Whether grief is ushered in by death or divorce or incurable disease or infuriating selfish human choices, it ushers in a truth that is unwanted. Grief understands things are not yet as they ought to be. Grief knows something is wrong. Though it tries to deny the truth, it can only do so temporarily because grief is not truth’s master, but its servant. To grieve is to surrender to a loss, a real loss that really happened. “Why should this be so?” That is the cry of grief, and yet grief would not be grief if it were merely a cry of protest born of anger. Anger is empowering; grief is not. To grieve is to experience powerlessness.
Theologically speaking, grief is a combination of sorrow and anger. In Greek, the word for grief is lupe. In Scripture, the word lupe is used to describe both selfish and godly emotions. The rich young ruler, for instance, was selfishly grieved (lupoumenos) upon hearing Jesus instruct him to sell his possessions and give to the poor. The text suggests that the rich young ruler thought Jesus was upholding an unfair standard for him, so he reacted against Jesus by walking away from Him. He was sad to leave, but he left because he was angry. The rich young ruler wasn’t interested in submitting himself to Jesus. Instead, he wanted to be patted on the back, even though his piety was half-hearted. When Jesus refused to congratulate or enable him, the rich young ruler wilted. That’s the way it goes with selfish grief. Selfish grief amounts to self-pity. Everybody knows it takes no talent or maturity to wallow in the vanity of self-pity. Feeling sorry for oneself can actually be uplifting.
Godly grief is different. It lowers a person down and drains the human heart of pride. Godly grief is rooted in humility. It opens the eyes to truths that are piercing and painful to behold. In his comprehensive quest for understanding, King Solomon learned that grief is the companion of wisdom. “In much wisdom there is much grief,” said Solomon, “and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain” (Ecclesiastes 1:18, NAS). While countless Christians regularly pray for wisdom, I wonder how many realize the gravity of that prayer. Often I feel daunted by the prospect of God granting me all the wisdom I pray for—because it will be attended by grief. It grieves me to admit wisdom exacts a price. I want it to come for free. But it doesn’t. So I discipline myself to pray, “Lord, increase my capacity to grieve.”
Most of us can marginalize the terrible things we know about in the world. In a sense we have to do that in order to progress with our own lives. But there comes a point in most every life when it is our allotment to grieve. Of course, we can try to anesthetize ourselves in order to escape the strangulating hold grief has. But grief is not easily drowned out. It penetrates the soul, even when the mind tries to ignore it.
It’s difficult to grieve no matter what. But it’s harder than it should be for those of us who dwell in a society of people (many of whom are Christians) who see grieving as a problem, not a privilege. To grieve is to emulate Jesus. Jesus wasn’t afraid grieving would slow Him down or halt His ministry. Jesus didn’t tell Himself to buck up and act like a man. Jesus understood that grieving is not a feminine form of weakness; it’s a human form of strength. It takes character to grieve. A person has to care in order to feel the anguish of grief.
Jesus let His own grief live. He didn’t stifle it. He didn’t cave in to the pressure people usually feel when others relentlessly badger them to be more cheerful and upbeat. Jesus was a man of sorrows well acquainted with grief. He knew how to deal with the shadow side of life, and part of the way He coped was by grieving.
The Bible says in the days of His flesh, His prayers were characterized by “loud crying and tears” (Hebrews 5:7).
Jesus trusted God enough to grieve. It takes faith to descend down an unpaved path that drops into a gully of grief. That gulf—that ravine—where grief prevails thunders hard truths and strikes against illusions with severity. All efforts of denial must eventually be abandoned if one is ever to make peace with one’s grief. Godly grief refuses to pretend. It does not confuse hope with horror. It dares to call evil “evil.” It courageously confronts the heart-wrenching situations that shouldn’t even be, but nonetheless are because of calloused sinful people who conceivably could change but don’t.
As Christians, we proclaim we want to follow Jesus, and we mean it. But, we minimize the fact that following Him entails a willingness to engage the agonizing truth that God’s ways are offensive to people, including Christians. The flesh is at war with the Spirit. The only way for me or anybody else to walk in the light of the indicting truths of wisdom is to be crucified with Christ, so that “I” no longer live, but Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). When we honestly reflect upon the reality of the destructiveness of our sins, we can generate godly grief and actually become sorry to the point of being willing to make needed changes in ourselves. Paul put it this way, “The [lupe] that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
To grieve in the likeness of Jesus is to love. Love grieves when it sees that which was—and will—be missed. Love grieves when people die. Love grieves when people dehumanize one another. Love grieves when people harden themselves and refuse to be vulnerable. Love grieves at all the things that grieve God’s Spirit. I don’t like to grieve. But how else can I love? So I pray for godly grief that I might walk in wisdom and demonstrate the fullness of love.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 09 issue of Neue Quarterly.