Learning to be a Christian widow (2)
I was frequently troubled by the apparent pointlessness of my life as a widow. One Saturday morning about ten months after Ray’s death, I woke feeling completely flat and emotionless.
I lay in bed thinking that I was really just going through the motions of life, marking time until it was my turn, and I might as well just die. I was not suicidal, or even particularly depressed; I just could not see the point in anything else.
I wandered downstairs and, while the kettle boiled, idly put a few books into a box I had been packing the previous evening, ready to be given away.
I came across The life of Elijah by A. W. Pink. Thinking his books were heavy going, I had never read this title, but now, remembering that Elijah had said the same thing (1 Kings 19:4), I was driven to find out what Pink had to say about it.
He had a lot to say, but the bit I saw clearly was, ‘Yes Elijah did say that, but he said it to the Lord!’ That was the difference! I had just muttered the thought to myself.
Now I took the apparent hopelessness of my life to the Lord and, within half an hour, my mood lifted. It was no coincidence that I picked that book up at that moment. I needed to be reminded of something I knew so well.
Interestingly, a couple of hours later, I received a phone call giving me some lovely news, which would probably have lifted my mood in a different way. I was so thankful that Pink got in first and the Lord taught me such a valuable lesson. Even his timing was planned. That book was not given away!
Questions of identity became another great issue. All this time I had struggled with the whole concept of widowhood. I was no longer sure where I fitted in anywhere; it all felt wrong.
A year after Ray died, I was at a church function surrounded by people I knew well, and yet I felt completely alone, as though I was on the outside looking in. I began to wonder if this was how others perceived me. If I felt I was on the sidelines of life, was that how others saw me too?
Was I now just one of the widows? Was my identity defined by my widowhood? Sure, I was a widow and everyone was kind to me, but was that all they saw, or was there something more?
After 46 years of marriage, did I now have an identity of my own? The word ‘widow’ felt like a slightly pejorative label, and anyway I still felt more like a wife. I had become analytical over the months and now had found something else to analyse!
I was not sure what I had become through this bereavement, and was troubled to know what the perception of others was. That sounds as though I was very self-absorbed — and perhaps I was.
I went round and round in circles with this and only began to get a glimmer of where my thinking should be when I read in Mark 3:13, ‘And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired’.
No strings attached. No suggestion that Jesus needed them, just that he wanted them. George M. Philip says, ‘He wanted them for themselves; because he desired them, not just for the service they might one day give him. It is good to feel needed, but how wonderful to be wanted!’ (Daily grace from the Gospel of Mark, EP Books).
Union with Christ
Reading that brought tears as I realised that the perception of others was not important. How could I have thought it was? If the Lord desired me, what did anything else matter? I saw that the only identity that mattered was my identity in Christ.
I shared some of this with a missionary friend, and in his direct way he asked, ‘Yes. What does that mean?’
I had no ready answer and could not explain what our identity in Christ is. And so began another search for meaning. Sometimes we use biblical or evangelical language, assuming we know what we mean, but that is not always the case; and here I needed to explore further.
First, and without using a dictionary, I tried to work out just what is meant by identity. I found it is made up of many things — marital and social status, education, occupation, character, appearance, gifts and talents, personal and family history. It is the way we see ourselves and how we fit into the world.
The identity of a married person is to some extent bound up in that of the spouse, even though they each retain their own personality. To some extent, he or she reflects the identity of the other.
A man’s occupation or activities will be reflected in his wife’s identity, whether he be a professor, benefactor or criminal, and that will be part of the way she sees herself. That being the case, it seemed to follow that, if my identity is in Christ, then my life should be identified by reflecting him and his characteristics.
This took me right back to the first two questions, about what I should be rather than do, and finding a way through the feelings of pointlessness.
Crucified with Christ
This is as far as my thinking progressed and I felt the issues were largely resolved, until a year or so later when our pastor was dealing with the whole issue in a series of Bible studies.
Everything falls into place when the concept of our identity in Christ is explained by the truth of our being crucified with Christ, who now lives in us.
Now, because we have Christ’s qualities in us through the indwelling Holy Spirit, we have the potential to reflect Jesus in our lives. It is this that gives us our new identity in him.
Many others have explained this much better, but in my case the Lord took me from agonising over my new identity as a widow (which really arose from a sense of loneliness and incompleteness without Ray), to being content with my standing in Christ — something completely unchanged by my altered circumstances.
None of this was new, but it all came to me afresh when these truths that I already knew were put together.
Reflecting on all of this reminds me, in Joel Beeke’s words, to consider Christ more and fret about myself less (‘Living through affliction Christianly’, Evangelical magazine, June-July 2009). Truly, when we turn our eyes upon Jesus, the things of earth do grow strangely dim.
I would not wish to give an impression that I have ‘arrived’ in any way, or that I am able to put the grieving process away tidily. It is not like that at all. Missing Ray will never go away, but the grief is changing to something softer and easier to bear.
Facing issues in the family without the support and godly wisdom of my dear husband is sometimes hard, but like Elijah I am learning to ‘tell it to the Lord’.
The lessons and the process of change are ongoing, and there have been many more questions. Learning to be a Christian widow is still a work in progress, and sometimes progress is slow!
My life changed radically three years ago, but the Lord has not left me there. Questions of direction, purpose and identity often return, dauntingly and sometimes painfully, but slowly I am learning to rest in the knowledge that the Lord’s purposes will come to fruition — even for me.