Weeping as Jesus Wept

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.
2) Jesus wept in the vulnerability of his humanity.
  • 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?

Victims of Childhood Sex Abuse Deserve the Church's Attention

"We will remember that God waits while we learn." Diane Langberg, PhD

Those words brought me tremendous joy recently as I prepared for a doctoral course at SEBTS in counseling sexual abuse and addictions. Dr. Diane Langberg wrote them in her book, Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse. I doubt she intended them to play a central role in anyone's reading, yet I found them to be very encouraging and insightful.

In Isaiah 30:18, we read God's words to the Old Testament nation of Israel, "Therefore the Lord is waiting to show you mercy, and is rising up to show you compassion, for the Lord is a just God. All who wait patiently for Him are happy" (emphasis mine; HCSB). This verse was central to my conversion to Christianity, because it taught me that despite my years of rebelling against Him, God waited for me.

How has God waited for you?

Patience, as we see throughout the Bible, is an attribute of God, a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), and therefore something for us as Christians to imitate (Eph. 5:1). Far from a debated theological topic, can you imagine what the Christian life would be like without it? 

Numerous times in the New Testament alone, the Greek word for patience is used in a variety of forms, all in a positive sense, and as a command for the believer (2 Tim. 4:2). Patience, it turns out, is an important component of the Christian life and discipleship. It is no less true for the task of biblical counseling.

A Necessary Component in Counseling the Sexually Abused

In her book, Langberg identifies three core areas that are or can be deeply affected by childhood sexual abuse. These may occur individually, together, and at varying lengths of time and intensity. These "aftereffects" may include but not necessarily be limited to the following:
  1. Emotional: Guilt, shame, powerlessness, body image issues, fear of intimacy or commitment, and trust issues.
  2. Physical: Self-harm, suicidal ideation, addictions, and sexual dysfunctions.
  3. Spiritual: Distorted images of the nature of God (i.e. God as punisher, taskmaster, impotent, irrelevant, or indifferent).
Justin and Lindsey Holcomb wrote in their book, Rid of My Disgrace, that "At least one in four women and one in six men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime." Many of these will have been childhood victims, and many will carry the scars of abuse with them well into adulthood and marriage, hidden and unredeemed.

If the figures cited by the Holcombs are even remotely true (and I believe they are), the church at large has a powerful, spiritual opponent at work in the lives of many of its people, young and old. To ignore it is to leave a dangerous wolf prowling throughout the sheepfold.

If we isolate this issue alone, how is sexual abuse and its vast aftereffects as mentioned above derailing the discipleship of earnest Christians who are suffering in silence because the church, broadly speaking, is unresponsive? Pastors and ministry leaders: in this we find a legitimate, undeniable "social justice" issue for the church, and a regrettable yet gaping-wide window into the lives of people.

Why are we, the church, choosing to do nothing?

It is my sincerely held belief that the church does not respond well to this issue because it fails to grasp how powerful a role the Gospel and community can play in the healing process of a victim, choosing to believe instead that sexual abuse is a matter that can only be addressed by "mental health professionals" according to a medical model of "mental illness."

It's often said that "God meets us in our valleys," yet when the church fails to act on this, what is communicated is "Just not that valley."

Could it be that when the Apostle Paul wrote that we are to "bear one another's burdens," that he meant nothing less than moving with care and compassion toward those who've been victimized in ways we can barely name in a public worship service (Gal. 6:2)? 

I believe this is the case.

Counseling is a Mission of the Church and Patience is a Guide

Sexual abuse can produce profound, sustained effects in the survivor that require compassionate, patient care rooted in the patient love of God for His people (1 Jn. 4:8; 1 Cor. 13:4). By not involving itself in the counseling process, the church misses out on a tremendous opportunity to love its own and evangelize the lost.

How then should the church and victims of abuse respond?
  1. The church must consider either the establishment of an intentional counseling ministry (see ACBC), or it must vet for biblical faithfulness counselors already in the community with whom it can partner. There are many critical issues to be resolved in either case, but one thing remains clear: unresponsiveness is not a biblical option.
  2. The sexual abuse survivor, especially those who have suffered in silence for many years, must prayerfully entrust this matter to God, and ask Him to provide a Christian counseling resource that can be trusted with this delicate truth. Silence and isolation do not promote healing, but leave the victim enslaved to the past.
The Practical Side of Patience

In this post, I've suggested that patience is a key to counseling the sex abuse victim. While it may feel tertiary, I assure you it isn't. Counseling the survivor will require copious amounts of patience from both counselor and counselee, depending on the individual circumstances. Neither party should expect anything more than incremental steps toward redeeming a portion of life so harmed by such horrific an evil.

But, there is hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ways unimagined by secular theories of counseling. Meaning, purpose, and value can all be discovered through a season of biblical counseling (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28). At the intersection of faith and depravity, grace conquers despair.

Even, or especially for, the sexually abused.

Join the Discussion

If we can help you or your church process an issue related to counseling sexual abuse, or any other counseling related topic, please contact us at Baylight. We'd love to hear from you.

Joshua Waulk
Executive Director

Book Review: Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry

"We have too many Christians out there who are strong on convictions but embarrass the name of Christ in how they relate to the world around them. At the same time, we have too many Christians who are remarkably civil, but you would have no idea what convictions they hold. We need both convictions and civility." Dr. Mark Yarhouse

Youth pastors and those who work with young people have always had a responsibility that is at once exhilarating and excruciating. From late night lock-ins to after-service conferences with concerned parents, the student pastor and his assistants have always been at the "tip of the spear" when it comes to shaping the church's next-generation leaders.

But, youth ministry has never been as precarious as it is today.

In generations past, the youth pastor always had to wrangle the hearts of disinterested teens, and comfort the emotions of students passing through life's rough waters. And, they always bore the weight of impressing on young people a Christian worldview, to include a biblical ethic of human sexuality.

But, it seems that the youth pastor of old never faced the nature or intensity of an increasingly hostile culture like those who minister to students today. Sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll have always been alluring to teens, but the sexual revolution of the 1960s has morphed into a movement that now rejects nearly every once-culturally-assumed marker of sexuality. 

Today, the very words once used to describe how ministry to youth gets done, i.e. "boys over here and girls over there," are slandered as socially constructed tools of discrimination that are emotionally abusive to the children upon whom they are imposed. Today's youth pastor is increasingly on the horns of a dilemma where he must carefully maintain his witness, defend the Gospel, protect his church, and effectively love those entrusted to his care by the Chief Shepherd while not capitulating to popular culture.

And here's where things get strained: He must do all this while learning how to understand and work with words and phrases like same sex attraction, same sex orientation, gay as an identity, LGBTQ, transgender, and gender dysphoria

To minister to youth in a post-Obergefell world demands familiarity with these issues and some level of competence in working with students who are being ever confused and wooed by the "affirming" culture that surrounds them--a culture that is louder and better funded than any youth ministry ever has been.

A Valuable Resource

Enter the book "Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry" by Mark Yarhouse. Yarhouse is a Christian psychologist who teaches at Regent University, and is the founding director at the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. He has written extensively on the issue of homosexuality, and is considered a leading Christian researcher in the field. Much of his work is devoted to helping the church minister to those who are navigating the sexual waters of today.

I had the pleasure of reading this particular book from Yarhouse as part of a course on sexuality that I'm taking at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In short, I highly recommend it for every youth ministry team, to include senior pastors.

Yarhouse does an excellent job of writing a book to youth ministers who are probably more often than not less than equipped to minister substantively to teens who are struggling with issues related to same sex attraction (SSA). As an expert in his field, he writes in an accessible tone in order to better equip his audience to minister with conviction and compassion.

Yarhouse's aim is to provide the youth pastor with tools that will help him understand the spiritual and emotional battle faced by teens who are questioning their sexual identity. He calls the student worker to engage with their teens in a way that transcends the culture war. 

He reminds the church that living, moving, and breathing in youth ministries everywhere are children who are experiencing thoughts, messages, and emotions for which they are ill-equipped at such a formative stage of life. He calls the church to not abandon them to willful ignorance, or condemn them with words they do not fully understand.

If anything, our failure to discuss the topic in meaningful and relevant ways is one of the things that drives young people toward greater isolation and the consolidation of a new sexual identity. (Yarhouse 2013, Kindle 765)

While holding to a biblical sexual ethic, Yarhouse lovingly persuades his reader to what he calls a "convicted civility" in working with students who are considering who they are as created, sexual beings. In so doing, Yarhouse doesn't merely wax theoretical, but he provides his reader with tools for ministering to youth that neither capitulate to culture nor send the student away from the church feeling guilty and ashamed.

No Child Left Behind

As a biblical counselor, I appreciate Yarhouse for his conviction concerning biblical sexual ethics, while extending grace to young people who are navigating difficult terrain, and often without the biblical compass they so desperately need. As I read the book, I was impressed in my heart concerning the many young people who may populate our youth ministries, struggling with profound questions related to their sexuality, yet feeling unable to safely bring their concerns to light.

The question I found myself asking is: How many teens is the church losing to culture unnecessarily because it only knows how to address same sex attraction on an individual counseling level with one script---sinners be damned?

I have sat with young people in my counseling office who found themselves questioning their sexuality. I can confirm what Yarhouse informs, that the church must provide (and indeed does possess) a more compelling script than the culture at large. Sadly, as it has been caught up in the culture war, much of that script has been lost at the tip of the spear where lives are changed.

My hope is that this book would gain wider exposure as a needed and helpful tool in the perilous times in which our children live. While there must not be any capitulation to the culture at large, no young person should search for answers to questions of sexuality alone simply because in their mind, only rejection from the church awaits them.

"It is important that [we] communicate to [SSA] youth that they have worth and value before God. You want them to see that it is God who ultimately gives their life worth and value." (Yarhouse 2013, Kindle 1017)

Join the Discussion

How is your church preparing to minister to SSA youth?