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Give Yourself Permission to Grieve

Written By Janel Breitenstein, USA

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.

Editor’s Picks: The Best of 2018

2018 has been a fulfilling year for us at YMI. We launched our very first online devotional, published over 560 articles, produced 39 artspace projects and 7 videos to help you ask the whys and walk out your purpose.

When “I’m Praying For You” Feels Hollow

Have you ever watched a friend go through something you really can’t help them with?

I have a good friend who struggles with a slew of health problems. The best I can do is hug her and tell her that God is in control—whatever comfort that may be. She also struggles with finances. Her family does not have steady income. I have no idea how they pay the medical bills.

Now that I have moved half a world away, I can’t even hug her when she’s having a bad day. Seemingly the only thing I can do is tell her, “I’m praying for you.”

Does that ever feel hollow to you? Sometimes it does to me. I say “I’m praying for you” when there’s nothing else I can do.

But I am learning to remind myself that, praying for someone is actually the best thing I can do for them. After all, by praying I bring my needs and my friends’ needs before our all-powerful God. Seeking God’s intervention in someone’s life—surely that’s more effective than dinners or hugs!

As I practice praying for others, I increasingly realize that prayer is not the easy way out.

When Jesus prayed before His death, “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he asked them to “join me in my struggle by praying to God for me” (Romans 15:30, emphasis added).

Prayer can be a struggle. Our first instinct when faced with brokenness in the world is to do something about it, not spend hours in a quiet room tearfully petitioning God. Both are necessary, but it’s so easy to forget which one is more effective.

As I learn more about prayer, I am more and more convinced that praying is really the best thing we can do in any circumstance.

 

In prayer, I acknowledge my helplessness

When a friend is going through a difficult time, I want to help. I might offer to spend time with them. I might run errands or cook dinner or offer some other practical help. At the very least, I might send a short text telling them I’m thinking of them.

Sometimes I try to fix their problems—I give my friends’ the right books to read, spend hours talking about their troubles, offer all the usual platitudes. . . But while it is important to love our friends and walk with them through difficult times, I need to realize that I can’t fix my friends’ problems. On my own, I can’t help them recover from break-ups, heal from a death in the family, or be restored to health.

That’s why I pray—I need to acknowledge my utter inability to help my friends or myself. I might have good intentions, but the fact is, I am not the healer. When I pray, I acknowledge that God will heal my friends in His own time, in His own way. My responsibility is to love them and walk with them. The rest I need to leave up to God, who is much better at these things than I am.

 

In prayer, I acknowledge God’s sovereignty

God is sovereign. Nothing happens without His permission (Matthew 10:29). When bad things happen in our lives or the lives of our friends, we need to recognize that God is working. We pray and trust in God’s promise that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). When faced with the meaninglessness of tragedy, we pray and profess our belief in the goodness of God even as our hearts are broken to pieces.

When a friend is diagnosed with a fatal illness, or when a young mother experiences a miscarriage, or when a child dies meaninglessly in a car accident. . . Honestly, is there anything we can do to make those circumstances easier to bear? We try our best by offering our presence and our shared grief. But the fact that Christ has given us hope beyond this life (1 Corinthians 15:13-14) brings purpose to our suffering.

It’s not easy to acknowledge God’s sovereignty when things do not go our way. It’s not easy to believe His goodness when our lives are falling apart. But that’s why we pray. We pray even when we cry out in doubt and pain, and we pray ourselves to a point where we trust that somehow, someway, our God will yet make something good out of our broken lives.

 

In prayer, I learn how best to help those around me

When I pray for someone, I learn to see them through God’s eyes. Prayer is not just me talking to a dark room, it is me talking to God! When I pray sincerely, I am bringing my petitions to an almighty God, and trusting that He will respond.

I often start my prayers by asking God to help me pray. You see, I don’t always know how best to pray for someone. If left to my own devices, my prayers would probably look something like a Christmas wishlist: “Recovery,” “financial provision,” “wise doctors,” etc. There is nothing specifically wrong with that, but it’s not exactly a meaningful or productive conversation with the Almighty. God has promised help for when we don’t know how to pray (Romans 8:26), so I make full use of that promise by asking for help.

Then, knowing God is not only listening, but likely guiding me in my prayers, I start petitioning Him. So often I rely on God’s love—God loves my friends and family so much more and so deeply than I could ever imagine. He knows all their needs, great and small. As I increasingly realize this, I find myself praying less for physical healing or for financial provisions, but praying more for God to give real comfort, for God to remind my friends and I that He is in control, for God to show supernatural provision in their circumstances (whatever that may look like). When I am reminded how much God loves my friends—that He laid His life down for them!—I can pray with confidence that God’s will be done.

As a result, I believe that God works through my prayers. When I open my heart in prayer, I learn how to love a fellow image bearer the way God loves them, and am more likely to respond in a godly manner when the need arises.

While I long to solve the circumstantial difficulties people around me face, I’m reminded through praying that this is the best thing I can do for them.

 

Our world is fallen. We are reminded of this every time we turn on the news. We are reminded of this every time our loved ones suffer for one reason or another. Whenever we feel overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world around us, let’s remember this: Only God can offer peace that surpasses understanding. Only He will ultimately wipe away every tear. And when we pray, we call on God’s promises—and take comfort in the knowledge that whatever the circumstance, His purposes will be accomplished in our lives (Isaiah 46:10).

“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

It Doesn’t Stop At Our Votes

On May 10, 2018, Malaysians woke up to a new reality. For the first time in the nation’s 61 years of history, a new coalition—Pakatan Harapan—has assumed the role of the government.

This reality has been years in the making, and for many Malaysians, it probably still feels too good to be true. As one of many Malaysians living in Singapore, the lead up to the elections was a whirlwind of an experience. As soon as the date of the General Election was announced, me and my friends scrambled to book flight and bus tickets home, or help each other find carpool arrangements, so we could all go home and vote.

I myself had planned to leave Singapore right after work, vote early the next morning, and then fly back to Singapore in the evening. It was an insane plan, and I had underestimated how exhausted I would be from all the waiting and traveling, but seeing the proliferation of “purple fingers” and pictures of the voting queues on my social media feeds made my heart swell with pride. It was the greatest display of unity that our country had seen in a long time, and I was glad that I got to be a part of it.

My family and friends kept each other updated as we queued to vote and anxiously waited for the election results to stream in. For the first time, it was unclear which way the votes would swing—and while we were all hopeful that our votes would make a difference, our hopes were also tempered with caution.

As soon as I landed in Singapore, I rushed home so I could follow the results. That night, me and my friends were glued to our television, hand-phone or laptop screens, hearts in our throats, afraid to move, bathe or even eat—just in case we might miss an important moment or result. It wasn’t until 3:00 a.m. that I reluctantly forced myself to go to bed so I would not appear as a zombie at work the next day.

A few hours later, I woke up to a torrent of jubilant messages on WhatsApp and social media about the new era that Malaysia had just entered into. There was much excitement in the air as everyone around me began anticipating the changes that they hoped the new government would put into effect.

It has been a few days now since the government has been installed, and the euphoria of the victory is wearing off. As the government begins focusing its efforts on reforming the country, the question on my mind, and probably on many others’, is: Will it be able to fulfill all its promises?

While I believe and hope that the government will set many new laws and policies in place that will improve the well-being of Malaysians, as a Christian, I am also cautious of placing all my hope in the hands of men. As with any transition in power, the government will take time to put its plans into place, and nobody knows how long this process will take or how extensive these changes will be—but we can be encouraged by the fact that our voices have been heard, and our voices matter.

So, what can we do next as citizens of Malaysia?

If there’s one thing that I’ve realized from this election, it’s that we have the power to change things around us. What filled my heart with hope this election was not the speeches of the candidates or the manifestos of the different coalitions, but witnessing ordinary Malaysians rise up to take charge of their nation’s destiny.

I saw hope in witnessing throngs of both the young and the elderly queuing up to vote so that future generations will have a better Malaysia. I saw hope in the decisions of young people who refused to give in to the voices of defeat around them, but who gave up comfortable and promising careers to dedicate themselves to nation-building by actively participating in politics. I saw hope in the way Malaysians—whether overseas or at home—came together, contributed their time and energy, and used the resources that they have to volunteer as Polling or Counting Agents, book flights to help bring postal votes home, and even organize car pools and donate their own funds to ensure everyone had a chance to decide on the future of the nation. These were the actions that made the world stand up and view Malaysians in a different light. These are the actions that make it clear to me that change has already taken place in Malaysia.

While I may not be in Malaysia at this juncture of my life, I hope to carry that same spirit wherever I go. I’ve learned that we should not solely rely on our elected representatives to do the work of reforming our nations, but there are many opportunities for us to bring hope to those around us as well. I hope that as believers and co-heirs of God’s grace, we will open our eyes to the plight of the fatherless, the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized around us (James 1:27). I hope that we will treat our foreign workers with dignity and care, and help them feel welcomed and at home as they help build our nations (Leviticus 19:34). I hope that we will make our hearts and home a refuge for the lonely and brokenhearted (2 Cor 1:4). I hope that we will have compassion on those who are struggling and lend a listening ear or a helping hand to them if needed.

Whether we’re overseas or at home, let’s pray for a smooth and peaceful transition, and submit ourselves to the governing authorities and their decisions, for as Paul wrote in Romans 13:1, “there is no authority except that which God has established”.  In view of that, let’s also focus our efforts on praying for our government (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Let’s pray that as our newly appointed leaders put together their plans in this crucial period, they will do so with the people’s interests at heart. Let’s pray that they will be a government that leads with righteousness and the fear of the Lord. Let’s pray that they will be a government that understands the weight of the mandate that has been given to them, and work faithfully and diligently to carry it out.

Most importantly, even as we pray for our leaders, let us look towards the Hope that “will not lead us to disappointment” (Romans 5:5, NLT) and pray and long for the day when He will return to bring forth justice to all nations and restore all things.