Christians grieve in the light of the hope of God’s promises.
One day in early December, 2007, I broke down in tears while my family was decorating our Christmas tree. These tears came because my dad had passed away unexpectedly in May of that year, and it suddenly became very real to me while we were decorating the tree that this would be our first Christmas without him. What really got to me was the fact that each year of my life, up until that point, my dad was the one who would place the angel on top of the tree. He was the tallest after all. That year, however, it was up to me to place the angel for the first time, and it made me cry my eyes out. In a moment, I was suddenly wrecked with grief all over again.
I share that story in order to illustrate the fact that grief often hits you when you least expect it. It can come upon you when you reach a milestone or go through a significant life event, but it can also be triggered by a memory, a conversation, or a mere thought. Grief operates in our hearts in such a way that we could be fine in one moment and be wrecked with sadness in the next. In other words, when grief comes, it can feel as if it is simply beyond our control because often it comes upon us so unexpectedly.
How should we respond when those moments of grief and sadness unexpectedly come upon us? Scripture gives two basic answers.
The first guideline that Scripture gives us is to actually grieve. Indeed, Scripture encourages us to make ourselves vulnerable to our emotions, including emotions of grief, anger, and sadness. The Psalms, for example, are filled with poetic lamentations which give voice to these kinds of emotions.
This is an especially crucial principle for us to learn as we live within our particular culture. Very often we are tempted to avoid grief at all cost and to minimize any negative thought or emotion. Some Christians I have met have also seen grief as a sign of lacking faith. But Jesus himself openly wept at the tomb of Lazarus in John 11:35, teaching us that the experience of sadness and grief is not only okay, but is also appropriate.
Avoiding grief and sadness ultimately requires making ourselves cold and less human, cutting off our basic instincts towards compassion and empathy, and keeping us from ever attaching to anyone. Scripture, however, teaches us not to avoid grief, but to lean into it.
A second principle that Scripture gives us is to hold onto the promises of God in moments of grief and sadness. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” In other words, Scripture teaches us that it is important for us not to grieve without hope, which ultimately leads to despondency and despair. Grief in light of the Gospel, however, has the power to strengthen us.
Many seasoned Christians can attest that it is in moments of grief and sadness when the hope of the Gospel has become very real and truly beautiful to them. As the Puritan, Samuel Rutherford, once put it: God often keeps his choicest wine in the cellar of affliction. When these unexpected moments come upon us, it is an invitation to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8) But we can only do that when we are prepared to remind ourselves of the promises of God in seasons of grief and sadness.
And what are some of those promises? Consider these:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
"The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:26)
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
Christians do not grieve as others grieve because Christians grieve in the light of the hope of God’s promises. Indeed, it is true that grief often does come upon us unexpectedly. But in those moments, the promises of God may serve as an ointment for our wounds and a balm for our souls. Let us hold onto them in every season, that they may guide us and strengthen us in the unexpected moments of grief and sadness that are sure to come in this life.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington, D.C.