Grief and Grace
Over the past eight years that I’ve had the privilege of serving in the hospitals, I’ve had the occasion and privilege of interacting with thousands of grieving people, and to become more than casually acquainted with the many aspects of the “grieving process.” In seeking to become better able to comfort those who are grieving, I’ve read many books and attended numerous seminars. But I’ve observed that while it’s one thing to learn about the grieving process, it’s quite another to experience it. Australian pastor Donald Howard wrote in the preface to his short book entitled Christians Grieve Too that though he was prepared for the death of his wife from cancer at the age of forty-six, he was “ill-prepared for grief.”
Part of me didn’t want to write this short essay. I’ve gotten in the habit of writing about some of the painful things in life the past year or so (though from the perspective of faith). And I wanted to write something happy, or even humorous. But I guess it’s one of the occupational hazards of a hospital chaplain that you are constantly confronted with the realities of life that most of us would rather forget about (until it’s no longer possible). This past year, I didn’t have to go to the hospital to be confronted with this kind of reality. So, please bear with me as I “reflect” one last time.
One of the things I’ve noticed about grieving people is that though all people do grieve their losses, everyone grieves differently. There must be a host of factors influencing how people grieve: the kind of relationship they had with the loved one, and its depth, the degree of dependence of one on the other (either the dependence of the survivor on the deceased, or vice versa), the presence of ambivalence in the relationship (the presence of anger as well as love), the degree of guilt (whether real or imagined) experienced by the survivor, the kind of loss (sudden, traumatic, preventable, etc.), the person’s temperament and personality, gender, ethnicity, family background, past losses and accumulated grief, one’s world view and spirituality. Wow. That’s just the short list! Knowing just this much has kept me from comparing how one person grieves from another, and from making judgments about things I know little or nothing about.
There are many excellent books and resources available on grief and loss these days, quite a number from a Christian perspective. But few of them take into consideration in much detail what the scriptures tell us about grief, except for some passing references. My work and my own personal experience have prompted me to pay more attention to this topic in my Bible reading than I normally would. And especially this past year I have tried to listen more closely to what the Lord says to us about it through his Word. Some of what I’ve found so far has surprised me. All of it has encouraged me.
Grief and Loss
This first section will of necessity be a bit more somber. But it is a necessary prelude to what will follow! The first and most obvious thing one notices in reading the scriptures is that death follows sin, like winter follows fall. God had warned that Adam’s sin would result in death (Gen. 2:17). And it did. The solemn refrain “and he died” appears eight times in the list of Adam’s descendants given in Genesis 5. Death is indeed the “wages of sin” (Rom 6:23a). Death is not (as we are sometimes told) “a natural thing” or “just a part of life.” Death was not part of the created order when God pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). It is an aberration, an alien invader into God’s natural order. Isaiah describes death as a “covering which is over all peoples,” and a “veil which is stretched over all nations” (Isa. 25:7). It is the great equalizer.
The second most obvious thing one notices is that God promises that death will one day be destroyed. The day is coming when “He will swallow up death for all time” (Isa. 25:8), when the sentence of death will be “abolished” (I Cor. 15:26), and it will “no longer be” (Rev. 21:4). For all who are in Christ, this is our great hope!
The third thing that becomes apparent as one reads the scriptures is that while the sentence on death awaits its fulfillment, sorrow and grief follow death and loss as naturally as spring follows winter. If death were just a natural thing, it would be unnatural to grieve the resulting loss. But since death and loss are not natural, grief and sorrow are. They are the expression of pain resulting from the severing of relational bonds that were originally designed by God to be permanent. But because of sin and death, they no longer are. And it hurts.
It’s interesting that the first person described in the Bible as grieving is God! Scripture tell us that because of the evil and wickedness of man. God was “grieved in His heart” (Gen. 6:6). We don’t understand everything about the emotional life of God. It is certainly not exactly like our own. But since we are created in his image, we should not be surprised to learn that our emotions are in some sense a reflection of his own. One of the most remarkable statements of scripture in this regard appears in Isa. 63:9, “In all their affliction, he was afflicted.” Edward J. Young, in his commentary on Isaiah (vol 3, p. 481) says, “God feels the sufferings of his people as his own sufferings.” In fact, every member of the Godhead is described in scripture as experiencing grief. Not only God the Father, as in these passages, but also God the Son. In reflecting on his rejection by the nation’s leaders in Jerusalem, it is said that He “wept over it” (Lk. 19:41). At the tomb of his friend Lazarus He “was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled,” and indeed that he “wept” (John 11:33, 35). In the garden of Gesthemane Jesus is described as pouring out his heart to God the Father “with loud crying and tears” (Heb. 5:7). The Holy Spirit is described as experiencing grief as well. Compare Isa. 63:10 and Eph. 4:30, where we are warned against “grieving the Holy Spirit” by our sins. The psalmist says that God “remembers” our tears (Ps. 56:8). And it is even implied that He is in some sense moved by them (Isa. 38:5, “I have heard your prayers, I have seen your tears”).
The fact that God experiences grief should not be seen as contradicting his sovereign control over all things. For it is clear that there are many things within God’s sovereign purpose that are nonetheless grievous to Him. In fact, there are many things within God’s purpose that are the cause of his anger and judgment.
If God, then, experiences grief, it should not surprise us to find many scriptures which describe God’s people as experiencing grief as well. Abraham is said to have “mourned and wept” over the death of his wife Sarah (Gen. 23:2). So Joseph at the death of his father Jacob (Gen. 50:1). The nation Israel at the death of Moses (Deut. 34:8). Indeed, there is an entire book devoted to expressing the “Lamentations” of the nation Israel over the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon. True, God’s people were admonished not to mourn in the same way that the surrounding pagan nations did at the death of their own. Though we do not understand today the meaning of these practices, the Jews were forbidden to “cut themselves” or “shave their head” for the sake of the dead, as their pagan neighbors did (Lev. 19:28; Deut. 14:1). Nonetheless, there were traditional mourning practices among the Jews that were viewed as entirely appropriate (e.g., the covering of the head in II Sam 15:30, the baring of the feet in Isa. 20:2, and the covering of the lip in Lev. 13:45 and Micah 3:7.) The fact that Ezekiel was forbidden these outward expressions of mourning at the death of his wife (Ezek. 24:16-17) as a sign to the nation concerning their impending judgment (v. 24), indicates that such restraint was not considered normal.
In the New Testament we find similar expressions of grief on the part of God’s people. We’ve already noticed our Lord’s own grief. Indeed he was called “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3, cf. v. l0a). A curious description, if indeed Jesus rarely wept. One aspect of our growth in likeness to Christ is that we should be growing more transparent about our emotions, and more empathic with those of others. We should also note the description of the “devout men” who when they buried the martyred Stephen “made loud lamentation over him” (Acts 8:2). A most interesting reference appears in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (a letter devoted to promoting the joy of the Lord), where he states that should his friend Epaphroditus have died as a result of his recent illness, he would have experienced “sorrow upon sorrow” (2:27). Just as in the Old Testament, so in the New, God’s people have reason not to “grieve as those who have no hope” (I Thess. 4:13). But there is nothing in the New Testament which suggests that God’s people nonetheless do not or should not grieve the temporary loss of relationship with those they love. Theologian J. I. Packer has stated: “Grief is the human system reacting to the pain of loss, and as such it is an inescapable reaction” (A Grief Sanctified, p. 12).
Of particular interest to me is the fact that the removal of grief and sorrow from human experience is tied very closely in scripture with the ultimate removal of death and loss. Compare the following statements from both Old and New Testaments. “He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces” (Isa. 25:8). “And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death” (Rev. 21:4). Though I believe (as we shall shortly see) there is substantial healing available from the Lord in our grieving now, its effects will not be entirely and completely relieved until the old order of life is fully replaced by the new.
With this context in mind, before moving on to a consideration of God’s comforting grace, there is an intriguing passage in the Old Testament that we ought not overlook. It’s found in the sometimes enigmatic book of Ecclesiastes: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure” (7:2-4 NASB). As with many of Solomon’s sayings in this book, the italicized phrase is not easily understood. But the RSV rendering seems to capture its meaning well when it says, “By sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.” Or as the NKJV puts it, “For by a sad countenance the heart is made better.” What the writer appears to be saying is that genuine “recovery” from grief comes not by denying it or repressing it, but by giving appropriate expression to it. This is obviously something that the Old Testament saints understood, and practiced. And so may we. Someone well may ask how sorrow and grief can be consistent with the joy of the Lord. But it is interesting that St. Paul saw no contradiction in describing himself on one occasion as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (II Cor. 6:l0a). The former is the result of experiencing painful loss; the latter the result of contemplating the implications of the providence of God—simultaneously.
Few people have experienced losses greater than those that befell Job. Perhaps his initial response to news of the death of his children provides something of a paradigm for us. “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshipped” (Job 1:20). Grieving, but worshipping. Grieving profoundly. Worshipping humbly.
Comfort and Grace
In God’s economy, if grief follows loss, then comfort follows grief. And this is exactly what we find in many passages of scripture. Among the things for which the Lord is said to have anointed his Messiah is “To comfort all who mourn” (Isa. 61:2b). Among those upon whom Jesus pronounced God’s blessing are those who mourn, “for they shall be comforted” (Mt. 5:4). A fact sometimes overlooked is that it is only those who mourn, who acknowledge their grief, who place themselves in a position of being comforted by the Lord. God’s comforting grace is the answer to our grieving heart.
One of the most endearing descriptions of the Lord in scripture is found in II Cor. 1:3, “The Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” He is merciful and compassionate in nature. And He is the source of all genuine comfort and encouragement. The word used here for “comfort” is related to the word used to denote the Holy Spirit as the “Comforter” … one called alongside to encourage and help (John 14:16,26). He is “the divine fount of all consolation to His people—the ‘all’ both excluding any other source of comfort and also emphasizing the complete adequacy of that comfort for every circumstance that may arise” (P. E. Hughes, II Corinthians, p. 13). The following verse states that God “comforts us in all our affliction” (v. 4a). “The present tense of the verb shows that this God of ours comforts us constantly and unfailingly, not spasmodically and intermittently; and he does so in all our affliction, not just in certain kinds of affliction” (Hughes, p. 12). Furthermore, God comforts us “so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (v. 4b). “Nor is the comfort received from God intended to terminate in the recipient: it has a further purpose, namely, to fit the Christian for the God-like ministry of comforting and encouraging others, whatever the affliction they may be suffering” (Hughes, p. 12). What a rich description of the comforting grace of God! From Him. To us. Through us.
But how does God’s comfort come to us? One means through which God’s comfort comes to us has been alluded to already. And that is that God identifies with us in our grief. We have noted above some of the passages that state this very fact. He “sympathizes with our weakness” (Heb. 4:15). “For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:14).
But beyond this, God has provided his word with a view to providing comfort in time of sorrow. “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your word has revived me” (Ps. 119:50). “My soul weeps because of grief; strengthen me according to your word” (Ps. 119:28). God’s words seem to find their way into our heart particularly when they are set to music: “Your statutes are my songs in the house of my pilgrimage” (Ps. 119:54). I have found great comfort in the music of praise and worship to the Lord. St. Paul says that “through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). And concerning his teaching on our coming reunion with the Lord and with our departed loved ones, St. Paul says, “Therefore comfort one another with these words.” It is in part through letting the word of God “richly dwell within” us (Col. 3:16) that we can gain access to God’s comforting grace. I have found it true in my own experience that the Word of God has been a river of grace to my heart.
We are comforted also by simply experiencing the loving acts of God in our life. “O may your lovingkindess comfort me, according to your word to your servant (Ps. 119:76).” It is for the direct experience of the faithful love of God that the psalmist is praying here. And I believe God does comfort and encourage us by leaving his “fingerprints” on our lives in many ways during our days of grieving. He lets us know through his providential acts that we are not alone. That He is with us. That He loves us. That He has a purpose for us still (cf. Gen. 50:24).
As indicated in the passage examined above (II Cor. 1), much of God’s comfort comes to us through his people. Later in this very letter, Paul tells us that he was comforted by God’s sending his friend Titus. “But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (II Cor. 7:6). When God provided Rebekah as a bride for Isaac, it is said that he “was comforted after his mother’s death” (Gen. 24:67). When Paul was imprisoned in Rome, he wrote that he was “refreshed” by his friend Onesiphorus who searched for him and found him (II Tim. 1:16-17). It is often overlooked that much of God’s grace comes to us, not only directly from his Spirit or through his word, but through his people. Peter tells us that it is as we steward the gifts God has given us in serving one another that we administer “the manifold grace of God” (I Pet. 4:10). The Old Testament people of God seemed to put this understanding into practice in a very practical way. It was apparently their custom to surround their grieving neighbors with love and support by providing meals for them. The “bread of mourning” and “cup of consolation” were biblical terms meant to be taken in a very literal way (cf. Dt. 26:14; Jer. 16:7; Hos. 9:4).
In what ways can God’s people administer God’s comforting grace? Certainly through following Jesus’ example to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15b; contra Prov. 25:20). By learning to be comfortable and patient with those who are actively grieving their losses. By learning to be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James l:19b). By being a “ready listener.” I’ve personally found that those who have simply “listened to my story” have greatly comforted me. I once heard a pastor speak of this effect as “healing through the laying on of ears.” What a great phrase! When Job’s friends first came “to sympathize with him and comfort him ” (2:11b), it is said that “they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great” (2:13). (Oh that they would have remained in silent mode!) Later, Job made this telling statement: “For the despairing man there should be kindness from his friend; so that he does not forsake the fear of the Almighty” (6:14). The thought is that lack of kindness can serve only to push people further from God when they are despairing. I’ve talked with many people in the hospital through the years who have distanced themselves from various churches. When I’ve inquired about what occasioned their departure, too often I have been told that it was during a time of bereavement. You can fill in the rest of the story. One way I’ve learned that we “speak the truth in love” is by being sensitive to the recipient’s present ability to receive it and absorb it. (“I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now“, John 16:12.)
A rather obscure passage that has served to guide me in all of this is found in I Samuel 30:1-6.
“Then it happened when David and his men came to Ziklag on the third day, that the Amalekites had made a raid on the Negev and on Ziklag, and had overthrown Ziklag and burned it with fire; and they took captive the women and all who were in it, both small and great, without killing anyone, and carried them off and went their way. When David and his men came to the city, behold, it was burned with fire, and their wives and their sons and their daughters had been taken captive. Then David and the people who were with him lifted their voices and wept until there was no strength in them to weep. Now David’s two wives had been taken captive, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess and Abigail the widow of Nabal the Carmelite. Moreover David was greatly distressed because the people spoke of stoning him, for all the people were embittered, each one because of his sons and his daughters. But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.“
What a great passage for summing up our thoughts in this article. We see first the experience of sudden loss. Then the expression of understandable sorrow and grief. They wept ‘til there was no more strength in them to weep. But then, as he was able, David strengthened himself in the Lord.
It’s that last phrase that I want to emphasize in closing. And there are two thoughts that emerge from it. First, the strength to move through our grief comes from the Lord. We go astray when we seek to find comfort for our grief apart from Him. I’ve seen many in the hospitals who have fallen into addictions or into unhealthy relationships due to their attempts to find comfort apart from the Lord. We’ve seen already some of the ways in which the Lord comforts and strengthens us in our grief, so that we can move on with our life and fulfill God’s remaining purposes for us.
But second, as David did, we ourselves must take responsibility for obtaining God’s comfort and strength. David strengthened himself in the Lord his God. Gaining God’s comfort involves our active participation in the process. And if the people around us seem not to be helping us in this direction, then we must ask God to lead us to those who will. And seek them out. Not everyone is so equipped. A dear friend who had previously lost his wife told me, a good while before I lost Polly, “Rick, your recovery will be your responsibility.”
The rate of recovery is unique for every person. But there is at least one passage in scripture which speaks of those who seemed to be stuck in their grief, “refusing to be comforted” (Jer. 31:15; cf. II Chron. 15:7), in need of “restraining their eyes from tears” (Jer. 31:16), and of remembering that “there is a hope for (their) future” (Jer. 31:17). We do this as we utilize the means of grace which God provides, placing our faith in Him one day at a time, in pursuit of his purpose for the remainder of our days. Part of that purpose may be (probably will be) serving others who are still on the path of grief.
Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand (Isa. 41:10).
Howard, Donald. Christians Grieve Too. The Banner of Truth Trust.
Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed. Bantam Books.
Mitsch, Raymond R. and Lynn Brookside. Grieving the Loss of Someone You Love. Vine Books.
Packer, J. I. A Grief Sanctified. Vine Books.
Scazzero, Peter. The Emotionally Healthy Church. Zondervan.
Wright, H. Norman. Helping Those Who Hurt. Bethany House.
Wright, H. Norman. Recovering from the Losses of Life. Revell.
Wright, H. Norman. Will My Life Ever Be the Same? Finding God’s Strength to Hope Again. Harvest House.
© Rick Rood, August 2004 Reprinted by permission
Permission granted to copy for personal use or single-copy free distribution to individuals who are grieving or being trained to minister to those who are grieving.