The Gospel and Grief

The Bible is the definitive guide to grief. Unflinchingly honest, the Scriptures tell us about the roots and realities of life in a ruptured world. It provides solace in our suffering and resources to persevere in the face of seemingly unbearable circumstances.

At the heart of divine revelation stands the gospel of God: the good news of a suffering God on a tree, an empty tomb, and an exalted King. It is this message that provides the greatest power and hope amid tragedy.

To begin with, the gospel is about rescuing us from the ravages of sin, death and the evil one. It is our only hope for a renewed world, healed relationships and mended selves.

The cessation of pain is a future reality guaranteed by the work of Christ. He became the man of sorrows to rid us of sorrow. He died to end the reign of death. He suffered to extinguish suffering. For the Christian, grief and pain are a temporary state of affairs. This future hope gives us courage in our pain and grit as we hold to God’s promises.

The gospel that saves us also shows us the nature of God. The person and work of Christ are the clearest display of the character of our Creator. In him, we see compassion embodied. The number one emotion attributed to Jesus in the New Testament is compassion.

The language of compassion repeatedly applied to Christ literally refers to the bowels or inner-parts. It refers to a deep, visceral response to the pain of others. When Christ encountered pain he engaged from his gut with grace, love and grief.

It has been said that compassion is love as it encounters pain. The idea of compassion is to “suffer with” another person. We see this in Jesus. He grieves with those who grieve. He weeps, sighs and aches when encountering hurting humans.

The gospel of Christ displays a God who comes near, enters the fray and suffers with and for us. God is present to us in our pain. Presence may be the single most comforting and important thing we can provide when others are grieving.

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The Power of Vulnerability

Vulnerability…even the word seems weak. Researcher Brene Brown has devoted her life’s work to changing our perspective on vulnerability. She argues that the most powerful, meaningful, and valuable things in life are connected to vulnerability. She defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. By her definition life is fundamentally vulnerable. All of our relationships are vulnerable. All of our big life choices, changes and dreams are vulnerable.

She is right, weakness is actually denying our vulnerability. Weakness is pretending your bullet proof and untouched by your fragility. She states that “vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” I think she is on to something. C.S. Lewis captured this theme years ago when he made this important observation about love.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

The best things in life contain the risk of pain…it is courageous to know this and pursue these things anyway.

At the End of Safety

Pain, change, two words that regrettably belong together. My life and yours confirm this verbal wedding. When I point to best and worst my finger touches the same event. The transformation I want normally comes from things I do not want. In my journey, the things I would never choose to go through again are those that have left me different….and yet I still wouldn’t choose to walk those paths again, ever.

I suppose this is how transformation works… we don’t choose it, we are far too weak. Change assaults us….it does not ask for permission, it does not listen to our feeble objections. No, it’s author cares far too much about giving us what we truly need. We are divinely placed into the transformational rhythm of death and resurrection. True change always entails conformity to the pattern of Christ, Good Friday then Easter morning. These are two days that painfully, but thankfully belong together.

James Baldwin in a book titled Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son makes a profound point about the devastation that is change.

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free – he has set himself free – for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”

What You Won’t Find in God’s heart

God is sovereign and pain is pervasive. This is a tension I uncomfortably affirm. There is a text from the book of Lamentations that provides a window into the heart of God on the matter. More specifically, the passage reveals what is absent from the heart of God as he sovereignly executes his work.

Here is the text. “Though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:22-23). I have called on some old school commentators to explore this discussion. Take a look at their interpretations of the passage. 

John Calvin


This is another confirmation of the same truth, that God takes no delight in the evils or miseries of men. It is indeed a strong mode of speaking which the Prophet adopts, but very suitable. God, we know, puts on, as it were, our form or manner, for he cannot be comprehended in his inconceivable glory by human minds. Hence it is that he transfers to himself what properly can only apply to men. God surely never acts unwillingly nor feignedly: how then is that suitable which Jeremiah declares, — that God does not afflict from his heart? But God, as already said, does here assume the character of man; for though he afflicts us with sorrow as he pleases, yet true it is that he delights not in the miseries of men; for if a father desires to benefit his own children, and deals kindly with them, what ought we to think of our heavenly Father?

“Ye,” says Christ, “who are evil, know how to do good to your children,” (Matthew 7:11); what then are we to expect from the very fountain of goodness? As, then, parents are not willingly angry with their children, nor handle them roughly, there is no doubt but that God never punishes men except when he is constrained. There is, as I have said, an impropriety in the expression, but it is enough to know, that God derives no pleasure from the miseries of men, as profane men say, who utter such blasphemies as these, that we are like balls with which God plays, and that we are exposed to many evils, because God wishes to have as it were, a pleasant and delectable spectacle in looking on the innumerable afflict, ions, and at length on the death of men.

 Thomas Brooks


For He does not willingly (or as the Hebrew has it, ‘from His heart’) bring affliction or grief to the children of men.” Christians conclude that God’s heart was not in their afflictions, though His hand was. He takes no delight to afflict His children; it goes against His heart. It is . . .a grief to Him to be grievous to them, a pain to Him to be punishing of them, a sorrow to Him to be striking them. 

 Matthew Poole


In the Hebrew it is, he doth not afflict from his heart, that is, with pleasure and delight; or (which seemeth the best sense to me) not from his own mere motion without a cause given him from the persons afflicted. Hence judgment is called God’s strange work. Showing mercy is his proper natural work, which floweth from himself without any cause in the creature. Judgment is his strange work, to which he never proceedeth but when provoked, and as it were forced from the creature, whence it followeth that he cannot delight in it. 

John Piper


Ezekiel tells us that God does not delight in this suffering. “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11). But the plan remains, and Jeremiah gives us a glimpse into the mysterious complexity of the mind of God in Lamentations 3:22-23. “Though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.” Literally: “He does not from his heart [millibbô] afflict or grieve the children of men.” He ordains that suffering come—“though he cause grief”—but his delight is not in the suffering, but in the great purpose of creation: the display of the glory of the grace of God in the suffering of Christ for the salvation of sinners.

John Gill


He does not [afflict] with delight and pleasure; he delights in mercy, but judgment is his strange act; nor does he do it with all his heart and soul, with all his might and strength; he does not stir up all his wrath: for then the spirit would fail before him, and the souls that he has made; and especially he does not do it out of ill will, but in love, and for their good: nor grieve the children of men: that is, he does not from his heart, or willingly, grieve the children of men, by, afflicting them; which must be understood of those sons of men whom he has loved, and made his sons and heirs; those sons of men that wisdom’s delights were with from everlasting, Proverbs 8:31. 

 

When God Wounds

The great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones was once asked, “What does a person look like who has truly met God?” Alluding to Genesis 32:31 he replied, “He walks with a limp.” The story referred to by Dr. Jones is the strange tale of God and Jacob wrestling through the night. Frederick Buechner titled this story The Magnificent Defeat. Jacob tangles with his Creator and paradoxically prevails over him through being defeated.

This “crippling grace” as Kent Hughes calls it results in a limp, a changed name, and a new way walk of life for Jacob. Walter Brueggemann says the “new name cannot be separated from the new crippling, for the crippling is the substance of the name.” Jacob’s new brokenness is central to his transformation. His woundedness is the mark of God’s presence in his life.

I draw a few important things from this story. First, pain and blessing are not mutually exclusive. Blessing comes through pain. They are tied together. Second, divine encounters are not always what we might expect. When God shows up, sometimes there’s a whirlwind, sometimes there’s a lightning storm, and sometimes there’s a wrestling match. The outcome of these encounters can also be counter-intuitive. A dislocated hip is probably not what Jacob was looking for and definitely not what he expected.

The third and final observation is that transformation is gritty and sweaty. Change happens when Creator and creature grapple in close quarters. Jacob’s encounter with God was extremely earthy. It happened on the soil of the earth. It was physical, tangible, and real. God executes his sanctifying power through the concrete, raw, and painful contexts where he shows up in wrestling gear.

Here is a great imaginative retelling of the story of Jacob and God. Check it out here: I will not let you go unless you bless me.

 

Richard Bauckham on Forgiveness

Here is another section of an interesting article I read by New Testament Scholar, Richard Bauckham. He touches on a very rich aspect of forgiveness—the pain endured to make it possible. In this short reflection, Bauckham touches on the suffering of God that marked his forgiving grace.

When some brutal murder is in the news, reporters always press the victim’s relatives to say how they feel about the murderers. I always find it an unpleasant spectacle. All too often the reporters seem to be trying to extract expressions of hatred and bitterness. Quite often we hear the grieving relatives say that they could never forgive the people who did that.

Of course, we are not surprised that people in such circumstances should feel like that. We easily understand how, being so badly hurt, they should feel it impossible to forgive. We can share their sense that justice demands retribution, not forgiveness.

But then it is all the more striking that sometimes a person in such a situation says that they feel no bitterness towards the murderers. These forgiving people are no less feeling. We can see that they loved their murdered relatives no less than the others who say they cannot forgive did. They grieve no less. In fact, one gets the impression that they have suffered more, felt the hurt more deeply, let it reach further into their hearts. They have absorbed the pain so deeply that it doesn’t come pouring back out of them as bitterness and hatred. They know there’s been quite enough pain and they don’t want to pass any more on, even to those who deserve it.

Sometimes these people come across as characteristically forgiving people, people whom, if you knew them, you would expect to react like this. But that doesn’t mean that forgiving is painless. Quite the opposite. Forgiveness is only painless when the crime is trivial or hasn’t affected us very much. And to forgive what people do to those we love is more painful and more demanding than to forgive what they do to ourselves.

All this may help us to understand a little what it means for God to forgive us. One of the things Jesus showed us is that it is God’s nature to forgive. God is characteristically forgiving. In a sense, we can expect God to forgive. As people sometimes say, “Of course, God will forgive: that’s his business.” Yes, but this doesn’t mean that forgiveness is painless for God. Quite the opposite.

All the evil we do hurts God. It spoils and damages the world God has made and the people God loves and cherishes. So it hurts God deeply. And God absorbs all that pain so deeply that he forgives.

This is one way of understanding how it is Jesus’ death on the cross that brings God’s forgiveness to us. God in Jesus’ suffering bore all the pain of forgiving us. He didn’t let the hurt bounce back against those who crucified Jesus – all of us. He took it into his heart.

This happened in the very public event of Jesus’ crucifixion, an event which has become one of the best known events of history. That’s because we need to see God’sforgiveness. We need to see it in order to really believe it. And we need to see it so that it can affect us and change us.

I don’t know how murderers react when they see their victims’ relatives on the television news. Maybe sometimes it may make them regret what they’ve done. If so, I’m quite sure that it would not be the unforgiving but the forgiving reactions which would have this effect.

When we see God’s forgiveness of our evil – when we view the cross in this way – that changes us. God doesn’t wait till we’ve changed our ways and become better people before forgiving us. Rather it is God’s forgiveness that brings us to repentance and new life.

Comfort in Strange Places

I have been working on a number of projects over the last few years. Recently, I have been editing and formatting a few of them. The one I am posting today comes from November-September of last year. This last year proved to be one of the more challenging that I have faced in my young life.

During that time I gained a lot of strength and help from certain Biblical books. This meditation in particular is focused on the book of Job. I have come to dearly love and appreciate this book. These thoughts come out of thinking and wrestling with my own life and the text of Job. My desire is that it would be of help to you. Here is the link to the document: Comfort in Strange Places: Musings on the Book of Job. Your feedback is much appreciated. Thanks.