How I Learned to Love God's Word: Some Graveside Reflections

By Walt Russell Apr. 13, 2011 8:38 p.m. Biblical Exposition, Spiritual Formation

It was that nightmarish moment that all parents dread deep within their souls.  I am staring into the open grave of one of our children.  The setting is the cemetery of our family’s hometown in Bolivar, Missouri, where we have just completed the graveside service of our son Christopher.  It is an unspeakably painful moment in my life.  If I could muster any more tears, I would be uncontrollably weeping as I watch four men struggle to lower a steel vault lid to cover the grave vault holding Christopher’s little white casket.  I will see his little smiling face no more.  I won’t run my fingers through his beautiful blond hair again.  We’ll never snuggle together or touch one another.  This is the end.  And as I stand there looking into what feels like the abyss, I realize that this could be the most despairing, skeptical, and faithless moment of my life.  I feel like I could curse God for emotionally gutting me for the rest of my days.  It is as if I am standing beside the deep, dark, bottomless pit of hell.

This graveside interlude was truly a defining moment for me from several perspectives.  However, one of the most pivot perspectives related to how I viewed God’s Word.  Up to this excruciating moment, I had never really experienced a great loss or defeat in life.  My naïve sense was that I charted the course that seemed most satisfying in life.  I then consulted God’s Word for a bit of guidance and doctrinal stability.  And then I started pursuing the objectives that I hungered to accomplish.  Certainly God’s Word was central in guiding me, but it was largely flat and two-dimensional, like a blueprint or a map.  While it was about real human experience (like suffering and death), I viewed this as secondary to the theological truths revealed through that experience.  Even a great passage about the death of a loved one like 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 was really about the timing of Christ’s coming for His Church.  Sure, a few Christians in Thessalonica died, but this simply gave the occasion for Paul to teach about these crucial end-times events—or so I thought. 

It was interesting what had happened over the years as I had spent a lot of time reading God’s Word.  Perhaps when I was a new Christian, I might have focused on the human experience or even some of the emotions of a biblical passage.  But it seemed that I had gotten away from such “youthful exuberance”.  I was older and more sophisticated now.  I had a little education.  I could even explain the Bible to others.  I wanted people to appreciate the intellectual dimension of the Scriptures.  I didn’t want them (or me) to get caught up in a culture that is moving very rapidly into emotivism.  Perhaps my lopsided solution was to dig a chasm ever so gradually between my head and my heart—between my rationality and my emotionality.  But God has remarkable means of filling in our false chasms.

As I pondered the fact that our son’s body was being covered by the steel lid and several feet of dirt, I wondered how God could possibly resurrect his little body through such obstacles.  It was at this curious, yet horrifying moment that God graciously reminded me of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.  I began to ponder with new tear-clouded eyes Paul’s graveside theology for the grieving Thessalonians:

13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.  15According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.

While these are certainly rich truth about the end times, this passage suddenly seemed far more oriented to grieving family and friends.  It was theology wrapped in real, gritty, painful, emotion-filled experience.  It was shaped to address, not an abstract and mechanical interest in the end-times, but the tear-stained eyes of believers who had lost their friends and family members, even their children.  It was addressed at this moment to me.  It was God’s Word to me to pull me back from the abyss of despair and unbelief.  It was God’s Word to me to give me emotional comfort and a hope that can get its arms around unspeakable tragedy.  It was God’s Word to me in my grief so that I would grieve my heart out, yet not like those who have no hope.  And in that graveside realization, I learned to love God’s Word in a very different way.  Perhaps I began to love it in the way God intended for us: with both our mind and heart—with both our intellect and our emotions.

Recapturing more of a holistic reading of the Word of God has made me very sensitive to those who separate their rationality from their emotionality.  In fact, a recent instance involved my pivotal passage of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.  The setting was a graduate Greek class and we were focusing on this passage and seeking to determine its main thrust.  Very predictably, several of the graduate students glossed over the grieving believers and argued passionately that Paul was primarily teaching about the end-times.  Recognizing my fellow chasm-diggers, through my tears I invited them to stand beside me and stare into my son’s grave.  I recounted my experience with God and His Word some years before.  I tried to express fervently how my love for the Scriptures grew out of bridging the chasm between my head and my heart in the midst of deep despair and grief.  I don’t know how successful I was.  Yet I do know that my prayer for them, and for you, is that it will not take a grave for you to see the chasm.


  • Debbie Gault Apr. 14, 2011 at 6:58 AM

    Dearest Walt,
    What a powerful post, and powerfully authentic testimony you and Marty have. You are a blessing to me, and so very many others.

  • Malcolm Light Apr. 14, 2011 at 7:33 AM

    Thank you very much for this reflection. That passage in 1 Thessalonians was a great comfort to my wife and I as we held our stillborn son for the few hours we would have with him. It is remarkable to me the great power, comfort, and insight that God's word provides when I must live through and experience the suffering that pour from its pages. To easily have I also cocooned the truth's of God's Word to fit narrowly certain theological topics; forgetting that it is a living and active Word written to instruct but also to comfort, encourage, and bring peace. The other words that came to rest powerfully in my heart during that painful time came in talking with my colleague as I was reflecting on the two weeks leading up to our sons death. We knew it was coming, and our doctors gave us numerous opportunities to talk with them as well as see my son alive and moving through ultrasound images. As my friend and I spoke, he leaned back and said how difficult the knowledge of the impending death would have been for him to handle, and said, "It's so comforting to know that God's grace is sufficient for each of us." Indeed, His grace has been, and is still, sufficient for me. Thank you again for your thoughts and encouragement.

  • Dr. Phil Norris Apr. 14, 2011 at 7:51 AM

    More than growing to love the Word of God, through the losses God has superintended in my life, I have grown to love GOD more deeply, finding my joy, solace, peace, comfort, and strength increasingly in Him.

    For me, life has been an ongoing experience of loss that I might see that it is only Jesus that I truly have. Everything and everyone else, as His gracious gifts, come and go. Jesus Christ is the only permanent person we have.

  • David Viel Apr. 14, 2011 at 2:46 PM

    We just did this passage in my Greek class yesterday, and certainly did not look at it from this perspective. Thank you, Dr. Russell, for these beautiful words and the encouragement to look at passages in more than one way. What a blessing you are to us Talbot students!

  • Jordan Apr. 14, 2011 at 8:52 PM

    I needed to hear/read this today more than I realized. Many, many thanks for sharing it

  • Thomas Sanchez Apr. 16, 2011 at 8:02 AM

    Good theology only strengthens our emotions about what we believe. Accurate theology should never drive a wedge between our intellect and our emotions.

  • Sharon Lawlor Apr. 16, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    Dear Walt,
    We spend much time looking at the perspective of the author and the setting as we study scripture. Thank you for reminding us that God gave us His Word for encouragement today, as well. We rejoice that you will see Christopher again, and that we will all share the joy of Christ's victorious return together!

  • Nancy Fung Apr. 19, 2011 at 1:42 AM

    Thank you so much for sharing such a deep life experience that really touched my heart. I often and still wonder how our head knowledge can go to the heart, it is so difficult! I am working on it and may the Holy Spirit continue to enlightened me through lives experience from others like yours and our own.

  • Kara Mcgregor Apr. 23, 2011 at 4:28 PM

    Having recently encountered a friend who I believe is not in love with God but rather the knowledge he has about the bible and the teachings that support his perspectives, I appreciate this story more than words can say. You really hit the nail on the head by saying that there is often a disconnect between a love for God and biblical intellectualism. You're story is so riveting and definitely encouraging to those of us who dearly want our brothers in Christ to not only know the bible, but more importantly know and LOVE God. Thank you for your words!

  • Jennifer Apr. 27, 2011 at 11:26 PM

    And this, my friends, is why a Talbot education is worth every last penny.

  • Tracy May. 10, 2011 at 10:11 AM

    Dear Walt (& Marty),

    Debra and I were privileged to be with you in Baltimore the Summer following Christopher's death. We watched as you processed extraordinary pain with remarkable poise.

    Reading your refections on the processing of those days, having experienced a measure of them with you, surfaces fresh emotion in me and renewed appreciation for the deeply practical impact of God's truth in the most significant and tender crisis of life. Thank you.

    Blessings Brother!

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