we commit ourselves to a single track that will log a quarter of a century? I know of people who have filled the same position at their jobs for that long, but I doubt that they planed it. Marriage, on the other hand, is a once-for-all commitment to love, protect and cherish; "to have and to hold, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health..."
And then, when death does us part, to let our loved one go.
With only memories to fill my mind where the woman I loved once filled my arms, twenty-five years is too short a time. One person with uncommon understanding asked me a couple weeks after Marie died, "Genesis tells us that the husband and wife become one. What happens when that part of us is no longer there?"
It was a million-dollar question, and I told her I would ponder it. There's enough to it that I could think about it for the rest of my life.
On the one hand, I hate the grief. My Taskmaster pummels me. The beating saps me emotionally and physically. It puts me in a dark and lonely place, and leaves my family wondering why I'm so hesitant to rejoin them in family life.
Yet as hard as it is, I'm beginning to see that grief is a gift from God. It makes me run into His eternal arms, crying with childlike ease. My wife's premature death is helping me to know the comfort that comes from God alone, and that is shaping me into His image. He is a great God who can employ the curse that came from Adam's sin to teach His people the meaning of grace.
That brings me back to my best friend. He lost his only child, so he knows grief well. We view life from different perspectives, however. He doesn't yet know God, and while he grieves with me, he sees life only as the Taskmaster--cruel and impersonal. I know the personal God, who wounds but also binds the wound, and who loves me more profoundly than I have the capacity to imagine.
Though my friend and I approach life from opposite poles, we walk a common path. We both understand that in breaking us grief rebuilds us and builds priceless life lessons if we let it. Since we're all sons of fallen Adam, the lessons are as universal as the sin that brought death into the world. The lesson at the heart of the matter is subtler and crucially more important, however. If we miss it, we've missed the whole thing.
I've invited an older and much wiser man to accompany me. He walked the same path, and in the end did see the deep lesson at the heart of the matter. His name is Solomon, the third and last king of united Israel.
His reflections come from his most experimental work, the book of Ecclesiastes. As the wisest, richest and most powerful man in his day, he amassed every luxury imaginable, only to find cobwebs at the bottom of his golden pot. Ecclesiastes is an account of this man's obsession with the question, What makes life--well--life? To find out, he indulged himself with every form of entertainment, from intellectual pursuits, to entrepreneurial endeavors, to mirth, to sex, to drinking. He discovered that life alone may be good for a few laughs, but in the end it's all vanity. The deep changes that make life mean something have to come from something deeper.
Solomon had a gift of gritty observation, the ability to say just the right thing in just the right way to fill a volume in a few poetic lines. Here, along with a few things I've managed to glean about grief, life and living, are Solomon's observations from Ecclesiastes. The master has the last say, since he said it so much better than I ever could.
One: It's okay to cry.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
But the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
Two: Crying will come at the weirdest moments. Don't be embarrassed to let it come. Venting your emotion not only will help you, but may encourage others to weep when they need to do so.
To every thing there is a season,
And a time to every purpose under the heaven...
A time to weep,
And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn,
And a time to dance...
--Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4
Three: Time does not heal all wounds. Some follow us through the grave and into eternity. It's no accident that the Scripture says that God Himself will wipe away all tears from His saints' eyes. He saves the deepest wounds for His personal touch.
I have seen the travail, which God has given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.
He has made every thing beautiful in his time.
Also he has set the world in their hearts, so that no man can find out the work that God makes from the beginning to the end.
Four: When you have cause for real grief, you learn who your real friends are.
Two are better than one,
Because they have a good reward for their labor.
For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow;
But woe to him that is alone when he falls;
For he has not another to help him up.
Five: When you have cause for real grief, you learn who your real friends aren't.
Corollary: I'm sure there's a jury out there who will acquit me when I throttle the next person who slaps me with a worthless platitude.
The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious;
But the lips of a fool will swallow himself.
The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness,
And the end of his talk is raving madness.
Six: Memories are more important than things. It's not the big stuff, but the little things that bear our loved-ones' fingerprints.
Corollary: Don't be afraid to share those little things with others when they grieve with you. It will spread the grief and go a long way toward making you a real friend. (See number four.)
There is a severe evil that I have seen under the sun,
Namely, riches kept for their owners to their hurt.
But those riches perish by bad fortune;
He begets a son, and there is nothing in his hand.
As he came forth of his mother's womb,
Naked shall he return to go as he came,
And shall take nothing of his labor,
Which he may carry away in his hand.
Seven: Whether we live with memories or regrets depends mostly on our own choices. Memories are built from love. Regrets grow like briars on carelessness.
If a man begets a hundred children, and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not filled with good, or he has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better than he.
Eight: Grief is an invitation to trust in the One who loves us beyond the limits of our imagination. The trick is to learn to be content in the trusting.
I know that, whatsoever God does,
It shall be forever.
Nothing can be added to it,
Nor can anything be taken from it;
And God does it that men should fear before him.
Nine: Don't expect life to be fair.
I have seen all things in the days of my vanity:
There is a just man who perishes in his righteousness,
And there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.
Ten: Love the one God brings into your life with all your might. Why should you throw away the one who loves you for something stupid?
Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life, which he has given you under the sun, all the days of thy vanity; for that is your portion in this life, and in your labor that you take under the sun.
Eleven: Be quick to reconcile your grievances. (See number 7.)
Wisdom strengthens the wise
More than ten rulers of the city.
For there is not a just man upon earth who does good,
And does not sin.
Also do not take heed to all words that are spoken,
Lest you hear thy servant curse you.
Those are some of the things I've picked up along the way. I can't boast that I've arrived. To borrow a metaphor from Deuteronomy, the sky looks like brass. As often as not I've prayed at the ceiling, and sometimes I've wondered if God was even real. More than once I've considered chucking the whole Christianity thing.
My pants are torn, my knees are bloody, and my hands are chafed. Yet the Lord in His infinite grace picks me up again, brushes me off and holds me in His ever-loving arms.
Therein lies the jewel at the center, the possession of God. Solomon found it at the end. The last thing he wrote in his journal was this:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it is good or evil.
We have a fuller expression of that truth, from our Lord's own words. "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me" (John 14:6).
We have the responsibility to obey, but in the end we serve a sovereign God, whose grace makes our doubt pale in comparison. It's His hand that holds us, not our hand that holds His.