The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed festivals. All her gateways are desolate, here priests groan, her young woman grieve, and she is in bitter anguish. – Lamentations 1:4
In my church experience, grief is a process that we tend to jump over to get to the more positive encouraging aspects of faith. Admittedly seeking joy and peace are experiences I would much rather pursue. However, grief is portrayed throughout the Bible. What is its purpose? Why do we need to go through it? These are questions that should be considered by every Jesus believer.
Grief is described as a “process” because probably because it involves moving through a serious of emotions, rather than just one. In her book On Grief and Grieving (2005), Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlines the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
There is some debate in the counseling field whether all grief includes these stages, which will not be discussed in this article. The point here is that grief includes moving through different emotions for a purpose. In my view, the process of grief serves three main purposes in our spiritual development. We need the grief process for change, healing, and ongoing spiritual growth.
Let’s start with the issues of change. In Matthew 5:4 (NIV) Jesus said, “Blessed are those that mourn.”
If Jesus taught this in his famous sermon, it must be important. In the Amplified Bible the context of “blessed are those who mourn” refers to “over their sins and repent” as the context for this blessing. In other words, Jesus teaches that those who let themselves feel grief about their bad life choices to the point that it motivates them to change their behavior, find blessings.
This passage reminds me of my many years of working with Chemical Dependency patients. We called this kind of grief, “hitting bottom.” When are a person is “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” they find the motivation to change.
It is very common at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to hear a speaker share their life story of drinking and all broken relationships and moral decay that their drinking caused. Chemical addictions can be more extreme examples of needing grief to change.
I remember as a new therapist working too many hours and my wife asked me once, “do I need to make an appointment and slide a check under the door to get you to listen to me?” Through the pain of her comment, I realized I needed to change how much of a priority I was putting into work.
God wants us all to reflect on life choices outside of his created intent and feel grief for the losses they create.
When we don’t let ourselves feel grief over sinful life choices, we block our ability to participate in God’s grace. Jesus taught in John 9:41 “Jesus said, If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
Another good grief passage where God is appealing to the hearts of the Israelites is in 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.”
The idea here is the same. Jesus followers must dig into the “unplowed ground” of their hearts and feel the grief in the ways they have not sought God. Entering the grief process is a requirement for spiritual change.
Another aspect of the grief process I would like to consider is how grief brings about healing. The story of mankind portrayed in the Bible is that God created man in unbroken connection to Him and each other. As a result of the fall, man suffered loss. Created for a perfect love connection, but becoming out of balance with it because of sin. Proverbs 19:22 reads: “What a person desires is unfailing love; better to be poor than a liar.”
This proverb sums up our dilemma. What we really want deep down inside is love that is always there, whenever we need it. The problem that we face is that from the earliest of age in this life we at best get “failing love” from humans. Even the best of families can’t give their children everything they need because their love is imperfect.
Only unfailing love comes from God. As a result, when a human being looks to another for love in some form and doesn’t get it, they experience loss. When it happens chronically, they must look for a way to cover it up, to stop the pain. That’s why the above proverb says that it’s better to be “poor than a liar.”
It is common for people to assume that rich people have everything they need. The writer of Proverbs is saying that it is better to be honest and admit that what you really want is “unfailing love” instead of substituting with something like money.
In one way or another, we have learned to cover up some aspect of our need for love with something else. For example, the nerd that gets bullied in school becomes a famous doctor to feel a sense of value and power. The problem with this solution is that is doesn’t address the famous doctor’s underlying need for which he was built, “unfailing love.” This is where the process of grief is crucial for healing.
I believe the Gospel story of the Canaanite woman best illustrates how God uses grief to heal us. Matthew 15:22 reads “A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly’.”
As this passage goes on Jesus first ignores her, then gets racial and finally compares her with the family dog. This is a perplexing interaction for someone coming to Jesus for help. It begs the question, why did Jesus seem to add to her difficulty in his responses to her interactions? Some would say he was using her as an example because he already new she would be an example of faith.
Nevertheless, it seems like kind of a harsh way to show her great faith unless there is something else at work here.
When I think about the story of Canaanite woman, I think about long suffering. This woman must have battled every day with the grief of her daughter suffering as well the social ostracization from a judgmental society in which she lived. I would imagine she saw her answer to life’s suffering as the healing of her daughter. Like most of us, what she lacked was an eternal perspective.
In this life when tend to view our temporal problems as the biggest obstacles to our happiness and freedom. From, Jesus’ perspective the woman had a temporal problem, but a much bigger eternal one. He could heal her, but if she didn’t grasp God’s ultimate plan revealed in the Gospel, she would only have a temporary fix.
Jesus taught this woman surrender and trust as she shed earthly pride asking for his help. By humbling herself in grief over her daughter, she was able to walk away with healing and eternal solution. I think God uses our attachments to an earthly problem to open up for a healing solution that is not bound by problems of this life.
However, we must suffer loss and grief in order to receive spiritual healing. Desperation comes before transformation in this aspect of the grief process. Matthew 5:4 (The Message version) explains this concept well: “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”
Finally, we need the grief process for growth and maturity. James 1:2-4 reads, “Consider it a pure joy my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
I don’t think James is advocating ignoring grief when going through trials. He is just talking about the ultimate goal of persevering through trials with faith. At the writing of this article, I am in my early 50’s and have enough life experience to look back and see how persevering through loss adds to maturity.
I have learned this by engaging in the grief process with the goal of getting my joy from God and I have tried to escape it by holding on to other things. The first way helped me mature and the second way kept me stuck in my growth.
When I go through something difficult, I usually start by praying that God would fix the situation so that my suffering would stop. In the past, when I felt that my prayers weren’t being answered my way, I felt disappointed and turned to my own ways of escaping or bringing myself comfort by some earthly means.
I can honestly say I never learned anything about God’s will in those situations. Conversely, when I feel disappointed about my prayers seemingly not being answered and let myself grieve the life trial, I grow. Instead of my will being done, I start praying for what God’s will is for me in the situation.
When I don’t get the job I want, I learn that my security comes from God, not an employer. When my health fails, I learn that I am not built to last in this form forever. My life disappointments become a way to empathize and comfort others going through the same trials. Every loss, when persevered through with faith, creates the opportunity to get more firmly anchored in God’s providence.
It is great when life is going well and I am sure God designed us to enjoy our lives. However, seeking heaven on earth is not part of the plan. Ultimately, we need the process of grief to prepare for the next life. Throughout the Bible, we can find stories, teachings, and examples of how grief refines the faith of a believer.
Our best example is Jesus himself, whose example we are called to follow. Hebrews 8:8-9 says, “Son though we was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
If grief and trials are robbing your faith or joy, or you just feel stuck, give us a call. Christian counseling can help you find meaning in the trials you are facing.
“Tough Times”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Candle Lights”, Courtesy of Mike Labrum, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; Courtesy of Samuel Zeller, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sunset”, Courtesy of Joshua Earle, Unsplash.com, CC0 License