Unwrapping the Gift of Grief This Christmas

How do you unwrap gifts on Christmas morning? I have observed two basic methods over the course of my fifty-one years. The first is to rip the wrapping paper off with reckless abandon, paying no attention to the beautiful adornments on the outside, in order to get to the gift inside as quickly as possible. The second is to slowly and meticulously peel back one corner of tape at a time in order to preserve the beauty of the package itself. I confess to typically being of the  “get to the gift inside quickly” variety of gift-opener. The loss of two close family members within the first five months of this year caused me to travel a path of grief, but I have eventually come to picture this journey as a gift whose underlying beauty is only revealed through a painstakingly slow unwrapping process.

I know it may sound strange to think of grief as a gift, but I believe our wise and loving Heavenly Father has a higher purpose for our sorrow than just earthly heartache. As the holidays approached, I tried to prepare myself for the emotions that would inevitably come with seeing places now empty that were once occupied by loved ones. Eating  banana pudding, our family delicacy, will be bittersweet without the interjection of playful bickering over who gets the last bowl. Cheering for the Longhorns and Cowboys will be less exciting without the company of one of their most devoted and enthusiastic fans. Singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve will sound much different without two of my favorite voices joining in the chorus. Perhaps others reading this post made similar preparations this holiday season. I found the process to be easier as I considered the gifts revealed when I peeled back the grief.

In pulling back the first corner on the package, I discovered a Savior who identifies with me in the middle of my sorrow. Isaiah 53:3 describes Jesus as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Grief is defined as “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.” We are made in His image, so as we experience grief we can be assured that He will not leave us alone in it. He, too, knows what it is like to experience suffering, distress, sorrow, and pain. And as He identifies with me, I am to find my identity in Him alone. My identity is not in my family, my position as a pastor’s wife, or my job, but in Him. Colossians 3:3 says, “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” If I try to resurrect myself and place my identity in anything else, I minimize what He did for me. I am thankful for this most precious gift from my Savior.

When I peeked under another section of the wrapping, I found the freedom to receive grace from God and fellow believers. 2 Corinthians 12:9 states, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.‘” In a difficult moment recently, I was wisely counseled to ask God for just enough grace to get me through each new day. I am learning to voice that request to Him daily. Unimaginable freedom is found in the realization that I don’t need to see three, or four, or ten steps ahead. God is already there and has a plan for me if I will just press into Him, trust, and obey. I don’t have to be strong, for He is my strength. I am also learning that it’s okay to lean on others within the body of Christ when I’m hurting. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called upon to bear one another’s burdens. I am thankful for those who have been obedient to God’s Word and come alongside me in my grief.

Another portion of the gift of grief was revealed in learning to rest in God alone. Psalm 62:1 says, “I am at rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him.” My physical, emotional, and spiritual restlessness throughout this year left me completely exhausted. In a recent early morning quiet time, God directed me to the verse above. I was convicted that much of my weariness comes from failing to rest completely in Him. In striving to deal with the crises of everyday life on my own, I failed to enjoy the peace that only He can provide. Sometimes I just need to sit still in His presence, quiet all the other distractions around me, and allow Him to renew my soul. I am thankful for the restoration He provides when I humbly enter into His presence.

Psalm 30:5 says, “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor, a lifetime. Weeping may stay overnight, but there is joy in the morning.” We can look forward to the joy that comes when we finally unwrap all the gifts God has prepared for us. He promises a lifetime of favor in exchange for momentary sorrow. I don’t completely understand why our Heavenly Father sometimes refuses to let us quickly rip into the outer wrapping to discover what He has for us inside. But I do know that as He unveils His precious gifts, He is patient and careful with us. Only He knows what His ultimate purposes are as He works in and through our lives. God knows exactly which gifts each of His children needs, and wraps them up perfectly inside our grief. As I continue my journey, I’m learning daily to be appreciative of the gifts, but even more so to grow deeply in love with the Giver Himself.

The Lessons of Fall

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5)

As I watch the wind-tossed leaves outside my window, autumn appears to have finally made its entrance. With it comes cooler weather, vibrant displays of color, and the ushering in of the holidays. I have always enjoyed the fall season, but discovered a newfound appreciation for it this year, and it has nothing to do with a deep fondness for pumpkin spice lattes. It has everything to do with lessons God has been teaching me through the trials of my life.

I have been reflecting upon the fact that autumn, while showcasing its rich colors, actually involves death. Before the leaves reluctantly detach from the trees, they lose their chlorophyll, the chemical which gives them their bright green colors in spring and summer. In doing so, they cease the food making process in which they had engaged throughout the warmer months. It is at this time that the tree begins to rely on the storehouse of nutrients it has set aside for days of limited sunlight, and the leaves display their brilliant colors before eventually letting go and drifting to the ground. I think in some ways, this process is similar to my life as a child of God.

So many times I live like a tree during the bright and sunny seasons of my life. I strive daily to fill myself up with everything I think I need to be self-sustaining. All the while, God waits for me to run to Him so He can supply me with His provisions to carry me through the trials He already sees ahead in my future. In His perfect sovereignty, He knows that I will need His love, mercy, and grace in order to survive the harsh, cold seasons of life. When I hold onto Him, He displays His beauty in my life like the brilliant colors of fall.

The blazing orange colors of autumn remind me of the glow of God’s love. Because He loves me, He takes care of all my material, emotional, and spiritual needs. He knows what I require before I even utter a prayer, yet He longs for me, the creation, to spend time with Him, the Creator. It is because of His love that He allows me to experience trials in my life that drive me to kneel at His feet. It is at this point that He picks me up and allows me to experience the warmth of His embrace with the awareness that He is all I really need.

When I cling to Him, He displays evidence of His mercy like the deep red shades adorning the fall trees. As Christ’s crimson blood flowed down the cross at Calvary, He took my sin upon His shoulders and saved me from the chastisement I deserved. He would have been perfectly justified, given the depth of sin in my life, to require payment of me, but the richness of His mercy compelled Him to withhold what I deserved, and to give me what I did not.

The gentleness of God’s grace comes to mind when I observe the subtle yellow hues of the season. His grace is the soft and steady beat that plays relentlessly in the background of my life. He gives me what I don’t deserve simply because of His tenderness toward His children. I can do nothing to earn this gift, but He freely gives it as He reaches down and offers me the salvation that I could never merit on my own.

God’s love, mercy, and grace mingle together to paint a beautiful picture in my life. No matter how hard I try, I could never craft a scene that comes close to the one He creates every day in the lives of His children. Because I am made in His image, He desires to display love, mercy, and grace through me. I am His instrument to sing the melodies of the gospel to a lost and dying world even as He uses the trials of my life to refine these qualities in me. If I never show love to those I deem unlovable, I will not truly learn to love as God first loved me, for I can be unlovable, too. If I never offer forgiveness as a demonstration of mercy to those I do not think deserve it, I will never fully appreciate the weightiness of my own sin and the pardon my Heavenly Father granted me. If I refrain from showing grace to those who hurt me, I will stop far short of comprehending the gift of amazing grace the Lord lavished undeservedly on me.

Like the fall leaves that drift to the ground through no effort of their own, I encourage you to lose yourself to the rhythms of life ordained by our Heavenly Father. He commands the winds that blow through our lives at just the right time to grant us an appreciation for His perfect gifts. Revel in those gifts as you enjoy the beauty of the season, and give thanks to the Giver of all good things.