Even the word fills us with trepidation. The last thing we want is grief. O, we will speak of the annoyances of daily life as “trouble” or “hard times,” but grief is not the dissatisfaction of a jaundiced culture frustrated that some object of its desire, pleasure, or convenience is withheld, lost, or made more difficult to obtain. Grief is agony of soul and vexation of spirit. It is misery and miserable. It is the scream of the bereft heart before the yawning chasm of the grave. It is the aching of a parent as he watches his profligate child destroy his life. It is the inconsolable anxiety when life’s props are suddenly removed. It is the shock experienced when the conscience is brought to see something of the hideousness of its sin before a holy God. It is the gnawing sense of creeping judgment and the vexation of the redeemed heart living in a perverse generation. Grief has many faces; they are all ghastly.
Unbelieving man has trouble grieving. He has no objective standard of peace and happiness. He is abnormal. Lost and confused in the labyrinth of his rebellion, he often grieves when he should be pleased and exults when he should grieve. Not believing in providence, everything happens randomly or fatefully; but if life is ultimately inexplicable, there is really no point in grieving. What is grief? Just another movement of matter, a social convention, or a malfunctioning synapse. Life, according to one popular slogan, just happens. Deal with it. Or, push life’s troubles away, hide them, deny them, avoid them. I often wonder, however, if grief is not a last stronghold of the shattered image of God, the soul’s demanding reassertion of its long-trampled rights in the face of death, disease, and destruction. We can butcher the soul, deny its existence, or ignore its claims, but it does not remain passive forever. Grief is one of its last-ditch weapons against God-deniers. Sometimes, it is the pitch-black darkness before the dawn of new life in Christ.
The occasions for grief are many and varied. The Bible is a sufficient record of true grief, so much so that no other manual of grief is required. Godly men and women grieve over unfaithful children (Gen. 26:35; Prov. 17:25), barrenness (1 Sam. 1:16), and sin (Ps. 31:9-10; Jer. 6:7; 2 Cor. 2:5). The plots, terrors and rebellion of the wicked vex their souls (Gen. 34:7; 1 Sam. 15:11; 20:34; 2 Pet. 2:7). Much wisdom can bring grief to the soul, as can work and the sudden realization of personal foolishness (Eccl. 1:18; 2:23; Ps. 73:21). Self-inflicted grief is one of its worst forms (Mark 10:22), though piercing confrontation is not far behind (John 21:17). Grief is not absent from the church, as we see in Daniel, who was filled with grief over God’s revelation (Dan. 7:15), church elders faced with stubborn sheep (Heb. 13:17), and Christians facing persecution (1 Pet. 2:19). These combine to remind us that “it is through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And we feel them deeply. That they do not happen to all, or that all do not happen to any is of little comfort.
Grief is very personal. An obscure Proverb says: “The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger does not intermeddle with its joy” (14:10). While there are no absolutely unique experiences, good or evil, our feelings about them are unique, at least to us. Each responds a little differently to seasons of grief. Some seem to bounce back quickly. We should not question the depth of their grief. They may simply be unwilling to talk about it. They may choose to hold their own counsel in the depths of the soul. God may have given them special grace. Others may drown in grief, at least for a time. We cannot question their faith, for Job, whose faithfulness before God was unsurpassed (Ezek. 14:14,20), mentions that his grief was not relieved by talking about it (16:6). When the hand of God is upon us for grief, we can only grieve. Grief may continue for a long while; it will certainly continue as long as God wills it. Joy comes in the morning, but the night sometimes drags. We can and should seek to comfort the grieving, but God is the ultimate comforter, and he alone truly knows our soul in adversity (Ps. 31:7). Sometimes, our friends flee from us when we are grieving. Grief is discomforting to the non-grieving, for it presses, confronts, and reminds us that our time is coming. Pity and patience, with supportive prayer and words of hope, are the best human helps to the grieving soul. And waiting. We cannot talk ourselves or others out of grief. God has his purposes in it, most of which, at least in their specifics, are forever unknown to us, as in Job’s case. Grief does not come to an end because God gives us a tidy answer to our dilemmas and resolves our every perplexity.
Yet, grief does end in the believer’s life, at least seasons of deep grief. Until it does, our Father provides several helps to us, for not even grief can pluck us out of his hand, frustrate his purposes to do us good, or rob us of fundamental joy in Christ. So we must think of him, look to him, our man of sorrows, he who above all was acquainted with grief. He carried the sin, weakness, grief, and misery of the entire world. While there is no record of Jesus’ laughing or joking, there are ample instances of “Jesus wept.” In our grief, we must run to him, open our soul to him, confess our sins, seek his grace, and know that he powerfully sympathizes with us in our infirmities. He is the Balm of Gilead, the swallower of the grave, the one who heals the deep wounds of the sons and daughters of Zion – not by glossing over them but by entering into them, supporting us in them, and drawing our desires toward his eternal kingdom. His love for us, even in grief, is deep, far deeper than we know: perhaps than we will ever know. And as we are one with him, complete in him, and bound up with him as surely as the body is to its head, he is our comforter through the indwelling power, limitless grace, and life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ Jesus our Lord knows our soul in adversity, and it is into his hand that we must commit our spirit in seasons of grief.
As if this were not enough, we have our Father’s pity. He will not cast off forever. Though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the multitude of his tender mercies (Lamentations 3:31-32). He will bring joy in the morning. Hence, faith in our Father’s mercy is our grand stay when the soul is anxious, fearful, held tightly in the grip of grief. He is always smiling at us through Jesus. His plans for us are always good. He does not think of us without thinking of his Son. He is the Beloved; we are the beloved in him. We must therefore trust that our heavenly Father has good, wise, holy, and loving purposes for grief; he will eventually replace the misery of grief with the comfort of hope. We cannot say when. We would like it now, but God’s now and ours are usually separated by a great distance. The bridge is his wisdom, in which we must firmly trust. And we must plead his mercy by believing his promises, taking seriously his invitation to cast our cares upon him, and waiting upon him to enlighten our darkness. When we find that grief renders us unable to know what to pray as we ought, we must then cast ourselves upon the assisting intercession of the Spirit. We groan; he groans with us and groans according to the will of God.
And where would we be without providence? The knowledge that my particular occasion for grief comes from the hand of my heavenly Father, that he is actively causing all things to work together for good to those who fear him is an inexhaustible source of comfort to the weary soul. Only the Spirit, our ever-present Comforter, can teach us that this is more than a point of doctrine but the bedrock of faith. Belief in God’s providence enables us to triumph over Satan’s weapons of despair and hopelessness. Joseph, Job, and especially our Savior teach us this. Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him. Our Savior was and did. Shall we do any less? Comfort is to be found nowhere else than in the assurance that I am in the hand of my Father, who pledges to seek my best, does all things according to the counsel of his will, and is covenanted with me through the blood of his Son to bring me to heaven.
There is always a little grief in the believing soul – if not about personal circumstances, then about the deeds of wicked men, the suffering and hardships of the righteous, or the dishonor done to the name of God. Yet in the midst of our grief, even times of focused pain and anxiety in the depths of the soul, there is at least a ray of hope and joy. My God does all things well. I need not enjoy grief to believe this, to find consolation in him, to hope for his morning of comfort. He has dawned in my soul. In the midst of all our afflictions, he is afflicted (Isa. 63:9). He gathers all our tears in his bottle. He assures us that our momentary and light afflictions are working for us immeasurable glory. Thus, I will wait patiently for him. Even if I feel cut off from him, he hears my cries (Ps. 31:22) – and treasures them, stores them up, and answers them. He is my Father. Blessed are all those who wait upon him.