From Fears to Tears

In a previous blog post, I’m Scared, Lord, I wrote about my apprehensions concerning my upcoming hip replacement surgery. My doctor was cheerfully confident that I would not experience the post-operative pain I was afraid of, but I was all-too-aware of my potential complications. As a polio survivor, I’m twice as sensitive to pain as those whose brains were not infected by the poliovirus. On top of that, I was extremely aware of the fact that my severely arthritic hips had become basically frozen, leaving me with a limited range of motion. I knew that the surgeon and her team would be moving my legs in all kinds of unnatural (to me) contortions during the surgery, and I was extremely concerned about how my muscles and ligaments might scream in protest once I woke up from surgery. So I was scared.

But when I shared my fears with God’s people, hundreds of them graciously prayed for me, and the Lord swept away my fears like blowing away smoke. Suddenly the fear was gone and I was graced with a very matter-of-fact willingness to just get ‘er done. It was amazing. I was held in my Father’s gentle and loving cuddle, and I walked in peace the remaining days until the surgery. Metaphorically walked, that is. I hadn’t physically walked for well over a year because of pain and weakness.

Well, it has now been over a week since my surgery, and every day I stand amazed at the healing grace and pain-control grace of my gracious Lord. Not a metaphorical standing, either. For the first time in two years, I am able to stand upright and pain free. I try to maintain an awareness of the huge grace in which I stand, marveling at the privilege of being able to once more stand at the sink to wash my hands or brush my teeth. My recovery has gone exceptionally well. I’m able to walk with the aid of a walker and each day the distance I can walk grows longer. Soon I’ll be able to go home from the inpatient rehabilitation facility I’ve been in—once we figure out how to get me into our car.

But I was not prepared for what kept happening in the therapy gym: tears.

I was flummoxed by the unbidden tears that sprang to my eyes the first time a physical therapist asked me to exercise my polio leg in the same way I had just moved my surgery leg. I knew I couldn’t; I don’t have the strength, and never have. My left leg was originally paralyzed when I got polio as an infant, and it barely functions. But I also live with the mindset of trying to do what people ask me to do, and the clash of those two realities rose up in sadness and frustration that leaked out my eyes. It was rather embarrassing. I didn’t know what was going on, I just knew my heart was a storm of unhappy feelings.

When the therapist asked me to climb a two-inch step and I didn’t have enough pain meds in me for that, the stabbing pain in my surgery leg rose up through my body and exited through my eyes in tears again. It seemed that tears were just under the surface, ready to leak out at the slightest provocation, for two days.

I was so confused! What in the world was going on? Where were all these tears coming from?

It was my husband who provided the answer, and I thank the Lord for using Ray to bring clarity to my maelstrom of emotion. He texted me, “Honey, you have lived with decades of loss you have learned to manage. Now the loss is renewed and you now are reminded further of the loss in ways you haven’t dealt with for a lifetime. Polio sucks. I understand.”

That was it! The pain of loss is grief. I was grieving the impact of polio’s losses on my life yet again, this time with a freshly painful punch: polio is now interfering with my recovery from surgery. Other people can just use their other leg to support themselves and climb into a mini-van with its higher seats—no problem! I don’t have that choice. That’s a loss. When asked to do the same exercise with both legs, other people can do that, but I don’t have that choice. That’s another loss.

I manage to navigate the losses of polio for months and sometimes years at a time without having to actively think about it, allowing me the luxury of not having to face my grief every day. But that luxury has been taken away today and I want to be real and honest about where I am. I live in a fallen world where the evidence of sin’s destructive impact on our world is everywhere. My grief, the pain of my losses, is part of that fallen world. But what is also part of that fallen world is God’s promise that He would never leave me or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5). He tells me He is “the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

I remind myself of my new life verse that just seems to incredibly appropriate for one whose body is compromised:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

I cried today. I let the tears fall as the grief flowed. But then I chose not to lose heart, because this momentary, light affliction is producing for me an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.

It’s gonna be okay.


This blog post originally appeared at on June 26, 2018.

The Power of “Withness”

April 25, 2014

The day after Easter, our beloved Golden Retriever Calvin, only seven years old (that’s mid-life in dog years) had to be put to sleep because of cancer that had been sucking the life out of him. When our son and his wife moved from Texas to California, they were forced to leave him behind because their housing does not allow dogs, and Calvin became my husband’s dog.

Calvin was the exact same shade of red as our Irish Setter, who died seventeen months ago. When we had to put Pele down, there was another big red dog in the house.

But not yesterday. Or today.

And it’s painful.

Ray has always connected in a deep and special way with his dogs, and God has used them to “love on” him, as they say here in the South. So the loss of two beloved four-footed family members in less than a year and a half struck a deep blow of grief to his soul.

I looked forward to his return home so I could just be with him. I knew I couldn’t say anything to make him feel better. Nothing makes a grieving person feel better. But there is comfort in the being there for someone in pain.

Or in stress. The next morning a friend and I went into a courtroom with another mutual friend to support her in a legal hearing. Several times, our friend said how much she appreciated us being there with her and for her.

I am mindful of the week of comfort Job’s friends brought to him when they sat with him in his misery, saying nothing in words but everything with their silent, supportive presence (Job 2:13).

I am also mindful of the good news of the Incarnation, the Son leaving heaven to come into our darkness and misery of life in a fallen world, coming as Immanuel: God with us.

And I am mindful of the big “no accident” of the timing of our painful loss: the day after Easter, when we celebrate Immanuel’s resurrection from the dead, Who is forever alive and, as He promised, He is with us always (Matt. 28:20).

With us in pain.

With us in loss.

With us in stress.

Praise God for the power of “withness”!!

This blog post originally appeared at

The Stink of Self-Pity

When I got polio as an infant in 1953, just before the vaccine was developed, my parents were instructed by the doctors and the therapists that the very worst thing that could happen was for me to wallow in self-pity, and to never let me go there. Maybe they all thought that if no one ever talked about the huge assault of this life-changing trauma, it would never occur to me to think about it, and so I’d never end up in the Self-Pity Mudpuddle. So what was modeled to me, and which I dutifully followed, was a constant response of denial.

So I grew up wondering, but never able to put into words, why it was that no one seemed to understand how really, really rotten it was that I have to live my entire life with a disability, with restrictions, with growing weakness and fatigue and pain.

Fast forward to a recent mini-vacation in Cozumel with my sister and her husband. I have a lightweight travel scooter that enables me to zip around, covering distances too great for me to walk, even with my cane. Well, one night we left the scooter outside our bungalow door while we charged the battery inside, but during the night there was a torrential downpour. Scooters and rain, I learned, are mortal enemies. It was dead. I called the front desk to ask for a golf cart to come get me to take me to the resort restaurant for breakfast, but no one came and it was too far to walk.

At one point, my husband Ray lovingly said, “You know you can’t go into town without your scooter, and there are no wheelchairs here.” (He knows me well; well-trained in denial from toddlerhood, it’s easy for me to say, “Oh, it’ll be fine”—and then later I am in excruciating pain after walking. He needs to speak the truth in love to me so I don’t overdo things.)

Hit with the realization that I couldn’t walk to breakfast, much less be able to go shopping with my sister, something I’d looked forward to for MONTHS, I was confronted again with the loss of mobility and the loss of independence that a scooter provides.

So I sat there, choosing to stay present in the feelings that overwhelmed me, paying attention to what I was feeling: Sadness. Grief. Loss.


I invited Jesus into my feelings and looked to Him to help me process them well.

And then I wondered, Am I feeling self-pity too?

You know, the worst of all sins for polio survivors?

That’s when the lightbulb came on. I realized that self-pity isn’t a primary feeling like sadness, grief and loss. Self-pity is a secondary event, a choice to respond to legitimate negative feelings. But it’s not the only choice. I could also choose to respond with trust that God knows my pain, He sees and understands, and I can trust Him to redeem every scrap of my pain and my grief—for His glory and my good.

I suddenly saw self-pity as analogous to the stink of body odor. When we’re hot or we exercise, our bodies are designed to release excess heat through sweat, which doesn’t smell. It’s natural—it’s God’s gift to us. But if we let the sweat linger without showering, if we don’t process it by bathing, bacteria multiply and excrete what DOES stink.

To draw the analogy out further, experiencing grief and sadness is natural and not sinful at all. There’s no stink to those legitimate feelings that come from life in a fallen world. But when we don’t bring our feelings to the Lord, allowing Him to cleanse and purify them as we trust that He is good and He loves us even when we hurt, they can disintegrate and start to stink.

So I sat there, for the first time seeing the line between sadness and self-pity. Sadness happens because of the effects of sin in a fallen world; Jesus was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). But self-pity springs from the wrong belief that “I don’t deserve this. Life should treat me better than this. Garbage always happens to ME while good things happen to others”. . . ad nauseum.

I think we can avoid self-pity by seeking to respond with truth: “I deserve nothing but hell. Life in a fallen world is just painful, and this is my share today. Bad things happen to everyone, and good things happen to everyone, and the difference is the willingness to look for and see them. God is still good even though He has allowed pain into my life, and I can trust Him that there is a purpose for my pain.”

By the way, we had to replace the dead scooter, but in His goodness, the Lord prompted some dear friends to pay for it as a gift. Now that feeling was on the opposite end of the spectrum from self-pity!


This blog post originally appeared at on June 19, 2012.

What Not To Say When Someone is Grieving

Last week my dear friend Sandi Glahn wrote another boffo blog post about the myths of infertility, which included some of the dumb things people say.

It may be insensitivity or a lack of education that spurs people to say things that are unhelpful at the least and downright hurtful much of the time. I still remember my own daggers to the heart after our first baby died nine days after her birth. And for the past several years, I have been collecting actual quotes said to those already in pain.

So here’s my current list of What Not To Say when someone is hurting:

Don’t start any sentence with “At least. . . .”
• “At least you didn’t have time to really love her.”
• “At least he’s in heaven now.”
• “At least you have two other children.”
• “At least that’s one less mouth you’ll have to feed.”
• “At least it didn’t have to go through the pain of birth.”
• “At least you’ve had a good life so far, before the cancer diagnosis.”

Don’t attempt to minimize the other person’s pain.
• “Cancer isn’t really a problem.” (e.g., Shame on you for thinking that losing your hair/body part/health is a problem.)
• “It’s okay, you can have other children.”

Don’t try to explain what God is doing behind the scenes.
• “I guess God knew you weren’t ready to be parents yet.”
• “Now you’ll find out who your friends are.”
• “This baby must have just not been meant to be.”
• “There must have been something wrong with the baby.”
• “Just look ahead because God is pruning you for great works.”
• “Cancer is really a blessing.”
• “Cancer is a gift from God because you are so strong.”

Don’t blame the other person:
• “If you had more faith, your daughter would be healed.”
• “Remember that time you had a negative thought? That let the cancer in.”
• “You are not praying hard enough.”
• “Maybe God is punishing you. Have you done something sinful?”
• “Oh, you’re not going to let this get you down, are you?” (Meaning: just go on without dealing with it.)

Don’t compare what the other person is going through to ANYTHING else or anyone else’s problem:
• “It’s not as bad as that time I. . .”
• “My sister-in-law had a double mastectomy and you only lost one breast.”

Don’t use the word “should”:
• “You should be happy/grateful that God is refining you.”

Don’t use clichés and platitudes:
• “Look on the bright side.”
• “He’s in a better place.”
• “She’s an angel now.” (NO! People and angels are two different created kinds! People do not get turned into angels when they die.)
• “He’s with the Lord.”

Don’t instruct the person:
• “This is sent for your own good, and you need to embrace it to get all the benefit out of it.”
• “Remember that God is in control.”
• “Remember, all things work together for good for those that love God and are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28 is powerful to comfort oneself, but it can feel like being bludgeoned when it comes from anyone else.)

What TO say:
• “I love you.”
• “I am so sorry.” You don’t have to explain. Anything.

What TO do:
• A wordless hug.
• A card that says simply, “I grieve with you.”
• Instead of bringing cakes, drop off or (better) send gift certificates for restaurants or pizza places.

And pray. Then pray some more. It’s the most powerful thing we can say or do.

This blog post originally appeared at
on January 20, 2009, and you can read the many comments there.

“I Don’t Feel God’s Love or Presence”

I don’t feel God’s presence or love. I know this sounds like a nonchristian “question,” but I know 100% I am a Christian! I’ve been through so many hard things in my life; for instance, my dad, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, died of brain cancer when I was a little kid. That’s just one thing. It feels like the more and more I live for God, the more my life falls apart. I feel like He has abandoned me. I know David wrote in the Psalms about feeling alone, but I’ve never heard about anyone not feeling God’s love. Please help! I feel completely alone!

I’m sorry for the loss of your father. I’m truly devastated to hear that you don’t feel God’s presence. If you think you’re the only one to feel that way, please don’t. I certainly have felt isolation and separation from God. Sometimes it was the result of my unrepentant sin. Other times, I felt that calamity had unfairly fallen on me and wondered if God cared about my situation. Despite it all, I’m still here. I’m still a Christian and a stronger believer because of the things I’ve suffered.

King David experienced much grief and despair during his reign over Israel. When he wrote much of the book of Psalms, he did not just include the happy times of life; he included the full range of negative emotions: bad, sad, melancholy, depression, hopelessness, fear, sorrow, hurt, anger—you name it. Psalm 88 is probably the epitome of the depths of human brokenness. He felt as if he were in the darkest depths, surrounded only by unrelenting grief. David felt the terrible sting of death—those who were closest to him were taken away and he himself felt abandoned and forgotten by God (which is like death itself). The king had no idea why terrible things were happening to him and his soul was in anguish because of it.

In the face of terrible suffering, there is one thing David never included in the Psalms—faithlessness. Even at the deepest valley of his misery, David gave God praise and appealed his case before the Lord. He understood that no matter what happens, it is the Savior-God to whom he could appeal and the Savior-God who brings peace.

But also know this. God did not create us to be alone and to suffer alone. God called us as believers to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). I would ask you to express your situation to someone you trust for spiritual support. I appreciate your email to us, but you would do yourself wonders if you could interact face-to-face with a trusted friend, church member, minister, or pastor. If your dad was a professor at DTS, then I’m certain the counseling services are open and available to you. I hope this helps. Remember, God is not far from each of us (Acts 17:27). God has said that He would never leave us, nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Be encouraged that you have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the guarantee that you are God’s cherished child (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). God is always there for you.

Nathan Townsie

P.S. My colleague at Probe, Sue Bohlin, also had some thoughts she wanted to share with you.

______, many, many people have trouble feeling God’s love, but they don’t feel free to talk about it. There are a number of reasons for the obstacles to experiencing His love, and while I can’t know the answer in your case, maybe one or more of these might resonate with you.

First, as I’m sure you know, we live in a fallen world. Nothing works right, including our “feelers.” Sometimes our perceptions malfunction. Sometimes we can sense that there are feelings deep in our souls but we can’t access them. Life can be like a radio with a broken antenna, unable to pick up the radio signals that are present in the room but we’re unable to receive them.

Sometimes we shut our feelers down after a painful experience or trauma, believing that it just hurts too much, and we make a private vow to not feel anything. The trauma of losing your father wounded you and shaped you forever, and I am so very sorry to learn of this. Do you think it’s possible you decided, years ago, to shut down your heart so you wouldn’t feel the pain of loss and grief from the father-shaped hole in your heart?

The good news is that God is able to heal broken receivers, broken feelers. We need to give ourselves permission to open ourselves up to both the negative and the positive emotions that are part of life, and ask Him to bring healing to our “feelers.” Many people report that when they renounced their inner vow to not feel anything, God gradually restored their ability to feel again.

Secondly, if we’re angry at God, it’s really hard to feel His love because the anger gets in the way. I get that—I spent the first twenty years of my life angry at God because He allowed a trauma to shape my life in painful ways. It took me some time to get to the point where I grasped the truth of His sovereignty, the fact that He is in total control, which is balanced by His goodness. If God allows something painful into our lives, it’s because He has a plan to redeem every bit of the pain. I’d love to share my story with you, “How to Handle the Things You Hate But Can’t Change” here: You may also benefit from “The Value of Suffering” here:

Third, different people have different ways of experiencing God’s love. Recently, a friend was thinking about the fact that he has trouble feeling loved by his heavenly Father because of his relationship with his earthly father. While on vacation, he wondered what it would take for him to feel God’s love, and at that moment he heard the squawk of a flamingo. He turned toward the sound of the animal and smiled with pleasure, and was suddenly aware that he had been touched by an evidence of God’s love through His creation. Be on the lookout for unexpected ways that God says “I love you!” I send this with a prayer that God meets you in your feeling of aloneness and assures you of His love.

Sue Bohlin

© 2010 Probe Ministries

“We Need Encouragement After Repeated Miscarriages”

Recently, my wife and I suffered our third miscarriage in a little over a year. I am feeling so many emotions right now from anger and frustration to confusion. We have no kids currently, but would like to one day. I am having trouble reconciling these miscarriages and was hoping for some encouragement I guess. Where can I look in the Bible for something that helps?

My hurt aches for you and your wife. I am so very, very sorry for the tsunami of pain and disappointment and grief you and she are experiencing. My husband and I are also in the “Parents Who Have Lost Babies” club. Burying our daughter after nine days of life was devastating to us, but God has greatly redeemed every bit of the pain in the years since then.

I think the encouragement you seek will come from being able to see the bigger picture, one that includes God’s tender love for you and His tears for your pain as He works out His purposes in your life and character. May I suggest a couple of resources that may help? My Probe article “The Value of Suffering” is intensely practical in terms of understanding a biblical view of pain and suffering: The Value of Suffering

At our last Probe Mind Games conference, where we equip students to be confident in their faith before they get to college, I recorded my teaching session on this subject, which I sensed was very much anointed by God. I pray you find it helpful and comforting: (It opens with the sound track to the video I show first, Rob Bell’s NOOMA video “Rain.”)

You may also find Caleb Ministries helpful; they help people who are in exactly your position.

I send this with the prayer that you and your wife experience the warmth of God’s comfort wrapped around your soul like a warm blanket on a cold and rainy day.

Again, I am so sorry for your losses.

Sue Bohlin

© 2010 Probe Ministries

Grief and Grace

Former Probe staffer Rick Rood, a hospital chaplain who understands the pain of losing his beloved wife, addresses loss, grieving and God’s 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 (Genesis 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” (Romans 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” (Genesis 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” (Isaiah 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” (Isaiah 25:8), when the sentence of death will be “abolished” (1 Corinthians 15:26), and it will “no longer be” (Revelation 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” (Genesis 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 Isaiah 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” (Luke 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 Gethsemane Jesus is described as pouring out His heart to God the Father “with loud crying and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). The Holy Spirit is described as experiencing grief as well. Compare Isaiah 63:10 and Ephesians 4:30, where we are warned against “grieving the Holy Spirit” by our sins. The psalmist says that God “remembers” our tears (Psalm 56:8). And it is even implied that He is in some sense moved by them (Isaiah 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 (Genesis 23:2). So Joseph at the death of his father Jacob (Genesis 50:1). The nation Israel at the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 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 (Leviticus 19:28; Deuteronomy 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 2 Sam 15:30, the baring of the feet in Isaiah 20:2, and the covering of the lip in Leviticus 13:45 and Micah 3:7.) The fact that Ezekiel was forbidden these outward expressions of mourning at the death of his wife (Ezekiel 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” (Isaiah 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 empathetic 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 Thessalonians 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” (Isaiah 25:8). “And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death” (Revelation 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” (2 Corinthians 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 worshiped” (Job 1:20). Grieving, but worshiping. Grieving profoundly. Worshiping 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” (Isaiah. 61:2b). Among those upon whom Jesus pronounced God’s blessing are those who mourn, “for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 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 2 Corinthians 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” (Psalm 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” (Psalm 119:50). “My soul weeps because of grief; strengthen me according to your word” (Psalm 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” (Psalm 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” (Romans 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 (Colossians 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 lovingkindness comfort me, according to your word to your servant (Psalm 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. Genesis 50:24).

As indicated in the passage examined above (2 Corinthians 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” (2 Corinthians 7:6). When God provided Rebekah as a bride for Isaac, it is said that he “was comforted after his mother’s death” (Genesis 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 (2 Timothy 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” (1 Peter 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. Deuteronomy 26:14; Jeremiah 16:7; Hosea 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” (Romans 12:15b; contra Proverbs 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.)

Closing Thoughts

A rather obscure passage that has served to guide me in all of this is found in 1 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” (Jeremiah 31:15; cf. 2 Chronicles 15:7), in need of “restraining their eyes from tears” (Jeremiah 31:16), and of remembering that “there is a hope for (their) future” (Jeremiah 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 (Isaiah 41:10).

Suggested reading:

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.