Grief Is Worship
Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves, and I’m the host of CCEF’s podcast Where Life & Scripture Meet.
We’re starting up a new season, and I’ve been thinking since our last season, what is it that I love about doing a podcast? And I think what it is for me is that I love getting to take the things that I learn as a counselor, or the thing about being a counselor is you spend intensive time with people working through things but it has this wonderful spillover effect where your whole life you’re constantly being oriented toward and pushed toward what is it that Scripture has to say about life’s hardest problems? You’re constantly looking, how can I unearth things in Scripture that are going to matter in day-to-day life, and particularly day-to-day life when things get really hard? And how can we take the hardest things and actually, in a podcast like this, how do we expand those out to think about the issues that we all face at some point?
So today in particular, I’d like to say something that’s probably a bit provocative and then unfold it. What I want to talk about today is the idea that grief actually is worship. Grief is worship. Now, in saying that, I’m actually not going to be so much thinking about how do we deal with grief or how do we respond to grief, but I simply want to get us thinking about grief in a different way, to reframe our perspective on grief in a way that I hope will bring significant comfort. But it’s really not so much about what you do as how do you even understand what’s going on in an experience or a season of grief? So, I find that phrase provocative. I imagine many of you will as well. It probably sounds a bit odd. So, let me explain how I get there and what I mean by that.
So, let me back up. Growing up, no one ever sat me down and said, “Alasdair, here’s something you need to know about the Bible. The Bible tells you that grief is sinful. It’s wrong. It’s a lack of faith in God’s sovereign and perfect plan.” No one ever said that to me. But I think if you had pressed me in high school, or probably even in college, I’d have scratched my head but I’d have probably landed something in the neighborhood, “Well, yeah.” Hopefully I’d have said it gently and kindly, but I’d probably said, “Yeah, I think grief is sin, because if you have faith you shouldn’t be sad about the things that happen, because God is in control.” And if I’d had to tag that to a particular verse, I would probably have tagged it to 1 Thessalonians 4:13, which ends by saying, “we do not grieve like those who have no hope.”
And one of the most paradigm shifting moments of my life was when my father died. I was in my mid 20s. And I was deeply, deeply grieved in that season. And I wasn’t experiencing guilt over that grief. I wasn’t even really thinking about it. I wasn’t even thinking, “Oh, I’m grieving.” I was just simply heartbroken in my dad’s final days as he was dying of cancer and then after he died. And I remember reading 1 Thessalonians 4:13 during the couple of weeks after my father died and being sort of blown away, sat down in my chair, with the idea that the phrase, “we do not grieve like those who have no hope,” did not mean we do not grieve. It wasn’t saying, “Grief is sinful and faithless and only non-Christians or people with no hope would do such a thing.” It’s actually saying we do grieve, but we don’t grieve without hope. Our grief is a hopeful grief. The losses we sustain and experience in this life are hope filled because of Jesus, because we have a hope that transcends death itself. We have a God who is redeeming all of creation.
And that led me to recall the beginning of Acts 8. So, Stephen, the church’s first martyr after Jesus, if you will, but he’s given this amazing sermon and he’s stoned and Saul, later to become the Apostle Paul, is standing there giving approval and holding the garments of those who are killing Stephen. He looks up and he sees Jesus at the right hand of God. If you ever wanted a picture of someone who is moving from pain and awfulness in this life, that’s clearly suffering for his faith, it’s the best kind of suffering you could ever have, and he is moving towards the right hand of God and he’s going to be with Jesus. He’s in a literally better place and a better situation. If you ever wanted a place where everyone in the church should be rejoicing, Stephen has been delivered from suffering, he’s been faithful to the end, and now he is with Jesus.
So, after the death of Stephen, what it should say, you would think, if grief is a sin, it should say, “And godly men rejoiced and were delighted that Stephen had been delivered from the sufferings of this life unto his eternal home and rest.” Now, of course, those are fair things to feel and think. What Acts 8:2 actually says, is, “And godly men mourned him deeply,” or gave great lament or made great lamentation, depending on your translation. So here you have people watching a guy who is utterly swept up in his love for the Lord and is now with his Lord and they’re grieving his absence.
So if we understand really what grief is from a biblical perspective, it’s grief is like any other emotion. It is an overflow of love. If you love Stephen and you love his presence and fellowship, then you will grieve when he is absent from your fellowship. Even though he himself is free from suffering. And I remember at my father’s death being so thankful that he’d been delivered from that awful last week of his life, as he just plummeted down in the face of the cancer. There’s something right about feeling relief in a situation like that. But that doesn’t stop us from mourning. We are Christians who mourn as those with hope, who mourn in light of a good God who loves us and restores and protects, and a God who has given us hearts that rightly love what is good, love what He loves, hate what He hates. And we are indeed right. It is a good thing. It’s a godly thing to grieve in the face of the loss of something that is good.
So this leads us now back to where we started. How is grief worship? Well, in a sense, it means that in our every grief, every time that something that we rightly love, something that God has given, some good, every good and perfect gift comes down from the Lord, from the father of lights, as James 1 puts it. That is a right experience of His goodness. And let me rephrase that. It is a right thing for us to experience His goodness. It’s a right thing for us to mourn the loss of it. And it’s actually particularly grief and mourning that sheds light on exactly what the value of the gift was.
So when you love someone, and they die or even they move away, you had a close relationship and that relationship is lost to distance or time, or perhaps conflict, or whatever, there’s this recognition in grief, the feeling in your chest, the tightening of your throat, the tears burning behind the back of your eyes or pouring down your cheeks, there is this experience you’re having of, wow, God’s gift was really good. He gave something so rich and so precious and so right. Actually my grief is this profound, visceral, tangible experience of God is a giver of good gifts. My Father gives every good and perfect gift. And even though your experience in the moment of grief and the season of grief is one of this gift is absent, this is harm, this is ache. This is pain in my chest.
Yet that pain in your chest, the ache, shows, “I really loved this thing. I really loved this person. I really loved that season. I loved that experience. This was a good thing that the Lord had given me, had placed in my life.” And the grief is a precise map, a precise portrait, if you will, of just how good of a giver God is, of how good His gift was, of how sweetly He placed something in your life and gave you that season, gave you that experience, gave you whatever it was that has been lost. And you have this opportunity to have the heartache actually be a voice of calling out to the Lord with worship, “Thank you, God, for the goodness of this.” And in a sense your whole, your body and soul are crying that out, even if you’re not exactly putting those words on it.
Now we all know that grief of course can go sour. Grief can easily become self-pity. It can become bitterness. It can become anger against God. The focus can be, “You took this away. You had no right. Or how dare you or my life is now meaningless because it’s gone and nothing else matters. And any other good gifts you’ve given are worthless in comparison.” There’s all kinds of bitter turning away from the Lord kinds of things that can happen in our heart in the midst of grief. And we can also have grief over all sorts of bad things, like, Oh, I got caught having an affair and I miss the days when I could just get away and yada yada.” So I’m not trying to say that every grief by definition is this deeply wonderful Christian experience.
I’m simply saying that is what grief was meant to be. Grief, like any good gift of God, it can be twisted by sinful people in a fallen world assaulted by the devil and his minions. But grief was intended to be grief, grief is the natural response of the human heart to a good Father who gives good gifts. And it’s especially when those gifts are removed or taken or broken in this world… it makes us cry out for redemption and for the end of all things to come and for the renewal, I should say, of all things to come. But long story short, grief is designed to turn us to worship, to be this profound experience of God’s good gifts, and seeing them as gifts from the good giver to turn toward Him and say, “Wow, you have given well, oh Lord.” That is what is happening in our body and soul when we grieve.
Now, there’s been a lot of grief over the past while. There’s been several years now of COVID, slash post-COVID, slash being dragged back into COVID and restrictions and cancels and lockdowns and openings and debates and masks and all the rest. And I’ll mention one thing that I’ve experienced in the past week. My daughter, my middle daughter, loves to babysit. She just loves little kids. She has this heart for caring for little children. And she was all excited. I was able to take her on a work trip and as a part of that, she was going to get to go and babysit her three much younger cousins. And she’d been looking forward to this, and this is probably the highlight of the thing that she was looking forward to from the whole trip. And because of some COVID stuff, it ended up getting canceled and she couldn’t go. And she was so sad.
And my sister, I’m sure, was sad to miss the help. And the little cousins were sad to miss their big cousin coming. And I felt grief for my daughter. I just felt so sad that this thing had been taken from her. I was grieving. And yet a part of what my heart was feeling was just a deep appreciation that the Lord has made my daughter someone who loves little children, delighting and spending time with three year olds and one year olds and five year olds is not necessarily something that all of us instinctively feel. How sweet it is to see what the Lord has given her, this particular gift of her heart and of who she is. And this cancellation, the grief that I feel and the disappointment I feel on her behalf and the disappointment I feel having to tell her that and the ache of, “Oh, I’m the bearer now of bad news.” Those are these little pictures to me of the gift God has given me in my daughter and in this element of her heart.
More broadly, I think about my father dying, as I mentioned. He was a believer, a strong man of great faith. And, so I’m thankful for the hope of redemption and that he lives and will live for all eternity and I will see him again. That is a great hope. But that’s actually not the hope I’m talking about. The hope I’m talking about is smaller and simpler in some ways. And it’s simply that my dad was a gift to me.
He did so much in raising me that I’m so deeply grateful for. I remember the night he died, my younger sister, the mother of the three young cousins now, who was a teenager at the time saying that a number of people trying to comfort her had said things like, “You will feel better or this will get better or there’ll come a day when you’re not so sad or something like that,” which were lovely things to try to be helping us with. But she said, “I don’t actually want to get over this. I don’t want to stop grieving. There’s something about this grief that actually connects me to my dad. I feel that.”
And I don’t remember, she said it better than that on that night and she said it with tears in her eyes, but it was a strange thing to hear, but I resonated with it. There’s a part of me that actually doesn’t want to “get better,” because in this grief, it is so right and I can feel that it’s so right. And the intensity of the emotion is actually something that feels connected to my father. So over the years, since my father died, and it’s been well over a decade now, there have been many, many, many occasions for me to reflect on things I loved about my father. And as I’m beginning to process this in recent times as an opportunity to worship, I’m just thankful to God that my dad loved basketball and chose to involve me in playing basketball with him and other friends, even when I was relatively young. He would invite me to play with him. And that was just a sweet opportunity to connect. What a sweet thing to have a dad who had something he really enjoyed and chose to share it with me.
My love of going out to lunch is something that I got from my dad. He loved to eat, and he loved to sort of sit in a back booth and just enjoy good conversation and good food. He was an Old Testament professor, and he had just a rich sense of breaking of bread, sharing a meal, as this experience of fellowship and hospitality. And he loved to linger over a meal. And what a gift that’s been to give me an appreciation for that, especially in a fast food culture, where we tend to whip through food and get onto the next task to get done. I’m grateful that the Lord instilled that in me, by giving me the gift of a father who would bring me into that and raise me up in that.
My father was not an overly strict man, but he cared about discipline. My father was an Old Testament professor, and he sought in all of his children to instill a love of the Old Testament and of seeing how the Scriptures pointed to Jesus through and through, and how the narrative, how the drama, how the sense of when will come the promised seed who will redeem and restore and who will make right the fallenness of this world, how the ache of the Old Testament points towards the radical sheer glorious answer that happens in Jesus, in the gospels, as we move into the New Testament. So I could go on and on saying things about my dad that have been life rearranging for me.
My point though, is simply this. God has cared for me by a thousand ways, and one particularly sweet one is giving me a father who has loved me in these ways and shared his life with me in these ways. And I miss him. And I miss these things. He never got to meet his grandkids. And I see that and I ache. There’s a joy I wish we had had and yet the reason I wish he could have met my grandkids is because he would have enjoyed them and they would have enjoyed him because of who all of them are and God put those gifts in my life. And the grief I feel is just a further acknowledgement, “God, you are good. What you have given is good.”
I’ll wrap up by saying this. This particular insight, this idea that grief is worship, it’s not going to necessarily be the most helpful direction to go in every single instance of grief. But my hope is that it really does bring comfort by helping us in a very direct way be more deeply bound to God in the midst of our grief, that it would be a piece of 2 Corinthians 1, the God of all comfort, comforting us. And in doing so allowing us to move out towards others with the same kind of comfort. So grief is an endless invitation to taste and see the goodness of God, without rush, without shame, without stoically holding back tears, but rather very simply to worship the one who is the giver of every good gift and who will keep giving those gifts into all eternity.