The gifts in the valley: How God shepherded a pastor’s soul after his wife died
Fah Chee-Seng // July 14, 2019, 6:00 am
In this sermon, Pastor Fah's recounted his conversations with God after losing his wife suddenly last June. Photos courtesy of Fah Chee-Seng.
In June 2018, Pastor Fah Chee-Seng’s wife Dr Fah Wei Lyn died suddenly at the age of 37 of a subarachnoid haemorrhage. They have two sons, Judah, 6, and Micah, 3. Two months after her passing, Pastor Fah, 38, gave a sermon on wrestling with God as he grieved her passing. Here is an edited transcript of his message, “The gifts in the valleys”.
Deliverance through death
I know no two roads to suffering are ever the same, but I wanted to share how God has been shepherding me through the Psalm 23 valley.
Whenever we face suffering and death it always causes us to ask questions and seek answers. When I have to deal with that I tell God: “Not another thing. I really don’t need another one of these kinds of things in my life.”
Job never saw his answers. But what he did see gave him his breakthrough. And he saw God.
Wei’s death brought to memory a lot of the stuff I had to go through in the past. I’ve experienced God delivering me from so many things: Relational brokenness – my parents being divorced, and me coming out of that and yet coming to faith; my life-threatening cancer; a car crash from which my wife escaped with just a broken rib; lymphadenitis where my throat was swollen.
I’ve experienced God deliver me from different aspects of death, but I’ve never experienced God deliver me through death.
And this was God inviting me to experience not a God who just delivers you from things, but a God who is able to bring and deliver life through death.
Whenever you deal with death, it begins to make you ask really good questions: Is it fair? Is it just? What are the important things in your life? What is it that really matters in life?
Sometimes when we deal with death, we get confronted also because there is a limit to your own understanding, emotional, mental and physical resilience – and you’ll be confronted by your own limit of how you can actually control your life.
At this point, death exposes what we really believe about God.
1. The gift of God
I was reading Job 42. And Job, as many of us know, was a man who faced deep tragedy – he lost his family, health, wealth, but yet in the midst of that, for 39 chapters, we see this conversation of questions and answers, community, wrestling and limitations.
And the interesting thing is, Job never got his answers. The thing that gave him his breakthrough was captured here in Job 42:1-5:
Then Job answered the Lord and said:
“I know that You can do all things,
and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to Me.’
I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees You.”
I love this. I think verse five sums up his whole perspective: I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.
Job never saw his answers. But what he did see gave him his breakthrough. And he saw God.
You may say he had comforters like Eliphaz and Elihu telling him about who God is, but you know they only told him about who God was. But only Job saw God, with the eyes of his heart.
The whole premise of Job was that Satan comes and he says: “Look at the way God is boasting, saying, ‘Look at the way Job loves Me.’ “
And Satan goes: “He loves You because of all the blessings and benefits that You bring into his life.”
But by the end of chapter 42, we have a different Job. We have a Job who didn’t just see God and love God and serve God for the benefits and blessings, but a God that he loved while expecting nothing in return.
And that was a very different experience for me, because I love God because He saved me from my cancer. I love God because He gave me clarity of God. I love God because He gave me a beautiful wife that we can partner in this adventure with God.
But when that kind of stuff is taken away, why do we love God?
I felt God just say to me: “Chee, I love you and I love Wei. Tragedy does not mean I do not love you.”
It was during this difficult time that I got to see aspects of God I had not seen before.
I remember I was meditating on John 11 and this is what it says:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to Him, saying, “Lord, he whom You love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it He said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. (John 11:1-5)
When I read that, I remember, all of a sudden I felt God say to me: This is Mary’s tragedy. Her brother died.
This is not just any Mary; this is Mary, the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil.
“But I thought this kind of thing doesn’t happen to special people,” some may say. But this is the beloved Mary. And this was her tragedy. And yet in the midst of that, these words were said, “Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus.”
In that moment I felt God just say to me: “Chee, I love you and I love Wei. I love Judah and I love Micah. Tragedy does not mean I do not love you.”
All of a sudden it’s like I saw God reassure me with His love and it says here: “This illness does not lead to death, but it is for the glory of God.”
Sometimes we just pray for healing – and I’m not saying we shouldn’t – but God’s goal is for the glory of God.
God can take anything – broken, whole – and use it for His glory.
It’s not even about my healing, it’s not even about my wholeness, it’s not even about my restoration. It was like God saying: “Chee, you got to understand – I want to show you this is about Me. It is about Me.”
And in that moment I felt I got to see God.
One Wednesday in July, my older son had to go get a whole bunch of dental work done. And I remember trying to prep him for going under general anaesthesia.
I remember, as I was driving, God was trying to reassure me, saying: “I’m with you Chee.” But, at the same time, I was going: “God, I know You’re with me, I know You’re my lifeline but, you know to be honest, I want Wei with me. I really do. I miss her heaps. I miss her companionship above all other things.”
But then He kept saying: “I’m with you, I’m with you.” And I didn’t quite understand what that meant for me.
As I was driving Judah to the hospital that morning, he was emotionally upset, and I looked in the rear view mirror, trying to reassure him as a father saying: “You don’t have to worry. I’m with you. I will never let anything happen to you. I have got your back. I’ve got all things covered.”
He couldn’t get out of it. He couldn’t get out of that emotional toil and wrestling, but I was looking back, going: “He’ll be emotional, but nothing is actually going to happen to him.”
All of a sudden, it was like I saw God saying: “You are like Judah. Take a back seat. And I’m driving in your seat. Here you are in your season of hardship, worried, anxious, wondering, emotional, crying and feeling like I’m not there. But just like you are saying, ‘I am with you’ to your son, in the same way I am with you in the backseat.”
Matthew 5:4 in The Message version says: You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
In this valley, even though I didn’t get to see the answers, I got to see God.
John Newton gave a great quote in the hymn Begone, Unbelief:
Though dark be my way,
Since He is my Guide,
‘Tis mine to obey,
‘Tis His to provide;
By prayer let me wrestle,
And He will perform;
With Christ in the vessel,
I smile at the storm.
You may not get your answers but the invitation is there for you to see God.
Not the God whom we love for the benefits that we get, but the greatest gift that we have is that we have God in our lives.
Since we love God for God, we can serve God for nothing. Because of that, we can be free from the changing circumstances (Romans 7:6), from the great ups and downs that don’t shake who God is in our lives.
2. The gift of grace
As I was going through this, I had a lot of people come and talk to me about the funeral and my eulogy and saying they can’t believe what I’m going through and I’m strong.
But it is hard. This morning, I had to wake up at 4.30am, finish my sermon, hang the laundry up, dress my kids and drop them off at a friend’s place by a quarter to eight.
It’s hard when you sit at the table and you’re by yourself and you’ve got your two kids and you go: “My wife should be here.”
It’s hard when you walk around and you see couples holding each other’s hands. You go: “I had a beautiful wife like that. I don’t have one anymore.”
It’s hard when you’ve got to think and have the same amount of brain to keep the same amount of knowledge that two people had to keep, like where to buy Judah’s jumper.
There are times when I just bawl and cry and I can’t help it.
Many of us understand grace as God’s unmerited favour and forgiving us. But we forget we need grace to live our lives.
But then you know what I saw? I saw the gift of grace.
This is what Paul says of the thorn that God will not remove off him:
But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
I can do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:13). Not through me.
Every one of us will have our limits. People will see strength but it’s actually the gift of grace in the valleys.
Many of us understand grace as God’s unmerited favour and forgiving us. But we forget we need grace to live our lives – the grace that comes when God unzips us, puts the Holy Spirit in us, and divinely empowers us to live like Jesus.
I got to see the gift of grace through God’s people, in big ways and in small ways. One of the hard things in the early part of the journey is that you see triggers everywhere.
For instance, when I was in Moggs Creek, where Wei and I first got our call into ministry, it made me sad.
And then one day I was at school and I spoke to this lady who had lost her father, and she said this beautiful thing: “Life will move on for everyone else in a matter of time. And you will have these triggers everywhere. But these triggers are God’s way of helping you remember.”
There I saw the grace to transform painful triggers into something beautiful. It helps me remember. And for that, I embrace it.
You also get to see the grace of God enable you to live practically through this difficult season.
I’ve got two second-hand cars, and so I decided I should just get one new car, a Toyota Hybrid. I’ve never purchased a new car in my life.
At what point in our Christian journey have we thought we have become who we are without the grace of God?
I was second-guessing my decision, wondering whether it’s appropriate or not. I was afraid others will think I’ve spent money poorly, because people have been super-generous.
One Wednesday, I put down the deposit for the car.
The next day, I met a friend who said to me that as he was driving, one month ago, he told his wife: “We should buy Chee a new car.”
And they were thinking of getting the Toyota Camry Hybrid – the same car.
He also wanted to give me five grand to fix up my old car, pay for the insurance, and bless someone else with it.
This person then said he’ll cover my kids’ education for the next six years.
I told him there’s no way I can receive that, but he said this to me: “At what point in your life have you gotten to where you are and become who you are without help?”
At what point in our Christian journey have we thought we have become who we are, or gotten where we are without the grace of God?
Freely receive, freely give.
3. The gift of understanding eternity
After Wei’s death, I read through Philippians 1:19-26:
For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
Paul wrote something like this in prison: “I’m in jail. You know why? God’s Gospel goes forward.”
I just lost my wife, and this guy is saying: “Hey I can’t wait to get there.”
Wei is gone but I’m here. What am I to do? This struck me: It means fruitful labour for me.
And I remember the verse describing Jesus on the Cross and the thief by His side, and He turns to him and says: “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
“Do you know she’s now in paradise? You feel like she’s missing out? No. You are missing out.”
Wei finished well. Her death was not an end but a crowning service – a seal on a life of sacrifice, having finished her race to bring glory to Jesus.
Not every one of us who faces death will have a crowning service. But it can be.
She reached the place that every single one of us, as disciples of Jesus, aims for our lives. God has redeemed this earthly tragedy.
I felt God say to me: “I can have her back now. I’ve loaned Wei to you for a while, and now I’m receiving her back.”
Death will not have the final say. It has lost its sting. May Jesus Christ continue to be honoured whether by life or by death.
Wei – I love you. May your life song continue to sing and bring glory to Jesus.