How to Respond to Massive Grief

by Rick Warren

Last fall, Southern California witnessed the worst disaster in the history of our state. Wildfires burned more than 750,000 acres and destroyed more than 3,600 homes, and at least twenty people died. The overall damage is estimated at more than $2 billion, but you could never put a price on the lives lost and the families left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. No doubt it will take years for our community to recover.

You may not be in the midst of a community crisis right now, but sooner or later in ministry you're going to be called to minister in an area of unparalleled grief, and when that happens, here are five biblical principles you will want to teach those in your care.

First, teach them to release their grief.

Maybe they've lost a family member or a home or a business, or maybe they are witnesses to a tragedy of such magnitude, like 9-11, that they've wept while witnessing the losses of so many. People feel all sorts of emotions when they face crisis, such as fear, anger, worry, depression, resentment, helplessness and grief.

The most important thing to teach people when they are experiencing these emotions is that they must acknowledge them before God. It does no good to stuff emotions or deny they exist. God created us to feel emotions, and he doesn't expect us to act happy when we're grieving. Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." That means it's okay to be honest about our grief. "Pour out your hearts to God, for He is our refuge." God wants to comfort us in tragedy. He is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Second, teach them to receive help from others.

It's a huge mistake to isolate yourself when you're going through a crisis. We all need the support, encouragement, and presence of other people, particularly in the aftermath of tragedy. The Bible tells us that when we carry one another's burdens, we obey the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).

Third, teach them that they can choose not to be bitter.

Some people live and die with bitter hearts-but it's a choice to live that way. In this one regard, we all have the power to decide how tragedy affects us. If we choose bitterness, then we'll only end up hurting ourselves-and we'll also shut the door on our own happiness because we can't be happy and bitter at the same time.

As I watched television interviews related to the California wildfires, it was simple to see how people were responding in different ways to their losses. There were some fire victims who said, ‘We lost it all, and we're sad, but we're still together as a family, and we're going to pull ourselves together and rebuild."

But others said, "My life is over! I just don't see how I can go on from here; I don't think I can ever recover from this."

One of the things I've learned through my three decades in ministry is that there's absolutely no correlation in life between your experiences and your happiness. None whatsoever! I"ve seen people go through shocking experiences who were able to maintain a happy, positive attitude, simply because they choose to do so. You are as happy as you choose to be.

One skill that will help people make the choice to be happy is learning to focus on what's left-not what's lost. In a crisis, God wants us to still be thankful for what we have. As I counsel people in crisis, I encourage them to make a list of all the good things in their lives. I find it is impossible to be grateful and depressed at the same time.

Fourth, teach them to see what is of real value in their lives.

A crisis helps us clarify our values by showing us what really matters and what really doesn't matter. Jesus said, "Life is not measured by how much one owns..." (Luke 12:15, ncv).

What He's saying is this: Don't confuse your net worth with your self-worth. Don't confuse your possessions with your purpose in life. Don't confuse what you're living on with what you're living for. A man's life does not consist of what he possesses.

Kay and I live right next to the Cleveland National Forest. A few years ago when some wildfires were threatening our home, we decided to pack up a few things. We went through the house asking, "What should we take with us?"

When we got our van about one-third full, we agreed, "That's it-that's all we're taking. The rest is just stuff."

A tragedy teaches you that the greatest things in the world aren't things; what matters are relationships. And honestly, as I looked around my home then, wondering if the fire would come over the last ridge to destroy it, I thought of the Apostle Paul, who said, "All those things that I thought were valuable just aren't." What matters most is the health and safety of your family.

Finally, teach them that this is the time to rely on Christ.

The Apostle Paul said, "I have learned the secret of being happy at any time in everything that happens; I can do all things through Christ, because he gives me strength" (Phil. 4:11,13, ncv).

If you want to be happy no matter what happens, do the following:

Lean on Christ for stability: "Such a person will not be overthrown by evil circumstances. God's constant care of him will make a deep impression on all who see it. He does not fear bad news, nor live in dread of what may happen. For he is settled in his mind that God will take care of him" (Ps. 112:6,7, lb).

Listen to Christ for direction: "‘I know what I am planning for you,' says the Lord. ‘I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you. I will give you hope and a good future'" (Jer. 29:11, ncv).

Look to Christ for salvation: "God is our protection and our strength. He always helps in times of trouble. So we will not be afraid even if the earth shakes, or the mountains fall into the sea" (Ps. 46:2, ncv).

A crisis creates a moment in your life when you can shift your dependence to something that can never be taken from you. Through it, God can teach us that we may lose our homes, our careers, our marriages, or our health, but we will never, ever lose our relationship with God. He promised to never leave us or forsake us-and that's an eternal security we can build our lives on.

"We were really crushed and overwhelmed, and feared we would never live through it.… We saw how powerless we were to help ourselves; but that was good, for then we put everything into the hands of God, who alone could save us.... And he did help us and save us...and we expect him to do it again and again" (2 Cor. 1:9,10, tlb).

Baptist Press

Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.,

and author of The Purpose-Driven Life.

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