In Grief, Loss and Pain: Still All Is Well
SHELLY DUFFER — Before me, even as behind, God is, and all is well. ~ John Greenleaf Whittier
I stumbled upon this quote by the poet and abolitionist Whittier quite by accident. I was doing research on another topic — I’ve long since forgotten what it was — when these words came before my eyes. They brought me to a full stop. I read them and re-read them, over and over again.
These are not “nothing” words; they are not cliché words to be cross-stitched and hung on a wall. If they had been I would not have lingered over them. No, these are true words; words that point to the hope we have in our God.
But they can also be hard words, because they point to God’s sovereignty — which can be a terribly hard thing to grasp. We can’t, really. We cannot wrap our finite, human minds around the truth that God is the King of all, or the truth that, because He is fully in control, all is well. Even in the hard stuff. Even in the very darkest stuff.
Six years ago, I woke up on an ordinary Wednesday morning, to find myself — and my children — plunged into an unimaginable nightmare.
My husband, the father of my four children, an energetic and “highly effective” youth pastor at our wonderful church, was in the process of being arrested.
His crimes were more than shocking; they were devastating. I had no idea he was living in a secret world, participating in sexual sin that would eventually lead him to a sentence of 17 years in prison. As the investigation turned up more and more deviance, I found myself sinking further and further into darkness.
Where was God?
How could He allow such devastation?
If He saw and knew and allowed this pain, why would I want to follow, trust, obey or (especially) love Him?
I had no answers, only fear and grief that threatened to undo both my mind and my soul.
As my children and I hid from the media, and as I made tough decisions, and walked through legal proceedings and court appearances and meetings with the police and prosecution —
— and as our beautiful community and our sweet church family reeled and mourned in the wake of the news —
— and as I answered tough, tough questions from my children —
I was very nearly consumed with hopelessness.
Our church graciously welcomed us to stay in the parsonage for as long as we needed to. That was a tremendous gift, for many reasons. The kids needed to be someplace familiar, and we needed to be near our church. They were, and are, God’s grace to us, in very real ways.
Still, even though I knew on some level that God’s grace was real and present, He felt so far away. My soul and my mind were far from well. Cynicism wound itself around the parts of me that longed and ached most for God. I couldn’t bear to approach Him. I couldn’t bear to pray. I couldn’t bear to be in His presence. It hurt too much.
I thought nothing would ever be well again. I thought more than once about walking away from our Sovereign God.
Sleep had always been a hard thing for me, but now it became practically non-existent. Our pastor knew about this, and he gave me a key to the sanctuary, to use should I need a quiet place in which to be alone.
In the middle of sleepless nights, I would sit in that dark sanctuary. I didn’t pray, I didn’t read Scripture, I didn’t cry. Instead, I thought for hours, working to make sense of the darkness.
In those moments, I was far from well.
The definition of the word “sanctuary” is “place of refuge or safety.” Slowly, those middle-of-the-night treks across the parking lot to the refuge there started to work on my soul. I started to read Scripture again. I started to write again.
I started to pray again. Falteringly, hesitatingly. Cautiously.
And then, one night, as I lay on that sanctuary floor at the altar, the song “It is Well with my Soul” scrolled through my mind.
There in the darkness, on that hard floor with that scratchy carpet, I acknowledged before God that my soul was so, so very unwell. And that I had no idea how to make it well again.
And I begged Him to make me well.
Nothing earth-shattering occurred: no lightning bolt, no tear-charged emotional catharsis, no sudden revelation. Our circumstances did not change. My soon-to-be ex-husband was still in prison, I still had no job to provide for my hurting children, and there was still tremendous grief and fear.
But in that stuffy, hot, quiet sanctuary, a small seed of wellness broke through the bitterness and unsettledness via this thought: God is still sovereign. And his sovereignty over my life, and my family’s life, is our only hope. Just as Peter said, in John 6:68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life …?”, I, too, had nowhere else to turn.
You see, it is just as Whittier penned, so many years ago. Before me, even as behind, God is. He is. In those two words, we see His sovereignty. He said to Moses, “I AM.” In these two words there is hope. Job understood that and said (Job 13:15, NIV), “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” The prophet Habakkuk struggled with questions about God’s justice, yet arrived at a settled assurance of His sovereignty: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (See Habakkuk 3:17-20)
Above all Jesus, our Savior, kneeling in that garden late at night, praying for release from the agony He knew was to come declared His trust: “Yet not as I will but as you will.” (Luke 22:42) He placed His life in the hands of His sovereign Father, and “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame …” (Hebrews 12:2)
He will not forsake.
I could not do it on my own, but God is sovereign, He is good, and He is making me able.
Today, six years later, there are still very hard days. They are less frequent, thankfully, yet there lingers a thread of grief, and I wonder if it will ever disappear completely. Maybe it is not meant to. Maybe the grief remains to remind me how utterly dependent I am upon God, so that I will never forget that He is my only hope.
Yet there is also a sweet, sweet joy. It’s a joy in knowing that my children are well in their souls and their minds. It’s a joy in knowing that we are deeply loved by our church family and community. It’s a settled joy in knowing God’s miraculous provision of a job and a home. It’s even a joy of knowing I could forgive — as challenging as that has been. It would have never been possible apart from God’s mercy on my own life.
It’s a joy in knowing that He is near. Always. Even when I may not sense His nearness. He sees and knows. And acts.
His grace and saving mercy — and His sovereignty — are what make it possible to read Whittier’s words, and recognize the deep personal truth they hold, in my life and yours.
“Before me, even as behind, God is, and all is well.”