A theology of grief and death.
This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
At the church where I pastor, it feels as though we have been enduring a ceaseless season of losing loved ones to death’s cruel embrace. The Reaper has checked in for an extended stay so as to make efficient his work in the business of eternal rest. This business, of course, is swift, impartial, merciless. It is in these seasons of grief and loss and despair when, as a pastor, I can’t help but think of the relative cheapness of my profession, the most basic function of which is the putting together of words so as to comfort or convict souls. I say “cheap” because, having been on both sides of the coin of grief, there are some moments when all language feels wholly uninspired, lifeless, and incredibly deficient at addressing the emotional anguish in the aftermath of abject tragedy. Words often fail to comfort those coping with insurmountable loss. Notwithstanding the soundness of my theology or the abundance of Scripture with which I employ in my discourse on reasoning with loss, there is no turn of phrase capable of truly consoling those who are grieving.
From my own experience, there have been moments when Romans 8:28 felt less than real. In fact, that was high on the list of things I didn’t want to hear. That is one thing that many of struggle with: conversing with someone who is grieving, suffering. We should, however, take the one thing Job’s friends got right when they went to be with him in his mourning. We are told:
They met together to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they looked from a distance, they could barely recognize him. They wept aloud, and each man tore his robe and threw dust into the air and on his head. Then they sat on the ground with him seven days and nights, but no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very intense. (Job 2:11–13)
Sometimes not having an answer for life’s troubles is okay. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes silence is the answer, for in the silence, we are given the space to cope and process and mourn without the pressure to “fix” the wrong.
Fortunately for us, the gospel speaks to us in these moments, not in pithy motivational platitudes by giving us real, honest hope. Hope that comes not in shying away from, sidestepping, or pretending the heartache isn’t real. To do that would mean to cease to be human. The grief, pain, and loss is real and, to be honest with you, there is nothing we can truly do to “prepare” for moments like this. Suffering is always surprising. Losing a friend or loved one shakes us to our core, and this is because death is unnatural. It is reminder world is not as it should be. Our grief in the absence of loved ones is a stubborn token that this third rock from the sun is tainted — besmirched with stain of cold skin and breathless lungs. This world of flesh and bone, wood and water, was not created with death in mind. Our grief is the soul’s ache at the oddity of death. “Death,” writes Paul Tripp, “is the enemy of everything good and beautiful about life as God planned it.” It is the world’s greatest wrong — the last wrong to be made right. (1 Cor 15:25–26)
In that way, suffering and death serve as the best evangelists. They are in all of our futures. Our response to such grievous seasons, then, reveals what lies at the core of what we believe. It puts the objects of our deepest trust under the intensest of spotlights. Suffering will always tell you what you rely on most. What should we say to this grief, though? What should our response be to life’s crushing seasons? When a loved one leaves us? When a friend takes their own life? When a child is inexplicably loses their life?
In Psalm 13, King David does not diminish his feelings — he expresses them, gives voice to them. In a moment of shear vulnerability, he prays, letting God know the deepest emotions of his soul. He felt forgotten, betrayed, alone, and completely disregarded, and he let God know it. (Pss 13:1–4; 88:1–3) I am sure you have felt this way, to some degree, too. Sadly, we are often told that such feels are antithetical to the evangelical faith. Somewhere along the line, we have come to believe that expressing emotion heavenward is contradictory to Christianity. Such logic, though, is completely unfounded. Faith is not a forcefield against suffering — the gospel does not make us into emotionless robots. Indeed, the Scriptures are brimming with religious folk who are real, honest, and vulnerable with God about their situation, and their emotions in that situation.
I would say that voicing your grief to God is not only biblically legitimate but also spiritually and emotionally healthy. You and I were not created to bear the incredible weight of life’s griefs. Such is why we are invited to cast all our anxieties on the back of Another who is able to carry them. Such, too, is why more than half of the psalms see the writer pouring out his soul to God in moments of great grief, suffering, and adversity. Rather than suppressing our grief, the Bible gives us ample space to voice our grief. Even better, it assures us that God hears us. “God has listened,” David elsewhere declares; “he has paid attention to the sound of my prayer. Blessed be God! He has not turned away my prayer or turned his faithful love from me.” (Ps 66:19–20; cf. 1 Pt 3:12)
Suffering is not God’s indifference to us, even though it might feel that way in the moment. We are encouraged to grieve and mourn and voice our distress because we do so in the assurance that the God of all creation is listening with such attentiveness that even before we call, he answers. (Is 65:24) God is not deaf to our cries of distress and desperation. He wants to hear you when you can’t take anymore, when you feel at your wits’ end. Because your wits’ end is his specialty. Another of the harebrained Christian aphorisms that I wish would die is the notion that “God will not give you more than you can handle.” A brief study of the lives of Joseph, Job, or Jeremiah, or even David himself, would reveal what they endured throughout their lives was far and above their human capacities. But such is what God always does. He repeatedly gives us far more than we can handle so we are inclined to fall on him all the more.
It is true that no one ever grieves in the same way. We are all different in personality and chemical makeup. But what is the same is that everyone, at some point, grieves. What David expresses in Psalm 13 is not unique to him. It is the normative human condition. Everyone who has ever existed has suffered. So though you may feel alone, you are not the only sufferer. While it is easy to think that no one understands what you are going through, suffering unblinds us to see our suffering Friend, the grieving Volunteer who is always with us in life’s harrowing seasons. (Ps 13:5–6)
Suffering gives us the clearest picture of the God who suffers with us, Immanuel. This is, perhaps, the most precious name of God in life’s trials. “They will name him Immanuel, which is translated ‘God is with us.’” (Mt 1:23) Immanuel is a God who walks hand-in-hand with us through life’s intensest griefs. He is our “very present help in trouble” (Ps 46:1) not only because he walks with us through trouble but because he knows what trouble feels like. He is a God who knows what suffering is, who knows what grief means. (Heb 4:15; Is 53:3) We have a God who understands our agonizing darkness because he endured it for us. Immanuel voluntarily takes your griefs, sorrows, afflictions as his own. (Is 53:4) His tears mix with our own. Notwithstanding what your circumstances are, you have a God who is with you. (Ps 23:4; Is 43:1–3) In cancer, in death, in a breakup, in a layoff, in a car wreck, you are not alone. You have a Volunteer, a Vicarious Friend who is with you.
Such is what moves David to worship, to praise God for his salvation and sustenance in the middle of suffering. “But I have trusted in your faithful love,” he shouts; “my heart will rejoice in your deliverance. I will sing to the Lord because he has treated me generously.” (Ps 13:5–6) These verses remind me of that ubiquitous Pinterest quote which goes something like, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” You might think this is cheesy, but I think it’s quite biblical, especially considering what David’s doing. He’s celebrating in song and rejoicing in God’s faithful love. The Hebrew word for “rejoice,” meaning, “to spin around; to go in circles.” He’s singing and dancing in the middle of his grief not because he wants to ignore the pain — not because he wants to deny its existence — but because he is free to voice his suffering knowing that the Lord has volunteered to shoulder it and has further guaranteed victory over it. He knows the Person who is with him and for him through it all.
Because of Jesus, we suffer and grieve in a new way. Not as those who have no hope. Nor as those whose hope is ethereal or abstract. But as those whose hope is alive.
The prerogative of our Christian faith, the secret of its strength, is, that all which it has, and all which it offers, is laid up in a living person . . . how vast is the difference between submitting ourselves upon a beating heart; between accepting a system and cleaving to a person.
The gospel offers us something entirely different than any other religion. Not a force, but a face. Not a philosophy, but a Person. In the agony of grief and loss, faith binds us to a Person who lived and bled for us, and who is living still for us. (Job 19:25–26) What do we do, then, with this grief? We cry and pray. What do we do with all these tears? We let them flow, knowing that our beloved Volunteer bottles all our tears (Ps 56:8) and promises to one day wipe them all away. (Rv 21:4)
Richard Trench, The Hulsean Lectures for 1845 and 1846 (London: MacMillan & Co., 1880), 222.