“How are you doing?” I’ve been asked that question countless times since my son went to be with the Lord. I never really know how to answer it. While at that exact moment I might be doing okay, it’s possible that 15 minutes prior I was so overwhelmed with sorrow that I could barely stand. It’s possible that 15 minutes in the future I’ll be reveling in the joy of knowing my son is safely home in heaven. I can go from joy to sorrow and back again in moments. How am I doing? Most of the time I don’t even know. And if I myself don’t know, what hope do I have of expressing it to anyone else?
I’ve found help in a proverb that addresses my inability and perhaps my frustration with that inability. Proverbs 14:10 says, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” I take that to mean that some sorrow is so bitter, so painful, so deep, that it simply cannot be expressed to anyone else. Sometimes there are, quite literally, no words. We can press into the proverb a little more to consider why this is. It must be because the one experiencing the sorrow cannot articulate his grief even to himself. It’s the heart that knows its own bitterness, not the mind, not the tongue. This grief is lodged deep in the soul, inexpressible by mind or mouth.
Though I am a writer by trade, though words are my currency, I still lack the ability to express the deep sorrow of losing a child. How could I express the anguish of watching the body of my firstborn be lowered into the cold ground, the agony of choosing the words that will be carved onto his gravestone, the torment of knowing that behind his still-closed bedroom door is all that evidence of a life lived and lost? Truly, the sorrow is not only beyond description but also beyond my own comprehension.
Yet I’m confident there is one who understands what I cannot. God reveals himself as the good Father who searches and knows the deepest recesses of my heart. His Son is the very Man of Sorrows who is intimately acquainted with grief and who can sympathize with me in my every weakness. Through it all, his Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep to utter, too deep for words. I’ve found special comfort in these, the Spirit’s groanings, for I myself have often been able to do little more than that. My prayers have often been devoid of words, yet full of meaning. Sometimes the best I can say is, “God! God! You know.” It’s a blessing to have the assurance that “when we cannot find words in which to express our prayer and can do no better than make inarticulate sounds, the Spirit takes those sounds and makes them into effective intercession” (Leon Morris).
The heart knows its own sorrow, its own bitterness. But sorrow has not been my only experience. Far from it! One of the strange realities of grieving as a Christian is the co-existence of heights of joy alongside the depths of sorrow. They run in parallel, like two streams flowing from a common source and traveling through the same valley, yet never quite touching, never quite emptying into the sea where they become one. The proverb acknowledges this, for it reminds us that what is true of sorrows can also be true of joys, so that just as I can’t adequately describe the sadness, I also can’t adequately describe the happiness. How could I express my delight in knowing that Nick is in the presence of God, my pride that he finished his race well, my pleasure in hearing so many people describe his kind deeds and godly character? Both the laughter and the tears are beyond my ability to describe, not just to you, but even to myself.
The reality, of course, is that while the streams of joy and sorrow do run in parallel, they are not identical. The stream of joy is perhaps more like a gentle brook while the stream of sorrow is like a raging river. It is sorrow, not joy, that threatens to overwhelm me, to pull me in and drag me under. And it’s in this dichotomy that Spurgeon has proved helpful, for he once preached a sermon on Proverbs 14:10. He pointed out that, as Christians, God has promised that joys will attend our sorrows, for “the deeper the waters, the higher our ark mounts towards Heaven. The darker the night, the more we prize our lamp. We have learned to sing in the dark with the thorn at our breast.”
And so I press on, singing in the dark, with the lamp of the Lord illuminating the way. Despite the pain, despite the sorrow, despite the loss, my life goes on. It must go on. I haven’t received an exemption clause that frees me from what God has called me to. I am still a parent, still a husband, still an elder, still a friend, still a neighbor. While Nick may have been taken, I have been left. While his race may be complete, mine continues. This loss has scarred me, but it does not define me. Life must still be lived. Songs must still be sung.