|Raising of Lazarus, Rembrandt|
"Jesus Wept." John 11:35
It comes as no surprise to many who seek biblical counsel that life is full of "trials of various kinds" (James 1:2). From job loss, to marital strife, to sudden illness, and parenting issues, we all find ourselves searching for answers when the words of Jesus find their way home: In the world you will have tribulation (John 16:33). But, Jesus also commanded us in the same verse to "take heart," because he has "overcome the world."
Despite the promises of God that find their "Yes" in Christ (1 Cor. 1:20), we often struggle with unbelief (Mark 9:24) and tremendous sorrow. Sometimes that sorrow turns into a battle with grief, leaving even the strongest of believers asking the question, "Is my grief normal?" On occasion, feelings of guilt and shame over this deep sadness creep in, adding yet another layer of turmoil to an already troubled heart.
How then should we understand our human experience of grief, and how should we evaluate its "normalcy"?
Understanding Our Grief
The first order of business for us is to preach to ourselves the Gospel of grace, mercy, and forgiveness found in Christ alone. It is entirely possible that our grief is inordinate and disordered, revealing idols of the heart and a misunderstanding of the promises of Scripture.
Still, this is an occasion to draw near to God and confess our deep need of Him (James 4:8), not engage in forms of spiritual asceticism and flogging ourselves emotionally over inherent failures.
Jesus said his grace is sufficient for us, and that his power, not ours, is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
Once we've reminded ourselves of who Christ is and who we are (a people dependent on Him for all things; John 15:5), we might begin by taking a survey of "front-matter issues." These include, but aren't necessarily limited to:
1) The presenting issues that led to our grief.
- Are they circumstantial, like the loss of a loved one or otherwise unknown? If unknown, a medical checkup may be appropriate.
2) Medical history.
- Are there any ongoing physical illnesses that may be influencing feelings of sadness, sorrow, and grief (i.e. low thyroid function)?
3) Available resources.
- Is there community support such as a church family or small group for the grieving person to engage?
4) Action already taken.
- Has medical advice or other counseling been sought? If so, what was the outcome?
5) Physical symptoms.
- What physical symptoms, if any, are being experienced (i.e. sleep loss, weight loss, headaches, etc.).
After we've inventoried these front-matter issues and sought to restore as much stability as possible in the moment, we can begin searching the Scriptures to help us understand our grief.
Grieving is a natural part of life in a world marred by sin and suffering, and yet, as I hope we'll see, God calls us to take captive the thoughts of despair that often accompany our grief, mastering them rather than being mastered by them (2 Cor. 10:5).
Identifying with Christ
Like all other areas of the Christian life, we turn to Jesus in order to understand and evaluate our grief. The Apostle John wrote that, "Whoever says he abides in [Christ] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked" (1 John 2:6). The "walk" John wrote about is akin to the manner in which we live. This would include how we engage suffering and express grief. In this way, we can begin to understand and evaluate our sorrow with a desire to grieve as Jesus grieved, rather than as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13).
How then did Jesus grieve? There are a number of passages we might turn to for examples of Jesus expressing grief, sadness, or even compassion. One such example is found in John 11:1-44. If you haven't read it lately, I'd invite you to read it again. This is where we find the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead by Jesus and that famous "shortest verse in the Bible," John 11:35: Jesus wept.
While it's popular to read this story and determine that Jesus' weeping was motivated by mere empathy for Lazarus, as did the Jews who were gathered with Mary and Martha (John 11:36), a study of the original Greek reveals more emotion and force than many of our English Bible translations convey. This is very helpful to us in our suffering and as we seek to identify with Christ.
In John 11:33, we read that Jesus was "deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled." The words used there communicate something more like a type of anger at the scene unfolding before Jesus' eyes. In John 11:35, where Jesus weeps, the language used there tells us that tears streamed down Jesus' face.
What led Jesus to experience this intensity of emotion? How does his experience with grief inform ours? Below are three observations from the story of Lazarus that I'd like to share with you. My hope is that they will help you understand and evaluate your own grief:
1) Jesus wept at the corruption brought by sin into his Father's world, which God declared to be "very good" (Genesis 1:31).
- When we weep as believers, we join Jesus in grieving over sin's corrupting influence in our own lives, whether the issue is the result of our own sin, someone else's, or natural forms of suffering, like an illness or an accident. When Jesus wept, it wasn't motivated by a simple compassion or sentimentality. Jesus was angry at all that sin had accomplished on earth.
- When we weep as believers, we don't weep alone, but in our union with Christ we encounter our great High Priest who is able to sympathize with us in our weakness (Hebrews 4:14-16).
3) Jesus wept in the knowledge and power of his divinity.
- In our union with him, we learn to trust Christ in our grief because of his authority over sin and death, which he displayed in the story of Lazarus. We identify with Him, not our circumstances.
Pursuing Christlikeness in Suffering
This post is not by any stretch an exhaustive treatment of suffering, but I hope it introduces us to a dialogue about what it means to take even our deepest grief under submission to Christ. As followers of Jesus, we're sure to encounter sadness and loss, but even in our grief we're called to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1).
As we learn to grieve as Jesus grieved, we're not entering into a form of legalism (i.e. grieve like Christ or else), but instead following the call of Christ to rest in him even in our experience and expression of sorrow (Matthew 11:28). In our valleys we will encounter the sweetness of our relationship with Him and discover that His promise as God to never leave or forsake us is true and trustworthy (Joshua 1:5).
Indeed, Isaiah 53:4 reminds us that the Messiah "has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." He isn't simply aware of them, but He took on flesh and carried them to the cross so that we might not believe the despairing half-truths our sorrows often preach to our hearts, but trust in Him who has the power to raise dead men out of their graves (John 11:43).
In your struggle with grief and the potential that you may be asking if your sorrow and feelings of anger are displeasing to God, remember the story of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, and seek to grieve as he grieved.
"Grief and compassion without outrage reduce to mere sentiment, while outrage without grief hardens into self-righteous arrogance and irascibility." D.A. Carson
Join the Discussion
As you seek to understand your own grief and the normalcy of it, consider how your grief is similar or dissimilar to Jesus' grief in John 11 and the story of Lazarus. How might learning to grieve as He grieved encourage you in your journey?