Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hoping and coping

How should Christians deal with a major loss in life? There are two opposite extremes to be avoided.

1. One type of advice frames the issue in terms of a grieving-process that runs through a cycle, after which you “recover” from your loss.

On this view, it’s important not to “dwell” on the past, or “live.” You need to achieve “closure.” Move on.

2. This approach is often in reaction to mourners or depressed patients who are stuck in past. They cling to the past in the sense that they can’t really function in the present. They are too wounded. Too hopeless. They “brood” about the past.

3. However, there are problems with (1).

i) There’s the question of whether it’s even realistic to put a major loss “behind” us. What if that’s something central and irreplaceable?

ii) In addition there’s the question of whether it’s appropriate to make a clean break with the past. Will you ever be the same? No. Not in this life. But why should you be the same?

For instance, should we treat relationships as bridges? Once we cross the bridge, we don’t need it any longer. No need to look back. Just press forward.

But surely we shouldn’t treat everything and everyone in that disposable fashion. And it’s not necessarily enough that I made it across the bridge. What about those left behind?

iii) Of course, if something has truly come to an end, then we need to adjust to that the finality of that outcome. But that, itself, may be an open question. In a fallen world, we must often say good-bye to people and things we love. But when we say good-bye, is that good-bye for now, or is that good-bye for good?

Suppose I put my pet dog to sleep. If I’m an atheist, then that’s the end. I’ll never see my dog again.

But if I’m a Christian, I know that God has the power to restore my pet to life in the world to come. I don’t know whether he will do so. But there’s a possibility from a Christian standpoint that’s not a possibility from a secular standpoint. As an atheist, the situation is hopeless. As a Christian, the situation is hopeful. It’s not something I can count on. But it’s something I can pray for.

4. In my opinion, we should generally deal with a major loss in life in terms of hoping and coping rather than closure or recovery. Striking a compromise.

“Recovery” or “closure” suggests an illness or injury. To make a full recovery is to feel the way you did before you were got sick. Before you were injured. You’re back to normal. Back to the way things were before the illness or injury.

But in case of major losses in life, that’s not possible. You suffered an irreparable loss. You can’t go back to the way you were. You can’t go back at all, for there’s no “back” to return to. It’s gone. No longer a part of your life. But by the same token, you can’t go back to the feelings you had before it happened.

Back to the illustration of the dog. Suppose the dog enriched my life. If I never had the dog, I wouldn’t miss the dog. I wouldn’t know what I was missing by not having the dog, then losing the dog. So I can’t just go back to the way I felt before I had the dog.

The dog created a space in my heart that wasn’t there before. When the dog is gone, the space remains. It doesn’t automatically contract. Not automatically filled by something else. Having the dog permanently changed me in certain ways.

Mind you, there can be compensatory experiences. There’s a sense in which children are a compensation for lost parents and grandparents. But it’s not as if they simply take their place.

For different types of relationships are unique. Parents and grandparents. Friends. Siblings. A spouse. Children. Each contributes something the other does not.

That can also apply to certain places, or certain phases in life. 

5. I think the proper response is to strike a balance between the past, present, and future. God has given us the capacity to be aware of past, present, and future. We ought to live mentally and emotionally in all three timeframes. The problem is when these fall out of balance. When we overemphasize one timeframe to the detriment of another, or others.

Each timeframe needs the other two. We literally live in the present. (At the moment I’m dealing with the phenomenology of time, not the ontology of time.) So we do need to function in the present.

But our present perspective should be partly informed by the past. By our memories. For God has given us our past. That’s part of the life he gave us. That part of his story for our lives. The story he wrote to us, for us, about us.

That shapes us. That can teach us. That’s something for which we should be thankful.

And our present perspective should be partly informed by the future. By hope. By reaching for the goal.

Depending on where we are in the lifecycle, the emphasis will shift. The young have less past and more future–in this life. The old have more past and less future–in this life.

Living with a view to the future involves two futures: (i) our future in this life, and (ii) our future in the afterlife.

Beyond a certain age a Christian may not have much to live for in this life. But he still has everything to live for in the next life.

So it’s natural for an elderly Christian to think more about the past and the far future, while it’s natural for a young Christian to think more about the present and the near future.

6. We should also come to terms with the fact that an undertone of sadness is inevitable in a fallen word. That’s to be expected. Ultimately, we can only hope for emotional healing in the world to come. Restoration awaits the world to come. The intermediate state and the final state.

In this life we will never be whole again because we were never whole to begin with. We’re like someone born with a congenital illness. Due to our birth defect, we don’t know what it feels like to be normal. In fact, a person can have an undiagnosed birth defect. He thinks he’s normal. This is all he’s ever known. He doesn’t know what he’s missing.

If he’s diagnosed, and cured, then the moment he awakens it’s like a new birth. He sees the world with new eyes. For the first time in life he says to himself, “So this is what it’s supposed to be like!”

7. It’s also important to prioritize our losses. Some of my regrets may be vain regrets. Maybe I didn’t achieve my goal, but on reflection, my goal wasn’t all that great.

Life is a winnowing process. It’s tempting to focus on the things we miss. But we need to counterbalance that temptation with the awareness of all the things we’re glad to put behind us. It’s often a relief to be able to say, “I never have to do that again!” 


  1. That's good stuff, Steve.

    I've been wondering about something that's not quite off topic; what's your view - from a Christian theistic perspective - on alternative possible futures, or on the other hand, alternative possible pasts?

    Maybe you or other Triabloggers have dealt with this topic already, and if so maybe you could point me towards a resource.

    I'm not thinking along the lines of Open Theism or anything like that.

    For example on the one hand, the cross was an eternal plan executed with divine precision to the least detail, down the the "hour" as it were.

    On the other hand the Lord Jesus employs "possibility thinking" (not Schuller-esque!) in His monologue concerning Chorazin and Bethsaida.

    Clearly in retrospect and in the light of Scripture we can (I think) rightly deduce that Chorazin and Bethsaida's rejection of Messiah was ordained by God, just as was Ninevah's repentance in sackcloth and ashes at the reluctant preaching of Jonah.

    I recognize God's absolute sovereignty over all all events, to the falling of a sparrow and His working and doing all things well, so maybe mine is just a perspective question from the finite human point of view.

    But in your opinion is it reasonable or unreasonable from a Christian theistic perspective to think, for example, that Chorazin and Bethsaida could have turned out differently than they actually did, or if there was in reality and in the light of Scripture no possibility of the contrary based on the fact that it happened as it did, thus we conclude that the God of all possibilities, and Who ordains all things that come to pass, decreed it to be so?

    Perhaps the future appears to be somewhat "open" from our limited creaturely perspective, but once something happens in's happened as a fact of history, and as you pointed out in your bridge analogy "there's no going back".

    Chorazin and Bethsaida missed their off ramp exit and there's no turn-arounds, no do-overs, no mulligans, and therefore it becomes unreasonable to infer other possible alternative outcomes other than what actually happened.

    Thus Jesus' example was for illustrative and rhetorical force, not that there could have been a different outcome "only if..."

    What say you?

    In Christ,

  2. From a Calvinist standpoint, a possible world is a reflection of God's inexhaustible omnipotence. Something which was possible for God to do had he chosen to do otherwise.

    God knows everything possible for him to do. Most of these bare possibilities remain unexemplified possibilities, for what's possible may not be compossible. Two alternate possibilities aren't simultaneously possible.

    And, yes, once it's past it can't be otherwise. The technical term for that is accidental necessity. The necessity of the past.

  3. I'm coping with the loss of the Aporetic Christianity blog. Does anyone know why it was taken down?

  4. It became a time-management issue for Manata. He had other priorities.

  5. I'm absolutely shocked!!! There were posts of his I seriously wanted to read. He could have given us some time to download his posts. MAN I'm disappointed. sigh....

  6. Thanks for writing this. My grandmother went home to be with her savior a week ago. It hurts. There have been lots of tears since we were so close. As a young Christian I’m not real sure how to deal with the death. Anyway, thanks for the article.