This article was originally published in the Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth. It sums up my theology of grief and I hope it gives you encouragement.
I dreamed a dream in times gone by/when hope was high and life worth living/I had a dream my life would be/so different from this misery I’m living/so different now from what it seemed. Now life has killed the dream/I dreamed. These are the famous haunting lyrics of Fantine, a character in the classic novel, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
The story behind the song is one of lost dreams: a mother (Fantine) wanting to provide for her child but, at every turn, her life unwinding into poverty and spiraling into ruin. The song has one theme: bitterness.
Bitterness at what could have been, but wasn’t, bitterness about the sting of her present circumstances, and bitterness about facing a future she didn’t want. In short: bitterness at the loss of her dream of what life would be like.
Very few of us will stand on the street corner and belt out a song of anguish like Fantina, however the sentiments she expressed may be alive and well in our hearts. Who hasn’t experienced the bitterness of hopes dashes and dreams not realized? Many of us could say: “I had a dream of what life would be like, and this isn’t it.”
There is nothing wrong with dreams or hoping for good things in life. In fact, we are told to make plans, prepare, hope: in essence, “dream”. We can have good and godly dreams: the upbuilding of the church, a healthy family, a life of usefulness, a loving marriage, financial security and meaningful relationships and work.
But since the fall has dashed our purity and communion with God, we and our dreams (as in hopes and plans) are broken, both in essence and their fulfillment. Sometimes it’s in the big things of life: churches can flounder in strife or error, babies are miscarried or born with life threatening conditions, spouses become ill and die or financial disaster happens.
Even if we haven’t had major disappointments, we often have smaller dreams unfulfilled, such as struggling with loneliness while longing for relationship, or the perceived lack of meaningful and fruitful work, etc.
With the loss of any dream, we realize grief and disappointment with an intimacy we never desired. But within every lost dream there is a beckoning, a divine opportunity, even in the midst of your grief and brokenness.
A Divine Opportunity for Unbelievers
For unbelievers, the loss of dreams is a divine opportunity sent to awaken us from the stupor of comfort and the futility of life without Christ. It’s a wild wake-up call from the God of the cosmos to take our eyes off our little dreams and set our eyes on Him.
Our “little” dreams matter, to us and God, but when we are missing Him, they all amount to nothing. And because sin dwells at our core, our dreams are hopelessly bent to serving ourselves and that only. But God is gracious and uses these disappointments as a call to wake up from the mirage of satisfaction with your perceived success and happiness here and a call to drink of the Living Water (Jesus!) in order to bring you to true happiness and success only found in Him.
Look over the past years of your life. Are there areas of loss, disappointment and frustration? They are divine opportunities to come and drink. They are invitations to place your bitter and frustrated heart into the hands of a capable and complete satisfier: the Christ.
A Divine Opportunity for Believers
But what about the loss of dreams for believers? Many of us have had good dreams slip from our grasp and crash into a thousand pieces. And these aren’t hypotheticals, they are real situations that create a painful daily reality for many of us.
In my immediate relationships I can think of at least ten families dealing with the serious loss of dreams. One has lost a husband, a young couple grieves infertility, a father deals with a disabling illness, a marriage broken by sin and on it goes.
Providence woven with the fallen world frustrates the life we dreamed of. No matter how much we intellectually understand that God will work things for our good, when we actually endure the loss of dreams, we grieve. And that is not a lack of faith. It is the natural response to the pain of living in a broken world as broken people.
Grief can make us physically nauseous, emotionally depressed and spiritually dry. It can numb us to the realities of God’s comfort and goodness. Surrounding ourselves with the people of God, immersing ourselves in the preaching of the Word and continuously crying out to God in broken confession and trust are often the remedies for healing the deep wound we feel. In short: commit our broken dreams and grief to Him.
This is the divine opportunity. Even in our losses, He makes us gain in Christ. Here are three ways:
Communion. We’re very short-sighted; it often takes pain for us to lift our eyes off of our little lives and actively seek the Lord in prayer. Not only because we have more need, but because we desire Him more. When our dreams are ripped from our hands, the earth and all it holds becomes small and He becomes everything.
Some Christians are afraid to be transparent about feelings of disappointment, grief and perplexity in these times. But God doesn’t need us to bolster up a false cheerfulness or an it’s-all-for-the-best attitude. Instead God comes near, and compels us to turn to Him in our grief.
We can confess our wrong attitudes, ask for forgiveness, grace and help. He is not a distant, uninvolved Father. He takes your tears and puts them in a bottle, and invites you to take refuge in Him. He reminds you of His everlasting arms when it feels like the loss has struck you so low you can scarcely face another day. He doesn’t gloss over your grief and actually binds you to Himself as you walk through valleys.
Sanctification. Holiness is not a boring state of being, it is a life of new obedience to Christ. In that there is a growing intensity and closeness with the Triune God. By His power, He actually transforms us into His likeness and into the fellowship of His love. Often this isn’t accomplished in gentle or comfortable ways. There is pain involved–the chipping away of our desires, our pride, our entitlements. The stripping of dreams we thought we deserved. And a surrender. A surrender to follow Christ no matter what; without reserve or contingencies.
New Dreams. Nothing will replace the dreams we’ve lost. There is no “get-out-of-grief” card when you suffer great loss. But we are not left with the ash of broken dreams and no hope for the future. We are offered a “new and living hope”. Jesus.
Even when our dreams may have been good dreams, He gives us better and richer dreams. He takes our dreams for a comfortable normal life and gives us dreams for an increasing life with Christ. He trades our dreams of pleasing ourselves into dreams of living for Him.
Losing our dreams can free our hearts to embrace Him and a kingdom dream. Just recently I witnessed an older lady come to faith and a life of service after being converted during a valley of grief. Out of the wastelands of our lives He can grow such beauty, hope and life.
Ash or Him
Grief and loss are murky and often unpredictable experiences. But no matter how we are affected, we all face similar temptations in them. Our grief can turn us from God, instead of towards Him. We can nurse the incredible pain and let it fester into life-long bitterness and anger. We can settle for ashes and miss the divine opportunity extended to us in grief: come to Him and live.
C.S. Lewis said this about our dreams (favorite wishes): “Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death to your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” (Mere Christianity, 226-227)
The story of Fantine’s life is not a happy one. She was without Christ and laid low by broken dreams and had no living hope. She died a miserable painful death, holding only the ashes of dreams and a bitter heart.
Your circumstances are different, but maybe your life is also at a point so low, a place where every dream has been lost. Don’t settle for clinging to ashes. Turn with your lost dreams to Jesus, for the first time or as your life-long posture. He is holding more than a dream; He is offering the reality of a life in Him that can never be lost.