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Reflections: One Year Later (Fred G. Zaspel)

It’s been a year tomorrow (Oct.31) since we lost our daughter, Gina. What a treasure she was to us, and throughout the year since her passing she has been at the same time both the most painful and the most delightful topic of our conversation. We can scarcely talk about her without tears, and yet there is scarcely a topic or experience that does not bring happy reminders of her and bring us to talk about her again. We were an unusually close family, and she is always on our mind and never more than a breath away from our discussions.

There are lessons we learn in “the house of mourning” that are not learned elsewhere – or at least not so fully appreciated. And so for what it’s worth I thought I’d share some reflections on some things we have learned since October 31 of last year.

We have learned the encouragement of friends. It’s an awkward thing, and we’ve all been there – a friend suffers, and we just don’t know what to say. So we stumble and stammer a bit and finally say something like, “I’m so sorry,” and then walk away wishing we could have thought of something better. We’ve all felt that, and when Gina died we saw our friends struggle with that frustration as they would talk to us. But we learned that not just profundity of thoughts but obvious expressions of love and concern from our friends are wonderfully encouraging and enormously appreciated. Know that showing love and concern, however your words may stumble, means a lot.

Gina picAnd yet those uncommon, well-chosen words are of course helpful in their own way. We of course received many cards and emails from friends, all of whom expressed love and care, and each was helpful in its own way. Some friends, however, were particularly well-considered in their expressions of sympathy, and one in particular stood out as the most thoughtful, heartfelt, and compassionate. It was a pastor-theologian friend who had known our children since they were young, and although he said nothing that was new, nothing we didn’t already know, his words were very well chosen, and his heart of loving concern was obvious. He taught me to think ahead in ministering to others, to speak with empathy and substance. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”

We have also learned some things about gospel consolation rightly applied. For many years I have thought that quoting Romans 8:28 too quickly to a grieving Christian can come across as insensitive, as though we perhaps should not be feeling the grief but rather be happy. Indeed, ultimately it is only in Romans 8:28 and related gospel truths that we will find our encouragement. But to rush there too soon as a consoler can be ill-advised. So I have tried to begin on the level of human sympathy and support and then try as I can to direct the conversation to the things of Christ. We have experienced all this now ourselves – reminders of gospel truths somehow seem much more encouraging when spoken by friends who in love share in our pain.

This brings me to the value of gospel truth. We all pray that God will encourage the hearts of friends in grief, but we have learned afresh just how God does that. There is indeed something mystical (can I use this word?) about the secret working of the Spirit of God in our hearts and minds, renewing the inner man daily, as the Apostle Paul puts it. Yet it is not pure mysticism. It is not the Spirit alone but the Spirit and the Word. God works in us by means of the truths he has revealed to us. And we have learned in all this the practical, real-life value of gospel truth. The Spirit of God does indeed fortify our minds and hearts, and he does indeed shed abroad in our hearts a sense of God’s love for us. He does not do this in a vacuum, however, but by impressing the glorious truths of the gospel deeply in our hearts and minds and assuring us of our interest in them.

Many years ago it occurred to me that part of a pastor’s responsibility is to prepare his people for suffering – to prepare them by fortifying their minds with gospel truth. So I preached a rather lengthy series of sermons on the subject – evil and the sovereignty of God, suffering and the sovereignty of God, suffering and the justice of God, suffering and the goodness of God, God’s purposes in suffering, faith and suffering, and so on. It was well received by our patient congregation, but I distinctly recall thinking in my study one day during those sermon preparations, “I wonder when I will need this stuff myself.” I was young, my family was young, and to that point we had a relatively “charmed” life. It was not too long after this that Gina’s suffering began. And we love to tell anyone who will hear us of the value of gospel truth planted deeply in our minds and hearts, anchoring our souls and preparing us for “the evil day.” Theology is incomparably practical, and there is just no substitute for learning and knowing the gospel … in all its glorious dimensions and implications.

From the parents’ perspective we have learned that bringing up our children for Christ really is priority #1. I realize that God is sovereign in saving, and I realize that many a faithful father has had a foolish son. There are no guarantees. But God uses means to accomplish his decreed ends, and faithful parental guidance is a major one of those means. And now at this point, looking back, what else could we want but to remember a daughter who in her lifetime came to know Christ – or, rather, was known by him – and whose heart was aflame, despite her suffering, for the saving grace of God in the gospel – a daughter who still today is safe in Christ. There really is nothing else. In the past year I have often offered this counsel to young parents: Enjoy your children while you have them. Thank God for them daily. And above everything else bring them up for Christ.

We’ve also learned that time really does not heal all wounds. I am told by other parents who have lost a child that it does get easier in time, and I’m sure that must be true. But very honestly, I don’t see time healing anything. But it is a matter of great joy to us that what time cannot heal eternity can … and will. Romans 8:18.

Finally, we have learned – as we have always believed – that God really is enough. We have learned that his promises are trustworthy, and we have learned that he has provided in the gospel of Christ all we will ever need. We miss Gina terribly, but anchored in the cross and in things eternal our joy in Christ continues to grow stronger.

Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA, and is the executive editor of Books At a Glance. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary  and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.

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