I have been thinking a bit about a particular topic that comes hard for me. John Eldridge in his book, The Journey of Desire, suggested that every person must add two disciplines to everyday life in order to maintain a vibrant faith. The first one made sense. The second was foreign. First, he suggested that we must worship. We could dialogue about what exactly constitutes worship but that is a topic for another day. The second discipline he proposed was grief. Did that surprise you? I recall when I read it years ago being caught off guard. I don’t see or hear much about grief in our culture unless we are exposed on the nightly news to the parents or friends of someone recently murdered. Creating room for grief in our worship is mostly a foreign concept.
I wonder if there might be something empowering about grieving? Here is what makes me think that perhaps there is. If you read or recall what I wrote in the last missive, there was a point in the days of Haggai and Zechariah where the people of God had stopped doing what God had originally called them to do. They had returned from captivity under the leadership of Zerubbabel, their express purpose being to rebuild the temple. Only the foundation had been laid when the work stalled. The leadership, along with the people, had met opposition, and now they were living each man for himself chasing what we now describe as the "American dream.” So when God sends these two prophets to reignite the work, one of his motivational strategies is to gather all those who had seen the temple in its glory days and ask them what they see presently. Talk about disheartening. "Remember how it used to be," says God. “Look at it now,” as it lie in ruins. This doesn't strike me as a very productive team-building activity. It also doesn't strike me as a modern day strategy to motivate people. I wonder what emotion those elders felt as they stood there looking out across their desecrated city and defunct temple? Might God’s request of them to look at the current condition have produced grief? Have you ever gone back to where you grew up only to see your old house or high school or another significant place either gone or decrepit? Imagine if you were gone for two weeks on vacation and returned to find your beautiful home, in which so many memories were created, burned to the ground. Grief might rapidly emerge to the surface of your heart and mind. Why would God want his people to experience grief?
Perhaps to answer that question we should go back to a moment in time when we get a glimpse into the heart of God. You know the story well, I suspect, one learned early in your Sunday School days if you were fortunate enough to experience those days. I am talking about the story of Noah in Genesis 6. Here is what we read about the conditions on earth at that time: the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth and it grieved him to his heart. I am not sure grief is something we readily attribute to God perhaps because He seems so removed or perhaps we don’t envision Him as emotional. To call someone “emotional” is, in our culture, to label him or her as essentially weak or unstable. But in one of if not the first glimpse into the heart of God, we see him as quite personal: He is grieving. And the next thing we see God contemplating is the destruction of the human race because things are bad, really bad. Often times, anger is a parallel emotion with grief. We want someone to pay. We want to do something about what is causing the grief so that we never have to experience it again. Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, implying that we are like God. It is in our DNA as image-bearers to hate what is wrong and to want to do something about it. We even want someone to pay. But where we are unlike God is in that we would stop there. We might also not really get to the root of the problem as God does and will. We would be satisfied with simply seeking revenge or destroying what is causing the pain. But not so with God. What I find fascinating in this story is that right after the thought of destroying mankind because of the prevalent nature of wickedness, we are introduced to the story of Noah. Why is that potentially significant? Because Noah represents God’s salvation. The deepest reality of our God’s heart is not his wrath but rather his desire to redeem and save. And throughout the biblical story, God is repeatedly weaving a redemptive thread amidst the chaos of our lives when we would settle for judgment and destruction as long as its not toward me.
So, here is what I wonder: does grief allow, if permitted, a person to go past their rage and desire to destroy to discover something deeper and more alive in the heart? I know that when I encounter, as I did this past week, the repeated stories of life's brokenness, especially in a concentrated measure, I can so easily either want to turn my head and try to avoid feeling how bad things are, living then for pleasure and relief, OR, grow angry and cynical and do violence in my attempt to make things work. Might there be a third option, one not easy to move toward because it leaves us feeling vulnerable and powerless? Grieving would be the third and more difficult option to embrace. And I believe that as I grieve, I might cry out to God in dependence, discovering a humility that then allows me to lean into God, trust Him, and then join Him in bringing life where I can while leaving the rest to Him.
Might there be a NT counterpart to this OT story of God grieving? I would argue for John 11 and the story of Lazarus. We are told twice that Jesus was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. The word for “troubled” represents a deep rage over how things are. I think he felt a grief even though he knew that he was about to resurrect His friend. He saw and experienced all that was wrong in this world: the confusion of the disciples; the disappointment and anger of the sisters toward Him; the disbelief of the crowd about who He was; and the death of His good friend, Lazarus. He wept. He grieved. And then He set out to breathe life back into a man’s body but perhaps even more importantly, into the hearts of those around Him who witnessed the event. Might His grief have precipitated the ability to move freely toward the situation at hand with life instead of death? Did His grief help free His heart? Perhaps.
God invites us to be like Jesus. His Spirit is working to make us like Jesus. And Isaiah described Jesus as a man acquainted with suffering and grief. The biblical narrative is full of grief, be it the psalms, a book of Lament or the stories of people like us who suffered and then grieved. We must take our grief to God or we will do violence to others. We must ask Him to help us learn to grieve well because He was and is quite acquainted with it. And we must believe, believe deeply that grief really is an important part of our faith journey, a integral part of persevering on this long obedience in the same direction. Help us Lord, to slow down and create space for our grief.
Patience and peace to each of you, for our days of grieving are numbered.