“We are always losing things,” I once heard a wise and seasoned pastor preach. Whether it means the loss of loved ones through death or divorce, jobs through layoffs or dismissals, hope through disappointments and discouragement, or opportunities to make amends, our journey through life is as much about loss as it is gain. Jesus himself assumed as much when he taught that if we want to gain life for eternity, we must be willing to lose along the way.
As I serve in congregational ministry I find that the bulk of my pastoral conversations center on the experience of loss, about the complexities and challenges that come with losing something or someone. One of my teachers even suggested that all pastoral counseling is grief counseling. I don’t dispute his axiom, as I’ve come to appreciate that grief is the God-given human response to all loss.
Typically people in the helping professions are oriented to the “stages of grief” as outlined in the Kübler-Ross/Kessler model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The rubric is a helpful consideration for pastoral reflection on loss. But the emotive experience in response to loss is much broader than these five descriptors. I’ve learned that for many these stages are neither consistently nor universally experienced. Grief is as unique as the person experiencing it.
Pastors do well to be both careful and empathic when addressing human response to our broken world while staying faithful to the words of life in Scripture that empower us to own and grow through our experience. Walking through the valley of the shadow of loss accompanied by a God who never leaves or forsakes us is the simplest yet most profound biblical truth I have come to embrace in my own journey through depressive grief.
Jesus entered our world in order to identify with every human experience and redeem each one fully. Consequently, God seeks to redeem our grief—but also provides it as a vehicle to bring us to the other side of the valley. In a recent interview, singer-songwriter Brian Doerksen said all humans emotions are rooted in our being, created in the image of God, and that the psalms are lifesaving and emotion-affirming for those otherwise made wordless by grief.
In my current and previous congregations, I led a psalm-based sermon series called “Good Grief.” With apologies to Charlie Brown, it serves as my pithy title for my learning and God’s leading through the experience of grief. Each week I gave a simple definition of each emotion I described when expressed as a response to loss, and I offered some basics—literally ABCs— for how to process them. I provided handouts for people to follow and had the main points and quotations presented visually through computer projection, with key words underlined as shown below.
- James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation Series (Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). For each psalm the author combines exegetical study with insightful commentary in a few short and accessible pages.
- Calvin Seerveld, Voicing God’s Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).
- Introduction to Psalms, NIV Study Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995).
- Granger E. Westberg, Good Grief: A Constructive Approach to the Problem of Loss (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1979). The 2019 edition is titled Good Grief: A Companion for Every Loss.
- Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert C. De Vries, Getting to the Other Side of Grief: Overcoming the Loss of a Spouse (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998).
While tempting to hurry past grief by means of songs that sing of release from it (ones with dominant themes such as “my chains are gone, I’ve been set free”), be sure to include—especially as songs of response to God’s word—laments and songs expressing grief in all worship services that address this tender area of human experience.
- “In Thee Is Gladness” Lindemann, tr. Winkworth, LUYH 344
- “No Weight of Gold or Silver” Dudley-Smith, PsH 374
- “When Peace like a River” Spafford, LUYH 451, GtG 840, PsH 489
- “How Long, O Lord (Psalm 13)” Doerksen, PfAS 13C
- Psalms written or translated by Calvin Seerveld (see 1987 Psalter Hymnal and 2013 Lift Up Your Hearts)
- African-American spirituals, particularly “There Is a Balm in Gilead” LUYH 706, GtG 792, PsH 494 and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” Dorsey, LUYH 465, GtG 834, PsH 493 (the story behind “Precious Lord” is an inspiring testament to the power of bringing one’s grief directly to God in lament)
- Our degree of sadness tells us how important the loss is!
- With two-thirds of the psalms including lament/grief/sadness, God is teaching us how to grieve.
- Addressing God with our sadness
- Boldly bringing the fullness of our sadness
- The petitioner’s questioning of God is not an expression of doubt but is an act of faith
- Confessing God’s goodness in spite of sadness
- דסֶחֶ (hesed) in verse 5—lovingkindness/covenant faithfulness/God’s track record of mercy
- “We do not want you to . . . grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, NRSV).
Jesus and Sadness:
- “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
- Anger—the importance of oneself
- Anger’s power is checked when we express it appropriately
- Misplaced—makes others bitter
- Unresolved—makes oneself bitter “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26).
- Acknowledging those responsible for the change
- Boldness about one’s experience with the change
- Confession about surviving the change
Jesus and Anger:
- He lived the command “In your anger do not sin” (Psalm 4:4; Ephesians 4:26).
- “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7).
- Guilt—the importance of right and wrong
- Acknowledging your responsibility for the loss
- Being open to God’s discipline
- Confessing human failure AND God’s grace
- Misplaced or neurotic guilt
- Seeking forgiveness without repentance
- “Blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a clean heart” (Psalm 51:9–10). [“Change me!”]
- Underestimating God’s grace, overestimating sin “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing we can do to make God love us less” (Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?)
- Shame—the importance of integrity/being whole
Psalm 88—incomplete lament—no enemy, no admission of guilt, no expression of trust in God:
“Psalm 88 is that member of the family nobody knows what to do with. He’s at all the family reunions, and his name comes up in all the jovial stories, but nobody wants to get caught alone with him in the living room. He’s awkward . . . irrational . . . strange. So he sits there and everyone goes outside and explains why he’s so strange and how he fits into the whole family dynamic. But nobody takes the time to really listen to strangeness and let him explain himself, and maybe change how everyone else views the family” (excerpt from “Psalm 88: Going to Hell,” Isaac Villegas, bit.ly/2JbJyfT).
- Shame is that part of the grieving process that nobody seems to know what to do with.
- Admitting you cannot hide your shame from God
- Bargaining with God to take shame away
- Crying out to God that your shame makes you lonely
Jesus and Shame:
- “‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done’” (Matthew 26:42).
Fear—the importance of the future:
“We would rather grieve than fight the battle of coping with new situations. Grieving is painful, but not as painful as having to face entirely new decisions every hour. We are more comfortable in our grief than in the new unpredictable world. We want to stay with the familiar” (Granger E. Westberg, Good Grief: A Constructive Approach to the Problem of Loss).
- The psalm of two opposite places. Jerusalem symbolizes refuge for God’s people; Babylon represents the place where humans attempted self-sufficiency.
- While stuck in grief, the psalmist (and God!) gives words to our raw, unrestrained fears
- Cry out to God honestly about your fear of what may come
- We fear so badly we hope for the unspeakable!
- Be specific as you share the depth of your fear
- We fear betraying our prior but no longer keepable loyalties!
- Ask God to hold the memory of your fear, to take it from you.
“‘Rejoice over her, you heavens! Rejoice, you people of God! Rejoice, apostles and prophets! For God has judged her [Babylon] with the judgment she imposed on you.’ Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said: ‘With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again’” (Revelation 18:20–21).