June 1, 2023

If I Grieve, Have I Lost Faith?

How to grieve with hope

Michael Lombardo
Photo by Külli Kittus on Unsplash

When Jacob died and Joseph “threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him” (Gen. 50:1, NIV),was he showing a lack of faith? When Hannah was distressed over her infertility and said, “I am a woman of sorrowful spirit” (1 Sam. 1:15), was she revealing a weak faith? When “Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her” (Gen. 23:2, NIV),was he showing a lack of fortitude? Should expressions like “My eyes grow weak with sorrow” (Ps. 6:7, NIV)and “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Ps. 13:2, NIV)be struck from Holy Writ because they reveal an inappropriate way for a person of faith to think?

Texts like these reveal that God does not condemn our grief and sadness, but understands that it is a normal part of the human experience after the Fall. When the apostle Paul thought he was going to lose a close associate, he told his Philippian friends he would have had “sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2:27)if his friend had died. Should we say to this great leader of the early Christian faith, “Hey, man, where is your faith?” This same Paul said to believers in a different letter that they were not to “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13, NIV). What did Paul mean? Some have used this text to indicate that Christians are not to grieve, because they have hope.

A People of Hope

I was asked to share a grief presentation with a group of individuals at a church near where I worked as a hospital chaplain. This group was being trained to become part of Stephen’s Ministers, a national organization dedicated to preparing people to be with others who are going through a crisis. Before I started the presentation, an older woman on the front row blurted out, “I don’t know why we are having this discussion. When my husband died, I did not grieve, because I had faith.” I thought to myself, I could be home working in my garden. Why am I here? Then I remembered my purpose.

I asked the woman if she would read a text for me, and directed her to Acts 8:2. While she was turning to it, I reminded everyone of the background. Stephen had just preached his last sermon and had been stoned for his faithful witness. The woman read to the class, “Godly men—”

I interrupted her midsentence and asked, “What kind of men?” She read the two words again: “Godly men.” I asked, “Would these godly men be considered ‘men of faith’?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then I asked her to go on.

“Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.”

I again gently asked the woman, “What did these men of faith do as they buried Stephen?” She was silent, looking down, studying the words she had just read. Then she began to quietly sob. A couple of women came and sat beside her and held her while she let out some long-overdue tears.

When Paul said we are not to “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope,” he was not saying we shouldn’t grieve because of our faith. He was saying that while we grieve, we don’t grieve like those who have no hope. Our hope undergirds us when grief threatens to overwhelm us.

A Different Type of Grief

As a hospital chaplain, I have been privileged to be with individuals of all faiths when they or their loved ones were dying. I have also been with individuals who had no faith, no belief in a hereafter, no belief that they could or would see their family members again.

The grief I observed appeared to be a different kind of grief than what Christians experience. When we grieve, we have the blessed hope to hold on to. Paul goes on to share the glorious hope of Christ’s second return with his readers in Thessalonica and then concludes with “Comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).

As Christians, we shouldn’t be expected to suppress our grief over the losses we encounter. We grieve, but we know a better day is coming when all our tears will be wiped away and there will be no more death or sorrow or pain. 

As comforting as all the promises regarding the life to come are, if they are forced on a griever during acute grief, it can have a detrimental effect. What would it have been like for Jesus, when He was in the Garden of Gethsemane saying to His disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” if one of the disciples had said, “Come on, Jesus! Have faith; put on a smile. It’s going to be a beautiful day!”

We are told that “there is a time for everything,” including “a time to be born and a time to die,” as well as “a time to weep” (Eccl. 3:1-4). Rather than grief being a sign that we have lost our faith, it takes more courage and faith to feel and express our pain than it does to pretend everything is OK. Some people live in an “either/or” world. They believe either you have faith or you have grief. A more sensible way to look at this issue is “both/and.” Rather than grief or faith, the biblical model is grief and faith: a faith that helps us to somehow make sense of our losses in this sinful world. 

A Better Day Is Coming

A better day is coming, but for now we still live day by day in this world. It is OK to be sad, mad, fearful, and sorrowful. It’s human to struggle when bad things happen to us. That’s what Elijah (who was eventually translated) did when things didn’t go his way. If I was selected to be on the committee that decided what would go into the Bible and what wouldn’t, I would have probably vetoed the part of 1 Kings 19 where Elijah, running from Jezebel, wishes he were dead. But it’s in there.

The story of Job gets ugly too, when Job has more time to think about all his losses. “I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer. . . . You turn on me ruthlessly” (Job 30:20, 21, NIV).The important thing is that these Bible characters hung around for an answer. They didn’t throw their faith out because of their grief. Their faith became stronger in the end because they waited for God’s answer of comfort. As followers of Jesus, our perfect model, we need to remind ourselves that He experienced tears, was troubled, experienced anguish, and was overwhelmed with sorrow. Our grief and afflictions are painful but temporary. The psalmist said, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps. 30:5, KJV).That night might last longer than a literal eight-hour night, but by faith we know a glorious morning awaits us!