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God of All Comfort

by Dee Brestin
Today's Christian Doctor - Spring 2010

My 59-year old husband Steve, the father of our five children, and a beloved physician in our town, lost his valiant battle with colon cancer.

Though you never completely recover from a catastrophic loss, you can experience comfort and transformation. It isn’t just the passage of time that has brought healing to our family, but understanding how to “hoist the Psalter sail,” to use the Psalms to take us through this raging river of grief. This is a secret suffering saints throughout the ages have discovered: from Basil, to Bonhoeffer, to Bono — and yes, to Brestin — a simple daughter of God.

Use the Psalms incorrectly, and you will sink — but use them correctly and they will sail you through the stormiest sea. Philip Yancey said that he had been told to go to the Psalms for comfort, but when he did, he would end up reading one of the “wintriest Psalms” and end up feeling “frostily depressed.” How comforting, for example, is this?

Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken my companions and
loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend.
Psalm 88:16-18

But then Yancey came to understand that the Psalter is not a book about God, but a journal written to God. We do not read it like the other books of the Bible. Instead, we use it to help us dialogue with God. The Psalms of lament freed me to be honest with God, for the Psalms reminded me to avoid the trap of dishonesty with God. God isn’t angry when we are honest — instead, what angered Jesus repeatedly was dishonest people pretending to be something they were not. God wants honesty, because He wants intimacy with us. My husband was the first of us to fall in love with the Psalms. The following is an excerpt from my prayer journal:

December 13
Five years before Steve’s death

Steve is taking long earnest strides with You, Lord, and I am running breathlessly behind, trying to catch him. He has read through the complete set of Charles Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David this last year. We read together, last night, by the crackling fire and the Christmas tree, and when he finished the last volume he closed it reluctantly, held it close to his heart, and said, “I have spent this year in the presence of a very godly man.”

I find, when we pray together, phrases from the Psalms lace his prayers: “According to thy tender mercies . . .” “We forget not all your benefits . . .” He loves to sing hymns and Psalm songs. Annie, whose bedroom is below his den, says “I hear Dad singing songs in the night. I like it.”

Thank You, Lord.

I believe that our merciful God, because He knew the storm was coming, was preparing us to hoist the Psalter sail. Steve kept paperback copies of the book of Psalms in his desk, and would give them to patients with a simple explanation that these Psalms could help them pray both in times of joy and in times of pain.

During our storm, the Psalms of praise stuck in my throat — but oh how I could identify with the Psalms of lament. Through them I sensed that the Lord Himself understood my pain, my grief. The lament helps you hang onto God — to accept the mystery of suffering. In most of the Psalms of lament, it begins with an honest cry of pain, but usually, there is a shift before the close of the Psalm, when the psalmist is able to turn his eyes from his own situation to the character of God, and resolve to trust. For example, in Psalm 13, David begins by lamenting: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” But by the close of the Psalm, though his circumstances have not changed, the Lord has given him strength, for he says, “But I trust in your unfailing love . . . .”

What the enemy has tried to get us to do, from the Garden of Eden on, is to back away from God. And when you are suffering, he comes slithering in, whispering lies. The Psalms of lament are the antidote, helping you defeat those lies, helping you hang on, helping you know God understands your pain. In fact, through the Psalms of lament, God “Sits Shiva” with you.

“Sitting Shiva” is a Jewish tradition. When someone had a catastrophic loss, close friends and family would “Sit Shiva” with them. “Shiva” means seven, which is the biblical number for completion, or, in effect, “as long as it takes to bring comfort.” They would come and sit, but not speak unless spoken to, and then only briefly. They would listen to the person share the details of their loss, they would weep, but they would not offer solutions. When author Joe Bayly’s child died, he told of two very different visitors:

I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealing, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly. I wished he’d go away, and he finally did.

Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour — or more. He listened when I said something. He listened. He answered briefly. He prayed briefly, and then he went away. I hated to see him go.

Sometimes we simply cannot shield children, loved ones, or patients from enormous pain. I wanted to prevent my five children from suffering, from losing their dad — but I couldn’t. What I could do was stand beside them in their pain, mourning with them. I could also pray for them, entrusting them into the arms of God. Though God did not rescue our family the way we first hoped, by healing Steve on earth, He has rescued us. None of our children have backed away from God, but have used the Psalms of lament to talk to Him, to help carry them through the storm. As the years have passed, I am seeing a real rescue. God has enlarged the souls of each of my children. The “God of All Comfort” has comforted them, and now they are comforting others with the same comfort they have received.

June 7
Three and a half years after Steve’s death

I just talked to Annie on the phone. Oh, Lord — what a transformation You are doing in our daughter! She is telling me about her work at the hospital as a nurse’s aide. She said, “Half of what I do is cleaning up after people who have been sick. But Mom, I think it is what I was born to do. I can be the love of Christ to them and that brings me so much joy.” Oh Lord, thank You. I’m hoping Steve can see her. But if he can’t, will You tell him, please?

Suffering has a purpose so deep we may not understand it on earth. But in the midst of mystery, we are refined. In the midst of questions, we come to a deeper trust in the One who knows every answer, in the One who laid down His very life for us. And as we speak the truth to our souls, using the Psalter sail, we overpower the enemy. God’s Spirit not only rescues and comforts us, but transforms us.

Practical Ways for Physicians to "Sit Shiva"

When you deliver bad news, do it privately and in person. Sit down. Answer their questions, giving them time. Acknowledge their shock. “I know this is a lot to process and you may have more questions later.”

Acknowledge their pain. Often, “I’m so sorry” will suffice. Sometimes articulating their pain is so helpful. When I was a distressed first-time mother with a colicky baby, my pediatrician told me he had colic and probably wouldn’t get better for three months. I began to cry. She came over, put her hand on mine, and said, “The constant crying is so hard, isn’t it?” I nodded. “I know it feels like it will go on forever, but it won’t.” I left feeling comforted. I felt she understood my pain, and somehow, that divided it.

Walk them to the door. Physical touch — an arm around the shoulder, an embrace at parting, even a touch on their arm can identify with their pain.

Pray simply. My husband prayed with every patient, and in his whole career, was only refused once. A simple prayer for God to comfort and to help is sufficient.

Steve kept a large drawer full of paperbacks of the Psalms to hand out. He bought them in bulk. He also had a drawer full of musical CD’s. Music is a wonderful way to “Sit Shiva.” The Psalms and the great music of the church have the power to calm, and to drive evil spirits away. Here are a few specifically designed to bring comfort:

• Both of these guides have a comforting music CD in the back: “The God of All Comfort” and “A Woman of Worship” (www.deebrestin.com)

• Michael Card, “The Hidden Face of God” (www.michaelcard.com)

• Matthew Smith, “Even When My Heart Is Breaking” (www.igrace.com)

Bibliography

1 Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), p. 109.

2 Joseph Bayly, The View From A Hearse, (David C. Cook Publishing, Elgin, Illinois, 1969) pp. 40-41.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dee Brestin is a bestselling author and speaker. Her latest book, The God of All Comfort: Finding Your Way into His Arms (Zondervan) shares her grief journey after her husband’s death, and how the Psalms of lament took her through the storm. Steve Brestin was a leading orthopedic surgeon in Nebraska who practiced with three other Christian orthopedists. Author Carol Kent wrote: “This book will be an instant classic for those who are hurting.”