How to dig deep when facing grief

Author Nancy Guthrie has been there and knows how to help

When speaker and author Nancy Guthrie’s second child was born with a rare fatal genetic disorder, Zellweger syndrome, she was left wondering how to make sense of her suffering in light of God’s goodness. Her daughter, Hope, died after six months as her body gave into the ravages of a disease that attacked all the major organs.

When Nancy conceived another child – despite husband David having a vasectomy, and prenatal testing showed he also had Zellweger syndrome – Nancy had to dig deep into God’s word. In particular, she went to the Book of Job, to begin the process of healing and find meaning in her suffering.

“I’m not there as a counsellor; I’m there as someone who has experienced grief and loss …” – Nancy Guthrie

It was while she was still pregnant with their second son Gabriel (having had a healthy son before Hope) that Nancy wrote a book called Holding on to Hope. It examines how someone who has experienced significant pain and loss can emerge from their grief with a greater intimacy with God and trust in his ways.

That book, which has been translated into seven languages, and other books that followed helped Nancy establish a ministry based on compassion for the grieving and passion for the word of God. She and her husband hold regular Respite Retreats for couples who have lost a child.

Next month she heads back to Australia to give practical workshops at the Oxygen Christian leaders conference in Sydney, to help church leaders minister more sensitively to those who have experienced grief and loss.

One workshop aims to provide Scriptural answers to some of the nagging and difficult questions that people face in the midst of grief. The other will be about how to avoid saying and doing the wrong things with grieving people.

“I’m not there as a counsellor; I’m there as someone who has experienced grief and loss and believes strongly that the Bible has to speak into that loss for there to be any kind of genuine healing and restoration of joy, for there to be a breakthrough in the confusion of grief, and the loneliness of grief and the self-obsession of grief, and the challenge grief presents in our understanding of who God is and how he’s working in the world,” Nancy tells Eternity by phone from her home in Nashville, Tennessee.

Within the workshops, one of the key questions Nancy will seek to answer is the one she always gets asked at conferences and is based on her recent book, What Grieving People Wish You Knew About What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts). In it, she pulls together the top ten practical things she learned not only from her own experience but from an online survey she did of grieving people, asking them for significant experiences.

“If I boil it down to four words, the most significant thing you’ll hear me say is: ‘say something’ and ‘show up.’ Those two very simple things are really the bottom line of it but, of course, I hope to add a lot of meat to what that looks like.”

“I think that what gets us going in the Bible is having something we really want to figure out about it.” – Nancy Guthrie

Nancy confesses that she didn’t always have such familiarity with and trust in the word of God. Despite having grown up in a Christian home, studying the Bible at college and working in Christian publishing, she didn’t have the kind of relationship with the Bible that made her want to know it all deeply in its many genres and larger story.

“I remember maybe 20, 25 years ago I was in this Bible study and I would be around women and they just seemed to know where stuff was. They seemed to know, like, if something came up, where that was covered in the Bible. I remember thinking ‘I’ll never be able to do that. How does one get to the place?’”

So how does someone get past that sense of familiarity and even boredom with the Bible that afflicts so many Christians and distances them from true relationship with God?

“I think it begins best with some questions you want answered,” she reflects.

“Questions about God and how he works in the world or what he expects of you. Tracing a word through Scripture or a person … I just think that what gets us going in the Bible is having something we really want to figure out about it and coming to it curious and driven a little bit to figure something out.

“Now, maybe that is something as simple as ‘OK, I want to be able to say what the Book of Hebrews is about.’ I had a pastor one time who said that every Christian should have one Old Testament book and one New Testament book that they own.

“And I like that because we can spend a lifetime reading little bits of Scripture and trying to take away little tidbits of inspiration or instruction or conviction – here’s a way I’ve got to change – but I think over the long run what has to develop is this deeper relationship with God’s word. That it becomes this lifetime pursuit of knowing it, understanding it, having it become part of the fabric of our lives.”

“… That’s the perspective we need and it’s the perspective that one day we’ll have.” – Nancy Guthrie

Asked if she still has unresolved questions about why God gave her two babies with a fatal disorder, she says no, although there are things she doesn’t fully understand.

“I hear a lot of people that say ‘I’ve got some questions for God and when I see him I’m going to get some answers’ and I always think, ‘Well, OK, when we enter in his presence, when he gives us these resurrected bodies, when we have these purified minds that work right and are not weighted down by selfishness or foolishness, and when we see his glory with our eyes and see into eternity, I think those things are going to give us such perspective about this life that we aren’t going to have that demanding desire that he somehow answer to us.”

She cites the example of Paul, who in 2 Corinthians 4 refers to “light and momentary afflictions”.

“We read that and kind of scoff and think ‘if your afflictions are light and momentary, you must not get my life at all because my afflictions don’t feel light to me, they don’t seem momentary to me.’ You kind of wonder if Paul is really out of touch.”

“But I think actually a lot later in the book of 2 Corinthians that Paul was given the opportunity to enter into the third heaven, he entered into the paradise of God, he got a personal guided tour of heaven. And I think that gave Paul perspective.

“I think when [he has seen] the glory of God – and glory is described as a weight, there’s a heaviness to it – and that’s what’s enabled him to talk about the sufferings of life being light. It’s in contrast to the weight of glory. And when you see into eternity and get a sense of that, which I think he did, that’s what makes him call the sufferings of this life momentary. He’s been given perspective by stepping into the presence of God and getting a glimpse of this eternal glory that we’ll experience, so that’s the perspective we need and it’s the perspective that one day we’ll have.”

“What a beautiful, personal ending and healing of the sufferings of this life.” – Nancy Guthrie

Nancy says that while having faith doesn’t make pain hurt any less, it does allow Christians to see a God who’s working out his plans to put an end to the evil and suffering in this world.

“And it will be a personal ending. When Revelation says he’s going to wipe away every tear, it’s not like that movie where Tom Hanks says, ‘There’s no crying in baseball.’ (A League of Their Own, 1992) It’s not like ‘stop crying!’ No, because he’s going to take his hand and wipe away every tear. I mean, what a beautiful, personal ending and healing of the sufferings of this life.”

Nancy says it’s a false choice when asked if she would rather still have her babies than the ministry that they gave birth to.

“That’s a hypothetical that I can’t answer. Ultimately, I trust that God is working out his good plan for my life and for my children’s lives.

“Romans 8:28 tells us that God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. He tells us most specifically what that good thing is, which is that we would be conformed to the image of his son. And so I believe he’s using this in my life to conform me more closely to his image.

“But on top of that he’s been so good to me, to just allow me to see how he’s using my loss for good in the lives of others too. He doesn’t have to do that. That to me is a gift, it’s an incredible gift that adds a lot of meaning to my suffering and gives me joy in the midst of it. So for that I am deeply, profoundly grateful.”

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