Tune in to the news. Look around. Listen to people around you. Consider the experiences of your own life, your family, your friends.
We can’t go far without seeing or experiencing the impact of suffering and loss. None of us are exempt. We meet suffering and loss in lots of things—like the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, or the loss of a job. We might meet it in the form of sickness or diminished capacity, a dream unfulfilled, or through our own sin or the sins committed against us. We might not always recognize it, but we sometimes meet it as a result of transition—even a transition to something good, because we’re leaving other things behind.
And wherever there is suffering or loss, there is grief.
Grief matters. Oswald Chambers reminds us of the stark reality that walking through sorrow does not always make a person better, for “Suffering either gives me to myself or it destroys me.”
Since suffering and grief make such impact on our hearts and lives, why is it that they are so often neglected and even poorly understood topics when it comes to our discipleship? Perhaps they’re neglected because our human tendency is to avoid pain at all costs, so facing it is difficult. Maybe it’s poorly understood because there’s such a vast array of views and responses we could have learned (consciously or unconsciously) through our families of origin, our cultures, and even our Christian cultures. Some of us have learned that being real about our suffering and grief feels acceptable and even invited. For others, we fear we’ll be judged as not trusting God if we express our grief.
Regardless of what we’ve learned, how we respond and walk through our grief can either enlarge or diminish the capacity of our souls for Kingdom life.
What might be helpful in responding to our grief?
Since Jesus was fully God and fully human, we can learn from him in this. Jesus acknowledged and grappled with grief. In Gethsemane he cried out, “My soul is crushed to the point of death,” then speaks to God, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” He doesn’t fake happiness. Nor does he live like an ostrich with his head in the sand or deny his feelings by shouting with joy about the victory that will happen in the end. Jesus does relinquish his will to God, but it’s not without being honest with himself, the Father, and his close friends about what he’s facing and feeling.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to grieving. There’s no way around grief. We’ve got to go through it. If we ignore or push down our grief, without acknowledging it as Jesus did, it’s like that old arcade game, “Whack-a-Mole.” It continues to reside in us and ends up popping up in other ways, most often unhealthy ones. It might appear as anger toward someone we’re not really angry with or filling ourselves with food or constant busyness. It might even rear its ugly head through certain kinds of physical illness. We can wind up living in the past and losing sight of living in the present. We can also get stuck in resentment and bitterness, or in ruminating on what we wish was our reality. God has more for us.
What happens when we live honestly and allow God into our grief?
When we lift our hearts to God and invite him into our raw and real grief, we open ourselves to the ways he wants to meet us and the deep places where he wants to transform us. There’s potential to experience more abundant life and freedom. We learn to live more filled with the love of God, and also how to love God and others more fully.
Here are just a few of the gifts of grief:
Our relationship with God deepens.
When we’re raw and real with God, God works in ways that deepen our relationship with him. For example, what we’ve known intellectually about God’s comfort and care can become more real as we experience him meeting our souls supernaturally or through other people. His love and grace become more real as we sense God giving us time and space to grapple with questions like, “Do you really love me God?” or “Are you really good?” and as he patiently leads us through to the other side.
We become more comfortable with mystery.
We learn that we don’t have to understand everything about God and how he works. We let go of our grip of control and much of the anxiety that comes with it. We become people more at ease with not understanding what God is doing and more at rest when he chooses to be silent. We’re able to let God be God.
We live with more humility and dependence on God.
Sorrow often tempers us, softening our rough edges of pride or entitlement and reminding us that we’re no longer invincible. Instead of willfully taking matters into our own hands when we don’t get our way, we are able to be honest about what our agenda is and eventually open our will to God’s. We grow to take the posture of “Not my will but yours,” trusting more fully in his goodness and his love.
Our relationships deepen.
In walking through grief we become more aware of our own souls and learn greater humility because of it. This helps us become more comfortable with being real and grow to have appropriate vulnerability and transparency about our lives, allowing others to know us better. It also stretches our capacity for empathy and opens us up to be present to others in all of who they are, rather than turning a blind eye out of discomfort or driving a wedge of judgment between us and them. Our relationships with others deepen as we bring more of who we really are to the table and provide space for others to do the same.
We’re able to be with others in grief, struggle, and process because we’ve experienced these things ourselves.
The more suffering and grief we’ve been through the more we realize how complex it is. It’s not a “one size fits all” experience. When we’ve given ourselves to a process of moving with God through our grief, we come to realize that getting to a place of healing and acceptance can be a long and winding road with wind, dirt and dust along the way. This helps us become more compassionate and patient people who are better able to let others be messy, even in their relationships with God. We become better able to sit quietly with people, allow God to work in their lives and give them timely Spirit-led words along the way.
We lay down cliches or untimely truth.
There’s nothing like loss to teach us that platitudes are not only unhelpful, but sometimes they’re even based on inaccurate theology or assumptions about God’s heart or mind (e.g. “As soon as you let go or aren’t expecting it, then things will change” or “God’s trying to teach you something, and once you learn it, this will end”). What we’ve learned and what we’ve experienced from others in our grief also helps remove the temptation of fixing others by offering untimely truth or Bible verses because we’re uncomfortable with their feelings, behavior, or process (e.g. “Your dad’s in a better place,” “Trust in the Lord,” “And we know God works all things together for good…”).
Grief costs us something; there is a price to pay to walk through grief well. AND, the invitation of God is to do so in a way that enlarges our hearts, and enlarges our capacity to love—our ability to receive his gift of love and offer it to another. Walking through grief well forms us in love—and love is the greatest gift one can give or receive.
REFLECT AND RESPOND
Take some time to examine your heart and your previous responses to loss and grief. What might the Lord be inviting you to when it comes to how you respond to your own loss and grief? What might he desire to form in you as a result of the loss and grief you’ve experienced or may experience in the future?
Consider the beauty of the Japanese artform of Kintsugi. Brokenness is transformed into shimmering gold and the shattered bowl is once again able to hold, to carry, to serve.
“Kintsugi (金継ぎ, きんつぎ, "golden joinery"), also known as Kintsukuroi (金繕い, きんつくろい, "golden repair"), is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum....As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ellen Burany leads the ChurchNEXT ReNew Team, a CRM ministry working to strengthen the souls of Christian leaders so they can thrive in every season of life and ministry. She lives in Tustin, CA.