Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Gary Habermas on grief

Well, my wife, it was over pretty quickly, but my wife had been sick for a few months. We had no idea what it was, and when they finally sent us for testing, they had already sent us for other tests, but when they sent us for the final testing, they discovered it. Turned out she had stage four stomach cancer and she died four months later. That’s all she lived. But, before she got sick I had done some publishing on the subject of doubt and in one of those publications I was reflecting on Job. And Job is talking with God in Job 38 and I made this make believe scenario, what my Job 38 would be if I got to ask Job my questions. What would it look like? And I had published that. And three years later she got sick.

And so I thought, “Oh my, for crying out loud. I can’t believe this. Now, I have to see. Does the advice I give in this earlier document really work when I’m going through the fire?” And so we had gotten back from the hospital where they told us there was nothing they could do for her and she was terminal. And the kids were in school. It was the first week in May of 1995. She was upstairs sleeping because she was given medicine for stomach cancer that made her sleep 17-18 hours a day. And I put a child monitor up there and went out and sat on the front porch. It was starting to get warm and I had my Job 38 and I literally sat there and thought, “Wow. This is my day in the sun. I can think like Job 38.” And I had this make believe conversation. It was the same one I had three years earlier with the resurrection, but now it was spiced in a way by my wife’s obvious dying. And she didn’t live too much longer.

But as I sat there on the porch imagining what God would say to me, I would start by saying, “Lord. Why is Debbie upstairs dying? I mean she’s 43-years-old and she’s the mother of our four children and I thought you called me to ministry. But how can I minister, and how can I teach, and how can I publish if my kids need breakfast, lunch, and dinner? And they need their clothes washed.” We had four children. And if they had to have their homework done at night, how can I get anything done? And so I said, “Why her? Why now? Why this? And she’s my best friend.

And my Job 38, the way I saw that is the Lord would have said to me, “Gary I appreciate this. I appreciate your laying this out, but I’ve got a question for you. What kind of world is this? Now, I notice that’s howJob 38 starts too, “Where were you when I created the foundation of the world?” And I pictured the version for me would be, “What kind of a world is this?” And I didn’t know what to say and she’s dying and I didn’t want to play theology. And I said, “Well, Lord I don’t know. I’ll tell you in terms of my own studies. It’s a world where your son came to earth, died for our sins, was raised from the dead, and we can have a lot to hope for because of this.

And he said to me in my imagination, “Well, it’s a good start. It’s a good place to start. And I know what you’re going through.” Well, I had read a lot of literature and later wrote a book on grief and I knew that’s the last thing you say to somebody who is dying, “I know what you’re going through,” even if you did go through what they went through. The problem is they can look at you and say, “Yeah, but you’re over it. I’m not. I’m in the middle of it. So don’t talk to me about this.” Well, I pictured God saying to me, “I know what you’re going through.” And I thought, “All right. How so?” And he said, “Well I watched my son die.” And I said, “I had already been told it was terminal but I had hoped there was a way out for her.” And so I was shocked when he said that. And I said, “Wait a minute are you telling me that as you watched your son die I’m going to have to watch Debbie die?”

And I pictured him saying to me, “Son you’re going to go through some deep water, but some day you will be –” as the last card I put away after she passed away said, “How are you going to feel some day when you talk about the Yellow Brick Road finally issuing into the Emerald City?” The card said, “How are you going to feel walking down the streets of heaven hand in hand with your wife?” And I’m telling you guys, when I read that card I thought I was going to die. When I opened that card up I couldn’t repeat those words for a year. “You’ll be able to walk down the streets of heaven hand and hand with your wife.” And so I pictured God saying to me in the words of that card, I pictured him saying, “Gary, you’ve got some deep waters to go through, but one day you and Debbie will be in the kingdom together with us and it will be a glorious time. But I can’t explain it all right now, but just keep that truth ever before you.”

And basically that was the shortened version of the conversation. Later, I told the story again. That was the three-year earlier story that I published with her death put into it. So I interpreted her death as my sending my greatest gift home to heaven. And it would have been the other way around if it would have been me that died. But I sent my greatest gift home where she couldn’t be touched. And the words of 1 Pet 1:3 and following there, “Nobody can take this away from me.” She can’t be hurt anymore. Nobody can steal this. It’s garrisoned in the halls of heaven. Yes, it’s horrible. But, yes she’s safe. And, yes it’s forever. And, yes it’s about reunion. And metaphorically, because the conversation never took place with the Lord, but metaphorically, yeah that’s what the resurrection meant to me. So it symbolized, “It’s not great right now,” but this is as philosophers have said down through the ages, “This is not the best of all possible worlds, but it’s the best way to achieve the best of all possible worlds.” And I knew I was going to have to get on with the achieving part.


  1. What a hard, hard thing to go through. There is no real comfort anywhere in it. You just have to go through it. Sometimes, from moment to moment, there are good thoughts. I remember Sheldon Vanauken’s (“Severe Mercy”), “the manuscript is safe at the printer”. That sort of made sense. It hit me, too, early on, that I was no longer married. (Matt 22:30). That was hard to swallow.

    Over time, the pain fades, but I still feel the emptiness. I still miss her. I still play through some of the scenes that we played through. She had had a bad life before we met, and she liked me simply to call her “Wife”. (And she called me “Husband”). I bought a car a few years before she died. The license plate was JLW ####. She instantly said “John Loves Wife”.

    I’ve dated a bit. Very shallow. No one for longer than a couple of months. No one that really has captured my attention. I take that back. There is a woman that I knew while I was married. We worked together for a while, and I liked — loved her. One of the other hard things in life was staying away from that. And thank the Lord, I did.

    I looked her up about a year ago. She has no romantic interest in me. I treat her like a sister. It’s very strange, but it seems workable.

    But there is nothing in the world like losing a wife. We were married for 28 years. Six kids. Those of you who are married — love her with all your heart while you can. Even if you find her to be somewhat difficult in some way, you will miss her when she’s gone.

  2. Very good comments from Habermas.