It was date night. My husband and I were enjoying our first outing in over a year. Our favorite restaurant looked a lot more like a family night; kids and babies were everywhere. My eyes kept connecting with the sweet baby boy at the table next to us. He was cooing in his daddy’s arms while his father gently rocked him. He was content despite all the commotion.

I’ve never been much of a baby person. I prefer hanging out with teenagers. But ever since my twin grandchildren were born and passed too soon, I’ve found my eyes lingering on chubby cheeks and toothless smiles. Deacon and Hallie’s brief life outside the womb created an emptiness in my arms for something I had but lost. The void is overwhelming.

So, instead of growing impatient with the noise of children and a baby’s laughter, I smiled.

As we were leaving, I turned to stand and saw the baby boy seated in a Bumbo on his table happily eating his dinner. I smiled at him. He smiled at me. But, in a flash my joy turned into ugly tears because, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a second Bumbo. Seated next to the baby boy was his sister. His twin sister. My eyes went back and forth between them. Was I seeing correctly? Were twins really sitting right in front of me?

Torrents of grief washed over me. I couldn’t stand. I looked to my husband to confirm the scene. He saw the shock in my eyes. He wrapped his arm around my heaving shoulders and helped me walk out of the restaurant. I barely made it to the car.

In an instant, I found myself back to square one. Denial. It’s typically the first “step”[1] of grieving.  It had only been a little over two weeks since our grandchildren’s death and, in a heartbeat, I was once again questioning, “Did that really happen? Did mourning really crash into our family’s world? Were the sweet little babies we expected to love and cradle ushered into the presence of God instead?”

Grieving is not passive. Suffering isn’t something that just happens to you and then you ride a wave of emotions until the circumstances quell. Suffering is like school, and grieving is how we accomplish the coursework. It’s not the kind of education anyone willingly signs up for. But, when devastation enters our lives, we are automatically enrolled into the seminar on suffering. And, just as we would prepare for any class, we must download the syllabus and begin to faithfully complete the assignments.

Course: Delicious Despair 101

Term: For Life

Professor: Our Father

Course Description

This course will explore suffering beyond the theoretical. I thought I had a pretty good theology of suffering. In hindsight, it was completely academic. It reminds me of the theological education I got in seminary. My professors taught deep, rich truth. I couldn’t take notes fast enough. But no outline could adequately articulate my journey of God’s truth played out in real-time. I would tell friends it was the class I didn’t pay for.

We don’t really know suffering until we suffer. When life falls on us, the notes we took before suffering must be worked out in practical application. Who is God? What truth does His word communicate? How are His promises practical? Grieving takes what we learn in the classroom of suffering and puts it to the test in the lab of reality.

Specific topics will include death. All suffering is death. “Death doesn’t wait till the ends of our lives to meet us and to make an end. Instead, we die a hundred times before we die.”[2] Paul writes, “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1:8–9). Suffering draws a line between everything that happened before and everything that happens after.[3] What was is gone. What is forever changes. Who we were before suffering is not who we are now. Yet, the person I was before was not always happy, while the one I am now is not perpetually sad. Joy still somehow co-exists in tension with devastation. Peace coincides with mourning. Hope is renewed from an eternal vantage point. Luther called this “delicious despair;”[4] the pain of suffering results in transformation.

Course Objectives

Students in this course will gain a better grasp on the biblical framework for interpreting the suffering they encounter in life. Those enrolled in the suffering seminar should expect to learn how to articulate grief. Everyone experiences it differently. Grief is shaped by the circumstances of suffering. It has a framework; the contours of sorrow are sustained by pillars such as despair, depression, deadening, and/or doubt. When you’re inside the grief framework, it feels like careening around in an inflatable bounce house. We encounter each pillar randomly and then sink into the walls of complaint, wailing, resentment, and/or anger. Any unexpected thoughts or experiences can trigger the process.

The way King David laments in the Psalms sheds a light on how we can reinterpret grief biblically. He bounces between honest, raw feelings about his circumstances and what he knows to be true about God. What he shows us is that there’s nothing wrong with “feeling the feels.” It’s what we do with those emotions that’s important. All assignments must be submitted in the manner prescribed by The Professor, “You may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).

Students of grief can anticipate refreshing their skills with a focus on overcoming—in Christ.

Paul tells us in Philippians 3:8-10 that, for Christ’s sake, we suffer the loss of all things and count them as rubbish; these things do not result in the “crown of life” (James 1:12). We realize we do not have a righteousness of our own, but only that which comes through faith in Christ. This makes it possible to know Him and the power of His resurrection. As we share in His sufferings, we become like Him. We gain Christ. It is in Him we find earth’s purest pleasure. I thought that could be found in cradling the warmth of a baby’s body. God showed me it will only be found as I dwell in His Son’s wonderfully resurrected body.

Course Outcomes

Suffering is a class I wouldn’t pay for. We just don’t get that choice. While we can’t help what happens, we can choose how to respond. The continual waves of emotion can feel like they will overcome, but they are meant to lead us to reinterpret circumstances biblically. Biblical suffering involves a different kind of framework. Instead of one that resembles pillars in a bounce house, God provides the structure of a cross. This is a whole new perspective on suffering. It tells us to remember (the most oft repeated command in Scripture). It calls us to consider what we know to be true about God. He is faithful. He is loving. He moved heaven and earth so that we might dwell with Him in eternity. The life, death, and resurrection of His Son proves without a doubt that He is good, and He does good (Psa. 119:68).

Grieving the loss of Deacon and Hallie is how I am learning to see circumstances from God’s perspective. It shows me that His version of my story is better than mine. It’s an advanced education that proves Christ’s suffering and death ushers in life. And, although I frequently find myself stuck in despair, what comes out of the ashes is beautiful (Isa. 61:3). When we join with Christ in his sufferings, we fully experience life; maybe even more fully than ever before.

[1] There are no rules for grief, however generally speaking people tend toward denial when suffering first occurs.

[2] Walter Wangerin, Mourning into Dancing (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 26. As quoted in Bob Kellemen, God’s Healing for Life’s Losses (Winona Lake, MN: BMH Books, 2010), 12.

[3] I attribute this thinking to Diane Langberg.

[4] As quoted in Kellemen, God’s Healing for Life’s Losses, 13.

*Photo credit: Leah’s Art and Soul (@artandsoulcharlotte on Facebook)

About the Author:

Ann Maree Goudzwaard

Ann Maree is the Executive Director of Help[H]er. She served as the project manager for the training series Help[H]er: A Churchwide Response for Women in Crisis, based on the book she co-authored (CDM, 2020) and project manager and contributor for the Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship’s Domestic Abuse Observation Series and for its joint project with Shepherd Press, Intro to Messy Care & Discipleship. In addition, she trains counseling at RTS Charlotte, Eternity Bible College, and PeaceWorks University and blogs regularly for enCourage and the Biblical Counseling Coalition. Ann Maree is a biblical counselor with an MDiv/counseling emphasis and a DMin candidate. She is married to Bob, she is the mother of three, and grandmother to thirteen.