A while ago I went to visit a man whose wife had died. It was a cold winter day in Maine as I drove up to the ancient farmhouse overlooking a frozen lake in a largely unknown small town in rural Maine. For anyone reading this who is not from Maine, let me tell you that he fit the quintessential image of a Mainer. He sported a thick white beard and his skin was leathered and toughened by the harsh Maine winters and years of working outside.
As we talked we sat in front of the stove in his kitchen and the air was filled with the unique smell of wood smoke. He was a retired pastor whose wife had died about six months before and I would occasionally drop in to see him. Our continued sporadic visits were as much of a surprise to me as anyone. We shared a common faith in the saving power of Christ, but I suppose that is about it. We disagreed on many theological things and we hail from completely different generations.
As a sort of grief counselor though, I was there to talk with him about his grieving process. I expected our first visit to be our last, but he kept inviting me back. We would discuss many things, but he always came back to the deep ache in his life left by the absence of his wife.
On this particular visit though, he let me in on the reason he kept asking me to return. The reason was a simple one. He was surrounded by believers (mostly family) and they appeared unwilling to hear his grief. Surely, the love and peace of God was sufficient, right? The implied reasoning although it was not expressed verbally was that somehow deep grief and sorrow in the absence caused by death equaled a lack of faith. The message was that six months later it was ungodly for him to continue to grieve.
Celebrations of Life
There is a growing movement both in and out of Christianity which claims that death must be cause for celebration. Most families I meet with now have exchanged the term “funeral” for the expression “celebration of life.” For Christians, I understand the thinking. If the person that died is a believer, then we will see them again. They are no longer in pain and they are with God. What could be better than that? To those thoughts I offer up a resounding joy and agreement.
Yet I can’t help but ask “what about the absence?” What about the moments we will have in this life that will no longer include our loved one? There is little doubt in my mind that many who do not have the hope of Christ are living in denial. It is easier to celebrate the life that has been then to focus on the uncertainty of what lies after death. One person said to me recently that they wondered what happened to the idea of having days of mourning. It used to be common practice to wear black and to be in a state of mourning for a period of time following the death. Outward and open expressions of grief used to not only be acceptable in society, it was encouraged and expected. It makes me wonder if some Christians really understand what the Bible says about suffering, sorrow, and mental anguish.
Reconciling Sorrow and Hope
The problem for many Christians is that we have trouble reconciling the ideas of sorrow and hope. Psalm 42 has been of a special interest to me concerning this subject. It opens with the majestic picture of a soul longing for God in the same way that the deer longs to drink the water from a cool brook.
If only we could stop there. Songs have been written about this verse alone and they seem to convey a worshipful picture of a happy skipping deer running to the water and a lighthearted soul gleefully skipping to God. Yet, the truth of the matter lies in the remainder of the Psalm.
We quickly find out that the deer is not just thirsty, he is in desperate need of a drink or he will perish. His mouth is dry and dusty and he fears for his life if he cannot find water. Understanding this certainly changes our image of the deer and of the writer. What follows verse one is a heartfelt and earnest cry of despair.
We aren’t told the specifics of what has brought on this trouble, but the writer is desperate for God’s help. Verse three says, “My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?” (KJV, Psalm 42:3) The writer finds himself in constant tears and, to add insult to injury, he is mocked by those who don’t believe. They assume that his struggle means that God does not exist or has left him. We soon find out that he does not believe this, but their taunting frustrates him.
Throughout the rest of the Psalm he uses vivid language to illustrate his grief, including the crashing of waves over him and a sword being stuck into his bones. Yet, even in his grief and sorrow he has not lost hope. In this Psalm, verses five and eleven are identical. Common sense would seem to indicate that the repetition is of great importance. Verse eleven also marks the end of the Psalm. They read,
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God. (KJV, Psalm 42:11)
These two identical verses convey the deep and powerful message that sorrow and hope can co-exist. The writer bemoans his situation and the sorrow that has befallen him. He wants to know why he is cast down even though he has hope in God. Probably the most interesting word in the English here is “yet.” He acknowledges that he will praise God, but he is not there yet. He is struggling. He hasn’t lost hope. He hasn’t given up on God and he believes, but he is sorrowful nonetheless.
I have the privilege to talk with grieving people on a regular basis. Some know the saving power of Christ and others do not. As a result, I have come to realize that the lack of supportiveness and understanding about grief is significantly lacking in society today.
The place it should find truest expression and be allowed is in the church and among fellow Christians. In fact, Paul wrote in Romans 12:15 “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” Even Jesus Christ was intimately acquainted with grief and sorrow. Did He not weep at the grave of Lazarus and was He not in such agony in the garden that He sweat drops of blood?
This is the reason we can pour out our sorrowing hearts to Him. Hebrews 4:15 says,
For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
If you find yourself in the midst of sorrow, know that you can pour out your heart in prayer just like the writer of Psalm 42. God is not looking for a prayer that pretends we have it all together. He is looking for honest — and even at times desperate — appeals for His help and aid. If you are supporting someone who is grieving, know that deep sorrow does not mean a lack of faith. Hope and sorrow can coexist and it is a healthy thing when they do. After all, Christians get to grieve too!
Joel is a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain and has served as Bereavent Coordinator at the VNA/Hospice of Eastern Maine since 2015. He earned his BA at Norwch Univ., and MDiv at Bob Jones University and Liberty University. He has served in a variety of chaplaincy roles since 2007 and as an assistant at Lighthouse Bible Church in Searsport, ME.