Grief Management in the Lord
At the hand of death, grief and loss is something that all of humanity will experience. I am not saying that all will personally experience death on this side of life because that is not true. Paul said to the Christians in Thessalonica, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Regarding the end of time he went on to say, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Thus when Christ returns, some will be alive. Although not all of humanity we experience a traditional earthly death, most likely we all will or all have experienced the death of someone.
Because of this reality, it makes grief an inescapable reality. Grief is the experience of loss. We can grieve many things, but for this narrative we will mostly grapple with the conceptions of grief at the expense of death. In reality, grief is ignited the minute a person realizes something or someone special, close, or intimately connected is no longer returning or because of quality demise, something will never be the same. Although the onset and initial jolt of grief is not designed to be a fixed condition, it can leave a person with feelings of lostness, confusion, sadness, isolation, heaviness, depression, anger, frustration, resentment, apathy, and more. Although grief is depressive, it is not the same as clinically diagnosed depression. Some people react to grief based upon a denial of the circumstances, but that simply manifests itself in other ways. There is no way to cheat or beat grief; it is a necessary and allowable process of life, when dealing with loss. Grief is also not a time designed to blame God or question/doubt His sovereignty.
Despite my own encounters with grief, I am forced to remain intimately connected with death as a preacher. It is not uncommon for me to facilitate funerals or stand at the bedside of persons as they move closer to death. Because of this nuance, I have spent a lot of time seeking to understand death — its meaning, philosophy, and theology. Through these musings one thing is clear, nothing helps with the pain or sting of experiencing the death of another, but the word of God can generate understanding. In cases of death, do not mistake understanding for pain appeasement. In consoling the grief-stricken, we sometimes search for words to sooth the pain and hurt, but in such moments words are futile. Often times the words we use to comfort others are unconsciously designed to comfort self. In terms of words Jeremiah prophetically proclaimed “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
Because the Word is written on the hearts of His elect, sharing the word of God with a grieving person can truly be beneficial, but can also land as insensitive or as an attempt to rush a person out of grief. In the death of my son, when Dr. James Taylor shared with me Job 13:15, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him”, it was balm to my soul and carried me though. However, there have been other occasions where I was not even sure if the person sharing the passage believed it or found it comforting on their end. Be careful of constructing an unintentional interaction where the bereaved is placed in the position of caring for the feelings and emotions of the visitor. In grief and loss there is no need to rush anyone. You cannot judge the depths and darkness of grief until you have lain in that pit, and even then every case of mourning is surrounded by a unique set of circumstances.
In my quest to generate a deeper theological understanding of grief, both the depths and experiences of Job and David have been of great help. The first comes when it is reported, “Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, 21 And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. 22 In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly” (Job 1:20-22). So at the hand of financial loss, followed by that of his children, Job ripped his shirt, falling to the ground in pain, yet still having reverence for God. That first response of Job was the anger and frustration that elusively connects itself to grief at the start. I know now that this anger often cannot be traced to a real source, it is just anger realized. Job then processed the experience through the notion that he owns and controls nothing. He basically stated he had no power in how he came into existence and will have no power in how he departs.
The utter beauty of the theology of Job, concerning God in death, is that it is God that gives and the same God that removes. Although it does not remove the pain, Job helps us grapple with the reality that it is in our best interest to cherish what we have because we never know how long we will have it or them. Additionally, despite the pain, Job did not blame God for his despair. Grief and loss still stings, but I know it is sovereign God who provides and takes in accordance to His divine will. I just need to make sure I am a good steward of what He allows me to have for however short or long. “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
After the body of Job was stricken his wife had all she could take. She remained silent through the loss of property, cattle, estate, and children, but the sick body of her husband pushed her faith to the limit. At that point she said to the band of her heart and home, “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die” (Job 2:9). But the response of Job to his wife deepens my understanding of death. He said, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). In essence Job was questioning the thoughts of his wife and all of us who only adore and want God when life is good, but question Him when the things of life seem bad and undesired. Job preferred to live a life of balance, knowing that the sovereignty of God is in order during the times of delight and the times of despair. Again, as in Job 1:22, he elected not to blame God. The pain was utterly unbearable and Job had to grieve the loss of children and finances, but he kept God central.
Lastly, in the death of the first child between David and Bathsheba, David managed the grief of child sickness and ultimate death in amazing fashion. David was so surreal in his death/grief management system, I would suggest caution in trying to offer his paradigm to a grieving parent or person (in general), for fear of coming across as insensitive or hurried. The story is recorded in 2 Samuel 12:14-23. When David learned that his child was sick unto death he, “…besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth” (2 Samuel 12:16). While the child was sick David dedicated himself to prayer and devotion toward the healing of his son, but after he died, “David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the Lord, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat” (2 Samuel 12:20).
David refused to remain on the ground of total despair because he knew God had pronounced His final word and there was nothing he could do to unfasten the grip of death that took his son. Yet his words in 2 Samuel 12:23 are simply profound, “…now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” So when the men of David asked him why after the death of his child he was willing to bathe, change his clothes, eat, and continue to worship (in essence), David informed them that now it was time for him to get back to living a life for God so he would be able to go to his son, because his son would never return to him.
In grief and loss, especially toward those who died/die in Christ, the best we can do is live our earthly life now, so our divine spiritual destiny will end where they are. Remember you are the clay In The Potter’s Hands and God has paved a way to save you today!
Dr. Ammar Saheli