July 27th is not a welcome day in our house. So much about the time of year--whether the length of the long summer days, the sunshine, the humidity, and even the relative calm of a mid-summer schedule, brings back memories we wish we could escape. It was on this date in 2009 that our son Micah, a happy little 9-month old boy, died as a result of a confluence of events. Many people in grief, or who have endured great suffering, are said to “live in the past.” Because current circumstances create such pain in their lives, some people who have endured great hardship try to avoid current circumstances and hold on to everything about the past that provided them joy. In that vein, we might look back at a particular event and consider its worth to us based only upon the joy or usefulness it brought in that particular moment. For the nine years that have passed since that awful July day in 2009, we have come to painfully associate the attributes of a midsummer day in Minnesota with the memories of our son’s death.
But God does not view history the way we do. God is working out our redemption through our framework of time. In his book, A Grace Revealed, theologian Jerry Sittser describes the importance of using “redemptive memory” so that we can be encouraged by how God is using our history to shape us. Sittser writes, “We see the scope of the biblical story unfold before us, situated, as we are, some two thousand years after it ended. But the characters we read about did not have the vantage point we have because they were inside the story. They chose to trust God and follow him into an unknown future, however slim the evidence of a bigger story that could make sense out of their little ones.”
I want to offer three observations about how I have struggled with having a “redemptive memory” related to my own grief.
- Embrace Our Temporality. First, while God is above and outside time, He fully expects us as temporal beings to only be able to comprehend life sequentially. Joe Rigney writes that our temporality is not sinful; it is at the essence of who were created to be, and who we will be for all eternity. The author of Hebrews writes, “These [the patriarchs] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (11:13). To believe we can possibly understand all of the purposes that God has achieved in our suffering is to misunderstand our temporality. But God is calling us, nonetheless, to trust that He is using time as a key ingredient in the recipe he created for our sanctification and His own glorification.
- Patiently Bear the Sufferings of Others. Second, we must bear patiently with others as God works in their lives, in His time, just as He works in us, in His time. The Apostles rejoiced in having suffered for His name and that they bore each others’ burdens and shared everything in common (Acts 5:41). We as members of Christ’s body are called to suffer with one another and to encourage one another. God’s multivariable calculus is such that, with regard to any one particular source of grief or suffering, He might be using the suffering in one matter for one purpose, for a second person for a second purpose, and to a third person, at an altogether different point in time, for a third purpose. Heather and I have been so blessed by those in the body of Christ who, having endured a similar type of suffering at a time well before our own suffering, are able to speak words of truth and encouragement to us at the point in time when it was most needed. As members of the body of Christ, we are called to share our sufferings with others, as well as our encouragement, knowing that God can work both suffering and encouragement together for our common good (2 Corinthians 1:6).
- Live in the Joy & Suffering Paradox. Third, we are called to live in a joy and suffering paradox. We are admonished to respond in joy to what God is doing in our lives in light of all eternity. James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness …” (James 1:2-4). But even while living in joy in our eternal future, we can take great solace in how Jesus showed us how to embrace the grief of temporal suffering. In John 11, we read that Jesus was so moved by the death of his friend Lazarus that, even with the knowledge of how He would shortly raise Lazarus to life, Jesus embraced the grief with His own tears. While God is above and outside of time, He is somehow also in it, and can commiserate with us now, in our own grief. We can therefore live in an ongoing and continually paradox of emotions—with both great grief in earthly loss, and yet great joy in the hope of the coming redemption of all things, including our greatest of sufferings. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:10, we are “…as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
The great news of the gospel is, among many other things, that we are part of the larger redemptive story and that no one event, however tragic, can and should define us. The cross, in itself, is the most egregious event every perpetrated on another human. But the testimonies of millions of believers across the span of two thousand years, including our very own, demonstrate that the legacy of the Cross is not just the unjust sentence, torture, and death endured by God. It is the redemption of those who are called by God.
In our case, the idea of “redemptive memory” does not mean that we should try to forget the great grief. We think of how Micah died and how if any one of a number of things would have gone differently, he would still be with us today. But at the same time, it is far too early for me to write a definitive account of Micah’s life and legacy. The way in which Micah died cannot be viewed as a self-contained event having meaning within itself. It must be viewed along with the various and numerous grace-filled blessings that have arisen in our lives by reason of it. Just as the cross of Christ cannot be viewed outside of its redemptive impact on human history, so also we should view our sufferings in light of what God has done, and continues to do, by reason of our son’s death.