When my father died, I grieved. My father died on a Sunday morning, early. His hospital roommate told us that Dad had spent his last night—the whole night—praying softly for his family, person by person, before dying peacefully in the early morning. Even though we’d known that he would die soon from bone cancer, and knew that he was eager to be home with the Lord, it was still a shock. It was still too soon.
Death is like that: it always surprises us and it interrupts our lives. We stop, and we grieve.
Grief hurts; it even feels wrong. It feels bad—so bad that we want to shy away from it. Our American culture doesn’t “do” death and grief very well. We avoid it, we don’t talk about it, and unlike many other cultures in the world, we don’t have a concept of what a “good death” is. But the fact is, over half of us are actively grieving someone or some loss right now. You are in the company of fellow-mourners as you move through today.
And, though we dislike it, grief is a normal life experience. It is human and expected and unavoidable. It is not sinful. We know this because Jesus grieved.
The Grief of Jesus
When it comes to our own human experience of grief, there is no better place to look than the human experience of the Son of God himself, named by Isaiah as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3 ESV) This is part of what it means to be human after the Fall, it means we will be “acquainted with grief.”
Our Lord had scarcely more than 30 years here upon the earth, and only three years of active ministry. And yet he did not hesitate to spend some of that time in mourning. He took time to grieve: those moments weeping for Lazarus, those moments weeping and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, those hours on the cross he spent praying through a psalm of lament. He was even willing to spend some of the moments of his brief, precious life here on Earth in grieving the hardness of the human heart (Mark 3:5).
These events were not wasted minutes and hours in Jesus’ life: our Lord performed no worthless or wasteful actions. So these times were necessary experiences and emotions and actions for the Son of God to live through. And therefore we know that our grief isn’t wasted either. Our life in Christ is not all “up, up, up with Jesus”. The overall directionality is upward, true (“forgetting those things which lie behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward … the upward call of God” [Philippians 3:13-14 ESV]), but grieving—that time not up on the mountain, but down in the valley—is still involved in the human process and is right because Jesus did it and made time for it.
There should be no pretense among God’s people about what sort of world we live in: this is a world where creation itself is subject to torment and bondage. The truth is that we entered the world wailing, grieving over the startling transition from the warmth and comfort of our mother’s womb. This is a world full of brokenness, and grief tells the truth about that brokenness. Truth is sturdy, we can build our life on truth, and truth illuminates our trajectory and gives us discernment in decisions. The truth of grief shows us the way through the experience; it articulates our love.
And our love must follow the pattern laid down by the love our Lord Christ showed in his time on earth: Jesus’ love was not cheap, it was not shallow. It cost him. John 11 makes it clear that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Jesus spent time with these three siblings, returning again and again to their home. They were his close friends. Again: He loved them. And that is why Jesus grieved when Lazarus died.
Grief expresses our connection with the lost loved one and is itself an expression of love. It is a good and godly response.
Sometimes we repress grief and try to move through it quickly, or even deny that it is there. We might fear that it is a sin to feel this way. If we believe it is sin, it follows that we should move away from this negative feeling quickly. We fear our grief may cause us to question the presence and work of God in our lives.
But the truth is that an un-complicated grief is a journey that ends by being integrated into our lives and expressing itself in gratitude for the life of our loved one and in hope of our own death and eternal life with God in heaven.
And so I say: grieve when you lose a loved one. Do it with God. Do it in agreement with biblical truth. Do it like Jesus.
Crying in Company
Jesus wanted the comfort of His friends as He grieved. In John 11, we see Him grieving with Mary and Martha and His disciples and friends. There was a wake for Lazarus, and while Jesus might have been late to it (for his own good reasons), he attended! He wept at his losses, but he also faced them.
In the Garden of Gethsemane we see him grieving again, weeping over his coming death and wanting the comfort of his friends with him. In Matthew, we see that he asked them to enter in to the experience in company with him: “My soul is sorrowful, even unto death; remain here and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38 ESV).
Ask for—and accept!—the company of your own friends when you are deep in grief. And then, in your own turn, be a gentle companion to those who grieve. Don’t be quick to quote Scripture at them; wait for the first waves of grief to pass.
Take your cues from the way Jesus grieved: Stay with your friends while they grieve. Watch and pray and weep.
Lamenting in the Lord’s Own Words
Jesus prayed in the middle of his grief. The Son of God himself never hesitated to pour his soul to His Father, and neither should we.
Jesus knows our grief by heart. He understands it. God is here with us, collecting our tears in his bottle, as it says in Psalm 56. He knows our pain, he is not tired of our sadness, his Holy Spirit even picks up and prays for us when we, in our distress and groaning, run out of words to pray.
And he also gives us his own words. The Psalms are our biblical prayer book, and they are both prayers given by God to his people, and prayers that God himself used when he came on earth to live among his people. Jesus used these prayers, and these prayers are full of cries of lament. In giving us these prayers, God himself welcomes and invites us to pour our hearts out to him in grief. He offers himself as a shelter in troubled times.
Lamenting to God is a good and holy way to grieve. It has the virtue of honesty: when we lament to God, when we complain to him, we bemoan the events and realities of our lives in his presence. He knows them all already, but when we speak the truth to him, we give up the pretense that the depth of our sorrow is somehow secret, somehow hidden from his sight.
Lamenting to God is obedient grief. God invites us to pray to him in this way. Psalm 62:8 instructs us, “Pour out your heart before him. God is a refuge for us” (ESV).
And, of course, lamenting to God is praying like Jesus did. Jesus prayed a psalm of lament on the cross, crying out “Father, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, Psalm 22:1 ESV).
And finally, lamentation leads us to hope. The prayer that Jesus quoted on the cross, Psalm 22, also ends with the promise of all the people of the earth coming and declaring the righteousness of the Lord, for “He has done it!” (Psalm 22:31 ESV) —which echoes Jesus’ last triumphant cry of “It is finished!” (John 19:30 ESV).
But before the hope and healing comes the grief and the lament. And this is how we stand before grief and move through it: we remember that we are not alone and we receive comfort—both comfort from God directly, and also comfort from his people.
Jesus grieved even in light of the truth of the resurrection. Again, John 11 is so helpful here: Jesus was just about to raise Lazarus from the dead, and yet still, he stopped and wept over the reality of death and mourning.
He knew the truth of the loss of his friend, but with a united heart he could see not just the truth of his loss, but the truth of his Father’s love and plan. Jesus could see through to the resurrection. So he wept for the sorrow of the death of Lazarus, and then he raised him from the dead. In the same way, Jesus wept in the Garden for the grief and sorrow of his own death on the cross that was before him, and then, also seeing the joy before him, he despised the shame and endured the pain, and won through to the resurrection. And even on the cross, he agonized and prayed Psalm 22 before finishing his great work in triumph.
What does this mean for us? It means that while we are in these bodies we will grieve, and this is godly action. When we grieve, we are being like Jesus. We are assisted in our grief by the Holy Spirit. Romans 8 assures us of this as it unpacks all the grieving going on: creation grieves after the Fall; we in these bodies grieve waiting for redemption,;and when in sorrow, we reach the end of knowing how to pray, the Holy Spirit himself grieves, groans and intercedes for us (Romans 8:18-27).
An End of Grief
Eventually in grief we are able to go on, because as creatures of time and space, we learn to live in the reality of this moment, trusting in the grace God gives us right now. We may be unable to anticipate the goodness that God will give in the future. It is beyond our experience and beyond our imaginations. But God is faithful. He writes our story—all the days of it, as Psalm 139 says—and we can trust him even in times of grief. Jesus went before us here and we are not abandoned in the dark. Grace for this moment, and then the next, is given.
I remember the first time I entered a store after my father’s death: I looked around and walked out without buying anything. It just all seemed so trivial. Grief shines a bright and fierce light into our life. It clarifies what is important and what is not important. Grief purifies our desires. This is the new place that grief leads us to: if grief is a journey, this is the first destination. The fierce illumination that death brings to our lives shows us what really matters. In light of death, what do I want to invest in?
Grief aids discernment because it reminds us that we too will die someday. As Ecclesiastes says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, because death is the end of all mankind … the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning” (Ecclesiastes 7:2,4 ESV). Wisdom asks: On my deathbed, what will I wish for? What will I wish that I had done?
Looking forward in this new light may be wise, but some of the most unbearable parts of grief come from anticipating the future. Remember that it is in the present that grace and mercy are given. So, receive the grace of God for the present moment. Because the day will come when an even brighter light will illuminate an even greater truth.
Grief for us, in Christ, is transitory: it has an end. Grief is temporary, as are these bodies. And like the Lord Jesus, even in grief we do not lose hope in God. Jesus, mourning, knew that the day is coming “when all tears are wiped away” (Revelation 7:17, 21:4 ESV). And so our Lord Jesus did not grieve as one without hope, and neither do we. Hope in God’s redemption and ultimate victory allows us to grieve well. Insistent hope is the thread that guides us through grief to the Father’s House, to our rest, to Heaven and the fellowship of the saints, into the presence of Jesus where there is joy forever more.
Good grief is the action of faith on the road Home.