The Art of Grieving Well

On a recent trip to Boston, my party became patrons of one of the city’s most famous local coffee shops, Dunkin Donuts. My usual order, a medium ice coffee with sugar free vanilla and whole milk, was prepared. I took it over to the sweetening station/trash area to enhance it with sweetener and punch my straw in. However, on this day, my straw and lid were unwilling to cooperate. As I darted the straw violently into the lid, the straw hole didn’t budge causing my drink to tip towards the floor. I leaped into action to save my drink only to send it suddenly into the trash. One second, I had a coffee ready to enjoy that would carry me through my day, the next, my brand-new, full coffee was at the bottom of the trash. Gone. Forever.

My grief didn’t last long. Once my friends stopped laughing at my misfortune, there was an easy fix. I ordered a new coffee and went on with my day. Grief deferred. How would this small accident have affected your day? Would it have stayed with you? Greif is a natural part of living in our fallen world. Very few people I know sit around and say, “I could use some more tragedy over here. I’m a little short on tragedy in this season of my life.” Stuff happens and we all know that. What we seem to have a hard time with is how grief relates to eternity. Humans are experts at marrying the two in devastating fashion.

Think back to your first love. Many congratulations to those who are reading this whose first love became their spouse and they lived happily ever after. This is not the norm. A broken heart can be devastating. Have you ever helped a friend through a break up? Usually one of the first pains communicated goes something like this, “Now I’ll never find someone.” In the world of higher education, where, for many young people, so much rides on standard tests scores, a bad result is often processed with the sentiment, “Now I’ll never get into college.” Are these two revelations true?

A break-up doesn’t mean you’ll never find a spouse. People get married every day, many of whom who have had broken hearts before. A bad test score doesn’t mean you won’t go to college. People who are terrible at school and tests go to college all the time! There is something about grief, no matter how small, that propels our thoughts into eternity. The feelings associated with loss are often devastating enough to make us feel like they’ll last forever. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Option B, about processing the sudden loss of her husband, says there were three lies her feelings told her that had to be dispelled. “We plant the seeds of resilience in the ways we process negative events. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that three P’s can stunt recovery: (1) personalization—the belief that we are at fault; (2) pervasiveness—the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life; and (3) permanence—the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever,” says Sandberg.

If we are to ever plant seeds of resilience for ourselves or others we have to dismiss grief’s lies of permanence, but we must also tell the truth about what is permanent. Imagine being the disciples having spent significant time with Jesus and bearing witness to his spectacular events. How would you feel when he was arrested? Then when he was beaten? Then when he died? Jesus must have known those feeling of permanence were coming when he’s quoted in John 16, “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

Jesus gave them words to remember when the shock of loss would come. Words that would give life and remind them you will not always feel this way. It could be a worthy exercise for all of us to ask of the Bible, “What is eternal?” Nearly everything we hold dear exists in the finite. People will pass away. Resources will diminish. Our bodies will age. What is eternal? Perhaps Psalm 136:4-9 has an answer.

“To him who alone does great wonders,
His love endures forever.
who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever.
who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever.
who made the great lights—
His love endures forever.
the sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever.
the moon and stars to govern the night;
His love endures forever.”

Until Jesus returns, until thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, until God’s restoration of our fallen world is complete, we will experience grief, sadness, and loss. In Psalm 136, we are reminded that all that is finite is created by the Lord while simultaneously reminding us that God’s love endures forever. The gifts are fleeting. The giver of the gifts is eternal.

Jesus was being proactive in John 16 which isn’t a bad idea for us. Prepare for the grief to come by digging around in scripture. Write God’s eternal nature on your heart. Read through Psalm 136 a dozen times and allow it to define what’s permanent. The feelings we have that dig us into the deepest depths cannot stand against God’s forever love. Imagine being the disciples when Jesus was arrested, beaten, and died. Now imagine what they felt when he returned to them newly resurrected. You will not always feel this way.

The Healing Is In the Pain

As we all continue through our Lenten journeys this year, a story from Numbers 21 reminds me of how uncomfortable it can be to deal with the poison of sin in our veins.  In this passage (Num.21:4-9) the people are grumbling against God and against Moses, bringing a profoundly deep rejection before the Lord and calling the perfect manna from heaven “worthless food.”  So the Lord sends venomous snakes into the camp that start biting the people and some of them start dying.  The people rapidly get the point and repent and ask Moses to intercede for them to ask God to remove the snakes.  Moses prays, and God does something a little strange.  He doesn’t take them away.  He tells Moses to make a bronze statue of a snake, put it on a pole high in the middle of the camp, and when anyone gets bitten they can look at it and live.  What an odd thing, they just have to look at it, and they’ll be immediately healed.

Why would God make them look at a depiction of the very thing that was afflicting them in order to get better?  Why not just take the snakes away?  Because our process of being healed has to involve honesty about what it was that hurt us.  The people had to look repeatedly at the source of their affliction, a snake, the image of sin entering the world and the enemy of humanity, in order for God to remove the poison of death.  It was such a small action required on their part, they just had to look up.


          When we are in the midst of our afflictions, and realizing the poison of sin that courses through our veins, Jesus only asks us to look up.  To name the things within us and in our world that bring death and destruction, and to look at the cross for our healing.  In John 3:14-15, right before our iconic John 3:16, Jesus says this:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Jesus says our process now is the same as it was for the people in the wilderness.  Just as that particular group of Israelites had separated themselves from God and had brought violence and death into their community, so the sin of all of humanity has rejected God and we are the perpetrators and recipients of violence and death in our world.  And just as the serpent was raised up for their healing, this object and force that was outside of themselves, so Christ was nailed to the cross to do what we cannot do for ourselves.  To epitomize before God everything that is hateful and unrighteous, and to absorb the punishment that ought to be falling on us.  Then as now, the problem lies within us, and the solution lies outside of us in the person of the crucified Christ.

Like the serpents remaining in the camp, sin is still within us and around us.  It hasn’t yet been completely removed, although we know that one day it will be gone for good.  But for now, when we feel the pangs of death in us, we need to face them and name them for what they are, so that Christ can encompass them and heal the wounds that they have caused.

I grew up the youngest of three children, and during my senior year in college my middle brother was killed suddenly at the age of 24 while serving in Iraq.  That was by far the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced and had to deal with, and the next two years in particular were full of intense suffering.  The way I experienced my relationship with God at the time was to feel that He was very far from me, and therefore must have abandoned me.  I couldn’t have articulated it this way at that point, but I essentially thought that God was displeased with me somehow and that if I tried harder I could earn back His favor and He would comfort me in my grief and love me again.  And then I would feel like a failure because I kept being a mess, and I would be haunted by the fear that I would always feel this way and it would never get better.


(My brother Sgt. Jesse Strong)

Around that time I started going to a little Anglican church plant called Grace Anglican, and I started hearing this teaching about how it didn’t matter whether I had it together or not or was worthy or not, Christ was for me and not against me.  And I started a slow process of not trying to be perfect anymore.  It was a radical new thing to think that I didn’t have to hold it together and craft perfect prayers to say what I thought God wanted to hear and what I wished I meant.  I had the freedom to tell God exactly what was going on in my mind and heart, and what was causing me to suffer, and what I wanted Him to do about it, and what I feared He wouldn’t do about it, and what the crap was all this for anyway?  That was when things started to change and when I started to recover and be brought back to life.  When I stopped trying to heal myself and I just looked up and said, “Here I am, Lord.  Please be in my life who You say that You are.”

Whatever poison of sin is coursing through your veins right now, know that Jesus offers an eternal antidote.   He doesn’t extend it to you when you finally try hard enough to earn His help, but when you are finally honest about your inability to heal yourself.   All you have to do is lift up your eyes to the Giver of Life, the One who suffers and dies and is raised to life in order to raise us up with Him.