The Lost Art of Evangelical Weeping, Part 2
As discussed in part 1, proper expressions of suffering and grief (spiritual and physical) seem to be largely discouraged in modern evangelical churches. Unfortunately, this trend may be less of a recent phenomenon than we think. Pastor Tim Keller has bemoaned that early Reformed and Lutheran churches may bear some responsibility, despite Martin Luther’s efforts to correct the medieval church’s promotion of stoic-like endurance in the face of suffering.1 Luther argued that Christians need not earn Christ’s comfort and assistance, but rather could rest assured of his real presence with them in their afflictions.2 Nevertheless, the Lutheran church generally ignored the biblical witness of lament that Luther espoused.3 Out of desire that believers have confidence in the love of Christ, many (but by no means all) of the early Reformers minimized the legitimacy of the lament and fostered a church culture that frowned on such expressions. “Christians were taught not to weep or cry but to show God their faith through unflinching, joyful acceptance of His will.”4 This approach caused some theologians of the period to conclude that the only function of Job in the Old Testament was to show that God could have mercy even on those with the weakest of faiths, apparently ignoring 1:22 (In all this Job sinned not.).5
Many would agree that some in the early Protestant church were misguided in this area. At the same time, many modern evangelicals would be uncomfortable being in a worship service with Job, cursing his own birthday, tearing his clothes, and audibly questioning God. Job’s grief was enthusiastically expressed, to say the least. But God vindicated him. What then, do these insights concerning both earlier Protestantism and Job teach us about how to handle grief?
John Flavel, a seventeenth-century English puritan, was not ill acquainted with bereavement. In his lifetime he buried three of his four wives and a newborn infant. His parents both died of the plague. And he was one of the thousands of ministers forced to relinquish their pulpits in the Great Ejection of 1662. No area of Flavel’s life was left untouched by sorrow. Accordingly, he did not make the pastoral errors that some of his Reformed forefathers had regarding grief.
It was two years after the death of his second wife when he published A Token for Mourners, drawn from advice he had given to a woman grieving the loss of her only child.6 It is primarily a meditation on Luke 7:13, wherein Flavel invites the reader to contemplate appropriate and inappropriate mourning, as I endeavor to do here.
The Bruised Reed
First, there is not a direct correlation between expression of grief and the health of one’s faith. Christians can and should grieve appropriately. Flavel suggests that “groaning” is necessary and that questioning and lamenting the occurrence of suffering itself is distinguished from doubting God’s own goodness, love, sovereignty, and nature. “It is much more becoming of a Christian ingenuously to open his troubles than sullenly to smother them. There is no sin in complaining to God, but much wickedness in complaint of him. Griefs are eased by groans.”7 Indeed, this act even endears us to God; it makes us known to him (Psa. 142: 2-3).
Matthew 12:20 says that Jesus won’t break the bruised reed nor snuff out the smoking flax. He tends to our wounds and shepherds his fragile sheep. After enduring a mutiny by the people of Israel, Elijah reached a depressed, suicidal state (1 Kgs. 19:4). Pleas for death are generally not a sign of someone handling grief well. And so, God sent Elijah an angel to comfort him with basic provisions, long before God himself moved to challenge Elijah back into action. Per Tim Keller on Elijah, “God here shows us that we are complex creatures—with bodies and souls. To oversimplify treatment would be to break the bruised reed—to put out the smoldering wick, God does not do that.”8 God is gentle with the bruised and downtrodden. He knows how to comfort appropriately without breaking them. As Richard Sibbes implores the suffering to trust Christ,
“Hear [Christ’s] invitation to “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden” (Matt. 11:28). He is a physician good at all diseases. He died that he might heal our souls with the medicine of his own blood. Never fear to go to God, since we have such a mediator with him, that is not only our friend, but our brother and husband. Let this keep us when we feel ourself bruised. Think…“if Christ be so merciful as to not break me, I will not break myself by despair…”9
The point is, do not hide your wounds. And do not require others to withhold their weeping. “Are you bruised? Be of good comfort, [Jesus] calls you. Conceal not your wounds, open all before him […]”10
Some Christians mistakenly suppose that grief somehow inherently denies the power, sovereignty, etc. of God, and that those who grieve are inept in the trust department of their faith. Not only does God deal gently with us in our grief, but Scripture offers no prohibition on sorrow. Flavel notes that Christ’s command to the woman in Luke 7 was not to quit her tears, for “Christ would not have his people stupid and without feeling.”11 Christ only requires that we do not mourn as one without hope and that we flee to him in our mourning (1 Thess. 4:13).
Though mourning is acceptable and expected, it must be conducted with consciousness of the Christian’s hope in Christ and subsequent eschatological destiny. A healthy Christian may even plead with God for the removal of grief and affliction. Both David and Jesus did so (Psa. 39:10; Luke 22:42) without denying their own eternal security or God’s sovereignty. Faith in Christ is what allows the Christian to grieve well, remembering that we serve a God who not only repairs us, but who is Immanuel (God with us) also.12 It is before him that we can cry our tears, resting our hearts upon them because it is his ears that truly hear us.13
It is sinful grief only that should be discouraged. Sorrow becomes sinful, according to Flavel, when (1) it causes the mourner “to slight and despise all our other mercies and enjoyments.” When our tears “so blind our eyes that we cannot see the many other mercies that yet remain.” Mourning like this only exposes our ignorance, ingratitude, and provocation towards God. “Whatever God takes be thankful still for what he leaves.”14 Our sorrows become sinful when (2) they so consume us that we have little care for “the public evils and calamities which lie upon the church and the people of God.”15 Flavel says that, “[W]hen we little regard what mercies or miseries lie upon others, but are wholly intent upon our own afflictions, this is sinful sorrow, and ought to be sorrowed for.”16
We also become sinful when (3) we wallow in our sorrows. A pensive mood itself can have an allure. Christians must allow God to provide healing to them within God’s timing. We are not to resist the means God uses to do this, including “wholesome and seasonable words of counsel and comfort offered us for our relief and support.”17 God’s comfort through his word and church are gifts that should not be tossed aside in favor of selfishly clinging to the sometimes-comforting familiarity of grief. This is to choose our emotions and preference over God’s leading.
(4) Finally, Flavel calls on the Christian to remember that earthly blessings are not a sign of God’s favor (Psa. 17:14) and that holding these blessings too tightly causes more difficult mourning when we lose them. We are to keep God in his proper place as our Chief Good, for it wasn’t Christ’s end to save us for earthly pleasure.
Actual Safe Spaces
Even though we have established that grief should be allowed, and that weeping should not be chastised, there remains the problem of where (geographically) this should take place. Evangelical churches not only possess an implicit moratorium on flamboyant expression of grief, but also provide no place for lamentation, both liturgically and physically speaking. Instead, grievers are shuffled to the side, if you will, as to not interrupt the exuberant worship service, and given a swift word about rejoicing in affliction. But this practice simply does not coincide with the realities of grief. Keller says that believers can remain in grief and darkness for a long time, as Psalm 88 shows us by ending without a note of hope.18 The Bible teaches us that Christians can live upright before God whilst walking in despair and darkness, whether that darkness is connected to inner spiritual pain or more outward, difficult life circumstances. The modern evangelical church outpaces the Psalms in their expectation of the grief process, to the detriment of its members, and would do well to provide for regular mourning in its practices.
Suffering and grief, both physically and spiritually, provide opportunity for the church to grow together. It is when our fellow believer is plunged deep into sorrow and grief that we are most needed. “[T]hen comes [our] hour, the hour of true devotion… Loyal hearts can change the face of sorrow, softly encircle it with love’s most gentle unearthly radiance.”19
It also gives the church a chance to practice patience and empathy towards one another. Judge charitably those who grieve: “Job had the esteem with God of a patient man, notwithstanding those passionate complaints.”20 Endure mourning with your fellow Christian, being careful to preserve the bruised reed as Christ has preserved us all. It is through this endurance and love that the communion of saints grows stronger and deeper. And as Thomas Watson said, “Nothing has greater power and energy to effect holiness than the communion of saints.”21
We also know that God’s grace is revealed anew, even while we are in the midst of darkness. Keller points out that the very fact that God did not censor Job, as well as various Psalms of lamentation, Jeremiah, and the book of Lamentations out of Scripture shows that he understands how men talk and feel amid despair.22 Indeed, the very inscripturation of divine revelation illustrates this. As Abraham Kuyper noted, God does not insist on confronting us transcendently, but immanently, in Jesus, who has united the divine and the human natures: “He has so intimately united the divine factor with the human factor that the divine word has come to us, always from a human pen, mostly from a human mind, and not seldom from a human heart.”23
God employs the human nature, and its emotions, to reveal himself to humans in a way that considers and appreciates all he has created therein.24 “Because Scripture comes in a human form, it comes ‘with all that pertains to human inadequacy.’”25 Scripture and its Author are fully concerned with human life, including its dark side. Herman Bavinck drew the parallel between the incarnate Christ and the inscripturated word on this matter, “Christ did not consider anything human strange, and Scripture, too, does not overlook the smallest concerns of daily life, (2 Tim. 4:13).”26
Expression of anger and despair toward God inherently acknowledges God’s supremacy and nearness alluded to above; that he listens and has the power to act under his own will and authority, and that he understands the human condition. This does not mean that the biblical authors were blameless in their attitudes always (though everything they wrote has divine authority, it does not necessarily possess a divine character), but it does show that God does not abandon us. The church should seek to imitate God’s faithfulness to its members.
Right expression of grief relies on the eternal security and enduring power of grace; that though “[h]oliness in the saints is subject to ebbing, holiness in God is unchangeable.”27 When there is no one else to grieve with us, Scripture provides us with a companion. This is reason enough for the Psalms to be preached from evangelical pulpits with the same passion and zeal that is afforded other texts.
Perhaps most importantly, it is during trials of grief that we have the greatest chance to love God for his own sake, and not the benefits we perceive to be flowing from him. “And when the darkness lifts or lessens, we will find that our dependence on other things besides God for our happiness has shrunk, and that we have new strength and contentment in God himself.”28
Though we are assured by Scripture of God’s faithfulness, from whence can we glean real assurance of this? The answer is, in Christ, the only man to ever be truly abandoned by God (Matt. 27:45-46). Since Jesus suffered through true abandonment, we never will.
Rejoicing in Affliction
Now that we know that we are free to lament, free to grieve; that we have companionship in the biblical authors themselves; and that we will never be abandoned by God because Christ has already suffered that penalty for us; what can we know about the idea of rejoicing in affliction?
Does it mean to stifle our emotions and fake a smile? Does it mean to dig deep into our own strength to defy the reality of pain? 1 Peter 1:6-7 presents a sort of spiritual schizophrenia: rejoicing while suffering at the same time, in Christ. Which is it? Keller pleads that not only are we capable of doing both, but we must do both.29 Peter would not have conceived of the heart to be synonymous with the emotions. “The heart is understood as the place of your deepest commitments, trusts, and hopes.”30 To “rejoice,” then, in Christ means to define ourselves by Christ, living in his identity and reminding ourselves of his excellencies. This type of rejoicing must be performed whether our emotions can concur or not. Rejoicing lives in sorrow as surely as it lives in joy. We are allowed to feel and embrace our grief, just like Christ did for Lazarus, for the city of Jerusalem, and for himself in Gethsemane. It is the reality of sorrow that drives us to better recognize the beauty of resting in Christ, rejoicing in him. Only when we do this, are we finally emotionally healthy.31 We should not look to avoid sorrow, or expect God to insulate us from it. But rather, should look for an “increasing sense of God’s presence—that helps us rise above the darkness.”32
As I started part one with a quotation from Russell Moore on the issue, so I will end it:
“So, don’t worry about those shiny, happy people on Facebook. They need comfort, and deliverance, as much as you do. And, more importantly, let’s stop being those shiny, happy people when we gather in worship. Let’s not be embarrassed to shout for joy, and let’s not be embarrassed to weep in sorrow. Let’s train ourselves not for spin control, but for prayer, for repentance, for joy.”33
Ultimately, pain reminds us of our finitude. It makes us seek rest outside of ourselves. And it points us not to death, but to the life we were meant to live in perfect communion with God; the life that awaits us as prepared for us by Christ. Sorrow and pain in this life force us to trust in Christ to sustain us, and to long for final rest in Him. “In sorrow, we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever in the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”34
Image credit: Unsplash
(1) Keller, Tim, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2013), 240. (Henceforth referred to as, “Walking with God”).
(2) Luther’s innocence in this trend is proven by his pastoral writings such as his Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage (1542), which was attached to John Bugenhagen’s exposition of Psalm 29.
(3) Rittgers, Ronald, Reformation of Suffering (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 258, quoted in Walking with God, 241.
(4) Walking with God, 241.
(6) The updated title for Flavel’s work is Facing Grief.
(7) Flavel, John Facing Grief (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2010), 16.
(8) Walking with God, 244.
(9) Sibbes, Richard, The Bruised Reed (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008) emphasis mine.
(10) Bruised Reed, 9.
(11) Facing Grief, 7.
(12) Groves, Elizabeth, “Grief and the Christian,” Tabletalk Magazine (January 1, 2016), retrieved from http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/grief-and-christian/.
(13) Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press, 2008), 176.
(14) Ibid., 23.
(15) Ibid., 24.
(16) Ibid., 25.
(17) Ibid., 33.
(18) Walking with God, 247.
(19) Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Letters & Papers from Prison (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1971), 335.
(20) Bruised Reed, 14.
(21) Watson, Thomas, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 87.
(22) Walking with God, 248.
(23) Gaffin, Richard B., Jr., God’s Word in Servant-Form (Jackson, MS: Reformed Academic Press, 2008), 21, quoting Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, 1.75.
(24) It must be remembered that though the Holy Spirit worked so effectively upon the hearts and minds of the biblical authors, they remained real people, with real lives and real grief.
(25) God’s Word in Servant-Form, 23.
(26) Ibid., 90.
(27) Body of Divinity, 83.
(28) Walking with God, 249.
(29) Walking with God, 252.
(30) Ibid., 253.
(33) Moore, Russell, “Why Facebook (and Your Church) Might Be Making You Sad.” Russell Moore (blog), January 27, 2011, http://www.russellmoore.com/2011/01/27/why-facebook-and-your-church-might-be-making-you-sad/.
(34) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 1038.