Part 3 of series: God Will Wipe Away Our Tears: Grief and the Christian Life
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In yesterday’s post I continued reflecting on some implications of the fact that, in the new creation, God will wipe away our tears. I began to answer the question:
2. What does the fact that God will wipe away our tears reveal about how we’re to live in the meanwhile?
So far my answer contained two parts:
a. We recognize the reality of pain and suffering.
b. We grieve differently.
My claim that we grieve differently really isn’t my claim at all, as I explained yesterday. It is based on the clear teach of the Scripture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, where it says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Because of the pains of this life, we will grieve, but not in the way that others who have no hope grieve.
If you’ve been to as many funerals as I have, you’ll know exactly what Paul is talking about here. I have done funerals for people whose friends and family members are not people of faith. These services have a heaviness about them that you could almost cut with a knife. Sure, there may be some funny stories about the deceased. But, bottom line, the people gathered believe that their loved one’s life is over and that’s it.
In contrast, I have led many memorial services for people whose family and friends are faithful Christians. These services can have plenty of grief, especially when the person who died was relatively young. But they always have lots of joy as well. The joy mixed with sadness comes because of hope, the hope of life beyond this life.
Yet some Christians believe that because of this hope there is no place for grief in the authentic Christian life. It should be “joy, joy, joy” and nothing more. In the past, when I have spoken of Christians grieving, I have been asked how grief is compatible with faith and joy. “Aren’t Christians supposed to be joyful? How can you say that grieving is okay?”
In response to this question, I’m tempted to say something snarky like, “Well, because I read my Bible.” (“Snarky,” by the way, is a great word I learned from Lauren Winner at Laity Lodge. It means “obnoxious, annoying, irritating, sarcastic.”) But, in fact, this answer is actually true. There is much in Scripture, in both Old and New Testaments, that gives us permission to grieve, even as Scripture also calls us to rejoice. You can see plenty of sadness in the Psalms. Consider Psalm 6:6-7 for example:
I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
they grow weak because of all my foes.
Nothing in this passage and so many like it suggests that grief is off limits.
Turning to the New Testament, the grief of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is striking and indisputable:
They went to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and Jesus said, “Sit here while I go and pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with him, and he became deeply troubled and distressed. He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Mark 14:32-33).
If it was okay for Jesus to be “crushed with grief” and even to share that grief with his disciples, shouldn’t it be okay for the followers of Jesus to grieve in situations of great pain and sadness.
We see this very thing in the writings of the Apostle Paul. He models an open expression of personal pain in his second letter to the Corinthians:
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:8-9).
In fact, human suffering and grief exemplifies what is happening throughout this broken cosmos:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23)
So, this side of the new creation, grief is normal and not to be denied or denigrated.
This leads to my next question in response to the future wiping away of tears by the Lord: How are we to live with each other as we grieve? In particular, how are we to respond to those in our lives who are grieving? I’ll pick this up in the next post of this series