The Space for Sorrow in the Christian Life

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Photo: Jill Carattini, Sandra, Margaret Manning Shull

Hey TD,

Some of you have experienced real sorrow in life, like the passing of a loved one, while others of you have yet to do so.  What’s for certain, unless you personally leave this earth early, you will experience deep sorrow at some point, and maybe a few times.  I have – more times than I’d like to count.

The 21st century has been a doozy. After burying both of my parents, my brother, and Sandra’s mom, we just experienced the death of Sandra’s dad on Christmas night.  In terms of my personal friends and heroes, Coach John Wooden, RC Sproul, and Ravi Zacharias have been personal titans for me.  I have looked up to them, leaned on them, been personally befriended and ministered to by them, and have drawn so much from them. And now, with Ravi’s passing last week, all three have moved on to be with the Lord in the last eleven years.

As I’ve told some, each time a loved one leaves this earth, a part of me leaves with them.  While there’s so much of me left here and so much of God’s calling for me to fulfill, there are parts of me that have just gone and moved on.  It leaves me as such a work in progress … and next in line, generationally speaking.

Perhaps some of you resonate somewhat with what I’m saying, but haven’t had too many people who understand to share it with. I want you to know that you’re not alone. Several TD leaders have experienced significant loss in their lives and have been shaken. If you would ever like to talk, please don’t hesitate to let us know.  There is value, profit, and therapy in shared grief.

In the meanwhile, here’s a valuable “Slice of Infinity” from our friend, Margaret Manning Shull of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), no stranger to sorrow and grief herself.  It’s a helpful read for those of us who have experienced and are experiencing sorrow.

Space for Sorrow

A Slice of Infinity, RZIM

Sitting with clients in therapy, I am frequently overwhelmed by their experiences of loss, heartache, and suffering. Many of my clients did not have the opportunity to grieve or feel the weight of their suffering. Messages sent and received with good intention functioned to suppress emotional expression. But suppressing emotions does not mean they go away. Sooner or later they come out and often in ways that end up being destructive to the individual and to her relationships. Within the safety of the therapeutic relationship, these emotions are encouraged towards an appropriate expression.

Giving voice to grief and sadness over the loss of Ravi Zacharias—particularly during the ongoing constraints of the COVID19 pandemic feels particularly important to me. I have found myself saying to many people that even though we do not grieve as those who have no hope, we still grieve. We still experience the emotions of those who are bereft of a dearly loved leader, friend, mentor, father, brother and spouse. We grieve the loss of his presence among us and the loss of his ongoing and influential ministry around the world as an author and speaker. Holding Christian hope in the resurrection of the body does not preclude feeling and giving expression to the sorrow that is felt over the loss of Ravi’s life and the huge absence left now that he is gone from our lives in the present.

As a young girl, one of my favorite bible stories was the epic encounter between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. With David meets Goliath odds, Elijah faces off against 450 prophets of Baal in a contest pitting the God of Israel against the Canaanite god Baal. Which deity would answer the prayers of the respective prophets to consume the altar sacrifice?

This is a narrative filled with dramatic tension and awesome displays of power. The Lord answers Elijah with fire from heaven that not only consumes the sacrifice, but also licks up every last drop of water poured out from not one, but four pitchers of water. The story ends with the destruction of the prophets of Baal and the peoples’ declaration that the Lord is God.

I still love this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, but not for the reasons I loved it as a young girl. Instead, I love what seems to be an anti-climactic postscript to the story. Despite seeing the glory and power of God on display in such dramatic fashion, and winning a great victory, Elijah falls into what would today be described as major depression. Fleeing to the wilderness, he prays to God to take his life, not once but two times. As one commentator notes, “Those who have suffered mental anguish in their lives know all too well the depths to which Elijah has descended. He (and they) has entered the deep spots in the psychological ocean, and then has found a narrow slit in the ocean floor, a Marianas Trench of the soul, where he descends further still into the inky abyss. All he can think of is his desire to die.”(2)

Dirk Volckertsz Coornhert, Elijah Fed by Ravens, etching, 1549.

Reading and re-reading this story, especially as I sit with grieving clients and experience the weight of loss, I recognize the author’s desire to highlight something profound about human sorrow and despair and the comfort of God. The readers of these narrative in I Kings 18 and 19 are meant to be shocked by Elijah’s emotional response to Queen Jezebel’s threats to kill him. After all, didn’t we just see God’s dramatic demonstration of power in consuming fire? One might expect a God who would reproach Elijah for wanting to die, for his apparent lack of faith, and for his despair. And yet, the narrative offers no exhortation or chastening. Instead, an angelic messenger comes to urge Elijah to eat bread and water—to be nourished for the journey is too great for you.

Given God’s powerful display from heaven in the encounter with the prophets of Baal, the reader might expect another dramatic display from God to correct Elijah’s depressed mood. And indeed, as Elijah waits on Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God, he experiences a strong wind, and a mighty earthquake, and then a consuming fire; but with each of these cataclysms the narrator repeats a refrain: The Lord was not in the wind, or the earthquake or the fire. Instead, the Lord comes to Elijah in a gentle blowing. God meets Elijah at the very place of his despair, not with correction or reprimand, not with a buck up and get going or a keep your chin up but with a grace as gentle as a soft breeze.

Like Elijah, there are days when we feel at the height of heights, assured of all answers, victorious in our daily battles, maybe even confident of God’s saving activity all around. But there are also days when regardless of all that we have seen and witnessed of God’s power and glory, we crumble under the weight of sadness. Despair feels like our only friend and the daily obstacles and challenges of life conspire against any faith, hope, and love. It is deeply encouraging to see that even in this place, God draws near with gentleness.

The comforting news of these narratives is that God is not only available to us when we feel good, but makes his dwelling with us even in the darkness of despair. There can often be a pressure to suppress these more difficult emotions, to avoid the problem, to “get over” bad feelings. But the God of Elijah is not put off by our sorrow, or our depression or the weariness of despair. The God of Elijah draws near as a gentle breeze surrounding us with grace and welcoming the full expression of our anguish or tears. God is present in the victory, to be sure, but just as present in what feels like defeat. The God of Elijah prepares a meal, provides shelter, welcomes our sadness, and speaks gently into all our uncertainties.

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

(1) See 1 Kings 18-19:18.
(2) Bill Long, “Man on the Run,” June 9, 2007, www.drbilllong.com, accessed October 10, 2011.

“A Slice of Infinity” is aimed at reaching into the culture with words of challenge, truth, and hope. By stirring the imagination and engaging the mind, we want to share the beauty and truthfulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Learning How to Think

Hey TD!

Now that we are fully vested into the summer, I’d love to encourage you to brush up your mental game, so to speak.  The Apostle Paul exhorts us to not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but to be TRANSFORMED … how? … by the RENEWING OF OUR MINDS (Rom. 12).  In a culture that is increasingly thinking with its feelings, Ravi Zacharias cautions us to remember that our feelings ought to be connected to thinking, and our thinking ought to be right; if we don’t think rightly, we will feel the repercussions of whatever it is that we’re thinking.  As Proverbs 23:7 comments, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”

RZIM’s  Margaret Manning perceptively and honestly challenges us to work through the origins of our own thought patterns with the following contribution to RZIM’s A Slice of Infinity.  Think about it! – Arthur

Learning How to Think

by Margaret Manning Shull

There are patterns of thought that come as natural to us as our daily routines. These patterns of thought emerge from constructs and experiences that color and shape the way in which we view the world and they can emerge in the most unexpected ways. Sometimes we simply repeat what we have heard. Mindless phrases spill out of our mouths forming the patterns of response—even when the response is incongruent with the situation. “It is what it is,” we say, when compassionate silence is called for or “Everything has a reason” when faced with inexplicable chaos.

I recognize in my own life how these patterns of thought belie my true way of viewing the world, much to my chagrin. Oftentimes, they reveal callousness to the suffering of others. I’ll tell someone, “I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers” as a substitute for tangible assistance. Or my desire to fit every happening into a neat, understandable package compels me to speak when I first should listen.

Alexej von Jawlensky, The Thinking Woman, oil on canvas, 1912.Regardless of the situation, it seems a sad reality that so often these patterns of thought and action revolve around placing the self at the center of everything. Many function as if the world really does revolve around the immediate and urgent demands of living one’s own life. Everything is simply an incursion into the routine of putting me, myself, and I front and center. I automatically feel offended, for example, when cut off in traffic. I instinctively feel slighted or defensive that my very presence doesn’t delight and soothe the unhappy. I groan at the inconvenience of having to wait in another line and when I finally have my turn, I take offense at the clerk who doesn’t smile at me the way in which I think I deserve.

In his lauded address to graduates of Kenyon College, the late author David Foster Wallace exposed the routines of thought and action that place the self at the center.(1) In his remarks regarding the benefits of a liberal arts education in shaping one’s ability to think, he suggests that it is the “most obvious, important realities that are the hardest to talk about.”(2) In other words, one of those obvious realities is that when left to our own devices humans think and behave in self-centered ways. But it is one of those routines of thought that mostly goes unmentioned. He continues, “The choice is really about what to think about and how we think about it…to have just a little critical awareness….Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”(3) Rarely, Foster Wallace notes, do we think about how we think because what is revealed is that we are basically selfish in action and thought 99% of the time.

But what if we really made thinking about how we think the routine? Foster Wallace conducts a thought experiment to illustrate how this can be done. What if the car that cuts me off in traffic is not about being in my way or being rude to me, but is a father trying to rush his sick son to the hospital or the doctor and I am in his way? What if the person who is critical of me or sullen towards me has only known criticism and neglect her whole life? What if the grocery bagger is not without social skills, but someone who has had little opportunity, whose parents’ have recently split up, and whose general home life is nothing but misery? How different these situations might look if I took the time to think! Indeed, what if my routine became first thinking of the other person?

One of the beautiful aspects of the Christian story is that we really don’t have to live for ourselves in order to find the good life. In fact, the opposite is true: those who seek to save their lives will lose them. Jesus offered an alternative vision as the one who came to serve. As the apostle Paul encouraged the Philippian Christians to not merely look out for their own interests, but also to have the interests of others in mind, he looked to the life of Jesus. “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant and made in the likeness of human beings.”(4) How different the world might look if each day we took time to think about the needs of someone else—even just once per day? In so doing, how might that change the very patterns of thought that conspire to keep us living at the center of our own universe, embittered by all the ways we’ve been slighted?

Foster Wallace concludes his address by telling the Kenyon graduates:

“Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation…. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad of petty and unsexy ways every day.”(3)

In a world that isn’t always sure what it thinks about Christianity, Jesus stands inviting us to encounter a very different kind of kingdom at the center of all creation, a kingdom in which he, the suffering servant, is Lord. In this kingdom marked by his living example of sacrifice and care, it is most freeing to discover you are far from alone.

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

(1) David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” Commencement Address, Kenyon College Graduation, Kenyon, Ohio, 2005.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.