God has created a spiritual kingdom in which subtraction is addition. What is taken from us leads not to poverty, but to riches buried in union with God. Finding those riches, however, is a matter of spiritual digging. It often takes years of sifting through mud and rock. We lose faith and cast down the shovel. “There’s nothing here!” And then time passes. We pick up the shovel and start digging again. What we find is always something that seems indiscoverable by any other means. That, among many things, is what I learned from losing my father when I was eighteen.
Love and Loss
Now, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned from that great loss, but before I do, you need to know something. And so do I. It’s something bound up with the character of God, and I found it beautifully expressed by J. R. Miller.
There is immeasurable comfort in this truth for all who are called to give back again the gifts which God has bestowed upon them. God is a giving God, but he is also a God who sometimes takes away, and, in taking away, he is not changed in his character nor in his feeling toward us, his children. He loves us just as truly and as tenderly when he takes away the things or the beings we love as he did when he gave them into our hands. They were sent to us in love, and for our good they came with their blessings for our life. Then the taking away is also in love, and has good and a blessing in it. This is true, for example, of the friends we have. We are sure of the goodness that gives them to us. They bring divine blessings from God. We say of them, “The Lord gave—blessed be the name of the Lord.” We have no doubt whatever concerning the goodness of God in giving our friends to us. But, by and by, they are taken from us. One of every two friends must some day see the other called away and must stand, bearing an unshared grief, by the other’s grave. Can we finish Job’s song of faith then, and say, “The Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord”? Can we believe that there is as true and holy love in the taking away as there was in the giving.
J. R. Miller, The Ministry of Comfort, Scholar Select (Andesite, 2015), 45–46.
Of course, Job is the textbook example (Miller was writing about Job in this passage). He gains everything, and then he loses everything. And then, in one of the most jaw-dropping verses of the Bible, he falls down to worship (Job 1:20). But his loss is not final. Subtraction is not the end; it leads to addition. God gives Job back more than he ever could have imagined (Job 42). And Job’s heart was undoubtedly fuller by the end, having had that heart carved out by the deep-digging hands of grief.
But note Miller’s point in Job’s context: the love of God did not change throughout Job’s life, since God cannot change (James 1:17). The gifts Job received at the beginning of his life and the loss he took in the middle were both events that happened in the context of God’s unending love. Both, in that sense, were acts of love.
The same is the case for us, with all of our peaks and valleys. That should puzzle you. How can loss be an act of love? How can subtraction also be addition? How can love and loss abide in the same room?
The real work in this life that’s worthy of our attention is soul work, the crafting of our inner being by the invisible Spirit of God. In my memoir about my father’s early death, I write about how transience is part of what it means to be human. Transience is the passing away of all things, including ourselves. You can’t feel it right now, but you’re already diminishing. You’re dropping skin cells and hair follicles at this very moment. Time is busy as the wind, carving canals into the smooth landscape of your skin, painting your body with lines of remembrance. The cartilage between your joints is wearing away. We’re in a river of transience. Is anything happening that lasts? Yes. Soul work.
Soul work is what God does with us in time. He develops us into the creatures we already are in his eyes. As some theologians put it, he helps us become who we already are. We are creatures made new in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). That’s who we are. And yet, with each day, with each struggle, with each grief, as we suffer with Christ in order to be raised with him (Phil. 3:10), we become more ourselves. What does this look like for us in times of great loss?
Love and Loss Again
I’ll use the death of my father as an example. What have I gained as a result of that loss? How has subtraction become addition? What soul work has God been up to? Well, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of who I am in relation to God. I am a transient, limited, unique, hope-filled creature. I didn’t have that understanding before my dad passed away. I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know the power and gravity of love. I didn’t know how precious hope is. I didn’t grasp my need and desire for God himself. I was living in the dark with regards to all these things, and yet if you would’ve asked me, I would’ve said I was living in the light.
Now, God’s love didn’t change. He loved me before my father died; he loved me in the giving. He loved me after my father died; he loved me in the taking. In the giving and the taking, God is love (1 John 4:8). If the giving reflected his love, then doesn’t the taking as well? Isn’t it just as possible for God to reveal his goodness and personal purposes for me in taking as in giving?
The hard part is that we don’t want the taking. We wince at subtraction. We want only addition. And that’s part of what it means to live in a broken world. When all things are made new (Rev. 21:5), there will be only addition, only building and creating and communion. But not yet. Right now, amidst the loss, we need to stare at love. We need a refrain: God, I know that you are still love, so help me to see your love in this loss, your shaping in this suffering, your personal purposes for me in this pain.
If we can repeat that refrain, if we can quietly hum that song in the midst of loss, then eventually we’ll gain far more than we ever imagined. God will do his soul work as a perfect and silent gardener. He’ll be shaping and pruning and trimming us back.
And here’s the key: What we ultimately gain from loss is always him. We see the God of love for who he always is, in the giving and the taking, in the pleasures and the pains. It’s him that our souls want most, even when we aren’t aware of it. Maybe that’s the most precious gift we receive in losing a loved one, what we’re given in the taking: to know that the God of love, the grand Taker and Giver, the Holy Shaper, is our one eternal longing. And that makes perfect sense. Who wouldn’t long for love itself?
What we gain from loss is more of God. That’s the grand addition in the subtraction.
Read more in the author’s intimate memoir on losing his father: I Am a Human: A Memoir on Grief, Identity, and Hope
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