Jesus told us in John 16:33 that in this world, in this lifetime, we will have trouble. There will be pain, tribulation, and suffering, and in the wake of trouble comes grief. Grief is a common human experience. We all know what it is because we’ve all been through it. Perhaps you are in grief right now. Maybe you’ve been in grief for an extended time now. So, the real question is not “Will I experience grief?” Just live long enough, and you surely will. The real question is “Will I handle my grief biblically?”
That question is massively important. As you well know, grief is a heavy burden, and if it’s not handled rightly, it can crush you. It can lead to depression, despair, and making a shipwreck of your faith. I pray this article will help you understand grief and battle biblically for joy.
DEFINITION OF GRIEF AND ITS SOURCES
You know what grief feels like and looks like, but you’ve probably put into words what it actually is. Therefore, a definition here will be helpful. Grief is deep emotional sorrow and distress over losing some cherished thing or person. Notice that my definition is broader than how we usually think about grief. We normally associate grief only with death, but as I’ll demonstrate in just a moment, death is just one of many events associated with grief.
Grief arises from four basic sources. First, grief can happen with the loss of people. Any situation that ends or hinders a relationship with people we cherish can give rise to grief. Of course, death is the most obvious and devastating situation in this category, but it’s not the only situation that ends or hinders relationships with people. Moving can end or hinder relationships, as does divorce, broken friendships, and broken romances. Another situation that’s not as obvious is marriage. Remember that according Genesis 2:24, the couple is supposed to leave their birth families and cleave to each other. Sometimes a mother or father can feel like they are losing their child, which can cause some grief.
Second, grief can happen with the loss of position. We know all too well in the current economic conditions that jobs end, many times after several years of faithful service. When jobs end, some level of grief often arises. I still vividly remember my dad coming home from work in the early 1990s and slumping against the wall after telling us that he had been permanently laid off from his Holley Carburetor factory. He’d been there for over a decade and had been the only job I had ever known him to have. It certainly brought him grief. The loss of cherished roles and responsibilities can cause grief as well.
Third, grief can happen with the loss of possessions. Pets, houses, land, heirlooms, money…whatever stuff is valuable to a person can cause grief when it is lost. In 2006 when I served as Associate Pastor at Crofton Baptist Church, I remember listening to one of the pastors I worked with in Pascagoula, MS. Some other pastors and I took some folks down to help out in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which had flooded and destroyed much of the city. It had been a few months since Katrina had hit, and by this point, other volunteer groups had been to help. The pastor was thankful but said, “I’m getting tired of everybody telling me, ‘Aww, pastor, all you lost was stuff. Don’t worry about it.’ Yeah, it might have stuff,” he continued, “but it was my stuff!” Losing “stuff”—possessions—can bring on grief.
Fourth, grief can happen with the loss of health. Injury and disease, both physical and mental, can seriously hinder a person from doing what they would like to. They often rob a person of their full freedom and certainly can make them long for the way their bodies used to be. They wish that they could just break out and run again. Even the simplest tasks are often made painstaking by injury and disease. So, it’s understandable that loss of health can cause grief.
So, grief actually has a fairly wide scope of sources. Again, grief is deep emotional sorrow and distress over losing some cherished thing or person.
THE GRIEF PROCESS
I hate going to the dentist. It’s unnerving, uncomfortable, and often downright hurts, but I certainly appreciate the way my dentist takes the time to explain everything that’s going to happen to me before she ever touches my mouth. By explaining the process, the experience is made not as bad. It’s the same way with grief. If we understand the typical process that a person experiences in grief, we’ll be helped when we ourselves experience grief and be better equipped to help others as they go through the process.
Of course, several factors play into the intensity and duration of these stages I’ll discuss in a moment. The intensity and duration experienced with the expected death of a sick grandparent will be very different from the surprise death of a little child. Personality and culture also plays a large determining role. Honestly, each situation is unique.
As for the grief process, Jay Adams recognizes three stages of the grief process in his book The Big Umbrella. The first stage is shock. This stage usually endures for the first few hours after getting the bad news. A person in shock may experience numbness, the feeling of being stunned, hysteria, near or actual paralysis, and bewilderment. Some take the news coolly, but others will have a very strong reaction. The Bible provides us with two examples of the devastating effects that shock can have on a person in 1 Samuel 4:12-22:
- Now a man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes torn and dust on his head. When he came, behold, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road eagerly watching, because his heart was trembling for the ark of God. So the man came to tell it in the city, and all the city cried out. When Eli heard the noise of the outcry, he said, “What does the noise of this commotion mean?” Then the man came hurriedly and told Eli. Now Eli was ninety-eight years old, and his eyes were set so that he could not see. The man said to Eli, “I am the one who came from the battle line. Indeed, I escaped from the battle line today.” And he said, “How did things go, my son?” Then the one who brought the news replied, “Israel has fled before the Philistines and there has also been a great slaughter among the people, and your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been taken.” When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell off the seat backward beside the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for he was old and heavy. Thus he judged Israel forty years. Now his daughter-in-law, Phinehas’s wife, was pregnant and about to give birth; and when she heard the news that the ark of God was taken and that her father-in-law and her husband had died, she kneeled down and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. And about the time of her death the women who stood by her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have given birth to a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. And she called the boy Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel,” because the ark of God was taken and because of her father-in-law and her husband. She said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God was taken.”
In these extreme examples of shock, both Eli & Phinehas’ wife died. Of course, most people do not experience the depths of shock recorded in 1 Samuel 4, but the feeling is still very intense and life-shaking. This stage is usually over when the person finally accepts that who or what they loved is actually gone—that their loved one is really dead or that their job is really over.
The second stage is disorganization. Disorganization characterizes the first few weeks after the shock has worn off. This period is very difficult to experience and observe because it’s basically when everything falls apart. A person may experience bodily discomfort such as:
- General sense of fatigue or weakness
- Shortness of breath or tightness in your chest
- Dry mouth
- Trouble sleeping
- Loss of appetite
There may also be general emotional discomfort, such as:
- Deep sighing
- Emotionally drained
- Feelings of emptiness
- Unable to focus mentally
- Loss of spirit and motivation
- A desire to withdraw from people
- Dreams or nightmares
- Calling out the deceased’s’ name
- Treasuring or avoiding mementos of the deceased
Along with general emotional discomfort comes big, negative emotions, such as:
- Sadness – This is the most common emotion and one we are all familiar with to some degree.
- Anger – You may be angry at God, the doctor, the “system,” or even the person who died (anger at the person is especially prevalent in the wake of suicide deaths)
- Frustration – Death seems so final. You want your loved one back but can do nothing about it.
- Guilt – Doubts may come up, “Maybe I should have…” or “If only I had…”
- Fear – “What am I going to do?” and “How will I survive?”
Again, this disorganization stage is very difficult because it’s when everything sort of falls apart. People in this stage should be strongly encouraged to not make any major decisions because they’re just not able to think rationally at this point.
The third stage is reorganization. Reorganization is usually experienced for the first few months to a year after disorganization ceases. This stage involves coping with the loss, picking up the pieces, and forging ahead with life. Although what was lost will probably never be forgotten, significant healing begins to take place here as the person begins a new chapter of their life, building a new “normal”.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR LOSS
Let’s be honest, there’s really no way to fully prepare yourself for loss and death. Even King David responded with great grief when his traitorous son Absalom was killed. David had ordered him to be taken alive, but instead he was killed. We read of his grief in 2 Samuel 18:33, The king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And thus he said as he walked, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
So, while there’s no way to fully prepare, God has not left without any preparation. We must prepare as much as we can because when tragedy strikes, it’s too late to prepare. It’s amazing to hear about how many people here in Middle Tennessee called the insurance company the week after the big flood hit in May wanting to purchase flood insurance. The only problem is they wanted the insurance company to cover the flood that had just happened. I’m sure the insurance companies repeatedly told callers, “We’re sorry, but we can’t make policies cover past events, but we’ll be glad to cover you the next time a flood hits.” It’s too late to prepare after the tragedy strikes.
So, what should you do before tragedy strikes? I would strongly suggest two things.
1) Ground yourself in the Word of God.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:24-27 that wise people build their lives upon the rock of Scripture so that when storms come, they will endure. But what does that mean?
First, it means that you must have a biblical view of God. The Bible teaches that God is all-good, almighty, all-knowing, all-loving, all-wise, all-just, and completely sovereign. Everything that comes to pass is either brought about directly by God or at least allowed by God, and if it comes to pass, God has an ultimately good purpose in it.
Second, it means that you need to have a biblical view of life and material goods. As for life, the Bible teaches that life in this age is a passing gift from God that is here today and gone tomorrow. James 4:14 tells us, Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. David cried similar truth when he said in Psalm 39:4, LORD, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; Let me know how transient I am. Life is precious and fleeting indeed, vanishing quickly. We should always keep this in the forefront of our mind.
We also learn concerning life in the Scripture that the number of days in our life has already been set. Job 14:5 teaches, Since [man’s] days are determined, the number of his months is with You; and his limits You have set so that he cannot pass. Therefore, the dates of birth and death are part of God’s ultimately good plan.
As for material goods, the Bible teaches that possessions are gifts from God as well and are of secondary importance. Jesus explains to us in Luke 12:23, For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing, and in Luke 12:31, But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Notice that He’s not denying the importance of material goods. He’s just putting in its proper secondary place. That’s why Jesus begs us in Matthew 6:19-21, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Third, it means that you need to have a biblical view of death. For the Christian, death is actually victory. We find out in Revelation 20:4 that when Christians die, they come to life and reign with Christ in Heaven:
- Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
Now, if Revelation 20:4 was sort of mysterious or cryptic, 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 is clear and bold:
- Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. “O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
You see, Jesus Christ triumphed over the grave, and so will all who believe on Him.
Finally, it means that you need to have a biblical view of the future. The Bible teaches that death only separates Christians for a relatively short period of time. There will be a reunion, which adds even more expectation and excitement to Heaven. God Himself is the prize, but it’ll be joyous to see loved ones again as well. We’re promised that when Jesus returns, all of those who are in Christ throughout history will experience resurrected bodies in a resurrected universe.
If you will ground yourself in these biblical truths, you will be better prepared to stand faithfully in the face of tragedy.
2) Ground yourself in the fellowship of the church.
You’ll need a strong connection to your church family so that they’ll be able to help you through whatever tragedy you face in a godly way, and these friendships take time to build. I’m sure worldly friends and family will show love to you as you suffer, but you don’t want their wisdom and their ways coping. You’ll need the people of God to help you stand strong in God.
HOW TO GRIEVE BIBLICALLY
Now that I’ve defined grief, identified its sources, overviewed the grief process, and pointed out things to do before you experience grief, let’s now turn to the ultimate question of this article. How does a person handle grief biblically? Certainly there are a number of ways to handle grief, but our Creator has given us in the Scripture the best way to handle it, and as Christians, who should be people of the Bible, we certainly want to handle everything biblically, even grief.
First, speak with honest emotion. God has not designed you to just stuff all of your emotions down inside. Tragedy hurts. We’ve already seen David’s honest emotional response to the news that his son Absalom had died. We also see David pointing out the many tears he had cried in Psalm 6:8, Depart from me, all you who do iniquity, For the LORD has heard the voice of my weeping. The Bible is honest about the sorrows of life, and God expects you to be honest as well. Psalms 13, 22, 38, 42, 55, 59, 61, 73, and 88 all record God’s people bringing their honest grief, questions, and complaints to the Lord. You should too. If you are confused, let God know. If you are angry, let God know. If you are sad, let God know. Your faith shouldn’t silence you in the midst of your grief but should be the catalyst for a conversation with your heavenly Father, the very lover of your soul. It’s in the honest moments that you’ll begin to understand the depths of God’s wisdom and love. You see, God doesn’t just listen. He also answers. Pour out your grief to Him and be honest.
Second, run to where comfort can be found. There are myriads of ways you can try to find comfort in the midst of grief, but true comfort is only found in the Lord. Second Corinthians 1:3-4 speaks of that real and lasting comfort, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. There will be plenty of things that can distract you, and they will bring you some temporary comfort, but they will not heal your broken heart. Only God can do that. Jesus Christ himself is committed to comforting you. That’s one of the reasons why He told us in Matthew 11:28, Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Run to God and the things of God. That’s where real comfort is found.
Third, resist grief’s temptations. In the wake of tragedy, you will be tempted greatly to sin against God. You’ll be tempted to doubt. As you probably already know, when you lose something or somebody you love, it’s very tempting to doubt God’s goodness, mercy, faithfulness, and love. Don’t give into this temptation. Stand on the rock of Scripture, and you’ll weather the storm. Actually, holding onto your belief in God’s love and mercy will be a great help to you as you grieve.
Also, you’ll be tempted to be filled with anger. Death should make us angry that the effects of sin still touch us, but you must be careful to see that your anger at death doesn’t degenerate into anger with God. It’s sin to bring God into your courtroom and charge Him with wrongdoing.
Envy will be another one of grief’s temptations. You’ll often feel like you’ve been singled out for suffering and may wish to switch lives with somebody. That’s dangerous! Envy is rooted in disappointment with God because He didn’t give you what you wanted, and that attitude is sinful.
There will also be the temptation of self-pity. In your pain, it’s easy to move God out of the center of your life and make it all about you. You might become consumed with thinking how you’ve been wronged by this tragedy and how you’ve got it worse than everybody else. You might think that no one’s loss or pain is as great as yours. Self-pity usually leads to self-absorption, which is sin. God has told us to be others-focused, And [Jesus] said to [the lawyer], ” ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Turn outward instead of inward.
Fourth, seek God’s resources. God has given you an indispensable and priceless grace in the church, and you’ll need it in the midst of tragedy. You see, Satan will try to isolate you from the people of God. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. Fight against isolation. Let the body of Christ minister to you. In the church, there are people who’ll walk with you, cry with you, share personal insight, and give advice. In short, they’ll be compassionate, which literally means they’ll suffer with you and help bear your burden.
Fifth, look for blessings in grief. What? Blessings? That’s right. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. The old preacher joke goes like this, “I’ve looked up the word everything in the Greek, and it means everything!” Yes, Paul is telling us that it’s always God’s will for us in all situations to give thanks, even in the dark days of grief. Don’t let grief rob you of a moment to worship God. Job didn’t. When he found out that he’d lost everything he arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:20-21). Don’t replace a thankful heart with a complaining heart either. The prophecy concerning the death of Jesus implies that He didn’t complain, He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth (Isaiah 53:7). God doesn’t expect you to jump for joy, but He’s promised to never leave you, to conform to Christ, and to work all things together for our good. Look for blessings in grief.
Sixth, rely on your spiritual habits. Sometimes grief is so powerful that you feel like you died too. But you didn’t. You live on because God has chosen for you to live on, which means that He still has meaning and purpose for you ahead. With that said, spiritual habits or disciplines will help you carry on in the darkness of grief. Prayer, Bible study, fellowship, ministry, journaling, etc. will keep you going and serving God. Even though you might be in grief, you are still commanded to actively love God and love people.
Seventh, celebrate the promise of Heaven. I love to read what’s promised to us in Revelation 21:1-8:
- Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
That’s what’s store for us at the consummation of the age. Until then, allow your tears to sharpen your hunger for the day when tears will be no more in the New Heaven and Earth. And for your loved one who has died in Christ, you should actually rejoice for them. Although they aren’t yet experiencing everything promised to us here in Revelation 21, they are certainly experiencing the blessedness of the present Heaven and are in the presence of the Lord. We often say to people who have lost a loved one, “She is in a much better place.” It’s true!
Eighth and finally, give away the comfort you have been given. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. God is actually equipping you through your tragedy and grief and desires to use you as an instrument of comfort. Those of you who have lost a spouse are specially equipped to minister to those who will lose a spouse. Those of you who have miscarried a child are specially equipped to minister to those who will miscarry a child. Those of you who have gone through a divorce are specially equipped to minister to those who will go through a divorce. Those of you who have endured some disease are specially equipped to minister to those who will face disease. Amy Carmichael, one of the great missionaries in church history, said, “God never wastes His children’s pain.” Handled biblically, your pain will actually equip you to comfort others as they go through grief.
Charlie Brown always used to say, “Good grief!” I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “good” grief. Those two words together seem oxymoronic because grief is such a life-shaking, terrible thing to go through. However, there is such a thing as biblically-handled grief. Whenever tragedy strikes and my heart begins to break, that’s what I pray I’ll experience, and I’m praying that for you too.