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Equip #34 – How to Handle Hard

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In this episode of Equip, Pastor of Leadership Development Brad Merchant discusses hardship with Lead Pastor Mark Vroegop—how we can deal with it and what hope there is for those who are going through difficulties.

Brad Merchant:             I’m Brad Merchant, one of the hosts of the Equip podcast, a podcast of College Park Church, here with Mark Vroegop, lead pastor at College Park.

Mark Vroegop:              Brad, it is good to be with you again.

Brad Merchant:             Aren’t these chairs comfortable?

Mark Vroegop:              They are amazingly comfortable.

Brad Merchant:             And our listeners can’t see them, but they are just amazing.

Mark Vroegop:              No. They can probably hear them, though.

Brad Merchant:             Yes, they can. Yes, they probably can. Mark, we’re going to talk about grieving today, which is very much part of a sin-sick planet and world and people. And I just wonder, starting with a simple question, what does it mean to grieve?

Mark Vroegop:              I think grieving is just simply the natural human response, both spiritual and emotional response to the brokenness of the world in all of its forms. And so sometimes, it takes on a really intense expression, because some pain is right in front of your grille. Other times, it’s just this low-grade sadness because you either hear something that’s going on in someone’s life, or you’re disappointed with how something has turned out. We live in a broken world, and that brokenness has all sorts of expressions that we encounter, probably more often than what we even realize.

Brad Merchant:             Now, can believers and unbelievers grieve?

Mark Vroegop:              Oh, for sure. I think they grieve differently, and they grieve for different reasons and with different eyes.

Brad Merchant:             How so?

Mark Vroegop:              So, I think… We’ll start with a nonbeliever. A nonbeliever grieves because bad things happen, and they’re disappointed. And they experience the loss of a loved one, or a dream of something they would want to see happen, so they are part of the experience of the gaps of life. But a Christian can take that to a different layer or a different level, because he or she understands what is the cause of all grief in the world, namely sin. And so a Christian can actually connect it not just to, “Boy, this is really hard, and I’m really sad that this happened,” but also how this connects to both God’s overarching plan of redemption, and then also a tension that exists with, “God, I know you’re good, but this is happening.” And so believers live in a kind of unique tension, where they understand the depths of both what brokenness is and the character of God, and that creates, I think, a different level of hope, and also a different level of grief.

Brad Merchant:             So, would grief exist if sin didn’t?

Mark Vroegop:              No, I don’t think it would, which is why when Revelation talks about God wiping our tears away, I think that grief is over, and I think that’s part of the allure and the incredible attractiveness of what the new heavens and new earth are going to be like. I think also, that’s one of the reasons it’s so stunning that Jesus is called the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah. Now, just pushing back a little bit, so let’s say there’s someone listening, she’s a widow, just lost her husband, and she’s hearing this. She’s saying, “Mark, did my husband really die because of sin?” What would you say to her?

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah. Well, you know, it’s a nuanced answer. The short answer is, he died because of the presence of sin in the world. And your husband is a sinner, but is there always a direct relationship between what the person did and the timeliness or the events of their death? No. Is that the case? Sometimes it is, but more often than not, people pass away because of the presence of sin in the world that creates the reality of death, which then, as humans, we are all subject to.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, that’s right, and I think that’s where it probably gets back to the nuance of different kinds of grieving for believers and unbelievers. You know, Paul says that we as believers, we don’t grieve without hope. There’s a hope for a coming day where, as Gandalf said, “everything sad is going to be made happy again,” and that’s what we look forward to. Now, why do people not grieve? Because there’s a lot of people who just maybe would hear this and think, “Yeah, that’s just not my personality. I’m not very emotional. I just tend to internalize all my hurt and my pain, and I don’t grieve.” What do you say to someone like that? And then, what are some reasons why we just don’t grieve?

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah, well, I think we want to be careful that there are different expressions of grief, and so I wouldn’t want to say that every person has to grieve in the same way, and there are some folks who are more stoically-oriented, and they’re less external in their processing in all aspects, including grief. I would argue, though, that even that person grieves at some level, even if externally it’s not manifesting itself in tears, or in things that they’re talking about. I think, you know, we enter the world by a protest, we all enter the world by crying, and I think that’s just part of the nature of what it means to be human.

Mark Vroegop:              Different people express grief in different ways, even different seasons of life have different grief elements to them. I was talking with somebody just this weekend as they were reflecting on the loss of a loved one, and they just said, “You know, couple weeks had gone by, and now all of the emotions sort of came back in a huge flood.” And I’ve just found that personally, and as I’ve walked with people pastorally, that grief isn’t tame, and it’s sort of like a wave of the sea that rolls in. Sometimes that tide goes out for a long time, and then one day, like it all comes back on an anniversary, a birthday, you know, something where you just… You feel it in a way that you didn’t feel it before.

Mark Vroegop:              So to grieve well, I think a Christian needs to understand a theological vision of what grief is, which would mean I understand the presence of grief in the world. Me feeling grief isn’t a matter of being sinful, but it’s a matter of an honest struggling with the brokenness in the world in which I live, and also taking my grief and not letting it rule me. While grief isn’t tame, it’s also not ultimate. Grief can be used as a platform for worship, it can be used as a means of saying, “Yes, even in this I will still praise the Lord.” But I also think you need to be honest with those two realities at the same time, that this is really hard, and yet God is really good, and those two things just exist. I think real grief is acknowledging both of those worlds and both of those thoughts. They just are what they are in the middle of grief, and sometimes you don’t know which of the two you believe the more, depending on what emotions you’re wrestling with.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, that’s right. I remember Spurgeon once said, he said, “I’ve learned to kiss the wave that throws me upon the Rock of Ages.” And it’s important that he didn’t say, “I’ve learned to forget the wave that throws me upon the Rock of Ages,” but to kiss it, it’s to embrace it.

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah, nor just accept it.

Brad Merchant:             That’s right.

Mark Vroegop:              But actually to say, “I will welcome what this does.” And interesting that he says, “I have learned.” Most people don’t learn… They learn that theoretically, maybe in advance of some suffering, which I think is important for pastors to prepare people to think that way.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah.

Mark Vroegop:              But often, what happens is with a little bit of distance and history, you can see, “Mm, I’m a different person because of that grief and sorrow.” So part of the way that Christians grieve well is by living by faith that somehow, this is going, either in my future or in eternal future, is going to produce really good things for God’s glory.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, that’s right. Now, you’re the lament guy. I don’t know if you didn’t know that or not, but you’re now the lament guy.

Mark Vroegop:              I guess I am, yeah.

Brad Merchant:             We need to get you a t-shirt or something.

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah, #lament.

Brad Merchant:             That’s right. So, tell me the difference between lament and grieving.

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah.

Brad Merchant:             Is there a difference, or the same thing? What’s the nuance there?

Mark Vroegop:              I think lament is the expression of grief, it’s the language of sorrow, it’s the way that we take our grief to God in order to help move us along from a position of “This is really hard” to a spot of saying, “God, I’m choosing to trust in what I know to be true, but my grief in this moment would maybe make me tend to think that it’s not as true as what I thought it was.” And that’s the problem with grief. When you’re grieving, nothing else is true, which is why one of the dangers of grief is that you can become really, really self-centered, because you’re just trying to survive, and you hardly have emotional capacity for anything else. Well, lament is a language that helps from a process standpoint of moving you from where you are in your sorrow to what it means to trust in God’s promises and his purposes.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah. So, let’s maybe talk to listeners who are walking with someone, or maybe even they themselves are grieving.

Mark Vroegop:              Sure.

Brad Merchant:             What advice do you have for them, specifically in helping other people grieve well? What can they do to help them?

Mark Vroegop:              I think first, they just need to realize that grief is a scary, strong, and not easily plotted-out emotion. I think the reason that grief is scary is because it reminds us that something’s wrong with the world. It reminds us that we’re not in control. And the reason it’s important to know that if you’re grieving, or to help a friend, is often, people want their grief to be over as fast as possible because it’s so scary. And I get that, I feel that. You know, I’ve written on this, and when I see grieving people, I’m like, “I want this to be over,” because it’s a scary reality. And yet, I think understanding that is really helpful.

Mark Vroegop:              And I think the second thing is to lean into that, not lean away from it. Our tendency is either verbally lean away by silence, or by distance, because we think, “I don’t know what to say, I don’t know if I’m really wanted.” And yet presence in the midst of people’s grief is really, really important, just even… You know, it doesn’t have to be long, but visiting with someone, praying for them, just letting them know that you’re there.

Mark Vroegop:              And then I think third, being careful not to kind of draw that linear pattern of connecting their grief directly with God’s purposes. We have to allow the mystery to remain, and to be careful that we’re not trying to bring resolution to things that either God doesn’t intend to bring resolution to in this lifetime, or this person isn’t ready for resolution. People can say really unhelpful things when you combine they’re afraid, they want to lean in but don’t know what to say, and then they lean in, they say the wrong thing, and that’s just… That’s really not helpful.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, that’s right. And how many times do we just say stupid things to people that are grieving when we should just sit and listen and pray with them?

Mark Vroegop:              Right. Yeah.

Brad Merchant:             I feel like that’s just a mistake we always, always make.

Mark Vroegop:              It is. Yeah, I mean, the best thing that you can do is to say little except “I’m sorry, I love you, I’m praying.” And that’s hard, because those words don’t seem sufficient.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, that’s right.

Mark Vroegop:              Because we want to do something to help, but the thing we do to help is just to be there, and kind of let the smoke of their grief kind of get into our clothes by being close and present, and just saying, “I’m here to absorb this with you,” not to fix it.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah. What advice do you have for people that are grieving as they listen to this through a loss, maybe, something they thought that would be but isn’t, broken dreams, just standing over a glass of spilled milk? What do you have to say to those people?

Mark Vroegop:              I think that they need to recognize and know that this is not unexpected. They probably knew at some point in time life was going to be hard, and so, not to be resigned to that fact, but not as though something surprising has taken place. Secondly, to be encouraged that even in this moment, God’s promises, his purposes, are going to be able to hold that person fast through the storms that are coming, and to know that there are good purposes behind what God is doing, but right now it seems as though it’s pretty dark. You know, William Cooper said, “Behind a frowning providence, God hides a smiling face,” and that’s great to know, because when those dark clouds roll in, it’s hard to remember that there’s mercy available to me here.

Mark Vroegop:              And then finally, I think just the need for community. Grief tends to isolate you. You can begin to believe the lie that nobody’s ever hurt like I’ve hurt, nobody understands. It’s not only untrue theologically, it’s not true practically, and to invite other people into your grief is a really important, I think, part of the healing process.

Brad Merchant:             Yeah, absolutely. You know, the Puritan Thomas Watson said, “Just as a chemist can take two poisons and make something that’s healthy, so God can take our trials and sorrows and make something beautiful.”

Mark Vroegop:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brad Merchant:             And that’s what God is doing through all of our suffering. He’s taking it and, like a master artist, painting a beautiful canvas behind the scenes.

Mark Vroegop:              Yeah, amen.

Brad Merchant:             It’s good news.

Mark Vroegop:              It is good news.

Brad Merchant:             Mark, thanks for your advice and wisdom.

Mark Vroegop:              You’re welcome.

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