I was talking to a friend this week about a difficult moment she had while picking up groceries. Seeing the young employees load up groceries with their pandemic masks in place made her suddenly sad, even ready to cry right then and there in the parking lot. Sometimes grief is like that. It strikes suddenly, unexpectedly, sometimes for an obvious reason, and sometimes for no clear reason at all. Grief is striking many people right now. If it strikes you, you should know that you’re not alone.
It might be hitting you that young people are having to give up their former carefree and community rich lives. Or perhaps it’s the ever-increasing death total that sounds against your soul like a low drum every morning. Maybe it’s brutal stories of people losing loved ones young or old–of families broken apart or dreams cut short. It might be a grief that your livelihood is caught up in the cyclone of economic change. Perhaps it’s more vague and ominous than any of these reasons–perhaps you worry about how powerful evil ambitions may seek to take advantage of a chaotic global moment like this and how the innocent and hard-working may suffer for it. Perhaps you worry that life as we knew it will never be the same and something golden and good seems lost now, before you even had a chance to say goodbye. Grief strikes, grief lingers, and sometimes, grief paralyzes.
So, what do we think about grief? How do we process it when it strikes? How do we help others when it strikes them? Here are a few thoughts that I’ve found helpful.
1) Grief is a normal human reaction to the brokenness of our world. This world is not heaven. Seeing or even anticipating the possibility of pain and suffering and loss is truly sad–sadness is an appropriate, godly response. All of us might experience different levels or intensity of grief, but certainly sadness is one appropriate response to the consequences and pain caused by humanity’s fall into sin. We cannot say we truly long for heaven if we are never sad because of the Fall.
2) Grief is sometimes the outward expression of compassion. Compassion is feeling with someone else. Though we cannot know the pains of others perfectly, we can certainly care about them in their grief and in their loss. God is compassionate, and when our grief reveals our compassion, we should take heart in realizing that our care for others is just a tiny glimpse of how our God cares for people in their distress. And if our grief motivates us toward prayers and acts of mercy, so much the better. May we truly weep with those who weep, and be those who gladly help the sick and suffering in their need.
3) Grief should always be taken to the Lord. We are not meant to carry the sadness of this fallen world in our own strength. We are called (commanded!) to cast our cares upon the Lord because he cares for us. Let us express to him all of our sorrows and pains and lay them in his hands. The simple prayer, “Lord, I am sad because of this particular loss and pain…” is a way of expressing trust in the Lord.
4) Grief can sometimes be a mixed emotion. The good content of godly sorrow and lament can be mixed with trace amounts (or more!) of sinful thinking. It might contain traces of doubt about God’s goodness, power, or wisdom. Sorrow about the Fall is right; doubt about God’s character is wrong. We must discern and filter out the lead in our grief that wants to sink the health of our souls.
5) Some grief is worldly sorrow. The Israelites grieving the loss of their meat pots in Egypt was not godly sorrow (or even mixed emotion!). The toppling of an idol in our lives may produce sadness, but that sadness should simply reveal to us that something other than God has been sneaking onto the throne of our hearts. Let us not grieve the loss of those things for which Christ died, and if we do, let us repent and reform our hearts so that Christ is our life.
6) Grief can masquerade as a solution to its own sorrow. Since it feels right and is right to be sad about the effects of sin (our own or someone else’s, or Adam’s…) we can subtly begin to think that lingering endlessly in our grief is appropriate, even godly. After all, we probably don’t know the half of what is REALLY wrong in the world…and if we don’t think about this who will…and it’s better to know the truth of a situation than be an optimist and be crushed by disappointment…and I need to carry the burden here for the sake of the children…and I’m someone who REALLY cares…and…. and….and… But, grief is not God. And grief is not hope. And hope requires effort. Hoping in God is a major part of godliness. Neglecting hope in God in order to endlessly explore and articulate and converse about our grief is not godly. We must distinguish between godly grief and making a god of our grief. If grief is offering itself as an idol, sometimes the only way to topple it from the throne is the discipline of focusing our thoughts on a topic besides our grief–a topic like God’s character, God’s promises, God’s blessings, and God’s provision.
7) Grief is an emotion, and emotions don’t respond quickly. Even when we seek to transition from grief to hope or from examining our sadness to caring for someone else, our feelings of sadness may linger. We must not buy into the unbiblical idea that we are victims of our own emotions–helpless to control how we feel. Normally (excepting tragic physical or mental conditions) we are able to influence our emotions. If we don’t believe this, then the commands in the Scriptures to feel certain ways (i.e. “fear not,” “rejoice always,” “delight in the wife of your youth”) would make no sense, or worse, would be cruel commands that we could not always obey. The truth is we are commanded to feel certain ways and our emotions are under the influence of our wills.
However (and this is a crucial point), our emotions respond very slowly. Influencing emotions is a bit like dragging a slinky. You know those springy metal toys that climb down stairs? (Though never up by themselves, an interesting parallel here!) If you pull a slinky along the floor it will follow, but not all at once. There will be a delay while the slinky “catches up” to your first pull. Emotions are like that in general, and persistent grief is no exception. If you set your will to move on from grief so that it doesn’t consume you, and you start thinking about the promises and provision of God, your sadness may not respond at first. It may take a bit to catch up and you’ll have to keep pulling if you want to keep it moving forward.
8) Grief often desires answers and is unsatisfied with mystery. This can be a very good thing. When grief over a sickness causes a researcher to seek a cure, it certainly accomplishes an abundance of blessing! However, not all mysteries are answered, and not all answers are pleasant. We serve a God who is beyond our understanding and who calls us to trust him when we do not, and cannot, understand. Sometimes our grief must learn, with Job, to place a hand over the mouth, to conclude the questions, and to declare that the hidden things belong to the Lord.
9) Grief in others is an occasion of prayer, patience, gentleness, and eventually, helpful truth. Grief is not always rational, is often cyclical, sometimes finds expression in anger, and does not respond well to self-righteous platitudes. Caring for those grieving often means listening to the same struggles and laments repeatedly but with fresh patience each time. We must care about their emotions even when we don’t experience them. Yet faithful friendship does not fail to eventually remind the grieving friend of truth and hope–though this comes best after a conversation (or several) of understanding and prayer. We must discern the difference between our own selfish desire for their grief to end because it is a burden to us, and a godly desire for them to turn to hope for the sake of their own souls.
10) Grief is best done in the company of the suffering and risen Savior. In his crucifixion, we see the true weight of all of our sorrows. In his resurrection, we see the true conclusion of every sadness. We have one who understands loss and pain. He bids us grieve in his arms and then lift our gaze to his eyes and find true joy, untouched by shallow clichés or snappy platitudes—joy on the other side of the cross and grave. And we dry our tears and tell him we are ready to be sent to give his comfort to someone else who has just begun to grieve again. Whenever grief strikes, let us go to Jesus, and there we will find comfort for our souls and hope for the future.
If grief is striking you in this season, or if it strikes you in the future, I pray that the Lord will bring peace to your soul. May the Lord dry your tears, my friends. And may he sustain you through every grief until we arrive in his kingdom of endless joy.