On Grief and Identity

Four years ago this month, Bill Gothard resigned from his position with IBLP/ATI. The held-in breaths of thousands of us were finally exhaled. We believed that that era had finally come to a close. In the years following, not a whole lot was heard about him. Until Monday. Monday brought a new round of sorrow and questions for the many people who had been hurt or harmed by this program.

From my years in counseling, walking through many things related to Gothard and ATI, I would come to write a lot about grief and identity. And in the past year, these same two themes have come up often in my life. So, this post is simply from a person who has found that grief is not a set pattern one goes through nor is it a system. As C.S. Lewis said, grief is a spiral and one often doesn’t know if he is going up or down. Grief is also a process that each individual wades through. Kubler-Ross contributed so much to the stages of grief, but no two people walk the grief-journey in the exact same way. In the same way, while we grieve what was and could have been, we often re-journey through who we used to be and what was.

In the past five years (and this last year, especially), I have been overwhelmingly blessed to have pastors, counselors, friends, and sisters to walk through these things with. God has been—and continues to be—so very kind and faithful. To anyone reading this, my prayer for you is that your own life journey may be dotted with people who embody the counsel, compassion, truth, and grace of Jesus.

Who am I?

Often in the aftermath of a great loss, the question inevitable follows, who am I? If I was all of that before, without it, who am I now? As more and more painful memories rise in our minds, less and less of us remains the same. Am I still who I used to be? Or am I entirely different? When we lose something that was intrinsically connected to ourselves, we feel that we have lost an integral part of our very beings.

This loss could be a death, divorce, job change, ruined relationship, or any other thing that brings about a deep change. Was who I used to be all a sham or was that the real me? Who am I now, with this great hole in my identity? How do I define myself if part of me has so drastically changed?

Who we really are

But, in fact, we are not defined by our pasts. Our identities are not rooted in what we were a part of, the people who played significant roles in our lives, any of the places we have been, or all the experiences we carry in our hearts. Nor are we defined by what we used to believe, who we followed, or who had our hearts. We are not even perpetually tied to the mistakes we made, our own sins, or those done to us. All of these things may contribute to our individual personalities and shape the mosaics that are our unique lives. But none of these things truly define us or give us our realest identities.

Rather, who we are is hidden in Christ (Col. 3:3). Our realest, truest selves are children of God (Gal. 1:26-29; John 1:12; 1 John 3:1). We are his and he is ours. Our status as dearly loved children of our Father in heaven was never dependent on who we used to be or even who we are now. What we have lost does not diminish who we are now, because we are in him. Nor is there anything we have done or has been done to us that could change God’s faithful love toward us (Jer. 31:3).

Jesus never saw us with labels across our hearts and foreheads that described who we were then or now. These labels others may have given us or we call ourselves were never, ever how he viewed us. We are not mentally ill, depressed, ruined, worthless, unlovable, a failure, or a tragic mistake in his eyes.

Our Father does not view us as we view ourselves or how others see us. His love for us was never based on some sort of perfect life or performance. Nor was his faithfulness to us ever hinged on our arrival through life unscathed and whole. Nor is he the God of “second chances” because his acceptance of us was never based on chances and circumstances in the first place.

We grieve…with hope

And yet, we still grieve. We grieve what we lost, we grieve who we used to be, and we grieve what could have been. At times, we may feel like we are dying or that we are living yet dead, for how strong our grief is. Our hearts will fail us and our emotions will overwhelm us, but Jesus is the strength of our hearts and our portion—forever (Ps. 73:26). It is right and safe to pour out our sorrows and questions to God. He is mindful of our tears (Ps. 56:8) and the breaking of our hearts do not go unnoticed by him (Ps. 34:18, Ps. 147:3).

And the duration and intensity of our individual mourning will vary. We will cry for the sheer pain in our hearts and lives, but, truly, it will not last forever. The same God who is near to the brokenhearted will also comfort us in all of our sorrows and troubles (Matt. 5:4, 2 Cor. 1:3-4). Friends, the comfort—it will come. Though, it may not be as soon as joy coming tomorrow morning (Ps. 30:5). In the spiral of grief, sorrows like sea billows may hit us hard and then leave us for a time. But no matter how much sorrow we carry until our last day down here, it is a sorrow sweetened with the deep, gospel hope we have in Jesus. We truly can be sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10), because we know that these heavy griefs will one day seem so miniscule that we won’t even think them worth mentioning. The glory of God in the face of Jesus will be so beautiful, so heart-healing, so joy-filled, our tears and sorrow will just fall away (Is. 60:20, Rev. 21:4).

Jesus, would you help us see that because of you, our identity has always been secure? Would you help us believe that who we are is so hidden in you, that no label or definition could ever truly hang onto us? And would you help us as we grieve, to grieve as people who know that our hope is in you, and that in your presence, there is joy everlasting.

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