Every week, throughout the United States, tens of thousands of churches keep their doors barred to a visitor they consider unwelcome. This visitor is volatile. Unpredictable. Perhaps, we whisper, not even Christian.
This visitor is grief.
Of course, I’m not aware of any churches that literally put up signs forbidding sadness. But churches have cultures, and far too many of our church cultures do everything short of posting literal signs.
How Grief Looks in Our Churches
Our anti-grief culture is evident in what we say. We sing songs that move us from tragedy to triumph in three minutes. We listen to sermons that challenge us to believe Jesus more sincerely and follow Jesus more passionately. And when we’re asked how we’re doing, we say, “Good! And you?”
Our anti-grief culture is evident in what we do, too. We dress for our church services as if we are headed to a photo shoot. We hurry in and hurry out. And all along the way, we smile, smile, smile.
If grief tried walking into a church service like this, it wouldn’t have a place. And here’s why that matters: Grief does try to walk into our church services.
Grief walks into our services in the form of a stay-at-home mother who is still depressed months after having had her third child. Her days are filled with chores and childcare, and she feels like nothing she does matters.
Grief walks into our services in the form of a young man who always wears long sleeves to hide the cuts on his arms. He is charismatic and winsome for the hour he spends at church, but most days he only feels empty and numb. He has begun to think about what the world may be like without him in it.
Grief walks into our services in the form of a middle-aged woman whose 25-year-old son was just diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She has never been afraid of death herself, but the prospect of burying her own child fills her with dread.
Surely Jesus has something to say to these people. Do we?
We Will Experience Grief
Early in my ministry, an older pastor told me that every week, before he preaches, he reminds himself that some people listening to him have just had the best week of their lives, while others have just had the worst. One of his jobs is to open up Scripture in such a way that both people hear the Word of God.
Many of our church leaders would agree. But what we say and what we do proves otherwise. Just think: How many prayers of lament have you heard in church? How many moments of silence are there? How often have you seen people (leaders or otherwise) weep out of grief? How many times have you heard a sermon mention miscarriage, or suicide, or abuse—without rushing to a tidy resolution? What we choose to talk about speaks volumes. What we choose to ignore speaks even more.
Why are we so adept at avoiding grief in church? Probably for the same reason we avoid grief in general. It’s uncomfortable. Volatile. Unpredictable. Perhaps, we whisper to ourselves, it may not even be Christian.
Those of us who have suffered little may be able to keep grief at arms’ length for a while. But we cannot keep it out forever. Eventually, grief will take up residence in our life. Then we will learn just how frail our platitudes were. Then we yearn for a Jesus who not only overcomes sin but overcomes suffering. More than that, who sits with us in suffering.
But we don’t have to wait for “then.” We can learn sooner if we steep ourselves in the ancient biblical language of lament. The Apostle Paul tells us that we do not grieve as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). But we do grieve. The Scriptures give us the resources to grieve well. Many of the psalms are cries of lament, some of which (like Psalm 88) end without any resolution at all. The entire book of Lamentations provides a model of raw grief, honestly expressed. And then there is Paul’s beautifully brief line, reminding us that grief is meant to be shared: “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
Through passages like these, we can pick up our grief and carry it to God. And to church. When we do, we will not find our grief magically taken away. We will find something better: we will find a grieving God who assures us that the sorrow we are feeling is right and fitting and good.
Yes, even Christian.