Grief Defines Identity

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101My Father, if it be possible, 

let this cup pass from me; 

nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will. 

(Matt 26:39)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The emotional tension within ourselves is never greater than when we mourn, which requires a decision: do we turn into our pain in self-pity or do we turn to God in faith? Standing in the shadow of the cross at Gethsemane, Jesus turned to God when he faced this decision.

The decisions we make and the pains we bear shape our identity because they are both unavoidable and costly—we do not normally choose to experience pain. Pain and grief transform us and the only emotion that appears in the Beatitudes is grief.

We grieve when we lose something important. In writing about the second Beatitude, Evangelist 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 forgiveness, you must recognize your sin;
  3. Love—our compassion for suffering of brothers and sisters takes the form of mourning and measures our response to Christ’s commandment to love God and love our neighbor,
  4. Soul travail—groaning for the salvation of the lost; and
  5. Bereavement—mourning over those that have passed away.

These objects of grief can also be categorized functionally, as:

  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 (Mitchell and Anderson 1983, 36–45).

Each loss is unique and must be separately grieved which takes time and energy. When we neglect to take the time to grieve our losses, the grief does not magically disappear; it can come back in the form of sudden outbreaks of anxiety or depression without obvious explanation—emotional hijackings. We try to avoid grief because it reminds us of our mortality and, in doing so, frequently challenges the flawed assumptions that we prefer to live by.

Loss and grief were not always ignored, as my grandfather taught me when my grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. In spite of being over one hundred years old, my grandfather expressed his love by caring for her at home and set an example of sacrificial love and faithfulness that I will never forget.

Saint Francis of Assisi said it best:

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).

The griefs we bear and the choices we make strengthen our faith, define our character, and temper our relationships, working in us like the refiner’s fire (Mal 3:3).

Jesus teaches: “Honored are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4)


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.

Grief Defines Identity

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:

Publisher site:


Continue Reading

Lament over Sin

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Those who sow in tears 

shall reap with shouts of joy! 

(Ps 126:5)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Second Beatitude says those who mourn will be comforted, but what does God mourn for? In Genesis, God grieves over human wickedness:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Gen 6:5-6)

Human sin grieved God so much that he sent the flood, sparing only Noah, his family, and two of each animal (Gen 6:7-8).

Books of the Law

Elsewhere, studies of the word for mourning used in Matthew 5:4 in the Greek, associate it most often with grief over death. For example, Abraham mourns over the death of his wife, Sarah (Gen 23:2), and Joseph mourns over the death of his father, Jacob (Gen 50:3).

By contrast, studies of the word for crying used in Luke’s Beatitude (Luke 6:21) in the Greek, associate it most often with prayer in the midst of suffering. For example, a significant point in the life of Moses arose when as a baby he cried lying in the basket floating in the Nile. On hearing Moses’ cry, the daughter of Pharaoh is moved to rescue and to raise the child as her own, disobeying her father’s edict to drown all Hebrew baby boys—including Moses (Exod 1:22; 2:6). Later, Moses cries to the Lord in prayer to heal his sister, Miriam, who has been afflicted with leprosy, and she is healed (Num 12:13). By contrast, crying in the sense of whining or self-pity evokes God’s anger (Num 11:10).

Books of the Prophets

The focus of mourning shifts in the Books of the Prophets from death of a person to anguish—crying out over the fate of the nation of Israel (e.g. Jer 8:18–19).

Israel cried out to the Lord in anguish primarily because of the ups and downs of leadership in the four hundred years after the nation left Egypt. During these years Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egypt and Joshua led them into the Promised Land with strong charismatic leadership. But leadership weakened as they entered a period of the judges when, as today, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judg 17:6) During the time of the judges, a cycle of sin, trouble, revival, and restoration became the normal pattern (Younger 2002, 35). The turning point in this pattern arose when the people turned and cried out to the Lord to keep his promises:

And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. (Deut 30:1–3)

In the Book of Judges this pattern of sin, trouble, revival, and restoration is repeated at least five times (Judg 3:9, 15; 4:3; 6:6–7; and 10:10). 

Later during the period of the exile of Judah to Babylon, mourning becomes prominent as the first of two parts in a lament. A lament starts with grief, but ends in praise. Jeremiah, the Mourning Prophet, wrote  the  Book of Lamentations; we also read many lamentations in the Psalms, as in: 

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Ps 130:1–4)

The heart is first emptied of bitterness; then, it opens to God (Card 2005, 19). This lament form also appears in the Second Beatitude, where Jesus says—“Honored are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4).

This mourning over sin, godly grief, appears as Jesus begins his journey to the cross (2 Cor 7:10). In the same way that God mourned over sin when preparing the great flood, Jesus mourns over the hardness of heart of the Pharisees on the Sabbath:

And he said to them, Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill? But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 3:4-6)

Here when Mark writes about the hardness of heart, he is comparing the Pharisees to Pharaoh (Exod 4:21).

The narrative in Mark 3 is also significant because it explicitly links human suffering to sin and God’s grief. Mark 3 “is the only passage in the gospels where Jesus is said to be angry. (Elliott 2006, 214). Jesus gets angry, because “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) and he cares about the well-being of people more than he cares about Sabbath observance (Lester 2007, 14–16, 106).  Because Jesus cares about suffering people, we should too.


Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NAVPress. Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel. Lester, Andrew D. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. Younger, K. Lawson. 2002. The NIV Application Commentary: Judges and Ruth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Lament over Sin

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: Publisher site:


Continue Reading

Worden Explains Grief

Worden reviewWilliam Worden.[1]2009. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner.New York: Springer.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The problem of unresolved grief could reasonably be described as posing a silent healthcare crisis. When I worked as a chaplain intern at Providence Hospital about half of the patients that I visited had presenting diagnoses brought about or complicated by resolved grief. This outcome is no doubt related to the unwillingness of American culture generally to respect the grieving process and of many people to participate in organized religion where they might better share their grief with a support group. Unresolved grief may lead to anxiety and depression or simply be confused with both.


In his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, William Worden writes:

“In this book I am using the term ‘mourning’ to indicate the process that occurs after a loss, while ‘grief’ refers to the personal experience of the loss.”(37)

He further explains:

“I make a distinction between grief counseling and grief therapy. Counseling involves helping people facilitate uncomplicated, or normal, grief to a healthy adaptation to the tasks of mourning within a reasonable time frame. I reserve the term, grief therapy, for those specialized techniques, described in chapter 6, that are used to help people with abnormal or complicated grief reactions.”(83)

Worden spends the first half of the book explaining the process of mourning and dealing with uncomplicated grief. The second half of the book focuses on complicated grief and special situations that arise.

The Mourning Process

Worden (39-50) divides the process of mourning into four tasks:

  • Accepting the reality of the loss,
  • Working through the pain,
  • Adjusting to a world without the deceased, and
  • Finding connection with the deceased while moving on.

The first task is to get beyond denial—a funeral with an open casket helps mourners get over the denial. The second task has to deal with the pain that may be accompanied by anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, and loneliness. The third task is to account for all the activities that the deceased shared with you and to find alternative arrangements. The fourth task is the re-evaluate your relationship with the deceased while moving on.

Challenging Grief Situations

Getting stuck in any one of these four tasks may flag a case of complicated grief. Generally, complicated grief is a consequence of having a complicated relationship with the deceased. Complications might include unfinished business, broken relationships, co-dependencies, or psychiatric issues. Factors inducing guilt or shame normally complicates the mourning process.

Special circumstances arise when the grieving person is prevented from participating the normal mourning process, such as suicide, physical absence, death from AIDS, or death of someone involved in an affair. Sudden death or multiple deaths pose other special circumstances.

Background and Organization

William Worden has most recently been a professor of Psychology, Rosemead Graduate School of Professional Psychology, California. He has taught and practiced psychiatrics at a number of institutions. His doctorate and final post-doctoral work were at Boston University. He also has a seminary degree.

Worden writes in ten chapters:

  1. Attachment, Loss, and the Experience of Grief
  2. Understanding the Mourning Process
  3. The Mourning Process: Mediators of Mourning
  4. Grief Counseling: Facilitating Uncomplicated Grief
  5. Abnormal Grief Reactions: Complicated Mourning
  6. Grief Therapy: Resolving Complicated Mourning
  7. Grieving Special Types of Losses
  8. Grief and Family Systems
  9. The Counselor’s Own Grief
  10. Training for Grief Counseling(ix-xi)

These chapters are proceeded by a preface and introduction and followed by an appendix, bibliography, and index. In view of the media handling of mass shootings and other disasters in recent years, I wish that Worden had also written a chapter on secondary trauma, a kind of vicarious loss.


William Worden’s Grief Counseling and Grief Therapyoffers a thorough understanding of mourning and complicated grief. Since 2011, Worden’s advice and counsel has informed my pastoral approach to grieving people and I frequently go back to refer to the chapters. Although Worden writes to professional counselors in an academic context, his writing is accessible and understandable.



Worden Explains Grief

Also See:

Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading

Authentic Grief: Monday Monologues, September 2, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on authentic grief.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below:

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Authentic Grief: Monday Monologues, September 2, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading

Mark 15: Holy Saturday (3)

Frank and Gertrude Hiemstra, GraveBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

“And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud

and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock.

And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.” (Mark 15:46 ESV)

Jesus is buried on the Day of Preparation which ends at sundown when the Jewish Sabbath begins. This detail in Mark’s Gospel is important because burial was forbidden on the Sabbath[1] and executed criminals could not hang overnight (Deut 21:23). The Gospels mention nothing taking place on the Sabbath while Jesus lay in the tomb and the narrative resumes on the following day. In other words, Jesus rested in the tomb over the Sabbath. Holy Saturday was a day of mourning and grief.

A Grieving Holiday

Grief is more than crying. In Jesus’ Beatitudes, Matthew records: “Honored are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4) Luke records: “Honored are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21) Both accounts of this Beatitude are written in the form of a lament which has two parts.  In the first part, one empties the heart of all grief and pain and anxiety in prayer to God; in the second part, having been emptied the heart turns to God in praise. In the lament, when we grieve, we make room in our hearts for God.

The Theology of Lament

The most famous lament in the Bible is cited by the Gospel of Mark as Jesus’ last words: “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)[2] These words come from Psalm 22 verse one which turns to God in verse 19: “But You, O LORD, be not far off; O You my help, hasten to my assistance.” At a time when much of scripture was memorized, rabbis would cite the first part of a passage knowing that the audience would fill in the missing part. Knowing this tradition[3], Jesus could cite the first verse in Psalm 22 knowing that people hearing him would know the Psalm and how it ended.

Jesus gave us a template for dealing with grief the night before during his prayer in Gethsemane. Mark records that Jesus’ prayed three times:  “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.” (Mark 14:36). Jesus is aware that he stands before the cross and does not want to die; still, he yields to God’s will. Each time we face pain and grief we are faced with a decision: do we turn to God or do we turn into our grief? Our identity is crafted from a lifetime of such decisions.

Joseph of Arimathea

The story of Joseph of Arimathea is instructive. Mark records: “Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” (Mark 15:43) Asking for the body of a man just crucified for sedition took guts. Yet, with no expectation of resurrection, on a day when Jesus’ inner circle was in hiding and in fear, Joseph “took courage” and asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Then, he buried him in his own grave [4].

Holy Saturday Reveals our Theology

Holy Saturday is a time to reflect on Christ’s crucifixion. Are we among those happy to see Jesus in the tomb or are we looking forward to the kingdom of God like Joseph of Arimathea?


[1] Burial is work, hence forbidden on the Sabbath (e.g. Deut 5:12-15).

[2] Also: Matthew 27:46. The direct citation of an Aramaic expression—“Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” in both the Mark and Matthew accounts makes it more likely that these are the actual words of Jesus. This is because the most important expressions in the Bible are cited directly rather than translated or, in this case, the actual words are both cited and translated.

[3] Jesus does exactly that in Matthew 21:16 citing Psalm 8:2.

[4] What a picture of substitutionary atonement—Jesus was buried in my grave so that I do not have to be.

Mark 15: Holy Saturday 2

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading

11. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webGod of All Compassion,

Draw near to me in my grief. Let me not mourn alone, but instead turn to you. I remember how you walked with me during sunny days—days when the trees were bright with leaves and the flowers bloomed along the beach and the hills and the forest. Now that autumn has come and the days grow shorter, be ever near as a I walk along along stormy paths that wind through the shadows and under leafless trees. Forgive my aloofness, ever at a distance, thinking that the sun would always shine and warm breezes would stay near. Forgive my tight-fisted attitude, grasping at time, grasping at resources, grasping for myself.  Grant me a clear mind, a generous heart, and helpful hands through your Holy Spirit, Almighty God. That I might be like you. Now and always. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Continue Reading