Give Yourself Permission to Grieve
That night a couple of good friends were helping me sort action figures, Legos, and other kid-detritus into bins in my boys’ room. They had come over for dinner together while our husbands were out of town. During the meal, they had asked candidly about how I was doing with our adoption—which is to say, the adoption we painfully decided not to complete.
Truthfully, my heart felt raw, as if it were beating outside of my body. My grief felt so vulnerable, so scraped and skinned and gaping, that privacy was all I could fathom to deal with it. I felt oddly embarrassed that we’d taken steps out of obedience to pursue this, and told people about it—and then, also out of obedience, backed out.
But after my honest admission to my friends, I shrugged, part of my consistent discipline to trust God and choose to be joyful. It was going to be okay, I asserted.
My friend paused, a toy in her hand, and looked me in the eyes. She said something like, “Janel, you need to take the time to mourn this. It’s a little like a miscarriage. You were expecting to have a child and now you’re not.” This was true. I had bought her clothes; we’d visited orphanages. “You need to grieve this, rather than stuffing it somewhere.”
To this day, I am thankful for what she gave me that evening: permission to grieve. It was permission for grieving and hope to not be mutually exclusive—to weep. To allow myself a few moments when I consigned the baby clothes I’d purchased. To be angry and bring my deepest questions to God as David did in his psalms, rather than hiding them behind my back.
Have we become plastic Christians?
Sometimes I wonder if, in the good and righteous and just plain hard choice that is joy, we miss some of the good that comes from grieving. Because grief and joy can be simultaneous. Joy is an unchanging happiness in God; an anchor for the soul in the midst of grief—not instead of it.
At times, I confess I have not fully grieved what is wrong about this world—not mourned with God—because somehow I’ve become convinced that a joyful Christian is not sad, or discouraged, or angry. In all honesty, I think this has stilted my worship. I have been a plasticky sort of Christian. In my haste to not complain or sin out of unbelief, I pretend that hurt or grief or disappointment or anger aren’t even there.
Instead of making a choice to believe God’s goodness in the midst of those—I pretend those aren’t there at all. I jump right to “It’ll be okay” and ignore anything I feel. It is as if I deny God access to all of me.
But the fact is, our emotions are part of the image of God in us. God, too, grieves! When we grieve the brokenness in the world around us, that is God allowing us to glimpse a sliver of what He grieves every day. Blessed are those who mourn.
I once attended the funeral of a young man who had passed away in a freak accident. Now, as Christians, we definitely “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)—and funerals are beautiful testimonies of how Christians die differently; they are incredible demonstrations and opportunities for the Gospel.
But this one, in all honesty, felt hijacked a bit by evangelism; by an agenda. If you came wrestling with the tragic loss of a young man’s life, you might have come away feeling. . . angry.
Compare this with Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. Even though Jesus knows the outcome, the triumph—He did not call bad good, did not seize the opening for a sermonette on hope. He took the time to mourn the travesty that has happened, then illuminated what resurrection is all about.
The writers of the Psalms worshipped God with all they had, including their grief. Scholars note that all psalms of lament have similar components. Often the psalmist begins by calling on God, acknowledging this as a prayer, and not simply an internal struggle.
They then lay their complaints before God, honestly bringing to Him the painful circumstances of a fallen world.
After asking God to intervene and right the wrongs, the psalmist typically ends by reaffirming his trust in God’s character and trustworthiness. It is critical for our grief to restate our hope. In remembering God’s goodness despite our grief, we walk by faith, not by sight.
Mourning with joy and gratitude
In your time with God—and even with a close friend—it’s okay to acknowledge what you’ve lost because of your daughter’s learning disorder, or that you were hurt by someone in the Church, or that yes, you wanted that job.
I think of 1 Peter 1:6: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now. . . you may have had to suffer grief”. What does it look like to mourn. . . with joy and gratitude?
I have a friend who eventually lost his wife, the mother of his four children, to Lou Gehrig’s disease. He once recalled to me a profound moment with God. While he was still caring for his wife as her body spiraled downward, he had lain on his bed, overcome by loss.
But God seemed to be pointing him toward thanks. Not able to immediately turn to full-on gratitude, my friend simply started small. He thanked God for the ability to breathe; for the bed he wept on; for the air conditioning. From there, his gratitude snowballed, steering him into praise, and a reminder of God as anchor of the soul: “so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, emphasis added).
My friend’s attitude has revolutionized my approach to my bad days; to my pain.
And there, when I step out of my own counsel and check out the divine gifts piling up right and left—suddenly, all these other fruits of the Spirit seem to collide at once in my soul: The unflagging, perpetual, bubbling (and occasional geyser) of joy. A peace I couldn’t articulate if I tried. A faith that sustains and nourishes and bandages as I walk through my most profound valleys. And the gifts keep on coming—when they’re based on something other than my own near-sighted ideas of justice, good, and peace.
Christian joy isn’t some version of Barbie, with the eternal smile that can’t be wiped off: Well, God said to rejoice! Have a cookie. Instead, our joy acknowledges, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). It says, I have deep, abiding happiness in God that surrounds me in hope and peace and belief, even when I can’t see through my own tears.
Here’s to a less plastic Christianity.
This article was originally published on the writer’s blog here. This version has been edited by YMI.
Janel, this is beautifully written and resonates with me. Thank you for sharing your writing!