Amos and our grief
by Patrick Lafferty
“’Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord...”
Cholangiocarcinoma is a cancer of the bile ducts which drain bile from the liver into the small intestine. It is nearly always incurable and rapidly lethal.
Kanika Mokchai, wife of Achan Sumran Mokchai (the pastor of the Gennesaret Church in Nong Khai, Thailand which PCPC supports), was given that diagnosis this week. Her prognosis is of course as grave as they come, but the church here and there remains prayerful for her well-being and for the hope of those who love Kanika.
If you’ve been following along in our summer sermon series on the Minor Prophets, you’ve likely noticed a common thematic arc. Each speaks fiercely of Israel’s habitual and corporate sins—binding lament to outrage—followed by an equally vehement portent of comprehensive judgment.
But then, in the wake of His wrath, provoked only by Israel’s persistent intransigence, the Lord sounds a note of hope. Though the nation crumbles before their very eyes; though Israel’s sin has elicited a righteous reckoning executed by bloodthirsty armies in Hosea and Amos, and an infestation of locusts in Joel—this righteous God, justified in His judgment, promises to restore. Not merely Israel’s fortunes, but moreover her intimacy with the only God she really knows—the only God who really is.
So goes the “plot” of many of the Minor Prophets’ words, meant to sober God’s people to their sin as well uplift them in their despair. We know Amos’s prophecy, as Pete preached last Sunday, had both a local relevance to Israel’s immediate condition and a more far-reaching relevance for Israel’s ultimate future—a future inextricably bound to what unfolded in the person and work of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God. But what else might ancient words like Amos’s have for the believer today?
Amos’s condemnation of Israel’s neglect of the poor among them certainly reproves us for our tendency to limit our concern to our own kind and class. His blistering rebuke of Israel’s duplicity and arrogance chastises any presumption on our part that God turns a blind eye to our flagrant sin because we are already His possession. (As Kevin DeYoung has recently put it, our God is sometimes “wondrously angry” at His children’s perversity.)
But might I suggest another important implication from Amos’s both strident and sanguine language, particularly from the latter? I think his words, coupled with what we know of how Jesus both fulfills and amplifies what Amos anticipated, speak to how we face our griefs.
John Flavel was a prolific Puritan author in the mid 17th century. He lost both his parents while in his 30s. Two years into his first marriage, his wife died in childbirth, the baby also succumbing. He later buried two more wives and died in 1691. Like His Savior, Flavel was a man acquainted with grief. So acquainted that he penned a work entitled A Token for Mourners, recently published again under a new title, Facing Grief.
Flavel draws a distinction between “moderate” and “immoderate” grief. He does not besmirch those who weep though their faith in God’s goodness be strong—no more than Paul chides the Thessalonians for their true and reasonable mourning (cf. 1 Thess 4:13-18). But he does argue that our grieving can unwittingly reach a kind of critical mass, if you will, when we begin to live entirely without hope, as the Pauline text just cited mentions.
When we lose all sympathy for the variety of evils that afflict the church and the people of God, we may be drifting into immoderate grief. Should we subject our bodies to unreasonable neglect or harm we dabble in immoderate grief. If after a long while we still chafe at others’ compassionate efforts to smooth a salve of godly clarity upon our condition, we have wandered beyond the boundaries of grief meet and right.
Anyone who has grieved knows how flashes of this immoderation may erupt in even the most humble heart. Flavel takes no issue with those momentary outbursts but instead applies his warning to those who demonstrate protracted refusals to take heart in even more glorious realities (cf. Romans 8:18ff). Surely finding His hope in our grief is both a matter of our work and His mercy—a process mainly hammered out in prayer—but to say the scars of our losses necessarily render us incapable of ever rejoicing in God again is to deny the thematic arc of the minor prophets, and moreover the oft-repeated hopeful words of our Lord, “Behold, the days are coming...“
Space doesn’t permit full treatment of Flavel’s explanation of how to move from immoderate to moderate grief. (I therefore commend his brief work to you.) Key to his case of course is a look to the One whose death was not final—a death signaling the beginning of the death of death. That blessed day gives clarity and hope for that coming day.
How must the words of the “coming days” fall upon Kanika’s ears? Upon her husband, Sumran’s, ears? How must those words and Flavel’s elaborations upon grief fall upon your ears—whether your suffering is greater or worse than our sister’s in Thailand? Even in our weakest hours we may still sit quietly with what they promise, and ask the Lord to commend them to our souls.
It is said that no one can adequately prepare himself for the suffering he will inevitably face. But can we ever linger too long in consideration of the coming One whose death was the harbinger of eternal life?