Do the Sacred Work of Grieving

April 30, 2022 THE MMA TEAM


“Jesus wept.” 

If you were raised in church like me, you probably recognize John 11:35 as the shortest verse in the Bible. It became more prevalent to me recently, as I saw it with fresh eyes and found a deeper meaning behind these two words.

The past couple years have been for so many of us a season of loss.  For me, the losses were unrelated to the pandemic, although certainly exacerbated by it.

Maybe you have lost loved ones or a job. Maybe the losses have been less obvious like the loss of a  community, a change in relationship dynamics, a loss of autonomy or time to yourself as you’re unexpectedly home caring for children or adult family members.

Now that we are beginning to see some aspects of pre-pandemic life returning, maybe you feel like you should be hopeful about the future. But the heaviness of recent losses is still there. I have found myself in this place, wanting to look toward a happier future, and wondering why doing so seemed so hard.

I read this passage in John 11. It’s the familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were Jesus’ friends, and so when Lazarus became sick, the sisters sent a message to Jesus.

Jesus got the message and stayed in Jerusalem two more days before traveling to meet Mary and Martha, at which point Lazarus had already died.

As we know, Jesus went on to bring Lazarus back from the dead beckoning the man out of his tomb, burial cloths and all. But let’s not jump to that part of the story yet.

Let’s look at Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha before the miracle.

Martha went out to meet Jesus, and Mary didn’t approach him until she was called for, but both had the same response: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21 and 11:32, NIV)

They were grieving, and with words that were raw and honest, they were not afraid to confront him.  Jesus’ response is crucial to our understanding of grief.

First, we are told “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled (verse 33),” and then the famous two-word verse: Jesus wept.

Why did Jesus weep, anyway? Didn’t he know he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead? (Of course he did! In fact, he had already let his disciples in on the plan in verse 11, although they didn’t pick up on it.) Didn’t he know that this whole situation would be used to bring God glory? (Yep. He said exactly this in verse 4.)

So why did he take the time to weep alongside Mary before bringing Lazarus back to life? The Jews watching said it was because of his love for Lazarus, which seems likely. The previous verses lead us to believe that Mary’s grief was also part of what moved and troubled Jesus.

But I think there was another reason he wept, too. Part of Jesus’ mission on earth seemed to be to teach people how to be human in a way that honored the Father in a fallen world.

As wholly God and wholly man, Jesus showed us how to function as finite beings while maintaining an eternal perspective. He modeled rest, prayer, solitude, community, and more. And here he modeled grief.

Had he moved right ahead to the healing part of the story, the importance of what Mary and Martha were doing, the absolute necessity of it, would have been minimized. But he didn’t. He grieved. And we must too.

Grieving, Jesus showed us is sacred work. When we try to rush past grief, it surfaces in unhealthy ways. When we bypass others’ grief, giving trite answers or encouraging them to find silver linings so that we can escape discomfort, we misrepresent Christ. Jesus showed us that grief is worthy of our time and attention.

Why was it so hard for me to see a future filled with hope? Maybe I had skipped over the grief part.

I discovered that honoring my own grief, coming to God with my raw despair, my honest questions and heartfelt laments, was the only way to navigate the road from heartbreak back to hope. 

Living with a whole heart in a broken world requires compassion and gentleness, starting with ourselves. It requires treating ourselves the way Jesus treated Mary and Martha.

Holding space for grief looks different for each of us. For some it looks like therapy, journaling, and being in nature. For some it looks like a support group and choosing to step back from certain responsibilities for a season. It may be done communally or individually, but should not be done in isolation. In our grief Jesus is, and our community should be, present with us. To weep with us. 

When we walk through seasons of mourning, I pray that we would not see them only as something to “get through.” I pray that we would allow for grief and hope to coexist. That we would hold space for the discomfort, learn the lessons that can only be learned in this wilderness we never wanted to walk through, and be exquisitely gentle with ourselves. I pray that we would courageously do the sacred work of grieving.

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