I frequently muse about the role that grief plays in our lives. Losses are inevitable and even necessary. If we learn how to grieve and mourn them well, we will come to experience a kind of spiritual freedom only available through letting go.
I’m troubled when I see how often we as believers walk away from the giant resource grief provides us in our journeys to become more mature and more like Christ. Instead, we avoid grief by attempting to get the world to fit into our mold, or attempting to escape the normal movement of life, or seeking peace and safety at the expense of reality. It is often only through loss, suffering and grief that we have access to the central and massive comfort and freedom that Jesus died to provide us, in the here and now.
A few months ago, Nancy took our grandsons to Body World, a traveling science display in Denver. Here in the midst of an exhibit displaying the phenomenal physical marvels of being human, she found that the context screamed of hopelessness–no purpose, no future. Along with the fascinating display of the human body came a number of banners with quotes that seemed to rob the viewer of reasons to live, such as, “When you die, you just lose consciousness.” In a culture that denies grief and death, it is difficult to hold a biblical view of reality that finds hope in the midst of a broken world and painful circumstances. Like the display, our culture attempts to soften painful realities with slogans that tout “hope” rooted in nothing. Perhaps, as the exhibit implies, if we simply define man as a biological entity, we can remove the inevitable sting of loss. So the slogan, “when you die you die” is intended to comfort us in an attempt to respond to the reality one only sees. And it’s designed to eliminate our desperate need for hope.
The Body World display teaches us that without a future vision we must either live in despair or some form of fantasy. The biblical view is quite different. In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul tells believers, “…we are not to grieve as the world grieves, as those who have no HOPE.” And in 1 Peter 3:15, Peter says, as believers we are to be ready to give an answer to those who ask, for the HOPE that is in us. Quite frequently we ignore the scriptures instructing believers to “not lose HOPE!” Real hope comes when we place our trust in “true truth.” Why do we so often fail to walk in this freedom, which is given to us who believe? Maybe part of the reason is because we fail to make the necessary adjustments in our thinking that will line us up with the truth we claim.
The truth Christ has given us says that although much of what we experience in this upside down world is not part of the original design, God has given us grief as a major resource to deal with the regular rhythms of transition and loss. Transition, loss, and the grief of dealing with these allow us to offload distortions of reality. We are essentially double minded, and instead of believing the truth, we believe the distortions the world markets to us: a life that makes sense, and personal peace and affluence. One good thing about the globalization of our world is that we are less likely to live in isolation from the painful reality of this messed up world. Buried in the middle of this is a view of life that is grounded in facing life as it comes and being able to grapple with the “bad news”.
I’d like to suggest that we define grief like this: to accurately adjust our views of reality by aligning them with the “truth” of God’s creation in it’s fallen, messed up, mean state! Grief in this context may be thought of as a healthy concession to the fallenness of the present world. Matthew 5:4 says those who mourn will be comforted. It’s interesting to me that these two ideas are linked in this manner. Few of us seem to get this connection, that grief/mourning gives us access to comfort/freedom. How often are our expectations of what life should be like derived from our culture instead of the “Word” written and incarnate? Our culture shapes our expectations as well as our desires. First world individuals are caught in a consumeristic environment. In this environment a desire is never illegitimate, it is only unmet!
Let that sink in for a moment. What helps shape our desires? Is it the ‘truth’ we believe from Scripture, or are we formed by the strength of the environment in which we are placed? If this second view is allowed to shape our perceptions, then the basis for our HOPE is skewed!
For consumers, fulfillment of desire is the highest good and the final arbiter in making decisions. In contrast, Scripture champions freedom, contentment and self-control based in values, not endless pursuit of personal desire. God is not a commodity that exists to make us feel better!
Maybe a thorough sensitizing and awareness of our expectations and their origins is the core work of grief. The first thing we must do in order to move through the grieving process in a life-giving way is to face the truth about our skewed/distorted beliefs of how life should work. Most of us see the application in “large” issues, like the death of a loved one or loss of the ability to work or a divorce. It’s the smaller deceptions that keep us from experiencing the freedom we miss. Let’s examine some of these.
How often are our disappointments in our children or a disagreement with our mate mishandled? Instead of seeing the “matter of fact” of life’s movements, we eschew such for the immediate feeling of control and the satisfaction it seems to provide. Even something as trite as a haircut and color that doesn’t turn out as you expected can rob us of the capacity to celebrate the life that we have in fact been given. Often our view squeezes out the joy that is available because we are restricted by a pinched perspective that prohibits us from seeing the freedom God has for us. Our culture teaches us to win, not to grieve. We want to be right, to fight and to be strong. Grieving the loss of some particular disappointment means that we are called to “let go” and move away from a victim posture. Culture teaches the opposite by telling us to find someone or something to blame.
Any “false” view of reality, no matter how small, can and will set us up for useless pain and disappointment. When we put our hope in a world free of loss and only driven by acquisition, we are committing a form of idolatry.
But there’s another kind of grief. The kind laid out in the Gospels. I call it hopeful grief or good grief. This kind of grief is based on a view of reality that allows us to adjust to what is rather than what we wish was.