Part I: Grief
“Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” – 1 Thess. 4:13.
We need to be careful when we talk, and think, about grief. It is easy to handle the topic in a fleshly way–to over-intellectualize or over-emotionalize the subject. On the one hand, when not faced with grief it is easy for some people to rationalize the topic and pontificate as if they know exactly how it is. On the other hand, when in the midst of grief, it is easy to become lost in one’s own feelings. Surely it is true that “Each heart knows its own bitterness” (Prov. 14:10) so the wise will take care in speaking to a grieving person. And certainly as “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” a person ought to be cautious in thinking they understand the depths from which their own grief comes.
But, as Christians, we have been given a special command. Do not grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope, Paul says.
What does that mean?
How are Christians to grieve? What is Christian grief, as opposed to the grief of unbelievers? Are Christians supposed to grieve at all?
As a person, how I would react to various occasions for grief would depend on the circumstance. If my four-year-old child ran out into the street and was killed by a cement truck my feelings would be a bit different than if my wife of ten years died from cancer. And my feelings about a grandfather that died at eighty-one after three years of struggling with Alzheimer’s would be still a bit different from that. The unexpectedness of the death, and how close we were with the deceased, and a multitude of other things all affect what we feel about a particular death. But no matter what we feel at the moment of observing death, what we believe should be a universal bedrock which informs and affects all that we experience.
How should the truth of Christ inform our grief, both in regard to what we think, and feel?
I have trouble understanding how a Christian ought to react to death–I mean, in the sense of coming to terms with death as observed in the living of our lives. Anyone, Christian or non-Christian, is going to be shocked if they see someone run over right before their eyes, bloody body parts flying everywhere. What is godly grief? I struggle with that. To me, it is very clear that there is such a thing as godly grief. The New Testament explicitly speaks about grief over our own sins and godly grief over our own sins is intrinsically necessary for a right relationship with God. The New Testament also speaks about godly grief over the sins of others. Paul can speak about being grieved over the sins of others against the body of Christ, and it is written about how we can grieve the Holy Spirit. But if grief is the proper reaction to sin, is it the reaction believers should have toward death?
Prior to the coming of Christ, the answer would have seemed obvious. But now that Christ has won victory over the grave, and to be with Christ is better by far (as Paul says) then we must ask, “What are we, as Christians, grieving?” If we are not to grieve like the rest of men, as Paul says, how are we to grieve differently over death? Or are we not to grieve at all?
I am not happy with what I see as the typical “Christian” response to the question of grief. First, there seems to be an acceptance that any and all grief is right and good. Second, the answer to grief appears to be found in giving the assurance that the deceased is now in heaven and happy, etc, etc. In the first matter, the acceptance that all grief is one and the same does not acknowledge, or seek to understand, the distinction Paul makes. In the second matter, the assurance that all deceased are in heaven is either wrong theology (universalism), wishful thinking, or deceit. Not everyone we all know is going to heaven. There are people we have loved in this life who are going to hell, and God hasn’t given us the inside scoop to know the hearts and minds of people. Further, often the person offering comfort to the grieving is someone who hardly knows the deceased at all. Where does the Bible tell us the comfort people by offering dubious declarations about the eternal fate of others? All we can see are the words and deeds of people, and that can be a pretty cloudy measure of ones relation to God. It is God who knows the heart.
Can Christians rightly grieve over death? If done from a Godly, biblical, perspective, the answer is yes. The reason we can is that while Christ has been victorious over the grave, we have not yet come unto the full experience of that victory.
I am reminded of the statement by Paul that “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Cor 7:10). The statement was directed toward the issue of sin, but I think we can rightly also say, similarly, that godly grief leads to life, but worldly grief leads to death.
The focus of our grief is of key importance. Is your grief self-centered? Then it is idolatry, and an act of rebellion against God. Is your grief centered on God? Then it will produce life.
As an example: It is right to grieve over the death of your wife. That death is a very clear reminder that creation has not yet experienced the fullness of redemption. The termination of one of the greatest forms of earthly fellowship (marriage) is a a stark reminder, that we have no yet entered into the eternal fellowship of the new heaven and earth. Rightly understood, that pain and longing will teach and reminds us–both of what God is presently doing in delaying that day of His return, and what He will do in bringing that day about. We grieve that we do not yet experience the fullness of redemption, but yet we rejoice in the hope that is in Christ.
Now, on the other hand, one might lose their wife and grieve, thinking: I miss my wife, I want my wife, it wasn’t fair of God, it wasn’t right, I hurt, if God loved me why would He let me hurt . . . and so on. My point, if crudely demonstrated, is that a grief which is the expression of our self-centeredness–our want, and our pain–is an expression of our rebellion against God, and does not lead to life. It is only when our pain, and our want, is a partaking of the want of Christ, and the pain of Christ, that it is a grieving that is pleasing to God. This present created order is pain and grief to God, one which He presently bears until the fullness of redemption is accomplished.
Grief is not easy. It is not easy, because in the midst of this powerful experience one must face the conflict between the old flesh and the new spirit. We all–in our sin and weakness–want to grieve after the natural man, screaming at God, “Why did you allow me to hurt this way?” while at the same time the Spirit calls to grieve with God over this present fallen order, and to long for the new creation. To understand what in us is coming from the Spirit and what in us is coming from the flesh, is a difficult thing.
Part II: Grief to Joy
In the wake of Grandpa’s death, I have not found myself overwhelmed with grief. I attribute this to the result of God’s grace at work in me, and the many prayers of others on my behalf. I have not been crushed, or overwhelmed by events. I have had a great amount of peace. Mostly, I have found myself processing the events by pondering them, rather than by weeping and great angst. Not to say I haven’t had a few tearful moments–because I have–but largely I have simply pondered what has happened and tried to sort through what I am feeling, why I am feeling it, and if it is right.
I do not pretend I have myself all sorted out.
I think, perhaps, I have been grieving a long time, and that the death of Grandpa was more the end of my grieving than the beginning. That is what it feels like. That Grandpa is gone, and I will not see him again in the flesh during this life is sad. There is a quiet grief in that. But the real grief–spiritual, and fleshly–the real place where I feel anguish, and the sting of tears, is when I think about all the times Grandpa suffered over the past three years. When I think of grief I don’t think of the fact that he is gone, but instead the memories of the sorrow I have seen in his life struggling with the daily increasing loss. When I think of grief, I think of the grief Grandpa suffered, and the grief I suffered in seeing him suffer for three years and not being able to take that suffering away. The desire of my heart was to make him whole, and the grief is that for three years I could not. That hurt–that hurt far more than the fact that he is gone now–is the grief I had. I grieve now mostly only insomuch as I remember that past, and grieve that it had to be so.
What I feel now–when I am not recalling the past–is relief. For three years I carried Grandpa’s burden, which was my burden too. For three years we carried the burden of Alzheimer’s together, and I grieved silently inside myself ever day. There were times when that grief was acute, and the last time was certainly in the final days leading up to Grandpa’s death when my ability to do nothing was summed up in the little eye-dropper of water which was all I could give him. I grieved that he had to die with the suffering he did, and I grieved that I could not say “Be healed!” and make him whole. But when he died, that was over.
Several nights before Grandpa died–I think it might have been Wednesday night–I was sure Grandpa would die that night. He didn’t. With each passing day and night that he lingered I became more emotionally numb and exhausted. My Aunt Annie stayed over Thursday night because she was sure Grandpa would die that night, and he did, at 5:00 AM Friday morning. When she knocked on my bedroom door and told me, I didn’t feel an overwhelming rush of grief. I felt many things–still numb and exhausted, with a sense of finality, sad, and some muted grief. But was I most felt was that a burden had been lifted. I felt that Grandpa’s burden had been lifted. I felt that my burden had been lifted. It was not a happy thing–the ultimate happiness does not come until Christ returns–but it was the feeling that a great burden and sorrow had been lifted away which brings with it a sense of relief. Not “burden” as in the burden of sin (a burden which none of us can bear) but rather the taking away of a burden I had been called to bear for a time. It was one burden that I would no longer have to bear. A burden Grandpa would no longer have to bear.
So what have I felt in the days since Grandpa died? Relief. Release. Joy.
Joy–how can you have joy, someone might say.
Joy can be hard to understand. People often confuse joy and happiness. Happiness is an emotion we on occasion have the privilege of experiencing in this life, and shall have in abundance eternally. It is a product of circumstance–in the new heaven and earth circumstance will produce everlasting happiness. In this present world there are indeed many circumstances which are not happy. In contrast with the situational nature of happiness, joy is the product of the inward relationship with God. Those who do not know God have never experienced the truest form of joy. All who know God, and are known by Him, know some measure of true Joy. The closer we walk with God, the more we know joy, no matter how unhappy our circumstances. Joy can be a quiet thing, since it is neither the product of, nor intrinsically marked by, emotional thrills. I am not happy that Grandpa died, but I know joy and peace clearer than I did before.
But I can’t really express that joy, or peace, to you. Not fully. It is a joy, and peace, a rest, and relief, found in the experience of the faithfulness of God. To really know, you would have to know all the prayers I have prayed, and how with finality God had demonstrated them answered. To know, you would have to know how I agonized before coming to take care of Grandpa–how I agonized over being too weak, being unable, being afraid. To know, you would have to know the pain and weakness I faced these past three years, in the struggles and burdens I did not think I could carry. To know, you would have to know how I was on my knees before God, in weakness and and prayer over a path I did not see how I could walk. To the degree that I have been able to share those things with you, to that degree you can know and share my joy that God is faithful, and loving in a way beyond our comprehension.
The grief was a hard burden before Grandpa died. A hard burden then not only because I had to see it fresh each day, but also because I had to carry it alone in my day-to-day life. I could not share the true depth of my inner grief with Grandma, and I did not dare even allow the least outward expression for fear she construe it to mean “I couldn’t bear to take care of Grandpa anymore” and so ship him away. Even within the last week of his life Grandma told me that “If you can stand it, we can call an ambulance and have him taken away.” And so, for three years, I have had to keep the true cry of my heart to myself in my daily life. It is the great irony of life that now that I do not have the fresh presence of that grief daily that now it is more acceptable, and I have more freedom, to express grief in tears and sorrow. Certainly I will shed a few tears now at the memory of grief. But the memory of grief that I have left is nothing compared to the burden I carried so long, and is far outweighed by the joy I have in the present experience of God’s mercy, grace, love, and faithfulness.
It is this perspective that makes it rather easy to deal with what has come after Grandpa’s death. With all the family drama that must be dealt with, with all the legal forms that must be filled out, with everything that is coming down on my shoulders–all of it right after the person I have cared for intimately for the past three years–it could be horrible. It could be. But it isn’t. The regular irritants of life are still there, but it all doesn’t feel like that much of a big deal. Grandpa’s memorial gathering is this coming Sunday and I am really not the least concerned about it. Maybe I will shed a few tears. I expect probably not. Maybe a few people will get their pants in a bunch about something. But I am not worried, because after all I have been through, and after all that God has done, whatever little song and dance people want to have, is very, very, unimportant to me. As far as I am concerned, everyone who comes to this has missed the truly important show. Yes, at the gathering I will say a few words, but they are only a few words that can hint at what I have experienced at the hand of God. I think most people won’t even begin to hear it.
To anyone who wonders how I am handling it, that is the best answer I can give. I am not strong, or able, but God is, and prayer is effectual. To God belongs all praise.