This is the first of two posts that explore the subject of grief in the life of a believer. Part 1 presents the hallmarks and pitfalls of grief, along with a biblical perspective of grief. Next month, in Part 2, the post will present ways we can prepare ourselves for, and respond to, grief.
Loss and Grief
It’s a stunning number: over one million deaths worldwide due to COVID-19 in 2020—with untold millions grieving the unexpected loss of a loved one.
Though loss of life is surely one of the most severe causes of grief, COVID-19 has fostered other losses, such as the loss of jobs, travel, meetings, conferences, businesses, relationships, human connections, gatherings of all kinds, ministry opportunities, and milestone celebrations. Add to this the loss of normalcy, sense of general well-being, and rampant uncertainly about the future, and we have the makings of a pandemic of grief.
Definition of Grief
Webster defines grief as “intense emotional suffering caused by loss, disaster, misfortune, etc.; acute sorrow; deep sadness.”1Agnes, Michael, Editor in Chief, “Grief,” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition (Cleveland: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2005), 625. It’s interesting that Webster doesn’t try to qualify or quantify the loss, disaster, misfortune or source of sorrow/sadness. This is good because, in reality, the little things we lose also produce grief. Thus, even if we haven’t lost a loved one, a collection of lesser losses can add up and throw us into a serious state of grief.
In the immediate aftermath of loss, grief may be all one knows. After his wife died, C. S. Lewis wrote, “I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”2Lewis, C. S., A Grief Observed (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 10. But grief can also show up unbidden and without warning, years after the initial grief-causing incident. What does one do with grief? Here are a few suggestions.
Understand that Grief Happens
In his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller says that, as believers, “We should not assume that if we are trusting in God we won’t weep, or feel anger, or feel hopeless.”3Keller, Timothy, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 242, 253. The truth is, suffering enters all of our lives.4Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 1. The stories of God’s people in the pages of our Bible give testimony to this fact.
J. I. Packer concurs, and says in his book, A Grief Sanctified, “Grief at the loss of a loved one is as old as the human race….And if the bereavement was unanticipated and not prepared for, grief hits harder and hurts more.”5Packer, J. I., A Grief Sanctified (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 143. While we cannot avoid suffering, we can survive the ensuing grief by recognizing the hallmarks of grief, adopting a biblical perspective of grief, and avoiding the pitfalls of grief.
Recognize the Hallmarks of Grief
Though no one experiences grief in exactly the same way, there are some common threads. The first is the aspect of pain. It’s a simple equation: loss = grief + pain.6Wright, H. Norman, Experiencing Grief (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2004), 9. And though our initial reaction may be to deny, resist, or medicate the pain, it will remain until we choose to honestly mourn the loss.7Wright, Experiencing Grief, 5. Though the grieving process should eventually come to an end, it is true that some losses leave scars and a measure of pain that never completely leaves us. See: Yancy, Philip, The Question that Never Goes Away (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 99. However, journeying through the grieving process generally lessens the intensity and grip of pain in our lives and eventually relegates it to periodic episodes as opposed to being our constant companion. Proper grieving also allows us, while we are still feeling the pain, to rise above it and not be sunk by it. See: Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 253. This process is non-linear and has its own timetable, which can require us to engage in mourning—first constantly, then periodically—perhaps for a long time.
The second aspect of grief is disruption. H. Norman Wright has said that “Every loss brings pain and disruption to life.”8Wright, Experiencing Grief, iv. We may simply lose our sense of balance for a time, or we may begin to question our sanity. But something, or someone, is missing, and our world is not the same. This disruption can affect our minds, hearts, and bodies. And it often comes in waves. Just as we regain our footing, we may find ourselves knocked over again.9Wright, Experiencing Grief, 25.
Some of the emotions that accompany grief include: “bitterness, emptiness, apathy, love, anger, guilt, sadness, fear, self-pity, and helplessness.”10Wright, Experiencing Grief, 5. Perhaps the most difficult emotion felt during the grief process is loneliness, since no one else (humanly speaking) can truly enter with us into the depths of our grief.11Packer, A Grief Sanctified, 144, 145. While it’s impossible for another merely human person to fully enter into our grief, it’s not impossible for Jesus, since he actually bore our griefs and sorrows (Is. 53:4-5).
The physical body can also suffer in grief. Some people experience: “a tightness in their throat or chest, an empty feeling in their stomach, shortness of breath, or rapid heart rate,”12Wright, Experiencing Grief, 21. trouble sleeping, and/or lack of appetite.
Only seven paragraphs into Lewis’s memoir about his experience of grief, he asks the question: “Meanwhile, where is God?”13Lewis, A Grief Observed, 5. He continues, “But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”14Lewis, A Grief Observed, 6. Here Lewis articulates what many believers feel in the face of loss and grief: the seeming absence of God.15The words “seeming absence” are used deliberately, as God promises to never leave or forsake us (Heb. 13:5), and, despite how it feels to us, in truth, he has not abandoned us. It should be noted that not everyone experiences the seeming absence of God. Some people do sense God’s comforting presence throughout their time of grief.
Please note that these lists are not comprehensive. It also isn’t necessary to find oneself experiencing all that is listed to be suffering in grief. But if we find ourselves represented somewhere in the lists, and we recognize we’ve suffered loss, it can be helpful (and wise) to adopt a biblical perspective of grief as we move through the process of grief.16It may also be helpful to understand the stages of grief. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defines the five basic stages of grief as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. David Kessler has added a sixth stage: making meaning. See: Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 7, and Kessler, David, Finding Meaning (New York: Scribner, 2019), 2. Please note, these books are not written from a Christian world view, and, though the information about the existence of stages of grief is valuable, I do not agree with all that is written in the texts.
Adopt a Biblical Perspective of Grief
In some Christian circles, grieving is judged as a lack of faith. After all, since God is sovereign, and we believe and trust in God, why would we be so sad about something he has allowed? Though this may sound like a godly perspective, the truth is, living without having or expressing one’s feelings has more to do with the philosophy of Stoicism than with Christianity. Grieving is not a sinful lack of faith. If it were, Jesus would be guilty of sin.
One of my favorite Old Testament passages is Isaiah 53. There, Jesus is described as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”17Isaiah 53:3 (KJV). The translators’ choice of English words in this passage is interesting. The Hebrew word “makob,” translated as “sorrows” in the KJV and ESV (“suffering” in the NIV), is actually “pain,” and likely refers to “mental” pain and suffering. See: Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, “makob,” in The Brown-Dirver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2000), 456c. See also: See also: Harris, R. Laird, Gleason Archer, Jr., and Bruce Waltke, “makob,” (940b), in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 425. The Hebrew word “holi,” translated as “grief” in the KJV and ESV (“pain” in the NIV), is actually “sickness,” and could refer to physical injury, disease, or a spiritual malady. See: Brown, Driver, and Briggs, “holi,” in The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 318b. See also: Harris, Archer, Jr., and Waltke, “holi,” (655a), in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 1, 287. The general idea is that, along with his own personal sufferings, Jesus also bore our sufferings. Isaiah 53:4 says that Jesus “took up” our pain and sickness (our sorrows and grief). (See my previous SEND U Blog post titled “Empathy” to learn of some ways Jesus suffered, just like us). Keil and Delitzsch say, “The meaning is not merely that the Servant of God entered into the fellowship of our sufferings, but that He took upon Himself the sufferings which we had to bear and deserved to bear, and therefore not only took them away…but bore them in His own person, that He might deliver us from them.” See: Keil, C. F. and F. Delitzsch, “Isaiah,” in Commentary on the Old Testament, Volume 7, Translated by James Martin (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001), 508. In the New Testament, Jesus weeps twice—once over the death of his friend Lazarus, and once over Jerusalem.18Luke 19:41; John 11:35. Jesus may also have been weeping as he lamented over Jerusalem in Luke 13:34, but the text does not tell us that he did so. In the Garden of Gethsemane, we see Jesus with sweat “like drops of blood falling to the ground,” possibly in anticipatory grief as he considers the personal effects of bearing the sin of the world.19Luke 22:44, Lange, John Peter, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, Volume 8, translated by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960), 347, 348. See also: Peterman, Gerald W., “A Man of Sorrows,” in Between Pain & Grace, Contributors: Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew Schmutzer (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016), 83-100. And in Matthew 5:4, Jesus even calls those who mourn “blessed.”20Those who mourn are blessed for several reasons, one of which is that they receive the comfort of God. While some commentators restrict the mourning to mourning over sin, others are not so restrictive. For example, see: MacArthur, John, “Matthew,” in The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2005), 1129, and Walvoord, John F. and Roy B. Zuck, “Matthew,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament (Colorado Springs: Cook Communications Ministries, 2000), 29. D. A. Carson suggests the passage includes both mourning for sin and mourning over the misery that results from sin. See: Carson, D. A., “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8, General Editor: Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 132-133.
Jesus did more than bear his own sufferings; he bore ours as well. J. Alec Motyer says, “We wish for more than we are able to achieve, so that the good life is always eluding us; we long for a truly happy life but are constantly baulked by sorrow in whatever form it may come—disappointment, bereavement, tragedy, whatever. But he made our burdens his.”21Motyer, J. Alec, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 430.
So, not only does Jesus not reject the reality of suffering and the expression of grief, he willingly enters into them, for our sake.22Grogan, Geoffrey W., “Isaiah,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 6, 302. If we are to become like Jesus, perhaps rather than promoting or embracing the idea that believers should endure suffering in silence (and just “get over it”), we should share the reality of our grief and bear and alleviate the sufferings of others.23Shramek, Dustin, “Waiting for the Morning During the Long Night of Weeping,” in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, General Editors: John Piper and Justin Taylor (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 175-190.
Besides Jesus, other biblical characters who experience grief—and freely express it—include: various Psalmists,24Psalms of Individual Lament: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 35, 39, 42, 43, 51, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 69, 70, 71, 76, 77, 86, 88, 102, 109, 120, 130, 140, 141, 142, 143. Psalms of National Lament: 44, 74, 79, 80, 83, 90. Walton, John H., Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 73. Hannah, Job, David, Jeremiah, the disciples of Jesus, Mary and Martha, and the Ephesian elders.251 Samuel 1:1-20; Job 1:13-3:26, 16:1-17:16; Psalms 6:1-10, 31:1-24, 35:1-28; Lamentations 1:1-5:22; Matthew 17:23, John 11:17-44, 16:1-33; Acts 20:17-37. Please note the NIV does not employ the word “grief” in as many places as do the KJV and ESV translations. In none of these instances are those who experience or express their grief said to be sinning or exhibiting a lack of faith.26Perhaps I should say that these individuals were not accused by God, because Eli, the high priest, did accuse Hannah of being drunk, as he observed her pouring out her heart to the LORD in grief over her barrenness. Jesus even utters a “Why?” question from the cross in the midst of his pain and grief.27Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46. So, instead of suggesting we deny, hide, or ignore our grief, Scripture allows us to acknowledge it by feeling and expressing it. However, as we willingly enter into the experience and expression of grief, it is wise to avoid the pitfalls of grief.
Avoid the Pitfalls of Grief
While the process of grieving is normative for believers, it isn’t meant to last forever.28Packer, A Grief Sanctified, 149. Packer identifies three pitfalls worth avoiding on the journey of grief. The first is the pitfall of becoming fixated on our grief.29Packer, A Grief Sanctified, 147-148. This pitfall invites us to consciously remember, rehearse, revisit, and relive our losses on a regular basis. As we move further away from the initial shock of loss, though we may occasionally be ambushed by grief, it’s important to avoid camping in the land of grief. For the sake of our emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health, we must eventually let go of what we have lost.30Packer, A Grief Sanctified, 148. This does not mean we are to forget those we have lost or stop loving them. We are not called to erase them from our memory. The point here is that, though we may suffer moments of grief until we go to glory, as we move further from the cause of the grief, the intensity and consistent presence of grief should diminish, and eventually we will accept the reality of our loss. Please note that the acceptance of the loss may take a long time. See: Langberg, Diane, Suffering and the Heart of God (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2015), 183-185.
The second pitfall is to move into a permanent state of depression. Refusing to engage in the process of grieving, coupled with a withdrawal from society, can foster anger and self-pity leading to a state of depression.31Packer, A Grief Sanctified, 148. While we (and many aspects of our life) have changed due to our losses, we can still choose to lead a productive and enjoyable—though different—life.
The third pitfall is to internalize our grief. Packer says, “This is a condition of denial in which an unfulfilled spirit of mourning…sours our conscious life with bitterness, cynicism, apathy, cosmic resentment, and unforgiveness of any who in any way seem to have contributed to the loved one’s death”32Packer, A Grief Sanctified, 148. or to whatever loss we are mourning. Continually casting blame on others for our suffering (and nursing a root of bitterness in our souls) is like drinking a daily dose of poison.
Besides understanding that experiencing grief is normal for humans, adopting a biblical perspective of grief, and recognizing the hallmarks and pitfalls of grief, what else can we do to mitigate the potential emotional, physical, or spiritual effects of loss and grief? I suggest we choose to prepare ourselves ahead of time for the inevitable occurrence of grief, pour out our hearts to God in the face of grief, and afterwards ask him to redeem it by making meaning out of our suffering. These are some of the subjects we will explore next month in Part 2 of “Exploring Spiritual Formation: Grief.”
In the meantime, it might be helpful for us to take stock of the losses we’ve incurred during this calendar year, to examine our mental, spiritual, and physical condition, and to consider the effect our losses are having on us. Perhaps journaling or talking with others would be helpful as we explore our responses to our circumstances. Philip Yancy says, “Without community support and wise love, suffering can lead to isolation and despair.”33Yancy, The Question that Never Goes Away, 103. So, if we find ourselves in need of help, communicating with friends and/or contacting a caring professional is a good way to journey with others while processing our grief.34If you don’t have a resource for finding a caring professional to help you on your journey of grief, contact Barnabas International, an organization dedicated to caring for global workers, at: https://www.barnabas.org/
NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™