At times stringing together the words “grieving” and “ministry” can be oxymoronic. My mind recalls one pastor who lost his wife while she was giving birth to their second child. Because of congregational and peer pressure to “keep it together” and “be a good example,” outwardly he displayed no signs of grief. He even officiated at his own wife’s funeral.
Inwardly, privately, what a difference. He experienced ongoing hallucinations of his deceased wife and barely was able to care for his own needs, let alone those of his two children.
Where was this pastor, where are we, recruited into the unbiblical nonsense that grief is, well, unbiblical?
Many have developed splendid systematic theology models that counter this hideous idea that grieving is somehow less than Christian. Rather than duplicate their studies, in the brief space that we share together in this column, I’d like to share the true story of a prince of preachers and his response to the loss of his dear wife.
Many know the name Richard Baxter (1615-1691) as one of England’s foremost pastors, authors, and theologians. Fewer know of his wife, Margaret (1636-1681). Twenty-one years younger than her more-famous husband, Margaret struggled throughout her life as a fear-ridden, highly strung, overly-sensitive, painfully perfectionistic soul.
After nineteen years of marriage, Richard lost his soul mate when she passed at age forty-five after eleven days of delirium. Her reason had almost wholly left her, as she had longed feared it might.
Less than a month later, her grieving husband—the world-renowned pastor—wrote to tell the world of his grief. First published as A Breviate of the Life of Margaret, The Daughter of Francis Charlton, and Wife of Richard Baxter, John T. Wilkinson reprinted it with the beautiful title Richard Baxter and Margaret Charlton: A Puritan Love Story.
Baxter prefaces his memorializing with the candid admission that it was, “. . . written, I confess, under the power of melting grief.” Knowing the likely criticism for such openness, Baxter continues, “. . . and therefore perhaps with the less prudent judgment; but not with the less, but the more truth; for passionate weakness poureth out all, which greater prudence may conceal.”
Did you catch his meaning? In our weakness, not only are we strong in Christ, we are all the more honest as Christians. In our grieving, we do not and should not conceal the truth of tears this side of heaven.
In Depth of Grief
Perhaps even more remarkable, it was not simply the shock and nearness of Margaret’s death that left her husband so frank. Years later in his autobiography, Baxter expresses how his wife’s death left him “in depth of grief.” Interestingly, the original editor of Baxter’s autobiography suppressed this phrase. (Some things never changed.) Fortunately, truer historians have uncovered it—for the benefit of all who dare speak the truth about sorrow.
Richard Baxter understood the truth that it’s normal to hurt—even for “full-time Christian workers.” His entire biography of dear Margaret is a tear-stained tribute to the affection they shared and the sadness he endured.
Mingled Hurt and Hope
Of course, Baxter also understood the truth that it’s possible to hope—for all Christians. Listen to his mingled hurt and hope.
She is gone after many of my choice friends, who within this one year are gone to Christ, and I am following even at the door. Had I been to enjoy them only here, it would have been but a short comfort, mixed with the many troubles which all our failings and sins, and some degree of unsuitableness between the nearest and dearest, cause. But I am going after them to that blessed society where life, light, and love, and therefore, harmony, concord, and joy, are perfect and everlasting.
Perhaps one reason why we practice denial is our fear that entering our grief might so consume us that we will be overwhelmed with worldly sorrow. Baxter’s Christian experience reminds us that this doesn’t have to be the case.
We can look fallen life squarely in the eyes, admit the truth that it is a quagmire of pain and problems, and still live hopefully now if we also look toward life in our heavenly world to come.
In the last paragraph of his tribute to Margaret, Baxter succinctly combines these two realities. “Therefore in our greatest straits and sufferings, let us comfort one another with these words: That we shall for ever be with the Lord.”
Shakespeare’s Romeo said, “He jests at scars, that never felt a wound.”
Baxter might add, “He fears facing scars who never embraces the truth that by Christ’s wounds we are healed.”
J. I. Packer, A Grief Sanctified, Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1997, p. 13.
Ibid., p. 56.
Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxteriannae, 1696.
Packer, p. 197.
Ibid., p. 57.
Ibid., p. 149.