Jesus: Grief Builds Character, Defines Identity

Life_in_Tension_web“Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me. And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:38-39 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The emotional tension that we feel within ourselves when we mourn forces us to make a decision. Do we turn inward leaning into our pain or do we honor the commitment that brought us to this point? Because of this decision, mourning is an emotion that defines who we are. Standing under the shadow of the cross at Gethsemane, Jesus had to decide whether to be obedient to the will of God and proceed to the cross or to seek another future. The same decision faces us as Christians. Our character is defined by the choices we make and the pains we bear because of them [1]. It is interesting that grief is the only emotion that appears on the list of Beatitudes—why not joy or love?

Our grief arises out of the loss of the things that are important to us. In writing about the second Beatitude, Billy Graham (1955, 20-26) identified five objects of mourning:

  1. Inadequacy—before you can grow strong, you must recognize your own weakness;
  2. Repentance—before you can ask for repentance, you must recognize your sin;
  3. Love—our compassion for the suffering of our brothers and sisters takes the form of mourning and measures our love of God;
  4. Soul travail—groaning for the salvation of the lost around us; and
  5. Bereavement—mourning over those that have passed away.

Mitchell and Anderson (1983, 36-45) widen this list to identify six major types of loss, including:

1. Material loss;
2. Relationship loss;
3. Intra-psychic loss—loss of a dream;
4. Functional loss—including loss of autonomy;
5. Role loss—like retirement; and
6. Systemic loss—like departure from your family of origin [2].

What is surprising about this list is that each loss must be separately grieved. Elderly people find themselves experiencing many of these losses and grieving them surrounded by loved ones who may be completely unaware. But we all face losses in our daily lives that challenge the assumptions that we live by. With each of these events, we find ourselves in a “Gethsemane moment”. Do we surrender ourselves leaning into our pain or do we surrender our griefs at the foot of the cross and stay the course as disciples of Christ?

My grandfather provided an important lesson to me on the nature of love and grief. My grandmother was afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease for about ten years before she died. Alzheimer’s disease had taken her mother before her and many of her siblings. My grandfather cared for her until the end in spite of the fact that he was himself towards the end over one hundred years old. In his grieving over her slow departure, he expressed his love. When I think of him now, I always remember what he did.

Saint Francis of Assisi said it most appropriately:

Lord, grant that I may seek rather
To comfort than to be comforted,
To understand than to be understood,
To love than to be loved;
For it is by giving that one receives,
It is by self-forgetting that one finds,
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life (Graham 1955, 24).

Our character is defined by the choices we make and the pains we bear.

 

[1] “Through the CALL of Jesus men become individuals. Whilly-nilly, they are compelled to decide, and that decision can only be made by themselves.” (Bonhoeffer 1995, 94)

[2] Mitchell and Anderson (1983, 46-50, 51) then go on to identify 5 attributes of those losses: 1. Avoidable or unavoidable, 2. Temporary or permanent, 3. Actual or imagined, 4. Anticipated or unanticipated, and 5. Leaving or being left. Surprisingly, they observe that: Growing up and leaving home involves…every form of loss but functional. It is surprising because we often take the process of growing up for granted—consequently when problems arise as in the case of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) we are caught unaware and unprepared.

REFERENCES

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

Mitchell, Kenneth R. and Herbert Anderson. 1983. All Our Losses; All Our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

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