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Grief and the Gospel
Our theology does more than an adequate job of explaining the reality of the broken world in which we find ourselves. We know that God didn’t design the world to work this way, that sin has devastated the landscape of every relationship in all of creation, and that someday Jesus will restore all things to the way in which they were originally created. Since the fall, sin—committed by us and against us—and the effects of sin have made a mess of the world. As we await the second advent of Jesus, along with the glimpses of the great joy and full redemption that is to come, “creation groans” (Romans 8:22-23).
Practially, however, we often live as though our theology has nothing to say about what to do with this groaning (which we might call grief). This is strange given the breadth of human experience and emotion portrayed in the pages of scripture. Sackcloth and ashes and weeping and tearing one’s garments were among the many ways that humans historically expressed grief. Groaning took on many forms. In western culture, death seems to be the only valid reason for grieving, and pop psychologists have lead the way in helping people navigate those difficult waters.
So how should the gospel inform our understanding of what it means to grieve? Ephesians 4:25-31 says:
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
The words of verse 30 are familiar to us: "...do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption." But the simple reality of the verse (and it’s very far reaching implications) often go unaddressed.
The context of verse 30 is essentially a list of sins. Don’t lie, don’t sin in your anger, don’t steal, don’t speak evil things, don’t be bitter or filled with wrath, don’t slander other people or concoct evil schemes. And sandwiched near the middle of the list is the reason why we should avoid these things: because sin grieves God. (It also gives the devil room to work, but that’s a whole other article.)
Sin grieves God. Sin grieves God. Sin committed by us and sin committed against us. Sin grieves God.
If we’re looking for an invitation to grieve, and to grieve more than just death, then the news that sin grieves God should strike a chord. We’ve been created in the image of God. Like God, we have the unique components of personhood—mind, emotions, and a will. So if God grieves, then grief is a part of what it means to be human. Grief is normal. Grief is good (or at least it can be since God himself grieves).
The gospel tells us that sin should grieve us. We should be grieved by the sin we’ve committed, and we should be grieved by the sin committed against us.
I have had the sad privilege of talking with many people who’ve been groaning most of their lives. Some were exposed to graphic porn before 1st grade. Others were raped by a relative before they were 10. Some cried themselves to sleep at night while mom was working the swing shift after dad left. Still others have made painful and destructive choices over very long periods of time. When I hear these stories, it has been so helpful to encourage people to deal with their groaning by grieving the sin involved in their stories.
When you’ve sinned, God has been grieved, and you should be grieved, too. When sin has been committed against you, God has been grieved, and you should be grieved, too. Grieve the absence of your father. Grieve the loss of your youth because of abuse or neglect. Grieve the fruitlessness of the years you spent abusing drugs or alcohol. Grieve the times you’ve gotten angry with your children. Sin grieves God, and it should grieve us, too.
The picture of a grieving God reminds me of Isaiah’s description of Jesus, the suffering servant, in Isaiah 53:3 - “He was… a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
Jesus is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4). Jesus was the perfect human, the most complete man who ever lived, the most accurate representation of the image of God since Adam. Jesus is the image of God, and he was acquainted with grief. So again, grief is a part of what it means to be human.
But furthermore, Jesus is no stranger to the grief we experience. We often think about how Jesus can identify with us in temptation (Hebrews 4:15), and in suffering (1 Peter 4:12-13), but how often to we ponder the fact that Jesus can identify with our feelings of grief, sadness, and sorrow?
The gospel tells us we’re not alone in our grief…
The gospel also tells us we’re not alone in our grief. Jesus has walked in our shoes, and is well acquainted with the full spectrum of grief that sin invokes.
John 11 offers a tremendous picture of Jesus as a man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief. In the story, we see Jesus’ grief in action, prompted by the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus sees the hurt and the pain that death brings, especially to the surviving family, and he appropriately grieves.
However, even as the man of sorrows, Jesus’ grief in this story is surprising to me on two levels.
First of all, the very fact that he grieves is unexpected. Jesus had encountered Martha on his way to Lazarus’ tomb, but it was his interaction with Mary that seemed to push him over the edge emotionally.
Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!" - John 11:32-36
With striking vulnerability and humanity, the compassion and sensitivity and deep concern of the Triune God are on full display through the tears and troubled spirit of Jesus. JESUS. WEPT.
(I’m convinced that Robert Estienne, the French scholar who divided the biblical text into verses in 1551, intentionally created the shortest verse in the NT in order to call attention to the stunning nature of God weeping.)
“He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”
But Jesus’ grief is also surprising to me because of the timing of his grief. We need only to read ahead a few verses to find out that Jesus was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. He knew his delayed arrival would result in Lazarus’ death, which would in turn provide a unique and poignant opportunity for his own messianic power and glory to be displayed. Jesus knew that he had power over death, that the grave could not hold Lazarus, and that the sound of his voice was about to wake Lazarus from his flat-lined slumber.
Grieving the Effects of Sin
And yet, Jesus grieves. But why does Jesus grieve? Why does he grieve when he knows what’s about to happen?
I think the answer is because Jesus is grieving the effects of sin. When Jesus returns and establishes the fullness of his kingdom, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). More or less, this is an adequate summary of the effects of the fall on humanity. “…sin came into the world through one man, and death (came into the world) through sin…” (Romans 5:12).
So here, Jesus, the one by whom all things were made (Col. 1:16), is grieving, perhaps with a thought like this running through his head: “This is not the way I designed the world to work! Death is terrible and painful and grievous!”
Death is perhaps the one area in which we still give ourselves permission to grieve. Death is so striking, so at odds with the way in which God designed the world to work, that we can’t help but grieve when it occurs. It’s instinctual for humans to grieve death. (For a helpful treatment of the grief that specifically accompanies death, see Paul Tripp’s New Growth Press booklet “Grief: Finding Hope Again.”)
But what about the other effects of sin? What about disease? What about broken relationships? What about corruption? What about economic and social inequality? We live in a fallen world filled with brokenness. The effects of sin are all around us. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where no single person’s sin is the cause of our pain, and yet, we are clearly experiencing life in a way that God never intended. Here again, we find a reason to grieve.
Grieve the fact that cancer took your father when he was 47. Grieve because your best friends had to move out of state in order to find work. Grieve for siblings or dear friends who have no interest in Jesus. Grieve that millions in Africa starve while warlords rape and pillage.
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 sorrow 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?
As we’ll discover, the gospel offers answers to these questions concerning grief, as well. I'll address them in a forthcoming second part of this article. At this time, considering praying for understanding of the deep effects of sin and the even deeper power of grace found in gospel of Jesus Christ.