We Can’t Grieve However We Want

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Pastor, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

During our first pregnancy, we were overjoyed to learn we were having twin boys. My dreams of fatherhood suddenly doubled as I imagined holding a baby in each arm, watching them learn to walk side by side, wrestling with them on the floor, and coaching their soccer teams.

Subsequent ultrasounds, however, showed that our boys had congenital birth defects. When they were born with crooked joints and extreme muscle weakness, they were immediately intubated. In an instant, a thousand dreams of fatherhood died.

“In an instant, a thousand dreams of fatherhood died.”

Instead of the life we hoped for, we were plunged into round-the-clock intensive care. Three years later we would plant the perishable seed of our son Isaac’s body in a twenty-square-foot plot of dirt at a cemetery called Woodlawn.

When I visit Isaac’s gravesite, waves of sadness often wash over me. I grieve the brevity of his life. I lament that he hasn’t been here to enjoy new experiences with his twin brother Caleb. Then I look at the empty plot we own next to Isaac’s and I dread the day when Caleb will join his brother.

No Wrong Way to Grieve?

“There’s no wrong way to grieve.”

That’s the counsel some popular psychology offers to those who mourn. The only problem is that it’s not true. First Thessalonians 4:13–14 says,

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

Those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus are decidedly not to grieve in whatever way feels right to us, nor are we to grieve like those who have no hope. Rather, we are called to grieve in ways that make much of Jesus, our glorious Savior who died and rose and is coming again.

“Those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus are decidedly not to grieve in whatever way feels right to us.”

I’m sure those who say there’s no wrong way to grieve truly want to comfort the hurting, but the reality is that we who suffer innocently are not immune to responding sinfully to our pain. We sin in our grief when we use it as an excuse not to love God or those around us, when we complain against God or neglect the people and responsibilities he has called us to.

Pain does not justify sin; only Christ can justify sinners. And in Christ, there is a greater comfort available to the heartbroken than handing us over as slaves to our own emotions.

Occasionally, Weep Deeply

John Piper once offered this counsel to those who mourn:

Occasionally, weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Then wash your face. Trust God. And embrace the life you have.

That wisdom reminds me of the story of a barren woman named Hannah. Hannah was one of two women married to Elkanah. The other woman had children, but Hannah had none, because God himself had closed her womb (1 Samuel 1:5–6).

For years and years the other wife antagonized Hannah for her barrenness. Understandably, Hannah was deeply distressed and the state of her soul was outwardly visible. Her grief was so intense that she couldn’t eat. Her downcast face mirrored a soul burdened with sorrow.

But Hannah was not only “a woman troubled in spirit” (1 Samuel 1:15). She was also a woman of faith who directed her sorrow toward God: “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly” (1 Samuel 1:10). These two things can coexist: bitter weeping and prayer, deep distress and supplication, grief and hope.

Wash Your Face

When the soul of the believer is exasperated and woeful, it overflows with cries for help to the God of comfort. Hannah prayed with such angst that Eli the priest thought that she was drunk, but she told him, “I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. . . . I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation” (1 Samuel 1:15–16). Then Eli blessed her and said, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him” (1 Samuel 1:17).

“We sin in our grief when we use it as an excuse not to love God or those around us.”

After that, the text says that Hannah “went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad” (1 Samuel 1:18). Just like that! Absolutely nothing had changed in Hannah’s circumstances, yet her countenance was visibly changed and she went on with life.

She wasn’t pregnant. She had no children. She still had a rival wife who would mercilessly goad her. But she had a word: “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition.” Hannah’s change wasn’t external or situational. It was internal, and it took place when she clung in faith to a word from God.

Trust God

If your life is not what you hoped, if you have suffered the loss of dreams or health or financial security or career ambitions or loved ones, I can’t guarantee circumstantial changes. We don’t know the secret things of God. But I can point you to the precious and very great promises in Scripture that offer you the same peace Hannah received:

  • God promises to hear and answer us when we pray (1 John 5:14–15).
  • God promises to satisfy our hearts with joy in him forever (Psalm 16:11).
  • God promises to never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).
  • God promises to sovereignly rule over every detail of our lives to maximize our delight in Jesus (Romans 8:28; Philippians 4:19).
  • God promises to keep us from stumbling so that we stand before him blameless and full of joy (Jude 1:24–25).

Grieve in Hope

I’ve learned that despair wallows in if-onlys and what-ifs; faith dwells in the blood-bought reality that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4). Hopeless grief says, I have lost the only thing that makes life worth living. Hopeful grief magnifies the surpassing worth of God himself and says, Nothing in all the earth can separate me from Christ (Romans 8:38–39).

“We must never let the sound of our own weeping drown out the comfort of God’s word.”

Don’t misunderstand. Hopeful grief is still grief. It’s not stoic or robotic. When Jesus stood outside of Lazarus’s tomb and wept, he wasn’t faking his tears (John 11:33–36). God incarnate was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, and still he wept over death. The hope of resurrection doesn’t eliminate tears, but it does redeem them.

We weep and mourn and pour out our souls to the Lord in lamentation for all that is wrong in the world. But we must never let the sound of our own weeping drown out the comfort of God’s word. By faith we know that our affliction is momentary, while our glory is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17–18). “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). We lament for now, but we will rejoice forever.

So, weep before the Lord. Then wash your face and keep walking by faith.

is a pastor at Emmaus Road Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He and his wife Barbara have three sons, two living and one buried in hope of resurrection.