This is the second part of what I wrote for our parish magazine shortly after the death of my father. The first part can be found here
The Good Grieving Guide (Part 2 – July 2006)
In the first part of what I called The Good Grieving Guide, I covered four ingredients of grief and the ways that God has provided for us to reduce their effects. Where there’s guilt or blame we should seek to forgive; where there is loss or emptiness, be thankful to God for good times and memories; and where there is despair or bleakness, the hope of the gospel of Christ.
In this second part, I aim to deal with the complex emotion of anger. Anger is a very real emotional response to bereavement, and, if left unchecked, it increases and prolongs the pain of grief.
Anger requires someone or something to be angry with. Anger is directive and the targets of anger can be anyone: The messenger who delivered the news might be the recipient of our anger; the doctor or nurses who were in attendance; our family members or friends whose behaviour we found difficult; even the person we have lost can create anger within us if we feel somehow that they were to blame for their death. Then, of course, there’s the anger we can target at God, if we feel that God is responsible or to blame for the loss. For those who have no belief in the existence of a rational, all powerful, creator God, then the anger can still be directed at a ‘higher power’, such as the forces of nature or life.
What do you do when the person you have lost directly caused or contributed to their own death? Where suicide is the cause of death, anger with the person who died is a common reaction. But there are less obvious situations where this happens. The family of Tom Hurndall, the 22-year-old peace activist who was shot through the head by an Israeli soldier whilst shielding a little Palestinian boy in January 2004, are still seeking justice for his death. Although Tom was shot by a soldier, he put himself in an extremely dangerous situation. It would be entirely understandable if Tom’s family felt some sort of anger with Tom as part of the complexity of emotions which followed his death.
Or, also in the news, what about the 13-year-old boy who died earlier this year after being trapped under boulders by the sea in Sunderland. Again, although the waves and boulders killed him, he put himself in a dangerous place, playing by the sea. And so it would again be entirely understandable if his family members felt some sort of anger as a result of the boy’s actions. You can imagine someone saying, even silently to themselves, “Oh the stupid boy, what was he doing, he knew it was dangerous to play by the sea.” Of course, the same feeling of anger can surface when someone has died as a result of the effects of years of smoking or an unhealthy diet. We feel, deep inside, that somehow they played a part in their own death and we can’t help but feel angry.
In part 1 of The Good Grieving Guide, I showed that God’s provision for dealing with blame was forgiveness. Related to that, then, forgiveness is the key to avoiding anger at someone. If we don’t blame them we can’t be angry with them. As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive (Col 3:13).
Turning our attention to God’s part in our grief, when someone close to us dies, many people cry out “where were you God?”, “why didn’t you stop it, God?”, “this isn’t fair!” and we find ourselves instinctively angry at the person or force we call God. Is it right to blame God? Should we be angry with God? We might think that since God is all powerful, then he is somehow to blame, and therefore we have reason to be angry with God. But, as God is good and there is no darkness or evil in him (cf 1 John 1:5), God can do nothing wrong for which we can blame him. If we can’t blame God then we can’t become angry with him. Yet, we can so easily feel wronged by the way in which we lose someone. So how do we resolve any anger we feel against God? The solution is found in taking time to discover the character of God. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6). Our love and knowledge of God are linked, and God desires these things for our good, because when we know God’s gracious character, our anger at loss disappears and our grief is reduced.
The Seattle Times carried a news article recently about a former National Football League writer, David Fleming, and his wife who, lost a baby son during an emergency C-section. The night before baby Noah’s funeral, they locked themselves in the bathroom, away from their family, and talked all night. In the morning they both agreed that they would look for God. And after searching they’ve found him. The Seattle Times notes that “the skeptical reporter trained to ask tough questions came to see that he didn’t need to know why Noah died. God knew why.”
In grief, we instinctively feel that there must be someone or something with the power to do something about our situation, but we often know little or nothing about that person. And so anger surfaces when we don’t expect it and yet we have no idea about who our anger is directed against.
American Pastor and theologian, John Piper, lost his mother in a tragic accident. He writes this in his book The Pleasures of God.
On December 16 1974…[my mother] was riding with my father on a touring bus heading toward Bethlehem in Israel. A van with timber tied on the roof swerved out of its lane and hit the bus head on. The timber came through the windows and killed my mother instantly. What was my comfort in those days? There were many. She suffered little. I had her for twenty-eight years as the best mother imaginable. She had known my wife and one of my children. She was now in heaven with Jesus. Her life was rich with good deeds and its good effects would last long after she was gone. And underneath all those comforts, supporting all my unanswered questions, and calming my heart, there was the confidence that God is in control and God is good. I took no comfort from the prospect that God could not control the flight of a four-by-four. For me there was no consolation in haphazardness. Nor in giving Satan the upper hand. As I knelt by my bed and wept, having received the dreaded phone call from my brother-in-law, I never doubted that God was sovereign over this accident and that God was good. I do not need to explain everything. That he reigns and that he loves is enough for now.
John Piper has spent years reading about God in the bible and thinking about God’s character. Those years of study have paid off. In the midst of overwhelming grief, he was able to recall what he knew about God…that God is in control and God is good. As a result, John Piper felt no anger and his grief was reduced.
I found much the same peace at the time of my father’s death from skin cancer. As I tried to make sense of the pain and the loss, I felt occasional stabs of anger at dad for spending too much time in the sun. I wanted to ask God “why did you make the sun so that it damages us?” But then God’s words to Job reminded me of God’s goodness and his control over everything, “Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?” (Job 38:32-33)
God has made all things for a reason, and nothing is beyond his control. As I write, I am preparing to preach on the trial of Jesus before Pilate. What is amazing about the trial is that Jesus never got angry at the injustice against him. More than that, he could have changed the course of events by pleading his innocence, but he remained silent, and by doing so he made Pilate to pronounce him guilty, even though he was innocent. And so, as we witness the cruel suffering and death of Christ, we are reminded that Jesus was in control, God was in control, and that although God could have stopped the suffering, he chose to allow it. And God allowed it with a greater purpose in mind, which we realise on Easter Sunday morning as Christ defeated death by rising from the tomb. God could have stopped Jesus’ death just as he could have stopped John Piper’s mother from dying on that bus, but he didn’t. For both events, God has his reason and purpose, which is good for those who love and fear him (Psalm 103, Romans 8:28).
I’ve added another post: Good grieving guide part 3