Keeping Company

Keeping Company

“A great sorrow and a great fear had come into all the world, and the world was changing. Our minds were driven out of the old boundaries into thoughts of absolute loss, absolute emptiness, in a world that seemed larger even than the sky that held it.

nearness of God when we think we are alone“Time doesn’t stop. Your life doesn’t stop and wait until you get ready to start living it. Those years of the war were not a blank, and yet during all that time I was waiting. We all were waiting…moving in wide circles around our sadness.

“The pleasures that came then had a way of reminding you that they had been pleasures once upon a time, when it seemed that you had a right to them. Happiness had a way of coming to you and making you sad. How can you be happy, how can you live, when all the things that make you happy grieve you nearly to death?”

* * *

These excerpts from Wendell Berry’s moving novel, Hannah Coulter, beautifully reveal a woman’s deep reflections on life. Here she’s pining for her soldier husband in WWII, but the words touch a chord for any who have suffered loss.

What resonated with me is the “waiting” Berry describes, the suspension from living life, and how happy things sometimes intensify the sadness.

nearness of sorrow in happy timesThe holiday season, for instance, often stirs up emotions that are hard to navigate. Some of you know this all too well.

Recently I found myself in the grips of disappointment. No one died, yet some dreams I’ve held inside for a long time seem out of reach. The loss is achingly real. I was moving in “wide circles” around my sadness, trying to be silent about what I was thinking. To admit disappointment felt like giving up on God.

Are some dreams merely lofty expectations that only bring disillusionment? Or should we hold fast to them as God-ordained promises, contending in prayer, birthing them into reality? I guess the answer is both, but only God can show us when is when.

nearness of God in dark timesLast week, a friend sent me a link to a message given by Melissa Helser. Helser says feeling disappointed is human—but staying disappointed is the problem. And to compound the matter, we’ve developed an “either/or” mindset. In other words, we think we have to choose between whipping up faith in God or remaining in pain. To Helser’s surprise, God invited her to grieve her disappointment with Him, in the same way that Jesus agonized with His Father in Gethsemane.

nearness of God keeps us from losing heartAllowing your heart to feel the full range of emotion actually protects you from losing heart, Helser explains. A whole generation is losing God, because they’re losing their own hearts. They don’t know how to grieve or process their disappointment.

If you’re just scrambling eggs some morning, she says, and find yourself on the verge of tears, God is not saying, “Pull yourself together!”

Rather, He’s coaxing you to lean into your sorrow. It’s not bottomless, there’s no shame in it, and He’s with you. This is Helser’s message, and it’s worth watching.

nearness of God when we feel trappedWhen someone dies, it’s permanent and one can start to find closure. Bereavement is never easy—but the loss is certain and defined. In my view, it’s much harder to grapple with loss in ongoing situations: the uncertainty of a serious illness, the ups and downs in a vulnerable marriage, or the pressures of a faltering business.

I often fail to realize the pain I’m carrying in ongoing situations. I get trapped in restless thoughts, working the problems from countless angles—all of which is far worse at night. In the morning I’m awake but not rested. I’m also not “present,” merely getting through my daily duties.

Bill Johnson, Senior Leader at Bethel Church, talks about this conundrum:

nearness of God in our worldIn times of loss or conflict, great pain and disappointment, we feel emotionally spent, offended with God, conflicted inside our hearts with questions and guilt—all this going on in our souls. But giving God thanks in the middle of it brings a great transformation of soul that we’ll never experience otherwise.

Faith doesn’t deny a problem’s existence, he says. It denies it a place of influence.

We determine that what we know of God’s goodness will not cancel what we don’t understand about God. In our deepest times of despair, to gather all our pain and sorrow together and bring it to God is the rarest of offerings.

So God encircled me, and I stopped circling my sorrow. My sorrow trickled out. Slowly at first…all feelings and tears…followed by some honest words. And He was there, listening as One who has all the time in the world, keeping me company.

I don’t have any resolution to my circumstances. But I have God.


  1. Jack Giangiulio :

    I think I have always lived with general feelings of anxiety. When younger I thought it was just me, although I didn’t even know what it was. Now with faith I can ‘lean’ into fear and pain knowing God will find a way thru and better to face anxiety than run from it. It is a daily battle but that is life.

    • Yes, I agree Jack! I think our earthly life will always be fraught with pain. How do people do it without God? I really don’t know. I think we are living in a critical time of history and more than even we need to keep our hearts alive in God. Unresolved disappointment and grief is a heart killer and when we lose heart, we often lose our connection with God. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Theresa Ovenell :

    Thank you for writing about grief and disappointment. We so need to have a dialogue with people about what this looks like and how to navigate honestly, “nakedly” through it. We live in a culture so uncomfortable with grief. We’ve lost the art of listening, letting people weep, and carrying one another’s burdens. I’ve learned “tears are good”, brokenness is good, not “having it all together” is okay. I’m human. I’m on a journey of becoming more beautiful like Christ. Sorrow is a part of his sanctifying work. Even though it’s painful, I wouldn’t trade what sorrow has taught me. Mostly it has humbled me, given me more compassion, and helped me recognize the sadness in others. Deep speaks to deep. I am a better friend because of it. Thank you for the courage to talk about it. May it begin a dialogue with those who read your writings.
    Blessings, my friend!

    • Theresa—you have a profound understanding of grief and I hope you write or teach others on that subject. Thank you for your encouragement here.

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