“Therefore, my beloved…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)
There are seasons in life when we know God must be at work in our hearts and lives but we can’t see or feel it. There are other seasons when He briefly pulls back the veil and lets us catch a glimpse of what He’s doing. Then there are seasons when the veil is pulled back fully for a time and we see so clearly both our brokenness and His goodness; there are no shadows, just darkness being exposed by light. The past few months have fallen mostly into the latter category for me–I’ve been the recipient of some serious heart-work. There were places in my heart and life where I thought I was “doing fine” but the reality was that I was growing a hardness of heart. I know that may sound ill-fitting to some of you who know me well–a hard heart, really? Yes, really. I know my heart. But God knows it even better. So if you want in on a darker side of my grief, I’ll tell it to you here.
The summer after Jeremy died I was given encouragement by many people “to do whatever I needed to do”. I didn’t know what to do with that. Why is it that in grief I was given such freedom? I could see the necessity and sincerity of such an allowance–even the goodness in this–but I could also foresee the potential fault line. Yes, we need the freedom to be undone and the freedom to seek comfort; we need both solitude and community. But if I’m given free reign to do whatever I need to do for however long, I’ll most likely turn inward and forget what living life for the sake of Christ and others is all about.
At lunch with a widowed friend several weeks back, you want to know what our conversation was about? It was about sin, in us. And how grief creates a perfect venue for sin to manifest itself. Sometimes it’s as if we somehow deserve to feel pride in whatever strength God has supplied us with, claiming it as our own, or to be selfish in our decisions because “good grief, you’ve suffered so much”. We are deceived into thinking that sin can’t touch us because what seems like the greater evil (death), already has. But sin can and it will.
Truth be told, in my grieving I don’t know what I need. So if I’m depending on myself to judge that, I think there’s potential for danger there. There are so many ways we can begin to fill ourselves up where the wounds are gaping. Or we learn to build shields over those wounds so that nothing can penetrate, not even the grace of God. We can go on pretending that we don’t hurt or that we aren’t afraid. We can believe that the walls we’ve built up for the sake of self-preservation are necessary as we try to make a life out of loss.
I know I haven’t posted much these past months. It’s mostly because now that I’m back in school I’ve been writing a few papers every week all year and there’s just no time (which I knew might happen). But these past winter months I felt a bit washed ashore. The storm was over and I was on land but feeling somewhat disoriented. Maybe the shock of Jeremy’s death was really finally gone. But then the winter was long and cold here in Minnesota, bringing with it a day off from school for the boys just about every week for many weeks. I ached for “normal”–just a normal week with a normal routine. And in that longing I was once again reminded: we have a new normal, a normal that exists without Jeremy. And I was kinda upset for letting myself get to a place that was beyond a longing for what had been; frustrated that I had to acknowledge that I knew I couldn’t preserve him–maybe the memory of him in small ways but not in the greatest ways. So this “letting go” gets deeper and deeper and I still grieve every time I realize that’s what I’m doing, even though I know it’s born out of healing. But sometimes letting go feels like settling with God, as if I’m telling Him, “it’s okay that Jeremy’s gone”. But I’m not okay with Jeremy’s death. So my heart wrestles from time to time with welcoming a “new normal” while at the same time despising the fact that I have one.
I think this winter I was trying to quietly settle in, trying to tell God: I’m done. I’ve put my time in. I’ve done fairly well. I’ve landed here on solid ground and it’s safe and familiar now, so thanks–I think I’ll camp right here for a while. And while there is an element of that which is okay–finding contentment in wherever God has placed us and whatever He has done in us–we ought not think that we can ever just plop ourselves down and pretend that we’ve arrived. (It’s ironic to me how, in facing the death of a loved one, we become so deeply aware of how little control we have over life; yet even still, we long and grasp for control in any way we can, even though we know it’s not ours to have.) So as this feeling of “growing settled” was going on, I remember a morning where my heart just wasn’t feeling right. I felt an undefinable and undeniable tension that something in me wasn’t right. And I prayed this prayer: God, do something. I wasn’t wanting something big, just something to stir me, something to remind me that He was there and that He wouldn’t let me fall into a satisfaction with settling…
And He did. Everyday it seemed, He shed light upon my current state of temptation and sin and on His generous and unrelenting love for me. It was in the books I read, the songs I sung, the sermons I heard, the conversations I had, even in the school assignments that were required of me. It was everywhere, all the time, the same messages over and over again. He was showing me how guarded I was being not just towards other people but more importantly, towards Him. I began to see that what looked like contentment (even to me) was not based in a grand faithfulness to God that I’ve acquired. Don’t be mistaken: my faithfulness to Him is only because of His constant faithfulness to me. What may appear to others as contentment in God has actually been at times qualities other than faithfulness to Him. I know there’s faith there…but there are darker things as well.
Like pride. Fear. Bitterness towards God (perhaps even towards Jeremy for leaving me) that I didn’t know existed. A trust in God that falls short if I’m asked to do more than just speak or write about it. It’s one thing to be truly contented; it’s another thing when our “contentment” is masking wounds that have never healed. When I allowed God the opportunity to unpack my heart, to dig deep into wounds that have existed possibly since childhood and maybe bled again with Jeremy’s death, I found the following words coming to mind. Words from my heart. Honesty that had to be exposed to the God who created me.
There was pride in me, sounding like this: God, you’ve proven your faithfulness to me and I’ve proven mine to you. It was a great exercise. But I’m tired of being vulnerable towards You, tired of the unexpected twists and turns in life. If you’ve ever had a little kid helping you push a shopping cart, don’t you hate it when they drag their feet all of a sudden? The cart is being pushed by you and halted by them at the same time and I hate that kind of tension. But it was me creating that tension in my heart with God. He hadn’t ever intended for me to drag my feet and grow complacent or to close up to the communities of people I love and who love me. Pride is me doing whatever I need to do for however long because it’s about what I’m capable of and what I’m wanting, rather than what God is capable of doing in me and what He desires for me.
And there was bitterness. I would have told you that I’ve never felt bitter about Jeremy’s death–not at God, not at Jeremy. But when I realized that what I desired most was to create a safe place for my heart (essentially telling God that I didn’t trust anymore that He would), I wondered why. And there were these words: Fine, God. If this is my lot in life, I’m going to own it. If this is what you saw was best, I’ll accept it and nothing more (and please, nothing less), whether you’re finished with me yet or not. In my heart, that was bitterness.
Intermingled with this pride and bitterness are issues with fear and trust. And all I can do is name these things and lay them down at Christ’s feet, remembering who God is and acknowledging how deceptive Satan can be. We must be honest about how we feel and who we are, unrighteousness and all. Our honesty with God invites Him to speak truth into the core of our hearts. These past months I have felt such a great sorrow over my bent towards sin, yet I have felt such a deep gratitude to God like I haven’t known before. I feel spared from walking further from Him and I’m grateful He alerted me to where my heart was turning. It’s His grace. He will not let us slip. He cares deeply that our wounds aren’t just left bandaged up but are entirely healed. And He doesn’t forsake us even when we’re bent towards forsaking Him.
We are getting close to wrapping up year two without Jeremy. Two whole years, filled to the brim with both grief and life. I told Jeremy’s mom recently how difficult it’s been lately hearing Jeremy’s voice, listening to his music, going through his things…because it just feels so terribly long ago that his life and breath was just as much mine. But we press onward, always, attuned to what God is doing in us and through us. And I try to walk willingly beside Him, trusting that His goodness will prevail and that my heart will regain its affection for His presence. I was reminded recently that whatever healing takes place in me over Jeremy’s death doesn’t ever have to mean that I’m okay with his death, because God’s not okay with death either. My feelings only match His and we are allies, not enemies. Jesus died and rose again because God is not okay with sin and death.
So I choose, however difficult, to let the salvation of God at work in me shine light on the dark parts of my heart, exposing it for what it is and watch Him heal the wounds that I’ve so carefully bandaged up myself. Regarding the Philippians verses at the beginning of this post, the commentary in my Bible says this: “Our relationship with God is a cooperative venture. God works salvation in, and we work salvation out.” These recent months for me have been a work of God–He working salvation in, my learning how receive that and work my salvation out.