Grief is a state of intense sadness that is typically associated with the loss of a significant person or aspect of one’s life. It is not a state that most of us embrace, because it is associated with a permanent life change accompanied by intense sadness. Why, then, does Solomon say in Ecclesiastes 7:2, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart”?
My interpretation of this verse is that we tend to think about our life in a more meaningful way at a funeral instead of a party. If this is the case, maybe grief plays and important role in our spiritual development.
You may ask, “How does this occur?” The purpose of this article is to examine some Bible verses that illustrate this process.
4 Bible Verses about Grief that May Surprise You
Desperation Before Transformation – Matthew 15:22-28
And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’
He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’
And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
Then Jesus answered her, O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire. And her daughter was healed instantly. – Matthew 15:22-28,NIV
In this passage, we see the Canaanite woman racked with grief. Her daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly. As a parent, I can certainly understand the emotional anguish of seeing your child suffer and not being able to do anything to help.I am sure this woman would have gladly traded places with her child if it could remove her suffering. Grief must have been a state that constantly surrounded her. She sought out Jesus for help and had a series of interactions that beg the question, “Why did Jesus seem to add to her suffering before helping her?”
Maybe Jesus had a perspective about the woman’s suffering that others could not see. She may have initially believed that the answer to her life’s problem was her daughter being healed. I can certainly relate to the idea that if God would just remove that one thing in my life that is presently causing me trouble, my life will be good.
What if seeking healing for her daughter was the deepest she was willing to go in her experience of God? Sometimes good things can become idols when we put them before God. If Jesus just granted her immediate request, she may have walked away with the experience that God’s job is to fix all my earthly problems.
Jesus lived and died by the idea that our spiritual condition surpassed all things (John 6:3), that flesh counts for nothing. His priority was never to fix everyone’s temporal problems. My opinion was that Jesus was helping the woman prepare for an eternal solution for her problem that she was not initially ready to experience by helping her go deeper. Now, with the deeper surrender before the Lord, she walks away with her daughter healed and the message of eternal salvation through belief in the Messiah.
One way that grief helps us go deeper in our relationship with God is that it forces us to surrender that earthly thing that we believe, in the moment, will grant us peace. Without it, we are left to consider ways to anchor our soul to things that can’t be affected by the physical realm.
Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl concluded the following about the grief in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear anymore except his God.”
Cry Out – Job 36:13-16
The godless in heart harbor resentment; even when he fetters them, they do not cry for help.
They die in their youth, among male prostitutes of the shrines.
But those who suffer he delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction.
The writer of this passage illustrates some challenging and insightful ways that grief can either bring a person closer to God or leave them bitter in heart. “The godless in heart harbor resentment, even when he fetters them, they do not cry out for help” suggests that there are times in our lives when we are trapped in grief.
He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction,
to the comfort of your table laden with choice food.” – Job 36:13-16
To fetter literally means a chain or manacle used to restrain a prisoner, typically placed around the ankles. There are times in a person’s life when they can’t escape from suffering and loss. I have always been of the opinion that the book of Job is really a condensed version of the types of losses that everyone will experience at some point in their lives.
Job is meant to be an example of someone who holds on to God regardless of the circumstances. God wants us to open up our heart to Him during times of grief, not shut it down. I am sure that the opening up process helps us both process our feelings of loss and spiritually surrender that earthly thing that will not last eternally.
Refusing to open up during suffering of loss causes the opposite effect. A person turns inward and harbors anger and resentment ultimately toward God. They are then bound in anger to something that was never built to last.
The end of this passage is a lot more encouraging than how it starts (vs. 16). God’s goal is not to leave a person trapped in their suffering (phew!). I like to think of grief as the liver of our emotional body. It helps up process the pain and loss of a change to our life and prepares us for something new.
Maybe during our most intense suffering is when we think about God the most. I like the idea that he is speaking to me in my affliction, trying to bring me to a bigger, more satisfying place than I can imagine. Usually, my imagination is limited to just things that I have experienced or want down here on planet Earth. Imagining a place with “satisfying food” bigger than this life can offer has the potential to give me a lot of peace during troubling times (if I let it).
Sow Righteousness – Hosea 10:12
Sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes and showers his righteousness on you.– Hosea 10:12
I would imagine the reason there are a lot of farming metaphors in the Bible is because people were more closely connected to the world of agriculture in those times. The symbolism was probably very easy for them to identify. In this verse, Hosea talks about sowing righteousness. Even I know that when you sow something, you are putting seeds in the ground of what you want to cultivate, grow, and later harvest.
As part of the process, Hosea gives the admonishment, “break up your unplowed ground.” In other words, for the seeds to get in and flourish, soil must be dug into and softened. I dug ditches for two weeks for a summer job in high school and my back still twitches over the memories of how hard digging dirt can be.Maybe when Hosea is preaching the needs to break up unplowed ground, he is discussing a kind of grief that must be initiated by the individual. Instead of a negative event causing sorrow, this kind of grief is caused by the person’s own intention of getting closer to God. Digging into areas of one’s heart that have become calloused toward the conditions in which a relationship with God exists is the soil that must be plowed.
I don’t understand much of the context in which the Old Testament law was written, but I read it sometimes just to get a sense of how much priority and consideration the Israelites had to exert to commune with God through obedience to the laws. In the book of Luke (Luke 8:15), Jesus explains that the good soil stands for those with a good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
Taking the time to consider what the desires of the heart want, comparing them with the teachings and principles of God’s Word, and giving up the desires that conflict with making God a priority is grief work. A good example of this idea is Jesus’ teaching on money. He taught that you can’t serve both God and money (Matthew 8:24). To follow this teaching, a person would first have to mourn the pursuit of earning money as their primary ambition. This can be very difficult for some people to even admit that they love money more than God.
Whatever the condition of the heart is for an individual, some kind of digging will be required to connect with God. The apostle Paul talked about beating his body to make it my slave so he would not be disqualified for the prize of being with God (1 Corinthians 9:27, NIV). Pain and effort are always part of digging. This is the type of grief that the individual must decide to impose on themselves.
Don’t Compare – Proverbs 14:10
Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy. – Proverbs 14:10
Denial is a psychological defense that humans rely on to cope with pain they can’t handle. The failure to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion is an effective way to avoid grief, but it is done at a cost. In my years as a therapist, I have heard many sad stories about people’s lives. Neglect and sexual and emotional abuse stories where the person had to deal with huge loss and trauma on their own is often where denial can be found.
A common version of denial about how life-changing an event was for a person is to minimize their story through comparison. For example, a woman whose stepfather made lewd comments about her body during her teen years may say, “I shouldn’t make a big deal about it, I know women that have been raped by family members.” While it may be true that suffering exists in levels, the problem with comparisons is that it invalidates the need for personal mourning of life wounds.
The rape survivor may actually end up with less long-term problems than the lewd comment receiver if her need to mourn is acknowledged. The woman with the lesser story comparison ends up living with the idea that her injuries aren’t worthy of attention. She then needs to organize her life around the injury, instead of working through it. Maybe she will be vulnerable to allow people to disrespect her the rest of her life for not mourning her story.
Proverbs 14:10 reads, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” I think what the writer means is, “Your story is the worst because it happened to you.” In other words, there is no need to compare your story to others as means of justifying its significance. If it happened to you, it is valid.
Each heart must receive individual attention without comparison. Ultimately, we must all embrace how God feels about this subject. He cares in detail about the condition of each individual’s heart, so it is not our place to say our losses don’t matter because others may have had it worse. Embracing the truth about our lives is important so wounds can be mourned and worked though, leaving a person free to fulfill their growth potential.
The above interpretations of Bible verses about grief are examples of the timeless way that the Scriptures reflect the complexity of the human condition. Grief is not a simple subject and does not run its course in isolation. If you suspect you have unresolved grief that is affecting you emotionally or spiritually, it may be helpful to meet with a faith-supporting therapist who can help you grapple with both. Hopefully these Scriptures have surprised you about the importance and complexity of grief!
“Fervent prayer,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Scream,” courtesy of Dayne Topkin, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Seek the Lord,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Friendship,” courtesy of Jorge Flores, unsplash.com, CC0 License