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How the Church Can Help Those Who are Grieving

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Life calls upon us to “move toward” others who are grieving. A text message needs to be answered, a phone call needs our attention, a conversation needs to be initiated, or our time needs to be spent. These situations are difficult, not because of the need—we want to help—but because we often don’t know how to help. The shortest verse in the Bible pictures the Savior who Himself suffered loss and felt it (John 11:35). We are more likely to know this verse for trivia purposes than anything else, which is unfortunate because John 11 helpfully informs believers and churches about how to minister to the grieving. 

Before considering that passage, it’s important to define grief. It is the emotional, physical, and spiritual pain we feel when we experience loss. We might grieve for numerous reasons: because we are separated from what we love, because we fear the unknown, because we are anxious about the future, because we feel guilty, because we think we have to grieve, because we miss a loved one, etc.[1] Without biblical theology to frame our experience of loss, we lack hope and can easily be overcome by grief. The truth is, we live in a world created and morally ordered by God to be “good” (the state we crave as image-bearers of God). Humanity’s fall into sin distorted and cursed that good world so that we now experience the suffering of loss in many ways, ultimately in death. However, God has not forsaken His creation but is working a master plan to bring redemption through His Son Jesus Christ. Only such a hope is strong enough to keep grief from crushing us (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). 

The example of Christ in John 11 teaches us to realize (and help others realize) the good and redemptive purposes of God in suffering. Four helpful perspectives emerge from this snapshot from Jesus’ life when he faced the death of his good friend Lazarus and ministered to Mary and Martha. We are shown that God knows, God plans, God cares, and we can ask.[2] 

God Knows

Even before Jesus faced this grief, he had a robust theology of suffering. While knowing truth does not negate the reality of loss, it guides and supports the sufferer. Jesus expressed two reasons why he allowed Lazarus to die: so that God would be glorified (v. 4), and so that He would be believed (vv. 15, 25–26, 42, 45). In loss, God is glorified as the solution to suffering. He’s not surprised by it. He knows our situation intimately and controls it to accomplish good purposes. Jesus knew Martha and Mary and how to minister to them individually. Martha sought out Jesus and was helped by engaging in a theological discussion on the spot (vv. 20–27). Mary, on the other hand, remained inside (v. 20) and had to be sought out by the Lord (vv. 28–29). Upon meeting Mary and seeing her grief, Jesus did not say anything but felt deeply and wept along with her (vv. 30–35). Comfort grows from realizing that God knows our situation and knows us! 

God Plans

Not only does God know, He plans. In John 11 we see not only God’s concern for loss but also His plan to alleviate the suffering. Martha and Mary’s plan was for Jesus to come and heal their brother before he died (vv. 21 and 32). Martha adjusted her plan, looking to the final day of resurrection, but Jesus’s plan was for immediate resurrection (vv. 38–44)! As believers, we know God has a plan for alleviating our suffering in eternity (Revelation 21:3–4), but we must not forget that He may have more immediate plans also. Either way, what He promises is comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3–7). For us to not be overcome by grief, the battle centers around adjusting and entrusting our plan to God’s. 

God Cares

Another perspective Jesus demonstrated is that God cares. In the face of loss, the immediate need is to tangibly express care. Simply put, Jesus wept (v. 35). He wept because he genuinely felt His own loss and the loss of others. Because we were created in God’s image to live in a good world, the effects of the fall cause us to well up with pain at the reality of suffering. We feel this in small losses and in significant ones. None of us are untouched by loss, which causes us to care when others experience it. We weep with those who weep, and Jesus wept with those who wept.  

We Can Ask

Both Martha and Mary lament to Jesus that if He had only been there, their brother would not have died (vv. 21 and 32). Dr. Charles Hodges helpfully points out:  

“. . . when Martha and Mary both ask Jesus, ‘Where were you when we needed you?’ Jesus does not answer them with a rebuke. In the middle of our own struggles, I somehow think God expects us to wonder why we have them. Jesus did not say to Martha, ‘How dare you question me?’ Instead, he told her that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead and she would see his glory. When Mary said the same thing, Jesus wept. We can have hope in the middle of depression because we have a God who will listen to our cries with a sympathetic ear, just as he did for Martha and Mary.”[3] 

Those who are grieving need to be allowed to and need to know that it’s okay to ask God questions. It’s okay to lament loss to God. The Bible provides rich instruction and example of this.[4]

How to Help

So how do believers and churches help those who are grieving? Here are some applications from John 11: 

  • Through preaching and teaching, prepare individuals to develop a robust theology of suffering before they face significant loss.
  • Spend time and ask questions to get to know people so that you will be able to build them up according to the need of the moment (cf. Jesus’s different approaches to Martha and Mary).
  • Imitate Christ’s tangible care by weeping, listening, providing, being present, and meeting practical needs.
  • Avoid premature theological discussion, unless you know the griever is ready for it (cf. Martha).
  • Relieve new or ongoing suffering if possible.
  • Stay involved, patiently allowing lament as a “new normal” is being processed and adjusted to.
  • Don’t rebuke but gently and skillfully engage. [5]
  • With time, remind them of God’s purposes for suffering.
  • Foster belief in Christ as the ultimate solution for suffering.
  • With time, help them prepare for future ministry.

 

[1] Howard Eyrich, Grief: Learning to Live with Loss (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 9–13.

[2] See Charles Hodges, Good Mood Bad Mood (Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2012), 55–60.

[3] Good Mood Bad Mood, 59–60. 

[4] See Mark Vroegop’s Dark Clouds Deep Mercy.

[5] See Nancy Guthrie’s helpful article, “What Not to Ask Someone Suffering” at www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-not-to-ask-someone-suffering.

Jon Gohdes is lead pastor of Shawnee Bible Church in the Kansas City area. He is married to his wife, Merrilee, and they live in Shawnee, Kansas.
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