How do I grieve?
Evidently, it matters how we grieve. Paul mentions a godly grief and worldly grief (2 Corinthians 7:10). Believers are not to grieve “as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Grief and the Gospel – Part One was on open invitation to align our hearts with the heart of God through the grieving of sin. The gospel tells us that sin grieves God, so it should grieve us, too (sin committed by us, sin committed against us, and the various effects of sin). It also tells us that because Jesus is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, we are not alone in our grief.
But how should we grieve? And more importantly, what should be the outcome of our grief? While social scientists continue to debate the merits of various approaches to grief, the gospel shows itself to be a more than sufficient guide through the process of grief.
Agree with the Father’s Grief
The gospel begins with God, therefore grief (along with everything else in life) must begin with God. Remember that sin grieves God, so it should grieve us, too (Ephesians 4:30). Whether you are grieving sin committed by you today, sin committed against you twenty years ago, or the effects of sin committed by Adam at the fall, I believe it’s important to hear the Spirit affirm what we know to be true according to the scriptures.
Ask the Father to speak through the Spirit concerning the particular situation. There’s not adequate space here to do a full treatment on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, but note that the Spirit is sent by the Father in Jesus’ name (John 14:26). The Spirit proceeds from the Father (John 15:26); and the Spirit leads us to the truth about our adoption as God’s children, by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” All of this adds up to the fact that the Spirit reveals the heart of the Father to us. When we ask the Father how he feels about sin, his response will always include, “This grieves me.” After hearing this (or at least being reminded of Ephesians 4:30), we can freely grieve along with him. The Greek word that translates as “confess” in 1 John 1:9 means “to say the same thing as another; to agree with.”
Burying our emotions under a pile of self-protection is a common way of dealing with pain. But the gospel invites a much more honest approach. Simply agreeing with God about the grievous nature of sin will be freeing for many. Saying: “That sin committed by me, that sin committed against me, grieves me. It breaks my heart. It’s not the way God designed the world to work.” This is the beginning of confessing our sins. Then we must move on by “agreeing with” the Father’s next thoughts concerning sin, that it is not in line with his holiness, and that it must be dealt with. This is the path to the forgiveness promised in 1 John 1:9.
After simply agreeing with God about the grievous nature of sin, I believe the gospel leads us to pour out our hearts to him. Again, our grief must be about God, or it will become an opportunity for self-obsessed navel gazing and pity parties. 1 Peter 5:5-7 says, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
Fixating merely on the hard circumstances of life — past or present — is driven by pride. Effectively, we are casting our cares on ourselves. Casting them on God requires humility, an acknowledgment that life is not ultimately about us, but is about him and his glory. The trials of life can cause us to tell our stories with our eyes pointed downward into our cupped hands, looking at our circumstances as if they were an unintelligible pile of garbage. It’s a line with two fixed points –us and our pile of stuff.
The challenge is to humbly bring your pile to the Father, to hold your cupped hands out and lift up your head, gazing not on your circumstances but on the one who is sovereign over them and present in the midst of them. The line becomes a triangle with three points — us, our pile of stuff, and our perfect Father.
Learn from the Grief Psalms
Many of David’s Psalms are a gripping example of someone pouring out their heart to God, of acknowledging the grievous nature of their circumstances, but doing it in a way that keeps God in the center.
Listen to the words of Psalm 22, which paint a vivid picture of a man who is enduring extreme suffering:
- “I am a worm and not a man, a reproach of men and despised by the people.”
- “All who see me mock me…”
- “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within me.”
- “For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me; they pierced my hands and feet. I can count all my bones. They look and stare at me.”
David has been oppressed, victimized, abused, and mistreated. We don’t know the exact details behind some of David’s references, but it’s clear that he’s been sinned against in tremendous ways.
But how does he frame his lament? Where are his cupped hands?
The Psalm 22 begins this way:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.”
And he says this near the end:
“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!”
In all of David’s lament psalms (which we could also call grief psalms), he follows this same pattern:
- he fixes his gaze on God, affirming his sovereignty and presence;
- he pours out his heart to God without holding back (“This is terrible! This grieves me!”);
- then he reaffirms his great faith in God and his determination to worship him no matter what.
Your prayer may sound something like this:
“God, I know you are here! I know you are powerful and present. I know you’ve always been present. You know what I did yesterday, and you know what happened to me years ago. And it grieves me! I know it grieves you, too! When I was mistreated and abused, when people made fun of me and hurt me, when I sinned sexually and spoke hurtful words to others, you were there and you were grieved. And it was terrible. I hated it. It made me want to die. But I know you were there, and I know you are in control, and I know you actually do care. I am in pain, and I still choose to worship you. Heal my broken heart.”
Embrace Gospel Grief
If this all reminds us of Jesus (except for the part about confessing sin), it should. Matthew makes at least four references to Psalm 22 (27:35, 27:39, 27:43, 27:46), providing us with another clear example of how we should grieve even the most unjust suffering we may endure.
According to the gospel, grief is not about morbid introspection. Gospel grief is about accepting the invitation to pour out your heart to your perfect Father in heaven.
One of the most misquoted verses in the Bible is Romans 8:28:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Often, this verse is quoted when people are experiencing great difficulty. The idea is that God is up to something, that he’s in control, and that he’s going to bring something good out of this mess. While that’s certainly true, it’s not helpful to send a hurting person out on a wild goose chase for some random “good” that may come of their broken circumstances. We must have verse 29 in order to make sense of verse 28:
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
Now we know what the “good” is that God is always working toward in the lives of his adopted children. He is always, through good circumstances and bad circumstances, through blessing and through trial, conforming us into the image of his Son. That’s the plan he determined to accomplish in our lives before time began. And in his amazing power and sovereignty, he does in fact bring something good out of the mess. Somehow, he uses sin to accomplish this conforming work. I will never grasp the manner in which he carries this out, but I have experienced his transforming work most powerfully in the midst of sin and trial.
So what’s this got to do with grief? Grief informed by the gospel comes full circle when we can say, like Joseph, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.” Sin is never God’s first choice. Sin is evil, pure and simple. When people sin against us, in some ways there is a plan for our destruction being carried out. But God’s plan trumps that plan, and actually uses sin — committed by us and against us — to accomplish a greater, life-giving plan. Your abuser intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.
Embracing this reality, acknowledging the good, Christ-forming work that has been accomplished in your life as a direct result of sinful choices made by yourself and others, is an essential part of grief. Only then do we see that our pain can actually be redeemed — “bought back” to accomplish God’s purposes.
Jesus has taken the grievous moments of our lives, paid the penalty for the sin that caused them, and redeemed those moments for his purposes. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…” (Isaiah 53:4).
Abe Meysenburg and his wife, Jennifer, live in Tacoma, WA, where he serves as a pastor and elder with Soma Communities. In 2001, Abe helped start The Sound Community Church, which then became a part of Soma Communities in May 2007. Twitter: @abemeysenburg
To read about how the Holy Spirit reveals the heart of the Father to us, check out The Holy Spirit by Winfield Bevins.
Also, read the first free article in this series by Abe Meysenburg, Grief and the Gospel – Part One.