The American evangelical church still does not know what to do with grief.
This ignorance is a result of uninformed, immature theological reflection on grief that results in clumsy and harmful pastoral care practices among both clergy and laypeople.
More often than not, it seems as though standard pastoral practice in several American evangelical contexts consists of half-baked appeals to the sovereignty of God, and the shallow reassurance that “time heals all wounds.”
And the proof is in the thoughts of the people who aren’t feeling ministered to. Too often, those in our churches who experience grief can, as Philip Kenyon says, feel like they have “a contagious disease.”
No one else seems to know how to approach or help them. Such people feel alone, afraid and, sadly, unloved.
If congregations are going to be better at helping their members (and leaders!) through times of grief, then there is only one thing to do: dig deeper.
This means that laity and leadership need to develop three things:
- A working understanding of some of the psychological, physical and spiritual effects of grief on the people they serve.
- A theological way of thinking about grief that is grounded in the life and work of Jesus.
- Effective pastoral practices that stem from such an understanding and way of thinking.
From the psychological standpoint, grief can be just as complex as the people it effects.
Psychologists like Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (1969) have tried to describe the way grief works in a five-stage model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).
But more recent studies have focused on the toll that grief takes on the whole person.
As University of Arizona psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor has shown, grief can accelerate a person’s death (“broken heart syndrome” is a reality) and even compromise a person’s immune system.
People who experience grief often show symptoms of chemical alteration in the brain that can produce behaviors associated with clinical depression (for example, loss of focus and perpetual sadness).
These are just two ways that grief, when left unaddressed, can be damaging to a person’s physical and mental health.
More than just the physical, mental and emotional toll that grief takes on a person, the spiritual consequences of grief can often create further crises in a person’s life – often crises of faith.
Tragic and traumatic events, such as the loss of a loved one, can be accompanied by doubt: doubt of God’s goodness, doubt that God could have healed the loved one, and the eschatological tension between the “he/she is gone” and “I will see him/her again.”
Unfortunately, evangelical Christian communities seem to not know how to respond to this kind of grief and the feelings that accompany it. Much like Job’s friends, well-meaning people offer very pious but highly unhelpful words of “comfort” to the afflicted.
Pious aphorisms (“God is in control”; “God is with you, so everything is gonna’ be ok”) often make the grieving and bereaved feel more isolated, misunderstood and discouraged as they to pick up the pieces by seeking help from their respective Christian communities.
So, what can we do about it? As people in the church who are called to gospel ministry (2 Cor. 5:18), how can we best come alongside people in our churches who are grieving?
First, it is paramount to make the theological recognition that Jesus experienced grief.
Jesus grieved, even wept, at the death of his dear friend Lazarus right before he raised him from the dead (John 18:35). He was deeply grieved at the very people he came to save when they refused to recognize who he truly was (Luke 13:34).
Jesus, perhaps most importantly, loudly voiced his feelings of anguish and abandonment by God while he hung dying on the cross (Mark 15:34).
If Jesus is the person whom God, through the Holy Spirit, is making us into, then we must embrace grief as part of the Christian life.
Second, we should not recoil from those who grieve, but treat those within our churches who are grieving like we would treat Christ.
The spirit of Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 25 (“what you did to the least of these…”) also cuts through in Paul’s words to the Roman Christians, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).
Perhaps this simply means sitting with people in their grief and listening for their pain.
Perhaps it means putting an arm around them and serving as a non-anxious, comforting presence in the midst of the tempest raging in their hearts and minds.
Certainly, at all times, it means listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit who gives us the words – or, perhaps, bids us to be silently present – as we minister to those who are grieving.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit their article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Master of Divinity Candidate in Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.