Last April, I opened my Facebook news feed to find that my friend Alan had passed on to heaven. Afflicted with muscular dystrophy, Alan lived in a wheelchair—and I mean lived. Despite drawing every breath from a respirator, he was not stingy with his oxygen but gave it away in gentle compliments, caring questions, quips, facts, and jokes. He was one of the brightest, most grateful humans I’ve known.
A heaviness fell over me, even as I imagined his restored condition, muscles renewed, lungs expanding with celestial air, his mind fully grasping how broken he once was in contrast to the glory of his new body. But somehow these comforting images didn’t erase the pain, discomfort, and limitations I knew he’d suffered on earth. His absence also reminded me that one day others dearest to me will be gone.
“I don’t know why it hurts,” I mentioned to my friend Kathie. “I know that he’s in heaven. He’s so much better off—so it doesn’t make sense for me to feel sad.”
Kathie said, “When my best friend died when I was a teenager, I asked my mom why it hurt so badly. She said, ‘We weren’t created to experience this separation and pain.’ It isn’t just the pain and loneliness we feel—it’s compounded by the innate knowledge that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”
Some Christians seem to refuse to feel grief, clinging to grace as if it were a sideshow. “Step right up and see the Omnipotent God and his amazing grace.” Their tendency to bear it grinning seems like suppression, cold and unhuman. It smacks of a God who would rip away something dear and then make you go on stage and dance.
We want an easy way through grief. That’s why we construct platitudes, preprogrammed for difficult situations: God knows. God will get you through. God’s grace is enough. He or she is in a better place. You wouldn’t want him back here on earth.
Earlier this year I attended a conference session on the origin of suffering. Afterward, I chatted with a woman who had recently experienced a miscarriage. “I don’t think God intended for us to be emotionally okay with suffering,” she said, her voice tightened with tears. “But I think he wants us to know he’s with us through it.”
This summer, I sat in my parents’ attic, rifling through some items from my childhood. From a crumbling cardboard box, I pulled a laminated circle taped to a Popsicle stick. One side had a yellow construction paper smiley face that said, “Jesus wants everybody happy.”
With perfect recall, the Sunday school song played through my mind: Jesus wants everybody happy. Jesus wants everybody glad. Jesus wants everybody happy, happy, happy, and he doesn’t want anybody sad.
I recoiled at the simplistic lyrics. As an adult, I now know that Jesus doesn’t put a premium on happiness. He left us the Comforter for a reason. And he didn’t put a moratorium on weeping and sorrow, but rather Jesus wept and instructed us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (John 11:35; Romans 12:15, NKJV). His admonition not to mourn as others who have no hope doesn’t mean not to mourn at all (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Denying ourselves grief seems like a denial that we are trapped on a sin-cursed planet with inevitable death and suffering. The truth is, we cannot deny true grief without also denying true comfort. And true comfort is only found in an enduring faith in the goodness of God.
But maybe that’s it. Are we afraid to reconcile grief and mourning with faith in God’s goodness?
Job lost next to everything—his health, his family, his property. And though he said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” he questioned God down the road. Philip Yancey says, “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.” Why is an act of faith, a belief that God is there to answer our cries and to comfort. That comfort arrives in the remembrance that he is good, no matter how bad the circumstances might seem.
A stiff upper lip and simplistic answers might be signs of grace for some folks. But this is also grace, to feel our broken, grief-stricken humanity in its fullest, yet know we are fully loved by a God who will comfort us with his goodness and who will one day make all things new.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. But the sadness and grief we feel now reminds us of what’s to come, when great grief will give way to great joy.