Grief often seems like the Hydra of Greek mythology. According to legend, this nine-headed serpentine monster could not be killed because each time one head was cut off, two more would grow back. Like the numerous heads of the Hydra, grief can strike from many angles at almost any moment. Once we feel that we have come to terms and made peace with an aspect of our grief it is not unusual for something else to trigger those overwhelming feelings once again. The Hydra’s heads keep growing back.
Despite the regenerating heads of the Hydra, Hercules found a way to defeat the monster. He would cut off a head and his nephew would quickly cauterize the wound before two new ones could grow. It can be tempting to approach our grief the same way Hercules faced the Hydra. Rather than experience the pain of grief over again we cauterize the wounds in our hearts. We might do this by filling our lives with distractions to avoid facing our hurt, we might numb ourselves through nonstop activity, food, drink, drugs, sex, or we might rationalize our experience and push away our emotions. There are myriad ways we can try to cauterize the wounds of grief. These methods all seem to work well in the short term, but they have the effect of turning us into a shell of a human - safe from the travails of grief, yes, but also closed off to feelings like joy and love.
How can Christians face grief? How can we fight this monster without searing our wounded hearts? This list is by no means exhaustive, but I would suggest a few approaches. We can work through our grief by reflecting on God’s promises, spending meaningful and intentional time with brothers and sisters in Christ, and in some cases by seeking professional help.
Reflect on God’s Promises
God’s promises should lead Christians to grieve differently than other people. God’s promises don’t remove grief or magically make it disappear, but they change the way we go through the process of grieving. After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis observed that “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley, where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” (A Grief Observed, 60) Grieving is a long, sometimes predictable and sometimes unexpected, journey. It is a difficult journey. Given the choice, it is not one we would choose to take. It is comforting to know that we are not alone in our grief, God is with us even when it seems he is not. One way to work through our grief is to meditate on God’s word and to respond prayerfully to his promises.
Whether we feel God’s presence or not he is the shepherd of our souls. What David wrote thousands of years ago remains true today, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). God promises to be with us always, including in our grief. When grief overwhelms and we do not feel God’s presence we must cling to the promises in his word, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way… The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalm 46: 1-2, 7; the entirety of this Psalm is encouraging to meditate on as we grieve). When our whole world falls out from under us God is there to hold us. He will never leave nor forsake us and has promised to one day set all things right. He is a God who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). God is the great doctor of our soul, he can fix us and piece us back together when we are broken by grief.
In this lifetime grief will always be a reality, but God promises it won’t always be this way. In the New Heavens and New Earth, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). What a promise! Does it not make your heart ache with longing for the day we will be in the presence of God? Our grief is temporary, that does not for one moment make it any less painful, but there is hope that one day it will come to an end. Rather than seeking to cauterize our hearts when we feel the pain of grief, we should set our eyes on Christ and the promise that one day he wipe every tear from our eyes.
Fellowship with Believers
As Christians, we share the promise of the resurrection with fellow believers and this completely changes grieving. For example, when fellow believers die Paul tells us we should encourage one another with the reality of the resurrection, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:13-14). Christian grief for those who have passed away should look and feel different from the grief of nonbelievers. Because of the resurrection, there is hope in the midst of pain and joy that pierces through sorrow. Christians are called to remind those who grieve of this future glory.
In the church, Christians have a community to support them as they mourn and grieve. The Bible calls Christians to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). When the body of Christ weeps for one another, the stage is set for genuine Christian encouragement. True Christian encouragement is not an energetic pep talk or a recitation of trite and cliche phrases. Meaningful encouragement comes from those who walk with us in our sorrow and remind us of the gospel hope we have in Christ. In fact, when brothers and sisters in Christ comfort those who are suffering and mourning they act as agents of God (2 Corinthians 7: 6-7).
If your grief is making it hard for you to function or to do your normal everyday tasks for an extended period of time then it may be beneficial to seek out professional help. Thankfully much of the stigma surrounding counseling, therapy, and mental health issues is lifting. There is no shame in getting help from someone who is trained and educated to do just that. A counselor can help you understand and develop ways to process and work through your grief. As King Solomon said, “the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). Many churches have counselors on staff and there are Christian counseling agencies, but you do not necessarily need to go to a Christian counselor to be helped. Any counselor can help, but you do want to find one you are comfortable talking and working with. Another way to seek help would be to find a grief support group and join. Some churches have these groups. If your church does not your pastor may be able to help you find one. Grieving is a hard and often complex process. Thankfully there are many options available where a person can find professional help working through grief in healthy, God-honoring ways.
The Hydra’s Revenge
After defeating the Hydra, Hercules dipped his arrows in the poisonous blood. According to one Greek legend, this poison is what would ultimately cause his death. Cauterizing the Hydra’s neck defeated the monster for a time, but in the end, the monster killed Hercules. In much the same way attempting to cauterize our pain may help for a time, but in the end, it will poison and embitter our soul. When we experience grief we can work through it in healthy ways by reflecting on God’s promises, spending meaningful and intentional time with brothers and sisters in Christ, and if needed, by seeking professional help.
Episode 269 | Dr. Michael Horton and Adriel Sanchez answer questions about family devotions, feeling saved, God's command to slaughter people in the Old Testament, and how to understand God's work...