Grief and faith
How should Christians react to grief? What is the relation between faith and grief? Some Christians assume that something has gone wrong with their faith if they experience or express grief, and particularly so at a time when the spotlight shines on the young, the virile, the positive, and the successful. But the point remains that in the course of any normal human experience, grief and sadness do have their share. Normally, people of faith do feel sadness and grief at times of loss. God has made us with the capacity to express our sad as well as happy emotions.1
When Abraham lost his wife, he mourned and wept for her: “She died in Kirjath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her” (Gen. 23:2).2 When Jacob died, Joseph “fell upon his father and wept over him and kissed him” (Gen. 50:1), and his family and friends “lamented loudly and bitterly” (Gen. 50:10). Hannah grieved over her inability to bear a child (1 Sam.1:5), and David composed two great psalms on grieving over his failures and sins (Pss. 32 and 51).
Many psalms speak frankly about the reality of grief: “My eyes grow weak with sorrow; / they fail because of all my foes” (Ps. 6:7); “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts / and every day have sorrow in my heart? / How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Ps. 13:2); “Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; / my eyes grow weak with sorrow, / my soul and my body with grief” (Ps. 31:9); “The length of our days is seventy years— / or eighty, if we have the strength; / yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, / for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10); “Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled / by oppression, calamity and sorrow” (Ps. 107:39); “The cords of death entangled me, / the anguish of the grave came upon me; / I was overcome by trouble and sorrow” (Ps. 116:3).
From these and other similar passages, we note that God does not condemn our grief and sadness but understands them as a normal part of human experience. Paul acknowledged God’s goodness in healing his friend Epaphroditis and mourned that his death would have brought “sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2:27). In other words, Paul freely admits that he would have had a hard time in coping with the loss of a friend and gives some counsel on a Christian’s attitude to grief. The apostle acknowledges the normalcy of grief and does not suggest that Christians should be strong and avoid the pain associated with loss. Rather, Christians are reminded that while they grieve, they must not lose faith. “We do not want you . . . to grieve,” says the apostle, “like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). In other words, the Christian response to bereavement includes both grief and hope.3
That response includes a twofold affirmation: first, we live in a world of pain, separation, and death (1 Cor. 15:56); second, we know a better day is coming, a resurrection day of triumph over suffering and death (1 Cor. 15:16, 17; John 5:28, 29; 11:23, 24). In between, we are asked to endure the pain of separation, “the sting of death” (1 Cor. 15:56), and comfort one another with the hope of the Second Coming (1 Thess. 4:17).
Jesus chose that ultimate hope to comfort Martha in her hour of grief (John 11:23). While Jesus’ words were meant to bring encouragement, His intent was not to repress Mary and Martha’s need to grieve. In fact, as Jesus saw their pain, He provided appropriate and meaningful ministry and support by mirroring their grief: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Whatever the case, Jesus did not rebuke Mary and Martha for their grief.
When we lose a loved one who has died in the blessed hope, we can take consolation in the hope that we will see them again and know that they are not suffering but simply waiting in an unconscious sleep (John 11:11; Dan. 12:2; 1 Cor. 15:51), which for them lasts but a moment. Their very next thought will be to wake up to Jesus’ calling them to come forth (1 Thess. 4:16; John 5:28, 29). At the same time we can acknowledge the fact that we hurt because we miss them and will endure the sting that will one day come to an end.
Where do some Christians get the mistaken idea that it is inappropriate to grieve? How does the expression of sorrow and hurt become a demonstration of weakness? Nowhere does the Bible teach that concept.4 Solomon reminds us of the reality of death and grief by pointing out that there is “a time to be born and a time to die, . . . a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccles. 3:2–4). Christians are not to live in a fantasy world.5
Often times when significant loss occurs, the bereaved persons feel that their faith has been shaken or even shattered. Religious people may find themselves questioning their entire belief structure and doubting all that has been the foundation of their past life. This would be a normal consequence of grief.6
Derek Nuttal says, “Having a religious belief will not necessarily reduce the pain of loss nor remove the need to work through the stages of grief. Such belief, however is an aid to grieving.”7 In bereavement we need to know we are not alone, that God understands our pain and in some ways shares our sorrow. “At the heart of Christianity is faith in a God who through His son has shown he loves us and shares in what we experience and through the cross suffers with us.”8
To say that a deeply religious person will not face grief situations is unrealistic and emotionally unhealthy.9 Jesus felt free to express His grief on different occasions including weeping openly (John 11:35; Matt. 26:37). He even confided in His disciples toward the end of His life that His soul was “ ‘overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’ ” (Matt. 26:38). He even asked for an impromptu support group when He appealed to His closest disciples to “ ‘stay here and keep watch with me’ ” (Matt. 26:38).
Commenting on Christian attitudes toward grief, one writer says, “Grief appears to have a transcendent function and can in the end enhance spiritual growth of bereaved people as it awakens them to existential and spiritual essence of life.”10 We, as Christians, sometimes go wrong when we use the hope of life to come to mask our present feelings of pain, which must have expression. Not continuous expression as if we had no hope, but sufficient expression in order to get past them through to healing.11
Jesus: Model in grieving
Christians should consider Jesus as the Model. He shared our emotions and feelings. There were moments when He was troubled and full of sorrow: “Surely he took up our infirmities / and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4). He told His disciples, “ ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’” (Matt. 26:38). “He [Jesus] began to be deeply distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). He knew how to cry: “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41). He experienced anguish: “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). He experienced and displayed the full range of emotions including joy, love, and compassion (see Luke 10:21; 7:13; John 15:10,11; 17:13; Mark 10:21; 1:40, 41; Matt. 14:13, 14). He was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3, KJV). He displayed the deep emotion of anguish and despair in a time of impending loss when he said, “ ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ ” (Matt. 27:46). Jesus’ questioning and despair demonstrated a part of the grieving process. In addition, Jesus also showed grief over His beloved city Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37).
Jesus grieved at the time of Lazarus’ death (John 11). He cried, and others observed “ ‘how He loved him!’ ” (John 11:36). The passage also states that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (11:33). Ellen White comments on how Jesus felt “every pang of anguish, as He said to His disciples, ‘Lazarus is dead.’ ”12 Although Jesus was aware that He would raise Lazarus in a short while, He grieved for the pain and anguish that Mary and Martha had to experience.13 In human sympathy He wept for those in sorrow. He also wept for those who would plan His own death because of their unbelief in and hatred of Him.14
If Jesus, our Model and Example, can grieve and be “human,” then other humans in this world of sin can also hurt and grieve. Ministers who are commissioned to pastor the flock need to stop shutting down the expression of pain from their hurting sheep because it makes them (the ministers) uncomfortable. Much of the time, whether we realize it or not, we are motivated by our own needs. Shutting grieving people down becomes one way of keeping a lid on our own repressed grief. It would be better if we sought help and assistance in working through our own losses so we could feel more comfortable and therefore able to be present in the midst of our congregant’s pain and suffering.
The griever needs our presence. When the timing is right, we can certainly share the reality of heaven that serves as a foundation for our hope in the midst of grief and loss. But our encouragement should never be used to shut down the need of hurting people to express their pain over the sorrow they are experiencing regarding separation from their loved ones.
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1 Derek Nuttal, “Christian Theology and Pastoral Practice,” in The Needs of Bereaved People in Interpreting Death, ed. Peter Jupp and Tony Rogers (Herndon, VA: Wellington Publishers, 1997), 370.
2 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture passages are from the New International Version.
3 William Cutler and Richard Peace, Dealing With Grief and Loss: Hope in the Midst of Pain (Littleton, CO: Serendipity House, 1990), 11.
4 Richard Winter, “A Biblical and Theological View of Grief and Bereavement,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 18 (1999): 368.
5 J. Donald Bane et al., eds., Death and Ministry: Pastoral Care of the Dying and the Bereaved (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 125, 126.
6 Marta Felber, Finding Your Way After a Spouse Dies (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2000), 20.
7 Nuttal, 27.
9 Granger E. Westberg, Good Grief: A Constructive Approach to the Problem of Loss, large ed. (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1979), 6, 7.
10 Li-chu Chen, “Grief as a Transcendent Function and Teacher of Spiritual Growth,” Pastoral Psychology 46 (1997): 79.
11 Winter, 369.
12 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 528.
13 Ibid., 528, 533.
14 Ibid., 533, 534.