Saturday, March 13, 2010
Good Grief?! By Nick Pridemore
I had just gotten back from Iraq. I met my son who was born while I was deployed. My wife and I were amazed at how great it felt to hold each other after months apart and were more in love than ever. Everything was perfect…mostly. All these things were truly great and I relished these moments. Life really was good. But there were some parts that didn’t seem right. There were times when I felt depressed. Sometimes I would close my eyes and all I could think of were my brothers who didn’t make it home. I felt guilty.
Then there were new issues I didn’t expect. I constantly felt nervous. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t drive down to Wal-Mart without thinking something was going to explode beside the road. One night I woke up unaware of where I was with my wife in an arm-lock because I thought she was trying to kill me. Needless to say, after that I slept even less. I was grieving and I felt so ashamed about it.
Why in the world am I sharing these very intimate details of my life? What does this have to do with a blog about grieving and spirituality? Everything. You see, as a Pastor (yes, I’m a Pastor who joined the Marine Corps infantry, that’s a whole other blog topic) I felt like something was very wrong with me. After all Christians are happy. Christians have the joy of the Lord. Being a Christian, and especially a Pastor, means you have everything together. I started thinking things like, “I’m not spiritual enough. If I were close enough to God I could just pray about this and be better. I must not have enough faith.” I was so embarrassed that I was dealing with these things that I didn’t tell anyone. Obviously my wife saw it, but that was it. I didn’t want to get counseling or talk to another Pastor. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it because then they would know I was grieving on the inside and that would be a bad witness. I couldn’t have that.
Over time, though, I started to realize that this idea that Christians have everything together and are happy all time is a big steamy pile. The crucial question I was wrestling with was this, “Is it ok for a Christian to go through a grieving process, or should they just pray and be instantly be better?” I wanted God’s help. I wanted to be better. So I started studying what the Bible had to say about grief and suffering. I couldn’t find any passages where God was angry with the brokenhearted or the downcast. I couldn’t find any scriptures that shamed the grieving. What I did find was amazing, and beautiful, and encouraging. What I found is that the Bible is full of real people, who lived messy screwed up lives and grieved and struggled and cried. That’s not the beautiful part. The beautiful part is how concerned God is with our suffering. Instead of being offended or annoyed by it, as I had assumed, the Bible reveals an amazingly merciful God who grieves when we grieve. So, with all of that said, I would like to share some of what the Bible teaches about God’s people and grieving.
Suffering is part of being human. It’s part of living in this world that’s broken and tainted by sin. It’s unavoidable. Because it’s so common to the human condition the Bible talks about grieving quite a bit. There are some well known verses I found that were comforting. Verses like Psalm 34:18 which says God is close to the brokenhearted. And Ecclesiastes 3:1 and 3:4 says there is a proper time for everything. A time to weep and a time to laugh. However, where I found the most healing and comfort was in Jesus. I don’t mean that in a generic bumper sticker “Jesus is my co-pilot” way. I mean when I read the gospels and look at the actual life of Jesus, His words, His actions, how He interacted with people, how He showed compassion to the hurting and how even He was moved to tears at times, it gave me hope. A light bulb came on and I realized that grieving is not sin. Being sad does not mean I’m not spiritual. Suffering does not mean I have no faith. My savior, the God-man, the perfect and spotless Lamb of God had bad days. As Isaiah said, He was familiar with suffering and had many sorrows.
There are two accounts from the life of Jesus that have shed a great deal of light on this subject for me. The first one is found in John chapter 11. This is the account of Lazarus. If you’re not familiar with the story let me give you the quick version. Lazarus was a good friend of Jesus. He got sick and died. The interesting thing is that when he found out Lazarus was sick Jesus was in a town nearby and could have made it to Lazarus in time to heal him. Instead Jesus stayed in that town a few more days before going to Lazarus’ hometown. By the time He got there it was too late. As Jesus got close to His friend’s house He was met on the road by one of Lazarus’ sisters. They had a really neat conversation then she went to get her sister. Jesus stood there on the road just outside the town and watched the devastation death brings to those left behind. The next few verses are truly powerful and comforting. It says that as Jesus saw these sister mourning “He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Then is says “Jesus wept.”
Did you catch that? JESUS WEPT! He didn’t get misty eyed and a little downcast. He wept. Jesus sobbed. I learned a few things from this story. By doing this Jesus gives us permission to grieve for others. Jesus was so moved by seeing Lazarus’ sisters’ brokenness that He couldn’t go on without weeping. Saying “It’s ok to sympathize and grieve for others” may seem really obvious to you, but let me assure you not all Christians are aware of this. A few years ago my grandmother died and my mom had a really hard time with it. They loved spending time together, talked on the phone every day, were very close. A few weeks after the funeral my mom was at church one day, and was still clearly broken and sad. A lady, whom my mom considered a friend, came up to her and rebuked her for still grieving the loss of her mother. She told my mom she just needed to pray and have the joy of the Lord and get over it. All that accomplished was adding guilt and judgment to suffering. Too many Christians are under this same false impression that grieving is a sign of spiritual deficiency.
Jesus didn’t tell Lazarus’ sisters to just pray and get over it. He sat in the middle of a dusty road and cried with them. Amazing. Paul reiterates this idea in Romans 12:15 saying it is good to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” My father-in-law is amazing at this. He has been through a great deal of suffering and grieving in his life. He can meet someone for the first time, find out they are going through something horrible, and just sit and cry with them. When I see him sympathize with others who are suffering I think of Jesus and it is a beautiful thing.
I think the most eye-opening part of this scripture is that Jesus knew the whole time He was going bring Lazarus back to life. Jesus didn’t weep because He had lost hope. His weeping didn’t signal a loss of faith in His Father’s plan. Jesus knew everything was going to end up alright, and He wept anyway. Jesus knew God was going to use this situation for His glory and that the day would end with laughing and dancing and rejoicing, and He wept anyway. Grieving does not automatically mean someone has lost hope. It is not a white flag signaling you’ve given up. It is possible to have great faith and trust in God and still grieve. Having real and genuine faith doesn’t mean you don’t suffer or feel the pain of living in a broken world. Real and genuine faith looks to God through puffy red crying eyes and says, “In the midst of my weeping, in the midst of my suffering, when I can’t even speak through the sobbing, You are still God and You will get me through this.”
The second passage that has taught me a lot is in Luke chapter 22. This is where Jesus prays in a garden moments before Judas brings a mob to arrest and eventually kill Him. Here we get a glimpse of Jesus being vulnerable, being scared, being human. Jesus knows what the next few days hold. He knows the agony of the cross is coming soon and Jesus grieves, this time for Himself. In fact the scriptures say He was so anguished that His sweat was like drops of blood. That’s not a poetic thing. There’s an actual medical condition where someone can be so stressed that the capillaries in the foreheads burst and blood comes out in tiny droplets like sweat. Some people think going to the cross was easy for Jesus because He’s the Son of God. They haven’t read the Bible. I like that Matthews gospel includes Jesus saying, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” If you can’t make the connection I’ll help you out. That’s ancient verbiage for “I’m scared to death!” In short Jesus grieves for Himself. Jesus is real about His own suffering. He doesn’t sluff if off with cheesy patronizing sayings like, “Well, God’s got a plan” or “I guess I just gotta have faith.” Jesus is too real and not nearly annoying enough for that. Yes, faith is of the utmost importance and God does in fact have a plan in all things. But it’s ok to look at your situation and be real about. This sucks. This isn’t fun. I hate this right now. I’m scared. I’m sad. I’m…whatever, you fill in the blank.
Let me pull all of this together really quickly. Many are under the impression that grieving is somehow unspiritual and reveals a lack of faith. However, you cannot read the Bible and conclude that is truly God’s view. Grieving is part of what it is to be human in this fallen world. Having faith doesn’t mean we no longer grieve. It means, as Paul told the Thessalonians, we don’t grieve like those who have no hope. In other words we can grieve and hurt and be honest about it and still have great faith in God.
Thank you for letting me share some thoughts with you. I focused this blog on answering the question “Is it ok for Christians to grieve?” My prayer is that this is helpful to someone. If you are suffering and for some reason feel guilty about it, don’t. Once I started coming to grips with the fact that my grieving wasn’t a sign of spiritual weakness I was able to talk about it with trusted friends and family, and then the healing really started.