Perspective: Beauty for Ashes

During a recent encounter with a former colleague and friend, I was saddened to learn that she was mourning the passing of her young grandson.  Tragically, as the boy made his way to school, his life was ended by a gunman firing shots in a suspected drug deal gone wrong.  The innocent child was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  As I looked at the pain in his grandmother’s eyes and watched her tears flow, I struggled to find words that could give her comfort.  How do you make sense of such a senseless act?  How do you hold on to your faith when it is shaken to its very core? In my feeble attempt to console her, I remember saying these words: God will not waste your pain.  He knows. He cares. He understands.  And He will give you beauty for your ashes.

It is difficult not to question God during times of immense heartache and pain. As she said during our conversation, why would He allow this to happen?  It is a question that many struggle with around the world when faced with extreme adversity.  Those who do not believe in the existence of God are often quick to say that no caring God would allow such bad things to happen if He was truly all-powerful and could stop it.  Whenever tragedies occur – natural disasters that claim the lives of hundreds, school shootings in which children are slaughtered, losing a loved one to an untimely death – non-believers are quick to blame God, or to use the acts as evidence that He does not exist.  However, to get a full appreciation for why God does not intervene in such circumstances, one needs to closely examine the Bible’s account of creation.

According to the scriptures, a conversation about mankind took place before the first man was created.  You may recall the passage:–

Let us make mankind in our image and likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all creatures that move along the ground.                     

                                        ~ Genesis 1:26

Dominion is defined as:

  1. sovereignty or control
  2. supreme authority
  3. absolute ownership
  4. the territory of a sovereign or government

A law was set by The Creator stating that human beings would control, own, rule and have authority over the earth.  Based on this law, the earth became the sovereign territory of mankind. In order to operate in this territory, God Himself would need the cooperation of the human race.   During the Bible account of the “fall” of mankind, that authority was handed over to another, which accounts for why the Bible refers to the enemy as the “ruler of this world.”

In times of tragedy and heartache, there is another force at work.  And because His word is Supreme, God is not willing to violate the law which He Himself set in place before the beginning of time.  The Sovereign One needs the “permission” of man to act on earth – and thus the necessity and power of prayer.  However, as we noted at the beginning of this article, bad things still happen to good people.  While we may never understand why tragedies occur, one thing we can know for certain; that is, given the chance, God is willing and able to redeem the pain of tragedy, and use it for a greater good.

“Of one thing I am perfectly sure; God’s story never ends with ashes.”

                                         – Elisabeth Elliot

Elisabeth Elliot (December 21, 1926 – June 15, 2015) was a Christian author and speaker. Her first husband, Jim Elliot, was killed in 1956 while attempting to make missionary contact with the Auca (now known as Huaorani) tribe of eastern Ecuador. She later spent two years as a missionary to the tribe members who killed her husband. Returning to the United States after many years in South America, she became widely known as a speaker and the author of over twenty books. Her message was simple:  God’s plans will always be greater and more beautiful than all your disappointments.

We first hear of ‘beauty for ashes’ in the book of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the LORD God is upon Me … to console those who mourn, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness …

– Isaiah 61:1, 3

It was customary during the time this was written for the children of Israel to wear sackcloth and throw ashes over their heads as a sign of grief.  The exploration of these verses will reveal that beauty for ashes is literally the replacement of those ashes with a tiara traditionally worn in times of joy, or a beautiful headdress.   It is natural to cry out under the heavy cloak of sorrow, but as we do, we should remember that The Creator gives words of gladness and joy.  The trick is to trade one for the other, no matter how we feel. He is standing by with beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.  However, it is necessary to trade one in for the other.  It is an act of will.

You have to choose to believe that, in spite of what you see and how you feel, God’s plan for your life is perfect. You have to choose to trust Him, even in your darkest hour.   To hold on to unending grief is equivalent to holding on to sackcloth and ashes – choosing to remain in a self-imposed prison.  Yes, you must face your fears, hurts and disappointments head on.  However, the time comes when you must lay them aside and choose joy.

Evangelical preacher Joyce Meyer is another great example of someone who traded in her ashes for beauty.   A victim of physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of her own father, Joyce’s past had broken, crushed, and wounded her inwardly.   Yet, today she has an international ministry of emotional healing to countless others like herself.  In her book Beauty for Ashes, she outlines major truths that brought healing in her life and describes how other victims of abuse can also experience God’s healing in their lives by dealing with the emotional pain of abuse; understanding their responsibility to overcome abuse; and embracing God’s unconditional love.   Amazingly, Joyce cared for her ailing father many years later and actually led him to Christ before his death.

While it is impossible to erase emotional memory, there are some things that can be done to lessen the intensity of those feelings.  Extend mercy to yourself when grief pays you a visit, in the same way that you would be gentle and kind to any hurting individual. Your grief will somehow become more manageable if you take the time to cry, think and wallow – but only for a little time.  Then, instead of dwelling on your circumstances, take note of the beauty of what lies before you.  Make a list of the things that bring you joy, then as best you can, incorporate those things into your daily life.  Permit yourself to feel negative emotions, but direct these feelings into healthy activities such as prayer, talking to a trusted friend, pursuing a hobby or journaling. Trust God, focus on His promises instead of your circumstances, and rely on others to help you make it through, recognizing moments of grace.  Dealing with grief often results in critical self-awareness that may potentially assist us in discovering new meaning and purpose in life.  Amazingly when we apply value to our grief, it metamorphoses from mere darkness into unbelievable strength from which others can draw when going through their own painful experiences.

Another therapeutic response to grief is to put it to good use.  While grief and loss are naturally accompanied by anger, instead of allowing that anger to consume you, you can use it to create a positive difference.  The organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded in 1980 by Candy Lightner, an angry mother whose 13-year-old daughter Cari had been killed while walking to a church carnival by a drunk driver.  MADD went on to become one of the most influential nonprofit organizations in the United States.   Constant lobbying paved the way for stiffer penalties for drunk drivers, the raising of the drinking age across the nation, and the lowering of the national legal blood alcohol limit, among other advances.  As a result of MADD’s efforts, alcohol related fatalities in the US have dropped by 50% since the organization was first founded.  Talk about beauty for ashes!

Many people seem to have it all together outwardly, but inside they are a mess. The good news is, beauty for ashes is available to all.  No matter what wounds you face – calamity, desolation, trouble, crisis, hard times, mourning, difficult circumstances, or disappointment – know that every wound can be traded in for peace, praise, and yes – even joy.  It’s a grand exchange for sure; but you have to be willing to make it.  Until you hand over your ashes, you will never truly experience the beauty that awaits.