Faith and Grief

Finding meaning in difficult circumstances

Philip Yancey in his book Disappointment With God suggests that there are two types of faith when we are faced with the difficulties of life. Grief triggered by life circumstances and loss sometimes requires childlike faith, a faith that manifests in time of crisis as God feeling unusually close, giving us an almost surreal intimacy with Him as we feel Him holding our hand securely with each moment, each step, and each prayer. Yancey calls other one fidelity faith, which is the hang-on-at-any-cost faith, a faith that “involves learning to trust that, out beyond the perimeter of fog, God still reigns and has not abandoned us, no matter how it may appear.”

I agree with Yancey, because I’ve experienced both. When I received a cancer diagnosis and went through surgery and chemo, for some inexplicable reason God graced me with Yancey’s childlike faith that carried me through the trial and enabled me to experience an unusual, almost surreal closeness to God. Consequently, memories of my chemo experience are of a difficult, scary, and painful time, but they also are memories of one of the sweetest and most intimate times with God in my life. On the other hand, however, after my first husband passed away, I found myself not only widowed, but widowed with three children, in school trying to complete a degree that would enable me to get a teaching job to provide for them. I definitely experienced fidelity faith, because for a long time every day was hard, challenging, and painful—even though I knew God was there, was faithful, and was helping me. 

Of course, given a choice, we would always prefer the childlike faith experiences, but God in His omniscience and grace promises benefits to us, His children, even when we are walking through the difficult grieving that requires fidelity faith. In both cases, life changing loss and accompanying grief can shake the very foundations of what we believe about our values and about ourselves.  New meaning then must be reconstructed from the fragmented pieces of our reality. According to researchers Robert Neimeyer and James Gillies, in order for grievers to make some kind of sense out of the seemingly senseless events that trigger grief, we as grievers must engage in three activities: sense making, benefit finding, and identity change.

“Making sense” out of the senseless can be excruciatingly painful as it challenges our core values and beliefs, turns our need to see the world as orderly upside down, and requires us to examine the “why?” and the “why me?” questions. These questions lead to the “can I trust God?” question, which exposes the bottom line question, “does God even exist?” Grappling with these questions can be excruciatingly difficult, but because finding meaning has been shown to be one of the predictors of grief adjustment and resiliency, it is an extremely important part of the process. 

Job wrestled with the “why me?” question until he encountered God, and it was his encounter with God that enabled him to put down his “why” question. It’s a spiritual battle. Satan wants to attack us with the fiery darts of disillusionment, disappointment, and discouragement, and we must do battle to get to the other side of the “why” chasm.

God, however, has provided powerful weapons for us to use in this battle. He has given us:

  • the weapon of praise and worshipH. Norman Wright says, “The experience of worship provides the deep resources we need to draw on when everything around falls apart. In worship the emphasis and focus are not on the person but on God. … Your response to life’s losses will be directly determined by your understanding of God and how you have worshipped.” The Psalmist (95:7) admonishes us to “Come let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the Lord our maker, for He is our God. We are the people He watches over, the sheep under His care.”  
  • the weapon of forgiveness. Forgiveness is healing and is necessary in the establishment of the sense making endeavor. Sometimes we have to forgive a doctor, sometimes it’s a matter of coming to the point of forgiving God Himself for what happened, sometimes we have to forgive ourselves for something we did or didn’t do, and sometimes we have to forgive ourselves for blaming God.
  • The weapon of His strength. When we grieve we are vulnerable, and in our vulnerability and weakness we lean on something. For some people it’s drugs; for others it’s alcohol; for some, it’s dysfunctional relationships. These are harmful crutches, but God offers a helpful crutch; He invites us to lean on Him during our dark days. “Don’t be afraid for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” Isaiah 41:10  

The second activity is “benefit finding.” In addition to the weapons God gives us to fight the battle of making sense out of our grief, He provides us with support in looking for the good even during the bad. Paul wrote about this in Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them,” (NLT) and also in 2 Corinthians 1:3–4, “He is the source of every mercy and the God who comforts us. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others” (NLT). This idea is also seen in what Joseph said as recorded in Genesis 50:20, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people” (NLT). 

Additionally, Paul wrote in Romans 5:3-5 that adverse circumstances are good for us because they help us endure and build character. I remember reading those verses shortly after my husband died. They were so powerful I wondered if I had ever even read them before, and with tears streaming down my cheeks I told the Lord, “I’m not there yet; I can’t say that like Paul did. But I want to be there, Lord. I want one day to be able to say that this pain I am wrestling with did end up building character and making me a stronger person spiritually and emotionally.”

Peter and Paul both wrote to the early Christians that they were not exempt from pain, suffering, and loss, and it is obvious that their strong words of encouragement were needed for believers then and now who were and would be faced with circumstances that require Yancey’s fidelity faith. These spiritual truths helped me accept that good could come even out of my pain and helped move me from the “Why me?” question to the “What can I learn?” question.

In addition to the need to make sense of the world and the need to find benefit in the grief experience, during the arduous grief journey we also need to reconstruct and make sense of our view of self. When my husband died, I was instantly stripped of my identity as wife, and suddenly I had an unknown identity that I didn’t understand, didn’t like, and didn’t want. Once again, biblical principles came to my rescue. In time, slowly, but surely, I eventually began to understand that the roles I play in life will always be undergoing change—wife, sister, daughter, teacher—but those are not my identity. My identity is who I am in Christ Jesus, and that is a constant, never changing truth. Transformation occurred as I realized that the core of my identity comes not from the beloved role that was gone, not from the events I experienced, but rather from the unchanging role of who I am in Christ Jesus.On that day years ago when I read Romans 5:3–5 and wept, I could not identify with Paul’s words, but today I can. God gave me the weapons to fight the battle for making meaning, provision for supporting me in my quest to find purpose and benefit, and an unchanging identity in Christ Jesus that supersedes the identity of the everchanging roles we play in life. He can indeed give beauty for ashes, joy instead of mourning, and praise instead of despair—even in our darkest fidelity faith days.

Dr. Bobbi Stringer
Dr. Bobbi Stringer
Dr. Bobbi Stringer is the director of institutional assessment at The King's University.