Monday, February 05, 2024

Anonymous Asks (288)

“When does grief become excessive?”

Grief is appropriate in a fallen world. The Lord Jesus taught that those who mourn are blessed, and will be comforted, and that the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of heaven. Scripture teaches that God himself may be grieved by the sins of his children.

Appropriate Grief

The Lord Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus and Mary wept at the tomb of the Lord Jesus. Peter wept over denying his Lord. The exiles in Babylon wept when they remembered Zion. The Ephesians wept at the thought that they would never see the apostle Paul again. John wept that no one was found worthy to open the scroll of God’s judgments on the world in Revelation 5. I think most would agree these are all examples of appropriate grief.

Grief is a mechanism God has given us in which we may share his own feelings about a fallen world, expressing them ordinately to those around us. In my humble opinion, a person who cannot be moved by the loss of a loved one (or pet), the evils of the world in which we live, the absence of someone whose presence brings us joy, or the revelation of his own sinfulness is missing something critical.

A person who cannot be moved by anything at all is probably sociopathic or severely damaged in some way.

When Grief Goes Too Far

With all that in mind, it is biblically possible for grief to become excessive:

  • The Law of Moses instructed the people of Israel to grieve in a dignified manner, and not like the people of the nations around them. “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead: I am the Lord.” If you research the mourning practices of that period, you’ll find the pagans had a way of turning death into an excuse for performance art. Grief is excessive when it deliberately seeks attention.
  • Past a certain point, it is unproductive to remain obsessed with the consequences of our failures or those of others. It suggests we have put our trust in man rather than in God, who will never let us down. The Lord rebuked Samuel for continuing to mourn over Saul’s loss of the kingdom when God was moving on. Grief is excessive when it results in paralysis. God’s message to Samuel was to get up and anoint David as king. There was work to be done.
  • Christians should not mourn like the world mourns when we lose a loved one who is a believer. Paul told the Thessalonians about the resurrection at the return of the Lord “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. Grief goes too far when it turns into despair, and loses sight of the blessed hope we have in Christ.
  • Asaph starts Psalm 77 by refusing to be comforted, then in verse 10 changes course, saying, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.” Paul refers to the Father as “the God of all comfort” because he comforts believers in their affliction. Grief is excessive when it refuses the comfort God has given. It is faithless and self-destructive to reject what God has provided.
  • The fallen state of man is a grievous evil, but we must never forget that Christ has conquered sin and death, and he did it as a man. There is an answer to the sin question, and God has provided it once for all in the person of his Son. This was the message one of the elders gave to John when he wept loudly over the worthlessness of the human race: “Weep no more.” Grief is excessive when it takes its eyes off Christ.

Other People’s Grief

I cite these examples so that we can remind ourselves not to grieve beyond what is appropriate; not to lose hope, give into despair, obsess about the past or fail to remember that the joy of the Lord is our strength. I am not sharing them so that we can bludgeon other believers with these verses when we believe their grief is excessive by our subjective standards.

Everyone is different. Some people are more sensitive than others. Jeremiah was evidently more affected by his emotions than other prophets of his day, which is why we have Lamentations. There are bound to be aspects to other people’s grief we cannot understand. Sometimes a specific loss can serve as a proxy for many other, greater sorrows that have not been dealt with in times past. We may not be able to understand the depth or duration of a person’s sorrow because there is more going on there than we can possibly know, or because they are bearing burdens that, for reasons of confidence, they are unable to share.

As Proverbs says, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.”

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