Allow Yourself to Grieve
What we are experiencing right now is, in many ways, tragic. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I have realized something: the way that we respond to this crisis could make the tragedy even worse. Here’s what I mean: when this is all over, if we emerge from this unchanged—if we are exactly the same we were before—that would be a double tragedy.
So right now, there are things that you and I are supposed to be learning—life-defining lessons that we may not learn at any other time. So I’ve decided to devote these next six weeks to those Lockdown Lessons. And let me just give you a little preview: today’s lesson is “Allow Yourself to Grieve.” Then, “Learn to be Content,” “Make Peace in Your Home,” “Love your Neighbor,” “Lose Your Baggage,” and “Long for your True Home.” Now, there may be additional things God wants to teach you—there probably are. But I really believe all of us need to learn these six.
So I just want to encourage you to do something: think for minute about who you will be after this lockdown is over. Do you ever do that—do you ever think about your post-quarantine self? Think about the person you could be. And think about this: if you’re open to what God is up to in your life, the person who emerges from quarantine will be a better version of you: wiser; stronger; deeper roots in the love of God. I hope that’s a really exciting thought. And that’s where we’re going these next six weeks.
So today we get to talk about grieving. Doesn’t that sound fun?
We Americans are not know for our ability to grieve well. When somebody dies, we don’t want to feel sad about their death; we want to have a celebration of life—it just seems much happier. But it goes beyond the way we do funerals. Deep in our culture, there’s this value of optimism. Think about the advice we give each other: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade! Don’t look at the glass as half-empty; it’s half-full! Are you going to sit around all day feeling sorry for yourself? Enough with the pity party! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! There’s no crying in baseball! There are healthcare workers risking their lives every day during this pandemic, and you’re sad because your prom got canceled? Come on—you have so much to be thankful for—you should be happy!
Isn’t it interesting that, in the country that is probably more devoted to happiness than any country in the world, we have some of the highest rates of depression in the entire world? I think we’re missing something. And part of what we’re missing is the ability to grieve well. To not always be happy. Which, ironically, in the long run, will make us more truly happy.
And here’s the reason I’m so excited to talk about this: the Bible takes this idea of grieving, which wise humans know is a healthy and good thing, and the Bible shows us how to invite God into that process…which makes the whole thing so much more powerful.
I invite you to look with me at Psalm 13. Hear the Word of the Lord:
1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me. This is the Word of God.
Today I’d like to talk about three things: The Cause for Grieving, The Value of Grieving, and The Most Powerful Kind of Grieving. Okay? The cause for it, the value of it, and the most powerful way we can grieve.
So first, let’s talk about The Cause for Grieving. Psalm 13 was written by David, and we don’t know exactly what was happening. Maybe it was a military threat; maybe it was a more personal struggle; but it was affecting him deeply. He says, “It feels like God has abandoned me.” Like, “Where are you?” He says, “I’m wrestling with my thoughts; I have this sorrow in my heart; I feel like my enemy is beating me up.” Whatever was happening to David, it was an unusually stressful time.
Guys, let’s be honest: what’s happening to us right now is stressful. And I know there are silver linings, and for some people there’s extra family time, and more sleep, and less pollution, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is an extremely stressful time.
Lori Gottlieb is a therapist who wrote an article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. And she said this:
When it comes to the coronavirus outbreak, what’s the word related to mental health that you hear most? If you said “anxiety,” you’re not alone. But if you were to sit (virtually, of course) in a therapist’s office like mine or any of my colleagues’, what you might hear just as often is the word “loss.”
Because of this pandemic, most of us are experiencing an unusual amount of loss. Most obviously, there’s loss of life—just in our country, we are nearing 50,000 deaths over the past 6 weeks or so. And I’m going to be really honest: there is that small part of me that wants to be a little skeptical about this. There’s that part of me that says, “We’re overreacting; it’s really just like the flu.” You know what I do when that part of me rises up? I talk to my friends who are nurses and doctors. When they get off their shift, you can see it in their eyes—it’s like they’re coming off the battlefield. I talk to my friend who’s a funeral director, who tells me the crematoriums are backed up for weeks. The people who are actually in the trenches, facing this thing, tell us they have never seen anything like this. Not even close. The level of loss is staggering.
But it’s not just death. We are experiencing loss on so many more levels. Loss of jobs. Loss of income. Loss of going to school. Loss of sports…and weddings…and vacations…and graduations…and proms…and hugs…and handshaking...and restaurants…and haircuts. The Olympics, for crying out loud! And I know what some of you are thinking, “Oh, please. If you haven’t lost someone, you have nothing to complain about. Those little things don’t matter.” But they do matter. Let’s be careful not to rank people’s suffering. Don’t tell people their losses don’t count. Because they do count.
And you know what makes all of it even harder? We don’t know when it’s going to end. Did you see the phrase that David repeats four times in those first two verses? How long, Lord? Can you just give me an endimngdate for all this? So I could at least have a countdown? That’s what everybody keeps asking, right? How long, Mr. President? How long, Mr. Governor? How long, Dr. Fauci? Just let us know how long this is going to last, and then we can feel some sense of control. We can make some plans. But nobody knows. And that loss of control can drive us crazy.
King David was used to being in control, and now he was out of control, and he didn’t like it. And neither do we. Psychologists call that “ambiguous grief.” It’s not just the stuff that’s happening; it’s the stuff that might happen. And all that uncertainty is unnerving.
So here’s the point: King David had a reason to grieve, and so do we. And if we won’t acknowledge that because we’re trying to be tough, or we’re trying be glass-half-full people, we will be emotionally and spiritually dysfunctional people.
So, okay: if you’re willing to acknowledge that there really is pain and loss, what are you supposed to do with it? Point number two: The Value of Grieving. So the wrong answer is: Suck it up! Quit complaining! Look on the bright side! Or even Praise the Lord! I mean, we’re going to get there—there will be praise—but not yet. Don’t short-circuit the process.
I think our favorite strategy, when we encounter loss, is to distract ourselves. So we won’t have to face it. Lori Gottlieb, the therapist I mentioned earlier, gave this example: a child says, “I’m sad.” And the parent says, “Oh—don’t be sad! Let’s go get some ice cream!” Aha—distraction! You no longer remember you’re sad, because you’ve got Rita’s. Or in the age of coronavirus, the child says, “I’m so sad I don’t get to see my friends anymore.” And the parent says, “But honey, we’re so lucky that we’re not sick, and you’ll get to see your friends soon!” A wiser response would be: “I know how sad you are about this. You miss being with your friends so much. It’s a big loss not to have that.” See, the beginning of grieving is allowing yourself to feel the loss. It’s true for kids, and it’s true for adults.
So mental health professionals have done a lot of good thinking on this. And back in 1969, a psychologist named Elisabeth Kubler-Ross came up with a model called the 5 stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, andacceptance. I’m not going to go into those right now, but here’s the key thing: when you feel yourself experiencing any of those things—especially the sadness and depression part—allow yourself to feel it. Just sit in it for a while. Last week I had an evening where I was with my wife, and we had ordered dinner in, and we were looking forward to the night, and I said, “You know—I just feel off. I just feel sad. And I took a walk by myself, and I read, and prayed. And I didn’t smile much. And I went to bed early.” I think that was exactly what I needed.
I know what some of you are thinking: “This is psycho-babble. Why should I pay attention to this?” Here’s why: because if you don’t allow yourself to grieve, it will find other ways to come out. You will become short-tempered with the people around you (which is the last thing they need). You will overeat or overdrink or develop insomnia. The pain will come out somewhere. A friend of mine recently told me about his upbringing. In his house, if you expressed any pain, the motto was, “Quit your complaining.” So it was not safe to grieve in any way. That’s how he was conditioned. And he says even now, in his 50s, when he faces loss, he gets stuck in those thoughts. He doesn’t know what to do with them, because he was never allowed to face them or voice them.
David Kessler is one of the leading experts on grief. And he recently said this:
There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. So many have told me the past week, “I’m telling my coworkers I’m having a hard time,” or, “I cried last night.” When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you.”
Guys, this is wise advice. Grief is a real thing, and if we push it off, or refuse to face it, it’s going to come back to bite us. So we should be thankful to the mental health professionals among us for helping us to understand grief. BUT. Here’s the thing: even with all that understanding, it’s not enough. It’s all good stuff, but if that’s all you have, there is a piece missing.
Which leads to the last and most important point: The Most Powerful Kind of Grieving. The reason I chose Psalm 13 is because it’s a great example of something we find all through the Bible. It’s called “lament.” Did you realize that 1/3 of the Psalms—about 50 out of the 150 Psalms!—are Psalms of lament? There’s an entire book in the Old Testament called “Lamentations.” The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah was known for all the lamenting he did. The book of Job is filled with lamenting. Even Jesus quoted Psalms of lamentation! It seems like God is trying to tell us something.
So…what is lament? I mean, is it sort of a religious way that we can complain and still feel good about ourselves? Oh no, I’m not whining! I’m simply lamenting to the Lord. It’s so much more holy! No. I don’t know who that guy was, but that’s not what it is. Here’s how I would define “lament”: lament is inviting God into the grieving process. So it’s taking everything we know about grieving, and inviting God to be God in that. So instead of this loss and this grief being all about me—putting myself at the center—I recognize that God is at the center.
So when you look at Psalm 13, you see three main parts of lament. Let’s call this “the anatomy of lament.” The first part, I’ll call Vent. In the first two verses, David vents. He’s not really requesting information; he’s venting his frustration and his confusion directly to God. And it’s raw! God, are you going to forget me forever? Are you going to keep hiding your face from me? Whew! Do you ever talk to God that way? It seems almost disrespectful, doesn’t it?
In the book of Job, Job’s life has fallen apart, and he man, does he vent. I mean, the filter comes off, and he just lets it fly. And Job’s friends, who hear everything Job says, are horrified! “You can’t talk to God like that! Are you crazy?” I mean, they’re waiting for the lightning bolt to strike him dead! And one of the shocking messages of the book of Job is this: God was okay with it! God—whose opinion matters the most—was okay with it. Now: that doesn’t mean everything Job said was true. But that wasn’t the point. God was okay with him expressing his doubts in a passionate way. That’s really important.
Philip Yancey wrote a book called Disappointment with God, about this subject. And here’s what he said:
One bold message in the Book of Job is that you can say anything to God. Throw at him your grief, your anger, your doubt, your bitterness, your betrayal, your disappointment—he can absorb them all. As often as not, spiritual giants of the Bible are shown contending with God. They prefer to go away limping, like Jacob, rather than to shut God out… God can deal with every human response save one. He cannot abide the response I fall back on instinctively: an attempt to ignore him or treat him as though he does not exist. That response never once occurred to Job.
Do you see what he’s saying? Even though Job deeply questioned God—and in Psalm 13, David was questioning God—they never gave up on God. They never wrote God off. So their wrestling and their venting were okay because they took God so seriously, and they wanted to understand. And God was okay with that. It’s good to vent our feelings to God.
I love the way Mark Vroegop said it: “Laments turn toward God when sorrow tempts you to run from him.”
So let me ask you something: over these past six weeks you have probably experienced some loss, right? Nope—a lot of people have it worse than me—I have nothing to complain about. No—we’re beyond that. You’ve experienced loss. This is hard. So here’s my question: have you taken God up on his invitation to vent? I mean, God knows you’re thinking it anyway. You’re not going to shock him by what you say. He wants to hear from you. He loves you. Take your pain to him.Go out for a long walk—we’re still allowed to do that, right? And say, “Lord, this is so hard! I can’t believe I had to cancel this vacation with my family. I miss my friends so much! What are you doing here? This is crazy, and it hurts!” Just lay it out. I promise you—God can handle it. And you need it. Vent. Not just to the air; to Him.
Here’s the second part of lament: Ask. You find that in verses 3 and 4. Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death… That Hebrew phrase “give light to my eyes” might mean that David was sick, and he was asking for healing from his sickness. Or it could be some other trouble David was in, and he was asking God to enter in and rescue him. So David is boldly asking for God’s intervention and God’s help. You know why that’s so important? Because it shows where David believed the real power was found.
Later in the book of Psalms, in Psalm 121, it starts out like this:
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
That was David’s mindset. Whatever mess he was in, he didn’t know how he was going to get through it; but he knew this: if anything good was going to happen, it was going to come from the hand of God. That’s where his help would come from.
How about you? In everything we’re facing now—in everything you’re facing personally—where do you believe the real help will come from? I mean, deep in your heart. Do you lift your eyes up to the government? Do you lift your eyes up to the scientists and researchers? They’re all really important. But behind them and beyond them, do you recognize the sovereignty of God? Because when we do, it changes the way we grieve. We put God at the center, and we boldly ask him to come through. And even when we don’t yet have an answer—which we don’t yet, in this whole Coronavirus situation, right? So many unknowns—even when we don’t yet have an answer, there’s this hope that begins to rise.
And that leads to the last part of lament: Praise. Look with me at verses 5 and 6:
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Right in the middle of the crisis, David made a choice to praise. He made a choice to sing. And here’s the thing: that decision was not based on the power of positive thinking; it wasn’t based on his confidence in his own ingenuity or the government or any other human entity. Look what he says in verse 5: I trust in your unfailing love. That phrase “unfailing love” is translating the Hebrew word hesed, which means God’s commitment to be faithful to his covenant. In other words, “God, there is so much I don’t know, and so much I can’t control, but here’s what I know: I’m in this covenant relationship with you. You are my Father, and I am your son, and I know God takes care of his kids.” And based on that, David says, “I will praise you.”
You know why we can actually praise God in the middle of a pandemic? Because Good Friday and Easter happened. We didn’t get to celebrate them in church, like we normally do. But they happened. The most deadly disease in the universe was paid for on the cross, and three days later death itself was overthrown at the empty tomb of Jesus. That happened. So just like David says, “I trust in your unfailing love—your covenant faithfulness—that’s what I’m clinging to”—we say, “Lord, I’m trusting in your unfailing love. If you love me enough to do that for me, how could I ever doubt you’re going to get me through this?”
Listen: it’s good to know about God’s power and his holiness and his sovereignty…but ultimately, the thing that moves us to praise is his personal love for us. “I will sing the Lord’s praise—I will get on my knees in my living room in the darkness of early morning and raise my hands to him; I will crank up worship music in my car; I will stop in the middle of spreading mulch in my yard on a spring evening, and breathe the fresh air and look up with gratitude; I will sing the Lord’s praise…for he has been good to me.” This is personal for me. I hope it is for you.
But did you notice that verses 5 and 6 come after verses 1-4? I know, that’s deep. I went to seminary. Verses 5 and 6—the praise part—don’t come until the very end. Until after David has…what? Lamented! Until after he’s vented his frustrations, and cried out for God’s help. And it’s not just Psalm 13! If you look at all the Psalms of lament, there’s almost always praise—but it always comes at the end. You know what that tells me? This is going to sound so un-pastor-like. It’s possible to praise too soon. Yeah, I said it. It’s possible to praise too soon. It’s possible to mouth words of praise to God when you don’t really mean it. You’re not being honest. You’re feeling resentful. Your words don’t really represent your heart.
Last week I heard a pastor talk about a family who lost one of their kids in a boating accident. Tragedy. And as they planned the funeral, the family said, “We don’t want any sadness—we want to celebrate his life and praise God.” So that’s what they did. And the pastor said years later, the suppressed grief—the grief that they never allowed themselves to express—nearly tore the family apart. Guys—it’s going to come out somehow. And God is inviting us—David is modeling for us in this Psalm—how to honestly pour out our hearts to God, and know that he’s listening, and know that he’s good. And when we do that, it puts our hearts in the right position to praise.
This life can be so painful. And the losses can be so deep. But I’m telling you: God is good.
Someday in the future—maybe after a few weeks; maybe after a few months—this lockdown is going to end. And when it does, some people will go on with life no different than before. But not you. You’re going to be wiser and deeper and more grounded and more connected with God…because you’ve allowed yourself to grieve.
We want to invite you to worship through this closing song, and then I have one more really important thing to tell you.
Thank you for joining us today. I want to let you know about something that’s coming up in a couple of weeks. On Wednesday, May 13, at 7pm, we are hosting an online event called “Together We Grieve.” And it’s based on everything we’ve been talking about today. I’m going to be leading it along with other Chapel staff. We’re going to share some teaching and some stories about grieving. But most importantly, this is an opportunity for you to bring your losses, and to begin grieving them in a healthy way. So it really doesn’t matter what kind of losses you’ve had—whether you’ve lost a loved one or lost a paycheck or a prom—we want to give you an opportunity to bring those to God, and receive prayer, so you can actually grow from your losses. I think it’s going to be a really special night. And we’re designing it for a very wide audience—so if you have friends who are struggling with loss, even if they’re new to the faith, I think they’re going to really feel welcome. So please invite your friends, and I hope you can be part of it.
Okay—would you rise for our closing prayer? I know that bed is really comfortable, but let’s rise together and close.
The death and suffering caused by COVID-19 are tragic, but failing to learn from it would be tragic as well. Rather than just tolerating the lockdown, what if we walked through it expectantly? What if we could hear things from God that we wouldn’t hear at any other time? And what if we emerged from this crisis not just thankful that it’s over, but permanently changed for the better?