Like so many, my wife and I have experienced faith-testing trials. Esther deals with two chronic pain disabilities—a work-related neck and back injury from 2006 and chronic concussion migraines from a 2019 auto accident. She has had her neck fused at C5-7, has a neurostimulator implanted for back pain and has a nerve ablation surgery about every six months to manage the migraines.
We have also experienced emotional pain. In August 2018, our son-in-law Dan died from a heart attack. Our now widowed daughter, Tanya, passed away only months later in November when her car went off the road in a blizzard. Thinking she could walk the mile or so home, she left the disabled car, became disoriented and died of exposure.
For three days, civil air patrol, search dogs, snow machines, ATVs and close to 100 volunteers searched for Tanya. On the third day, the sheriff pulled me aside and asked me to come with him to identify her body. Afterward, the TV crews were waiting for us. With microphones shoved toward me, reporters asked, “How are you feeling?”
I think I said something like, “We are devastated by her death,” and I thanked the many people who had searched and prayed for us.
That’s what came out of my mouth, which was totally different from what was in my mind: Where were you, God? Why would you let this happen? Were my prayers lacking or were you unwilling? You’ve answered the prayers of others; why not ours?
Now almost five years later, we can testify to God’s presence and a deepening understanding of the fruits of grief and pain. I can also confess to a “theological amnesia” during this journey of reorienting to the reality of living in a fallen but redeemable world.
Faithfulness in brokenness
In James we are told, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-3, ESV).
When I read this passage too fast, I tend to hear, “When your faith is being tested by trials of various kinds be joyful.” But that is not what this passage teaches. Trials are not joy-filled moments. Joy is the outcome of a tested faith, producing steadfastness to a faithful God even when we don’t understand. To hold tight, tenaciously, knowing God holds us tighter. We experience joy knowing that despite trials there will be fruit for the kingdom.
Trials are not joy-filled moments. Joy is the outcome of a tested faith, producing steadfastness to a faithful God even when we don’t understand.
So, what does faithfulness in times of grief look like? It looks like kintsugi, a Japanese art form where broken pieces of heritage pottery are put back together with a glue of lacquer and gold dust. The seams are highlighted, not hidden. The result acknowledges the broken places and reminds us of the valuable process used by the Artist to bring us back together.
How is this possible?
God promises to never leave us nor forsake us. These words are repeated throughout Scripture as a promise to God’s faithfulness, grace and mercy. David’s opening statement in Psalm 23 proclaims, “The Lord is my shepherd.” This implies not only that God is willing to claim us as his sheep but also that we must choose God as our shepherd. I learn from David’s life that when tough times come, whether that is being chased by Saul or chastened by Nathan, we must choose to either run to God or run from him. I found in my grieving the choice was not a one-time decision, but one I would have to make continually.
The rod and the staff remind me of Jesus telling us there will be trials in this world or, as Jeremiah calls them, times of heat and years of drought. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jer. 17:7-8, ESV).
In this fallen world, heat and drought are going to be part of our journey and during these times we are invited into a deeper walk of faith and understanding. If we are still breathing, God is still shaping and teaching us. Grief becomes a tough, teachable discipleship moment. Think of it this way—before the event we have a perception of how we think things should be, i.e., as a Christian I will be shielded from pain. We orient our lives around this perception. During the pain event we become disoriented because the pieces of our lives have come undone. How we put them back together will become our reoriented perception that guides our relationship with God.
So, how do we make sure we have a godly reorientation?
When it comes to this process of reorienting, our theology matters. This is where “theological amnesia” can cripple our healing. It occurs when we forget who God is and who we are to him. Paul Tripp, in his book Redeeming Money, says that we must anchor our four identities to be able to have a proper understanding of theology.
Creature: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11:3, ESV). Since God is our Creator, he knows us completely. In Psalm 139, David is amazed by how God knows his ways, thoughts and even the days ordained for him. As creatures, we do not need to know everything, but we do need to remember God, as Creator, is all powerful, all knowing and all loving, and we belong to him.
Sinner: When I worked at a natural gas plant, my task was refilling a container with a chemical called Mercaptan, also known as methanethiol. It is a sulfuric, foul-smelling chemical that is injected into the pipeline since natural gas comes out of the ground colorless and odorless. Without this chemical, you cannot detect a leak. A small drip goes a remarkably long way, as did sin when Adam and Eve disobeyed after being tempted by Satan. As a result of sin, humanity and creation are no longer “very good.” This world is not as God created. What once did not exist in mankind (sin) now has become the predominant descriptor of who we have collectively become.
During this period of grief, I was shaped, taught and molded by God’s Word, indwelling Spirit and the church.
Saint: The good news is God in his sovereignty chooses to be just and the justifier by sending Jesus Christ to redeem us. That which we cannot do, God does for us. We are justified, proclaimed saints, and we are being sanctified by our Creator. During this period of grief, I was shaped, taught and molded by God’s Word, indwelling Spirit and the church. While standing next to my daughter’s casket, I knew God to be faithful to my daughter’s faith in Christ. I also remembered our call as his people to testify to the hope we have in Christ. I cannot imagine the terror of facing death without faith in God’s mercy and redeeming love.
Sufferer: Though we are redeemed, we are not removed. We remain so that we may be ambassadors, messengers of truth and people of hope. Having suffered, we share a common language with those entering into this season.
In the days, months and years that followed Tanya’s death, I needed these four theological realities to regain my own bearings before I could help others. I found the fruit of grief to be the knowledge that I was never alone, a greater urgency to participate in God’s redeeming work, a tenderness towards those who suffer and a deeper assurance of God’s faithfulness.
In summation, as a fallen creature, my God has redeemed me. As a sufferer being sanctified, I can testify to the hope and presence of God with us. Like the kintsugi pottery, I can choose to surrender the broken places, knowing the Artist’s hand is on me for, “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand on me” (Psalm 139:5).
Rick Eshbaugh serves as director of financial discipleship with MB Foundation. Prior to joining MB Foundation in 2022, Eshbaugh and his wife, Esther, served as district minister to the Central District Conference. Eshbaugh is a 1985 graduate of MB Biblical Seminary, now Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, and served as a USMB pastor in Oklahoma, Kansas, Washington, Oregon and North Dakota. He also worked for several years with Church Resource Ministries as part of the national reFocusing team. The Eshbaughs live in Hillsboro, Kansas.