Like many of you, I watched the news of the escalating Middle Eastern conflict slack-jawed. Rockets. Gunfire. Invaders. Hostages. It went on and on, and I wondered how to respond to this. I wondered how to respond as a nation, and how to respond as an individual. While there are differing opinions all along the spectrum, including differences of opinion amongst believers in Jesus, surely at least there is one response we all have in common:
I felt, as you likely did, a tremendous sense of grief at the violence, death, suffering, and promise of more to come. I did not know any of these people directly; I had no friends or family in Gaza at the time; I have never even set foot in that part of the world. But I felt it. Certainly not as acutely as many, but it was present nevertheless. This feeling of pain and loss and sadness and confusion all coming together in an amalgamation of grief.
One of the places in Scripture that embraces grief and then speaks clarity into it comes from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians:
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. For we say this to you by a revelation from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
This passage is encouraging first and foremost because it validates our grief. Sometimes, as Christians, we tend to push grief away as if it’s wrong to be sad about our present circumstances when we are confident about what is to come. But Paul knew didn’t advise that – not at all. After all, the Lord Himself wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35-38).
It is comforting to know that the Christian does not need to repent of his or her tears; the Christian has no need to apologize for their feelings of sadness or loss. And yet the Bible does help us know that Christian grief is different, and it’s different in at least three ways:
1. Christian grief is with hope.
This is the main way our grief is different from “those who have no hope.” Our grief is transformed because we know death is not the end. The gospel has made a fool of death, in that the thing which is the result of our sin has become the doorway to life everlasting with Jesus. Indeed, there will come a day when Jesus will execute true justice and all will be as it always should have been. That means even though we grieve, we know that grief is not forever. It is a temporary state of affairs that, along with everything else, will eventually be put right when Jesus comes back. The how’s and when’s of that return are still in question, but the reality of the event itself is not. Jesus will return. And when He does, death and grief will become a distant memory.
This is where we find perhaps the most beautiful promise of this passage: “We will always be with the Lord.” Always. And with the Lord there is indeed no more crying or pain.
2. Christian grief is with others.
For many, grief is a truly solitary experience. It’s when we feel most alone, most isolated, and most afraid. And in a sense, we are because no one feels exactly as we do; hurts exactly as we do; has lost exactly as we have. Paul concludes this teaching with the simple but beautiful exhortation that we should “encourage one another with these words.” That’s not to say private grief is wrong; surely there is a time for grieving alone. It is, however, to say that if we never share our grief with others, we are being disobedient to the commands of Scripture and, in a way, are being selfish with our pain.
These are truths that are meant to be stated and then restated and then restated again. Because we are forgetful in our grief, we should bear the burden on behalf of each other in remembering these principles.
3. Christian grief is deeper.
It’s strange that Christians tend to have the reputation of those who just put a band-aid on grief and move on; that we are the people who don’t feel grief deeply because we choose to comfort ourselves with some fabricated truth of eternal life. The opposite should actually be true. Christians should grieve more deeply than those who have no hope. And the reason why is because when we grieve, we aren’t just grieving an occasion of loss; we are grieving our entire state of being.
Christians understand that the true source of grief is not random events or diseases, but the condition of sin in which we and the rest of the world are in because of our rebellion. So when we grieve, we are acknowledging the entire broken state of the world which had led to all these occasions of loss, sadness, and pain. In this way, we mourn the loss of the right relationship the entire world had with God, and we are longing for it all to be put right again.
This is why, in the midst of our grief, our expression is not only a cry to make the pain stop or to bring back the way things used to be; rather, our mourning produces the cry for the only thing that can really make a difference:
“Come Lord Jesus.”