You’ve experienced it. Maybe you are right now. If you haven’t, you will. In these years between the revolt in Eden and the return of Jesus, life can often feel like a parade—a long, painful parade—of disappointments, sadnesses, heartaches, griefs. So much of this life occurs in the valley of the shadow of death.
The Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) will tackle the topic of loss at its national conference next month, October 3 to 5, in San Diego. Speakers include David Powlison, Ed Welch, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Heath Lambert, and many more. (Use discount code “TGC” for 10 percent off registration.)
I spoke with Powlison, executive director of CCEF, about ministering to those experiencing loss, fostering churches in which it’s safe to grieve, and more.
What does it look like to journey faithfully with others in their experience of loss? How do we provide meaningful, helpful comfort?
This question has good answers, but no easy answers. Let me offer some leading thoughts that get at the question.
First, like most aspects of wisdom, this question raises issues of how to walk out a delicate balance between complementary truths. For example, the Bible’s teaching and example shows that we are meant to be utterly candid about grief and heartache. And, at the same time, we are meant to live with an indestructible hope and an inexpressible joy because of what is imperishable. Wisdom navigates how to live both.
How we offer comfort to someone else also expresses this delicate balance between complementary truths. Both the Word of God and the human connection matter. The promises of Scripture are crucial to finding genuine comfort. And the help of others is also crucial. The Holy Spirit is the life-giver and hope-giver who takes both the human touch and the Word and makes them effective. You could never put the balance into a formula.
Is there ever a point at which it’s been “too long” to still be deeply affected by past loss?
You can “take too long” in being bitter at God, in finding someone to blame, in self-pity, in escapism, in living with paranoia at anything that threatens further loss. Our instinctive, fallen reactions can go on too long.
But we are to be deeply affected by past loss. In one sense, the Bible expects that aspects of pain and significant losses will mark us for a lifetime. That is why God’s promise that he will eventually wipe away all tears, sorrow, death, and misery is so wonderful (Rev. 21:4). Our heartaches become part of the backdrop that makes the joy of this promise truly joyous. In The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee asks, “Is everything sad going to become untrue?” And everything sad will come untrue for God’s beloved children. But there is realism along the way.
What would you say to someone who feels paralyzed by the thought of future loss?
This calls for a careful, pastoral touch. I’ll mention four elements that play a part.
First, sympathy and care say, “I know this is hard. And I understand why it causes a lot of fear for you.” Sympathy and identifying with another’s experience play a part.
Second, help the person get perspective. For example, the harder you cling to someone or something you deeply love, the more your joy in the present moment is destroyed by fear.
Third, biblical realism teaches us to take to heart that all the blessings of this life are temporary. You cannot cling to what you will inevitably lose.
Fourth, the hope in Scripture speaks of an imperishable inheritance. You are not paralyzed by the fear that “My life will be destroyed by this loss” when you anchor your life in Christ himself.
Many American congregations seem hesitant to sing sad songs and linger over the realities of loss and pain. How can a church foster a culture in which it’s safe to grieve?
Culture change is typically a slow process. You need to think through your goal, commit to it, consistently pursue it, act on it. Teach, sing, pray, model, and live the truth. The culture will change as the leadership of the church honestly lives in reality, and the congregation sings, prays, and learns to communicate a richer and truer view of human life.
The aging process brings a cascade of losses—“shadows of death.” How should we think about the often fearful prospect of aging?
We are meant to gain a sense that our lives are on a journey to a destination. We tend to interpret life by immediate experience. But if I know I am on a journey, then I’m aware that I’ve come from somewhere, I am somewhere, and I am going somewhere.
Psalm 23 is one of my favorite passages. It establishes the mindset of being on a journey. The Shepherd who cares, feeds, protects, restores, and guides is taking you on a journey to his own home. He is with you even when you pass through the valley of the shadow of death and face many evils.
I hope that our conference next month will embody the journey in some manner. The conference opens with the reality that all is lost, and closes with the reality that all is gain. We will sing our griefs and sing our joys—honest worship is a key aspect of our time together. These days are an opportunity to process life personally and together. I invite you to join us.
What is the focus of CCEF’s conference this year?
Our topic is loss. The only sure thing about our lives is that we will lose many things—and eventually we’ll lose our lives. Life in a fallen world is essentially characterized by the experience of loss. And a world of losses is the world that Jesus Christ steps into—the world that ministry steps into.
The conference will speak both to the person who is struggling—every one of us, at some level—and to the person who wants to help the struggler by offering genuine, wise, patient, meaningful help.