Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Grief is Not a Sin

Over the last year or so I’ve been reading through the Bible at the rate of about a chapter a day. I just finished Jeremiah yesterday, which is a really emotionally tough book if you identify even slightly with Jeremiah, and as I was reading the first chapter of Lamentations I was struck by a thought that’s been creeping up on me for a while.

Grief is not a sin.

Well, duh, you may say. Of course it’s okay to grieve. We lose people or hear terrible news or suffer disappointment, we feel sad; it would be monstrous if we didn’t react that way. And I think most people would agree that this is the case.

And yet it’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting that grief, or lamentation, should only last so long or go so far. Just a nice neat little grief, not too long, something you can swallow back and force a watery smile and then put your chin up and keep marching with a smile on your face. Especially if you call yourself a Christian, because Christians are supposed to be full! of! joy! and count themselves blessed when they suffer tribulation, etc.

And for this reason people — especially religious people, it seems — can be amazingly cruel and dismissive toward others who are hurting, by trying to pep them up with positive talk and encourage them to stop focusing on all that negative stuff, or even (the worst) condemning and shunning them if they go on grieving and lamenting past the generally accepted time period for such things.

I think a lot of this comes out of fear — some of it genuine concern for the grieving person that they may be doing themselves harm and not looking at things in a proper perspective, but more often I think it’s a fear that grieving and lamenting is somehow sinful and poisonous and should be shut down quickly before it infects others. A fear that if a person laments about their hardships and their painful situations, they are expressing rebellion against the God who allowed these difficulties in their lives, and are therefore only a few steps away from turning away from God altogether. So the best thing to do is shut it down, bottle it up, and encourage the grieving person to paste on a smile and pretend their troubles aren’t nearly as bad as they seem.

What I’ve been seeing as I read through the Bible, however, is just how unBiblical and ungodly this kind of “put on a happy face!” attitude is. Complaining is a sin — in the sense of faithlessly whining about a potentially bad situation without even giving God the chance to act on our behalf, or being discontented and ungrateful for the good things He’s given us. And bitterness is also a sin — locking our hearts up so tightly against God and others that we won’t forgive, won’t accept help or healing. But grieving and lamenting for a genuinely horrible situation? Even at great length and in detail? That’s not just allowed; that’s something that God Himself does through numerous prophets and other writers of the Bible.

The book of Job is the most obvious proof that grief and lamentation is not sinful in itself — Job’s lament goes on for chapter after chapter as he struggles with his sorrow and his pain and questions why God is allowing this to happen to him (yes, the Bible indicates that questioning God, even bluntly, is not a sin either — it’s all in the attitude with which you do it). But there are also many Psalms that express this kind of desperation and confusion and pain, including Psalm 88 which contains not even the slightest glimmer of hope or uplifting sentiment and ends with the phrase, “The darkness is my closest friend”.

Again and again throughout the Bible we’re given examples of people honestly and frankly expressing their distress and overwhelming sorrow as they go through hard times. And not once does God swoop in to say, “Now stop that lamenting! Don’t you know that my children are supposed to be full of smiles and happiness all the time? You’re making Me look bad here!”

So why do we mere human beings so often try to leap in — not only with others, but even in our own hearts — to stop the honest grieving? Do we really think God needs us to defend Him?

The book of Lamentations opens with the nation of Israel, personified as a woman, weeping bitterly over her disgrace and exile. After hundreds of years of rebellion and idolatry and covenant-breaking, the people of God were suffering the judgment God had warned would come upon them if they didn’t repent — their enemies had conquered them and taken them away from their land. And now that the worst had happened, Israel was grieving, and regretting, and lamenting all she had lost and all she had done. 

And it goes on. 

And on. 

And on. 

For pages and pages.

And as far as God is concerned, that’s okay. Indeed, it’s only right — and even good. The pain needs to be fully acknowledged, and explored, and processed, before healing and restoration can begin. However long that takes ...  and in the case of Israel at this point, it was seventy years.

It’s not just in the Old Testament, either. The shortest verse in the Bible? “Jesus wept.” Before the crucifixion He spent a full night grieving intensely, not in some private place of shame but in an open garden right in front of his disciples.

So if this kind of open, frank, unabashed exploration of grief is in the Word of God — obviously I’m speaking to my co-religionists here — then why are we so eager to jump in and “rescue” people from grief and regret and lamentation when we see it in our churches and our daily lives? 

Sin, and all the things that have gone wrong with our world because of sin, may be the ultimate cause of every grief we suffer, and it’s true that one day all tears will be wiped away forever and that will be a very good thing. But until that happens, grieving and lamenting and suffering over sin and hardship are not just tolerable or permissible to a certain limited extent — they’re actually good and right.

So the next time you’re genuinely upset over something terrible that has happened to you or someone you love, and somebody comes up to you and chirps, “Oh, well, praise the Lord anyhow!” You should feel free to punch them in the face* hand them the book of Lamentations.

*   See, that’s why I usually talk myself out of writing serious blog posts without spending a week editing them first.


Republished by permission of the author

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