Life is sometimes really hard to understand. When tragedy strikes, a lot of times we’re left with more questions than answers. Something devastating happens, and we feel alone and confused. We don’t know where to turn. We don’t know how to pray. We don’t even know what kind of response is right or faithful or helpful. Should we put on a brave face? Show we pretend nothing ever happened? Should we just let go and fall to pieces?
One thing is for certain—we are grieved. The most natural and immediate reaction we have is to feel grief, to mourn over what has happened. But grief is a powerful thing. It can push us to despair and anger and rebellion against God, or it can push us deeper into his loving arms. In the complicated moments where personal sin or unexpected disaster leave us feeling trapped in a whirlwind of pain, we need God to tell us how to grieve in faith, and we need him to give us the hope so that we can grieve in faith.
And you know what? He’s done exactly that. He’s given his church his word so that we could know how we ought to bring our sadness to God, and why our sadness doesn’t have to overtake us. He’s given us the word so that we can rightly grieve as his children, and so that we can walk beside others down the path of grief with hearts that still trust in God. As we look to Scripture, we need to consider two important questions. Is there a place for grief in the Christian life? And if there is, then what does it look like to faithfully present our grief to God?
1) Should we even grieve in the first place? Is there a place for grief in the Christian life?
A lot of times, we picture the perfect Christian as the one who is unfazed by anything. The people who really know how to be Christians are stoic and brave and unmoved. They’re the ones who could look disaster square in the eye and never flinch. We imagine that that kind of Christian would be solid as a rock, never questioning God, without a single tear, not even a hint that peace and happiness were being threatened. We think to ourselves in the midst of our pain, “If I was really living like a Christian, I would never feel this way.” And what happens is that we end up feeling guilty because we are sad, and the burdens keep piling on.
Why is it that we tend to see grief as if it has no place in the church? What is it about mourning that makes us think we ought to hide it, push it down, and keep it away from other people and from God?
Maybe we think grief is a sign of weakness. People who grieve are people who can’t take care of themselves, who require help, who can’t make it on their own, who need someone to step in and comfort them because they don’t have the strength to keep going alone. We want to be strong, not weak, so we convince ourselves that grief is wrong.
But underneath that strong exterior lies nothing but pride. You see, God didn’t make us in his image to live in our own strength, in independence from God. We may not want to be seen as weak, but that’s exactly what we are! We were made to depend on God and to find our rest in him. We were made to go to him with our needs and trust in his provision. We are sinful and broken people who don’t have the wisdom or ability to provide everything we need.
Believe it or not, it takes more strength to admit your weakness and cry out to God than it does to pridefully pretend you’ve got it all together. And when our weakness drives us to take our grief to God and depend on him, he gets the glory as the only one who is strong enough to take care of us. God says, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Maybe we think that grief is pointless. We learned when we were little that “there’s no use crying over spilt milk.” The whole point of that saying is that what’s done is done, what happened happened, and no amount of grief is going to change it. We hear Javert from Les Miserables in the back of our minds yelling, “Save your breath and save your tears!” So we figure the best thing we can do is move on.
But that’s not really the way the Bible talks about our grief. God doesn’t tell his people to wipe away their tears and keep pressing on. He tells them, “I am the one who will wipe away your tears.” God invites us to bring our pain and our weak hearts to him so that he can comfort us with his grace and his truth. Throughout Scripture, God says the needy cries of his people came to him, and he heard them and graciously worked for their good.
Grief isn’t pointless at all; it actually serves an important purpose for God’s people. If we bottle up our fears and our questions and our anguish, we may think we won’t have to deal with it, but those things will never go away. But when we cry out to God, when we present our grief to him, that enables us to honestly recognize the pain of our situation, and it makes it possible for us to be comforted by God’s word. Only when we’ve approached God with our grief will we be able to receive his words of love and comfort and promise.
“There’s no use crying over spilt milk,” but there is use in crying out to God, because he speaks peace to his grieving people. And when we’re broken before God, he is using that very experience of suffering to demonstrate his faithfulness to us and strengthen our hope in the good news that Jesus has purchased our life.
But perhaps our most powerful problem with grief is that it just seems so unspiritual. It feels like our grief is an admission that we lack faith, that we don’t really trust God like we should. If we truly trusted him, wouldn’t we have perfect joy that was never interrupted by tears? But this view of the Christian life is warped and doesn’t line up with Scripture in a number of ways.
First of all, sin has wreaked havoc in the world. So it’s right to recognize and grieve over our sin, the sin of others, and the effects of sin on creation. It’s not super-spiritual to pretend like everything’s just right with the world because everything is not right with the world! We are commanded by God to hate what is evil and to mourn with those who mourn. That means there has to be a place for grieving over all the destructive results of sin.
Second, God shows us in his word that grief is a part of life. Ecclesiastes 3 teaches that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” In a complicated world, there are times when it’s appropriate to celebrate and to cry out in desperation. And if you look in the Psalms, there God has provided many examples of godly, faithful grief to instruct his people in the way to mourn in hope. Scholars classify a whole group of Psalms as “Psalms of Lament”—the whole point of these Psalms is to lament with God because of personal and communal hardships.
David writes in Psalm 31, "Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away."
In Scripture, we have Spirit-inspired crying to God. With Psalms like these, God is essentially saying “Bring your sorrows to me! Come to me with your grief!” Yes, there may be doubt swirling around in your heart. Yes, you may have questions without answers. But God invites you to bring your fragile faith to him so that he can confirm his promises to you in his word. So while there are definitely sinful ways to grieve, God’s word shows us that grief itself is not always sinful.
But third, and most importantly, Jesus himself grieved. The second person of the Trinity took on flesh and experienced all the sadness that comes with living in a broken and sinful world. Jesus wept at the funeral for his friend Lazarus. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem because their sin had blinded them to his identity as Son of God and his mission for salvation: “O Jerusalem…How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” And when he went into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray just before he was arrested and crucified, he told his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.”
Jesus, the perfectly faithful human being, grieved at the tragedies of sin and death. If the Son of God stood with us in our grief, then we can’t make the argument that grief is unspiritual or un-Christian.
The answer to our question, then, is yes—there is a place for grief in the Christian life. But now we have to ask an even more difficult question.
2) How should we grieve? What does it look like to faithfully present our grief to God?
We noted that God has given us models of grief in the Psalms of Lament, and two of those Psalms in particular can help us answer this question.
Psalms 42 and 43 are numbered separately and can be read separately, but they’re probably intended to be read as a single literary piece. When you read them one after the other, you’ll hear three main sections with a repeated chorus after each one, and this repetition is a clue that we should examine these two Psalms together.
In this prayer of lament, the Psalmist expresses his desire to return to God’s temple and worship in his presence, and he cries out to God because, for the time being, it doesn’t seem like that will happen. The Psalmist mourns over his situation, and he provides a template for how we must bring our grief to God.
First, we must come to God thirsty for God. Psalm 42 begins, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” This is more than an expression of desire—it’s an expression of desperation. The Psalmist isn’t just saying that he really loves God. He’s saying he’s panting for God like a dying animal. He’s saying that he feels like he’s on the verge of death because the one thing he needs most to survive is the thing that seems most far away.
When we grieve before God in prayer, we can’t begin by making demands—we don’t have the right or the authority. And we can’t approach him as if we almost have it together in our own strength and just need a quick helping hand. When we grieve before God in prayer, we must embrace a posture of humility. We’ve got to recognize our brokenness and our neediness and our absolute dependence on God.
And notice what the Psalmist requests from the very beginning. Before anything else, he wants God himself. In our grief, our first prayers are often for different circumstances, better emotions, quick recovery, or a better future. But you can get all of those things, and still be lacking the only thing that will really bring healing.
What we need most is God himself. We need God to work in ways that only he can. We need God to act in wisdom because only he fully understands our circumstances. We need God to comfort our hearts with his word of promise. We need God to work everything that happened for the good of his people and the glory of his name. We need God to dwell with us, transform our desires, shape our reactions, and give us the deep joy of knowing that we are safe with him no matter what may come.
In our prayers of anguish, we’ve got to recognize that we are empty and that the love and presence of the Triune God is our truest need—we’ve got to come thirsty for God.
Second, we must come to God in honesty. Sometimes there’s a temptation and a pressure when we cry out to God to have all the right words, to have all the answers beforehand, to sound really pious and spiritual and knowledgeable and wise as we bring our pain to God. But if we’re really panting for God, if we’re coming in humility to a loving Father who’s the only one that can restore us to peace and joy, then we don’t have to hide the raw and ugly truth about what’s going on in our hearts.
Listen to the way the Psalmist lays himself bare in honesty before God. He tells God about the depth of his distress in verse 3: “My tears have been my food day and night.” He confesses his despair in verse 6: “My soul is cast down within me.” In verse 7, he expresses his feelings of powerlessness, like he’s caught in a rushing flood: “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” Anyone who’s ever been knocked over by an unexpected wave in the ocean knows exactly the kind of fear and disorientation the Psalmist is describing.
In verse 9 he asks God the only question he can muster: “Why have you forgotten me?” And in Psalm 43:2, the question is even more powerful: “Why have you rejected me?” He even tells God about the hatred and persecution he’s experienced from other people: “Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’”
When we grieve, we can open up the dark places of our hearts and cry honestly with God. When our faith feels like it’s failing, we can confess it to God. When we experience all sorts of conflicting emotions, we can tell God about our anger, fear, despair, loneliness, powerlessness, and abandonment. When we are frustrated by our circumstances and don’t have a clue what’s really going on, we can bring God our confusion and our questions. As a father longs to hear why his little child is crying, God the Father longs to hear the honest cries of his children—the children that he foreknew before time, redeemed at the cross, and adopted by grace.
But there’s a danger here that we’ve got to keep in mind. If you stop at this point, if you stop with telling God openly what’s going on and how your heart is dealing with your pain, and if you don’t let him speak back in his word, you can very easily drive yourself to all kinds of destructive places.
You might end up angry at God. It’s possible to express your grief to God in a way that emphasizes just how unfair this situation is, how you don’t deserve this, how this is just too hard. And you can work yourself into a fury that leads you to lash out at God in rebellion and anger.
Your honest grief can lead to unbelief. If you sit in your own pain and wallow in your experience of sadness, you can rehearse your complaints until you convince yourself that God must not be good and loving after all. You can present your grief to God in a way that calls God’s character into question and shouts, “How could a good God do this to me?!” and pain can push you to reject the kind of God that would allow such a thing to happen. Or you can be so hurt by someone else’s actions that you refuse to trust a God whose followers can still be so sinful.
If you stop with honest expression of grief, you can end up questioning your acceptance with God. You not only tell God that it feels like you’ve been abandoned, but you begin believing that he has indeed abandoned you: “If I were really God’s child, if I really belonged to him, if he truly loved me, he never would have allowed this to happen.” Rather than grieving so that God can bring comfort, you can grieve in a way that pulls you down the spiral of despair and leaves you with your pain and a crippling fear that God has turned his back on you.
These are real dangers when we honestly confess what our hearts are feeling, how much it hurts, and the confusion that seems like it will never end. And that’s why it’s so important that we don’t stop with making our grief known—we’ve got to keep going when we grieve with God.
Third, we must come to God remembering God’s promises. Why is this so pivotal? Because without God’s promises our grief will end in despair. But if we come to God clinging to the promises he’s made to us in his word, we can grieve with faith and hope.
This is exactly what the Psalmist is doing in his repeated chorus: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” He asks questions to his own heart—Why are you cast down? Why are you in turmoil?—and the reason he does that is because God’s promises give the kind of comfort to pull him out of the pit of sadness in which he’s been drowning.
He calls the Lord “my salvation and my God.” These are words of confidence; these are words of security. God has made a covenant with his people that he will be their salvation. God has guaranteed that because of his work, “They will be my people, and I will be their God.” That’s the hope that undergirds every part of the Psalmist’s grieving prayer.
The difference between hopeless grief and hopeful grief is remembering all that God has said and done even while we bring our prayers to him. In verse 6, the Psalmist says, “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.” He’s far from the sanctuary in Jerusalem where the presence of God dwelt with his people, so he must recall to mind who God is and all he’s done to show his faithfulness to his people. Standing on the verge of despair, the only thing keeping him from descending into it is the remembrance of his covenant God.
Look again at verses 8-9: “By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” Do you see what’s going on here? The Psalmist begins by remembering the steadfast love of the Lord and his continual presence. He calls God “my rock,” the one on whom his whole life is built—God is the never-failing, never-changing rock that gives him the security he needs. Only then does he even ask the question, “Why have you forgotten me?”
The whole point is that God hasn’t forgotten him. The Lord commands his steadfast love. The Lord is his rock. And while it may feel like God has forgotten him for a time, underneath that question, the Psalmist knows that God hasn’t turned his back. The way the Psalmist expresses his grief is shaped by the confidence that God is present, strong, and loving toward his child.
When we approach God, God’s promises to us have to always be in front of our eyes. We grieve with God not because he’s abandoned us, but because we know that he is our true and certain hope. So even while we mourn, we have to call out to our hearts, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? Hope in God! He is my salvation and my God! Though the world around me crumbles, though my heart wastes away within me, the Lord will not forsake his people. He will not fail in his promises. I am safe and accepted with him, and there is the hope of restoration.”
So what are the promises we’ve got to remember? What should we hold on to as we grieve with God? The answer is in the gospel.
The good news of Jesus is that God the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ to fulfill all of God’s promises to the world. The message of Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection is the God-given hope for sinners like you and me. The only reason we can cry out to “my salvation and my God” is because Jesus came to reveal God to the world and to purchase salvation for all who believe. And this gospel has the power to sustain you even when tears have been your food day and night.
So here is the hope for those who trust the gospel:
- Jesus lived the perfect human life as your substitute, so you can grieve with the hope that God looks upon you as a righteous, obedient, acceptable child.
- Jesus died on the cross as your substitute, so you can grieve with the hope that your pain is not a sign of God’s wrath against you, but will be used for your good.
- Jesus was declared righteous in his resurrection and shares that righteousness with his people, so you can grieve with the hope that even though you are still sinful, you will one day be vindicated when God pronounces his verdict over you.
- Jesus was forsaken by God at the cross for your sin, so you can grieve with the hope that God will never turn his back on you again.
- Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, so you can grieve with the hope that God intimately understands the pain you’re going through.
- Jesus gave us his Holy Spirit, so you can grieve with the hope that God is always present with you, even in the darkest hour.
- Jesus began his kingdom in his death and resurrection, and he promises to return to make everything new, so you can grieve with the hope that God will one day restore everything that’s broken, right every wrong, wipe away every tear, and dwell with his people in joy forever.
Those are but a few of the glorious promises that Jesus secured for us in the gospel. And if we are remembering those promises when we grieve, then we will be able to grieve in hope.
Finally, we must come to God in worship. When we remember all the promises that Jesus has secured for us in the gospel, our hearts are moved to rest and rejoice in God. Read the last few verses of Psalm 43: “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
The prayer of grief that started with panting for God ends with praise to the God who hears, loves, and promises to sustain. It’s not that the grief goes away. No, the grief may linger for a long, long time. But even while the tears keep falling, we can worship God because we have a hope that’s bigger than our pain.
So cry out for God in brokenness. Tell him about your sadness, confusion, and fear. Remember his promises to you in the gospel. Be filled with hope by God’s word. And worship him for his faithfulness and sovereignty and wisdom and goodness while you grieve over sin and its horrific effects.
In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus brought us to God, so we can present our grief to God with the hope that he will never let us go.