Biblical grief

©2018 michael martin |

1. God understands grief

a. introduction

When you are suffering or grieving, it is easy to resent those around you who seem insensitive, or whose efforts to help you seem clumsy or poorly thought-out. Someone can try to offer you encouraging words, Scripture, or advice, and your response might be, “what do you know?”

“You don’t understand what I’m going through,” you might think, and you may be tempted to ignore or even lash out at the well-meaning souls who want to help you, but whom you feel are not qualified to help because they do not understand your pain.

But one thing you can be sure of is that God does understand grief, and from many different perspectives. Let’s look at a few of them:

b. the grief of betrayal

In Genesis chapter three, we see the account of the fall of man, as Adam and Eve freely chose, despite having been lovingly created and cared for by God, to sin against Him.

Imagine this: God personally created Adam and Eve, in His own image, so that they could love Him. But instead, they chose to disobey Him, which resulted in all of God’s creation needing to be cursed. God’s most personal creation betrayed Him!

Luke 22:48

...but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”

Jesus was betrayed to death by one of His closest followers, and Judas wasn’t even forthcoming enough to admit it--even as he was betraying Jesus, he tried to disguise his betrayal with a kiss. What a deep betrayal that was!

c. the grief of watching His loved ones destroy themselves

Genesis 6:6

The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.

Imagine the pain that God felt in watching His creation spiral downward into unspeakable evil! God was not surprised at what had taken place, but it was nevertheless painful for Him to see mankind, whom He loved, committing themselves to such profound evil that they would never turn away from it, leaving God no option but to destroy them. Think of that. God had to destroy people he loved. What deep sadness that must have brought!

Throughout the rest of Scripture, there are countless examples of God having to punish or destroy people who refused to turn away from evil, despite warning after warning. We know that God loves the whole world (John 3:16) and that He is not willing for any to perish (2 Peter 3:9), but often, people whom God loves leave Him no choice but to destroy them, because they are fully committed to evil.

And so, from Genesis to Revelation, people will be destroyed because they have willingly, knowingly committed to sin and evil, rejecting God and His love. And God takes no joy in their destruction.

d. the grief of losing a close loved one

From several perspectives, God understands what it is like to lose a loved one. Consider the following examples:

e. God lost His Son

In a couple of ways, God lost His only Son. First, He lost having Jesus present with Him in Heaven, when Jesus left Heaven to be born on earth as a Baby. Jesus lived here on earth for some 33 years, after having been in the direct presence of His Father for eternity past. And while Jesus lived here on earth, God watched as His Son lived in discomfort, and as He was tortured and killed.

f. Jesus lost His earthly father

Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph, but past Luke chapter two (and Matthew chapter two,) you don’t hear about Joseph anymore. The last event of Jesus’ life where Joseph is mentioned is when Jesus is twelve years old and travels with His family to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52).

Beyond this, Joseph is not heard from again--only Mary. It appears that Joseph had died sometime between Jesus being twelve years old and before He began His ministry around age 30. Indeed, when discussing His earthly family, Jesus refers to His mother, brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:50). There is no mention of an earthly father, so it appears that Jesus knows the pain of having His (earthly) father die.

g. Jesus momentarily lost His Heavenly Father

While He was on the cross, having taken all the sin of the world upon Himself, His Father actually turned His face away from Jesus, looking away from all the world’s sin. At that moment, Jesus felt more alone than ever, because at that moment, is was impossible for Him to have fellowship with His Father.

Matthew 27:46

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” –which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

At this moment, Jesus felt the most profound loss and grief that anyone in history has ever felt. Not only was He suffering enormous physical pain, but He was also made to carry the terrible burden of our sin on Himself, and had to endure His Holy Father turning away from Him. And although this momentary loss did not last, it was incomprehensibly painful for Jesus to lose fellowship with the Father He loved so deeply.

h. God is, therefore, qualified to counsel you

Since God has experienced grief from multiple perspectives, and since He understands grief on a level that is beyond what we can experience, He is uniquely qualified to counsel us through His Word, and others are qualified to counsel you from His Word, provided that they use His Word correctly.

God has felt what you have felt. He has been there. And, He is our God. He not only has the power and ability to comfort us, but also the right to command us. He has the right to place expectations on us pertaining to how we conduct ourselves, even in the midst of our grief.

And, if we will live according to God’s completely qualified comfort and expectations, we will recover from our grief far better than we would by following worldly patterns and expectations.


2. other people understand grief

“Easy for you to say,” you might think, but stay with me for a moment. Perhaps very few people have suffered the kind of pain that you have, but does that mean that they don’t understand pain? Let me put it this way: Imagine that one of your friends suffered an even worse tragedy than you have. When you try to comfort him, he says, “you don’t know what pain is!” Your friend might feel justified in feeling this way. After all, you haven’t lost as much as he has. Does he, then, have the right to claim that you don’t know what pain is? Can he dismiss you because you “can’t possibly understand?” Of course not.

This is not to minimize or make light of your pain and loss. Those things are very real and significant. But as you read the following verses, remember that you are not alone in feeling pain, and the pain of other people, whether lesser or greater, is also very real:

1 Corinthians 10:13

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

This verse addresses the common idea that people have that they are alone in their struggles, or that no one else has ever gone through what they are experiencing. But God’s Word tells us that no temptation (or trial) has seized you except what is common to man. Others have gone through what you are dealing with.

Also, take note of the rest of the verse. God is faithful. It probably doesn’t feel like it, but God is faithful. If you think about it, you can probably see some areas in which God’s faithfulness to you is apparent, even in the midst of your sadness.

Romans 11:2-4

God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah–how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”

These verses recall Elijah’s grief at feeling alone in following the Lord. But God corrected him, pointing out that God had reserved seven thousand others who had not bowed to Baal. In other words, despite how Elijah was feeling, he was NOT alone.

a. other people, therefore, are qualified to comfort you

This is not to say that other people will completely understand exactly the kind of pain you are feeling. In fact, some people will be very clumsy in their well-meaning attempts to comfort you, and their attempts might even seem offensive or insensitive to you.

Keep in mind that when other people try to comfort you, even if their efforts miss the mark, they are trying to show love to you. Their hearts are in the right place. They want to “fix” this for you. Of course, they can’t. But, it is important to resist the temptation to take offense at the specific efforts that people make to comfort you, and focus instead on their heart’s intent, which is to show you love.

You are, after all, still accountable to God for how you respond to other people, even if someone says something utterly foolish in an attempt to comfort you. Your best response in such cases is to simply thank them for their love and concern. You don’t have to explain to them how they missed the mark, or tell them that they don’t understand. Such responses will not help your situation, and will only alienate people who are truly trying to help you.

Instead of being frustrated by people’s clumsy attempts to comfort you, even if those efforts make you feel worse, focus on the fact that those people love you, and be thankful for that. This will make you feel better than showing annoyance or lashing out at such people, which will result in you feeling worse.

Does everyone else fully understand what you are going through? Of course not. But on some level, they do understand pain, and most people just want you to know that they care about you, even if they have no idea how to really help you.


3. why does God allow “bad” things to happen?

The simple answer is, for good.

That’s hard to swallow, so stay with me. We may never know in this life the specific reasons why God allows “bad” things to happen. What we do know is that God is working for the good of those who love Him:

Romans 8:28

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

That verse may seem hollow when you are in the midst of suffering, but it is a promise. Throughout history, God has used pain and suffering to benefit people. We humans respond to pain like nothing else. We don’t like pain, and I personally don’t want to experience pain, but pain draws people to God.

In 2001, church attendance went up after terrorists slammed fully-fueled jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. America was under attack, and about three thousand people died. People wanted answers. They wanted comfort. And they instinctively knew that God offered those things.

Pain is unpleasant, but it is what we are most inclined to respond to. Our pain can draw us closer to God. It can teach us important things about ourselves or other people. God can use our pain to help us to grow, and He can use it to benefit other people.

I don’t want to suffer. But whenever we suffer, someone is being helped. Maybe God is making you stronger, or is trying to teach you something. Maybe your suffering is enabling you to understand and help other people who are (or will be) in your situation. Maybe other people are being drawn to God because they are watching how God is helping you through your suffering.

That’s why it’s so important to respond to our suffering with love and gentleness toward others rather than bitterness. We can have a part in making good things happen through our suffering, and if we cooperate with God in using our suffering for good, we will have great comfort in that!

a. sparing people from evil

In the case of a loved one (a believer in Christ) dying, one reason we are given is to spare them from evil.

Isaiah 57:1

The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil.

When a believer in Jesus Christ dies, no matter how good their life was on earth, they are being spared from evil. Why? Because they are with the Lord! There is no joy on earth, no experience, and no comfort that the earth can offer that can compare with the peace, joy, and comfort of being in the presence of God Almighty!

Believers who have died are with the Lord! They are far better off and far happier than they could possibly be on earth. They are being spared evil!

And so, as believers in Christ, we can rejoice for our believing loved ones who have died. They are home with the Lord. Of course, we will grieve for our own personal loss, but we do so knowing that our parting from our loved ones is only temporary!


4. we do not grieve as the world does

1 Thessalonians 4:13

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.

Grief is a real, Biblical part of life, but as believers in Christ, we grieve differently than the world does. Many well-meaning people who do not know Christ will have advice and expectations for how we should grieve. They will make observations from past experience, and based upon that, they will instruct you on how you should grieve, or what you should expect as you grieve.

For example, psychologists might conduct studies on people to see how they handle grief. After studying a few hundred people, they will see patterns such as “first there is denial, then after a few weeks, there is shock, then anger...” and so on.

That may be how people have typically responded to grief, but that doesn’t mean that we have to follow that pattern.

As believers in Christ, we have information and authority that non-believers do not have. We have the Word of God, who understands grief and who is uniquely qualified to comfort and counsel us. We have a blessed assurance that unbelievers do not have. We know that our believing loved ones who have died are with the Lord, and if we are believers in Jesus, we are assured that we will be with them again someday.

We know that, if we have been parted from a loved one who loves the Lord, our separation is only temporary, and is in fact only a brief moment in time. Our loved ones will not be with us on earth for a few years, and will not share in some of the highlights of our remaining time on this earth. But then, in Heaven, we will have eternity together and will experience things together in Heaven that are so great that we will not even regret the time we lost together on earth,

This helps us to put our grief into perspective. While we feel the pain of our loss, and while that pain is real, it is not permanent. Wonderful things are waiting for us in the future!

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

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. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.

a. there is a time for grief

Of course, there will probably be times throughout your life when you will miss your lost love ones, or wish they were with you to experience part of your life, or just simply feel sadness that they aren’t with you. That is to be expected. But, there is also a time when grief is no longer the dominant fact of your life.

For example, right after losing a loved one, with all the shock and disbelief and confusion that goes with it, your whole life will be overshadowed by the fact of what you have lost. There are adjustments to your life which must now be figured out and getting used to. There are realities that have to sink in. And those things take time. This is what the Bible would describe as a “time for mourning.”

Ecclesiastes 3:4

...a time to weep and a time to laugh. a time to mourn and a time to dance.

Deuteronomy 34:8

The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over.

However, there also comes a point when grief and sadness do not overshadow the rest of your life. They are still present, but as you return to a “normal” life (or the new normal), your primary focus isn’t on your loss anymore. Life goes on, and you have to go on too. This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel sadness or miss your loved ones anymore, but it does mean that you have to get back into your life. That can be hard, but God doesn’t leave you “on your own.” He is always there to offer you comfort.

b. God is our Comforter

Whatever you are going through, whatever you are suffering, God is always there to comfort you.

Matthew 5:4

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Revelation 21:4

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Isaiah 41:10

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Matthew 11:28

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

1 Peter 5:6-7

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

Just as David cast all of his cares on God as he wrote the Psalms (which, as you’ll see when you read them, are often complaints), you can cast your cares, worries, doubts, and grief upon Him. God is your constant Companion. He is always there, always listening, and always working for your good. And as one of His children, nothing can separate you from Him!

Romans 8:38-39

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

c. despite our grief, we are still accountable for our actions

So, where does all of this leave us? Does your pain magically go away? No. But, when you respond to your pain with the goal of bringing God glory and loving others, you will find that your pain will fade into the background and even diminish over time.

Even in the midst of pain and grief, God does still expect us to obey Him and to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.

Philippians 1:27A

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

As we have established, God loves us and cares for us. He understands grief, and He is always there to comfort us and guide us through it. And, as our God, He also has the right to require us to conduct ourselves according to His will. Consider the following incident in the life of Moses:

Numbers 20:1-12

In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.

2 Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. 3 They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! 4 Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? 5 Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!”

6 Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. 7 The Lord said to Moses, 8 “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”

9 So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. 10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”

In this passage, Moses’ sister Miriam has died, and amid his grief, and under pressure and frustration from the rebellious Israelites, Moses sins. Instead of speaking to the rock to bring forth water as commanded by God, Moses strikes the rock and seems to take credit for bringing forth the water. He disobeyed God and did not give God the glory.

Even though Moses’ attitude amid his grief and frustration was understandable, it was not justified.

God knew that Moses was struggling with grief and frustration, but He nevertheless held Moses to the standard of conducting himself in a manner worthy of Christ.

And this was for the good of all of Israel. What if God had “taken it easy” on Moses at this point? The Israelites would have seen that and felt emboldened to disobey. Despite Moses’ grief, it was necessary for God to hold Moses to a right standard for everyone’s benefit.

d. job

Few people in the Bible know as much about grief as Job. He went from being a rich man with a big family to being a poor man who had lost everything, including all of his children in a matter of seconds. Job couldn’t even sit still comfortably, as he was covered with sores. Job’s response was famous:

Job 1:20

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb,

and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;

may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Despite Job’s amazing response, it is very important to remember that Job was very sad. He spent most of the book of Job grieving. In chapter after chapter, Job laments what has happened to him, wishing he had never been born, and grieving over his great loss.

All the while, his well-meaning friends are trying to “fix” Job’s problem by trying to identify some sin in Job’s life that can explain why he is suffering (again, they meant well--they just spoke without knowledge).

But eventually, Job goes too far with his grief. In Job chapter 31, Job basically says, “I don’t deserve to have all this stuff happen to me!” In fact, Job even seems to demand an answer from God:

Job 31:35

“Oh, that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defense–let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing.

God did not take kindly to Job’s attitude at this point. Job virtually demanded an answer from God, and beginning in Job chapter 38, the Lord gives Job His answer:

Job 38:1-3

Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.

And for the next several chapters, God blasts Job with such a lecture that Job must have wanted to die. It’s one thing to ask God why things are happening, but it is quite another thing to demand an answer from God. God made it clear to Job that He is not to be trifled with, and when God was finished with Job, he could say nothing to God in his own defense.

Job repented for having called God into question, and God later blessed Job with more children and greater wealth than before. But the lesson had been learned. Grief or no grief, we are to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel! To do otherwise only makes a difficult situation worse.


5. conclusion

So, now what? Is a Christian allowed to grieve? Of course. It is a natural and expected thing for a Christian in pain. But, a Christian goes about grieving differently than people in the world do.

Does grief have to come out? Sure. But what is the outlet? Do we lash out at other people? Do we behave badly or use tears or mood swings to deliberately manipulate other people? Do we call God into question? The world might tell us that these things are normal or expected, but clearly, God’s Word tells us otherwise. Instead, we as believers cast all of our cares on Jesus.

We share our struggles (with proper respect) directly with God, as David did when he wrote the Psalms. We share our struggles with friends, family, and Godly counsel with honesty, gentleness and respect. We accept the comfort offered by other people, even if we have to overlook the sometimes clumsy and stupid things they will say, focusing instead on the love they are trying to express.

And, we accept the comfort of God, who understands our grief and who has the power and the desire to see us through it. And as we experience moments of sadness, we remind ourselves that it is only temporary. It will pass. And one day, we will be reunited with our loved ones in the presence of God, with no pain and no sorrow, living in His glory for all eternity.

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near(at hand,ESV). Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Grief is hard. But God has a reason for allowing us to go through it, and if we go about grieving in such a way as to honor God, then our grief will be turned to joy. Because even though it won’t bring back our lost loved ones, it will give us the peace that comes from knowing that we honored God through it all. And for that, God will bless beyond your imagination.