Good Grief

Good Grief

The best advice on grieving that I have ever received – and which I have passed on to some of you – came not from a renowned psychotherapist or pastor, but from a disc jockey on WOVK Radio.

Diane’s mom died of a heart attack 25 years ago at the age of 56.  We were stunned, and the grief was almost unbearable.  Suzie Weaver – who was one of my co-workers – could see my struggle with it, and called me into her office.

“You have a lifetime to grieve her,” she told me, “so you don’t have to do it all at once.”  What she was telling me was that I don’t have to grieve all the time, because I think I should – but I don’t have to bottle it up, because I think I should.  She gave me permission to feel what I was feeling when I was feeling it.

That taught me that our feelings are neither good nor bad – they just are.  They are expressions of what is going on in our hearts and our minds, which has to come out.  Keeping our emotions – both the negative and the positive ones – locked away in a closet will hurt us in the long run.  So the grieving process is good for us.

Yet many Christians see nothing good about grief.  They see it as a sign of spiritual weakness – an admission that we don’t believe the Gospel.  The Gospel we read just minutes ago.  Jesus has redeemed us and risen from the dead and will gather all His people together someday in eternity.

In the depths of our grief we still believe that Gospel – but we hurt so badly.  We know that we will see those people we love again, but we miss them now.

And then some well-intentioned person asks, “Shouldn’t you be over that by now?” or “Where is your faith?” or “What’s wrong?  You’ll see them again.” They take us on a first-class guilt trip.  Or worse, we treat ourselves to a guilt trip.

If you think that grieving comes from a lack of faith, I have just one question for you this morning: Why did Jesus weep at the tomb of Lazarus?  He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead – He knew that His Father was going to do it – and still He wept.

And this was not just a tear or two wiped away from His eyes – and certainly not crocodile tears.  New Testament Scholar A.T. Robertson wrote that the verb tense tells us that Jesus burst into tears.

This was uncontrolled and unplanned.  Picture Jesus with His face in His hands, His body shaking as He sobbed over the death of one of His dearest friends.

But why did Jesus weep?  Theologians have spent two millennia working on that one.

Many say that Jesus was grieving over the fallen nature of His creation, in which all living things – including people – eventually die.  But that is a philosophical kind of grief, and it would take some intensive thinking to work up those tears.  The word John uses indicated that Jesus started weeping without any warm-up – He burst into tears.

Others say that Jesus was “identifying” with Mary and Martha in their grief: He had empathy for them and joined them in their grieving. The great 19th-century preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “He caught the contagion of their grief.”  But if that’s all it was, why would John even bother to include it in his Gospel?

More recently, some have suggested that the weeping was a sympathetic reflex.  Have you ever cried because someone else was crying?  There is a scientific explanation for how that happens: mirror neurons, which mimic

the neurons that would fire if we were actually experiencing what the other person is experiencing – so crying, laughing, and yawning are “contagious.”  But John mentions Jesus’ strong emotions three times in this passage, so this was no reflex.

Others say Jesus sobbed because He knew that He Himself would experience death once He got to Jerusalem.  Again, that doesn’t fit the context well.  In fact, as Jesus approached Jerusalem, He also wept – for the city, not for Himself.

Calvin (we couldn’t get through a sermon without checking in with him) says Jesus cried out of sympathy for His friends, Mary and Martha – and for all those who mourn.  That is certainly true, but Jesus knew that their grief and His grief would turn to joy in a few minutes – so the intensity of His reaction seems out of place here.

Why, then, did Jesus burst into tears?  I’m going out on a limb here, but I think this is the only explanation that makes sense: Jesus wept to validate our grief.

He knew that Lazarus’ first resurrection was coming in a few minutes – far sooner than the resurrection of those whose deaths we mourn – so for Jesus to weep tells us that it is OK for us to weep.

Jesus is telling us that grieving is not a sign that our faith is lacking, it is merely an expression of our emotional pain at losing someone.  Jesus had perfect faith in His Father’s ability to raise Lazarus – yet Jesus wept.

Paul wrote in his first letter to the Thessalonians – chapter 4, verse 13:

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.

The way Paul wrote that sentence presupposes that we will grieve, but he does not want us to grieve in the same way as those who have no hope.

We will be sad.  We will miss people we love.  Our grief may be profound. But our grief is not despair, for we have the hope of the Gospel right in the middle of our grief.  Our grief is tempered by the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and His promise to raise those who belong to Him.  That is our hope and encouragement when we grieve.

The Rev. Gene Toot – long-time pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in East Liverpool – lost his wife, Carol, four years ago.  When I saw him at a presbytery meeting a few months later, I asked how he was doing.  He replied, “We have the victory, but the house is still empty in the morning.”

That sums up so well the appropriate Christian attitude toward grief.  We know that we have the victory over death in Jesus, because of His resurrection.  And yet, we miss the person we have lost.  The house is quieter.  The phone calls to and from that person stop.  The other side of the bed is empty.  We grieve the loss of that person’s presence.  And that’s OK.

Such grief should not be surprising.  We miss people when we’re away from them for a three-day meeting –

so why wouldn’t we miss them when we will wait for the rest of our lives to see them.  It’s only natural.  It’s OK.  It’s even sacred.

The Jewish faith has a tradition called Yahrzeit.  The word itself is Yiddish and means “Year’s Time”.  It’s the anniversary of a person’s death.

Diane and I met a Jewish doctor who had lost his wife.  He went faithfully every day to her grave for the first year.  He also didn’t cut his hair until the year was complete.

Another part of the tradition is to set and dedicate the gravestone on the one-year anniversary.  For widows and widowers, it is also acceptable to start dating again after the first anniversary of the spouse’s death.  But the memory of the lost loved one is honored every year on the anniversary of his or her death – often by lighting a light next to their name on the wall of the synagogue.

The Jewish tradition not only allows people to grieve, but encourages them to do it well.  It would be wonderful if we Christians could get that good at grieving.  We should.  After all, we have Easter and the promise of the Resurrection – which takes some, but not all, of the sting out of grief.  Remember that Paul called death “the last enemy” for a reason.

So on this day of joy and celebration, you need to know that it’s OK if you’re not there yet – if you’re not all about it.  Any time you grieve, remember that it doesn’t show a lack of faith; rather, it shows your faith in a Savior who wept so that you can weep as much as you need to.