Does the Bible say anything about overcoming grief / processing and handling grief?
Grief occurs in many instances, such as when our plans are derailed, when our feelings are hurt, and, of course, when a loved one dies. It is important to know that God also experiences grief and that He often grieves with us.
When God created the world, there was no sin present and everything was declared to be "very good" (Genesis 1:31). However, by the time of Noah, "the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart" (Genesis 6:5–6). God's perfect plan for right relationships in His creation had been ruined by sin and the Bible records that it grieved God's heart. The Hebrew root word associated with "grieved" there most literally means "to carve." It implies worry, pain, anger, or hurt. It is not that God was surprised at what occurred, but He was still grieved over it. When we experience grief over plans that will no longer come to fruition, broken relationships, the destructive nature of sin, and the like, we actually share in the pain God has experienced since the fall of man.
In reciting some of Israel's history, Psalm 78 says, "Their heart was not steadfast toward him [God] … How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!" (Psalm 78:37, 40). God experienced grief when His people turned away from Him and "were not faithful to his covenant" (Psalm 78:37). When we experience grief as a result of betrayal or disappointment in some other way, we are sharing in a grief familiar to our God.
When Jesus' friend Lazarus died, the Bible says that "When Jesus saw her [Lazarus' sister] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled… Jesus wept" (John 11:33, 35). Here we see that when Jesus experienced the death of a loved one, He grieved deeply even knowing that Lazarus would "rise again" (John 11:23). Jesus entered into the grief of the people. The reality of death and its associated pain moved Him. God grieves with us when we suffer the loss of a loved one.
With these examples, we understand that grief is an appropriate and even godly response to the brokenness we experience in this world. Ecclesiastes says, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance" (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep [dead], that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). So our grieving has an appropriate time and should be characterized by hope.
Understanding the idea of timing can allow us the freedom to fully embrace our grief in a biblical way. In Numbers 19:14, God declared that people who had come in contact with a dead body were unclean for a period of seven days. Thus when a close relative died, the family were expected only to stay at home and grieve together in a practice that has become known as "sitting shiva" or "sitting for seven days." After those seven days, it was time to resume bathing, eating, and attending religious services, but the time for mourning, although in a less intense manner, extended another twenty-three days. Thus, we see in Numbers 20:29, "when all the congregation saw that Aaron had perished, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days." Later, "the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days" (Deuteronomy 34:8). The people's lives were overshadowed by grief for an entire month during this time of mourning. However, the verse goes on to say, "Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended" (Deuteronomy 34:8). There was a time to intentionally mourn and a time to move forward after experiencing great loss. Seeing how some other biblical characters accomplished this moving forward can give us an example to follow.
When Jacob died among his sons in Egypt, Joseph took the lead in making arrangements for his father's burial. After having him embalmed and "the days of weeping for him were past" (Genesis 50:4), Joseph took his father's body from Egypt back to his land in Canaan for burial. He was accompanied by "all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father's household" (Genesis 50:8) as well as servants of Pharaoh and elders of the land of Egypt (Genesis 50:7). In short, "It was a very great company" (Genesis 50:9). "They lamented there with a very great and grievous lamentation, and he made a mourning for his father seven days" (Genesis 50:10). So Joseph gathered friends and loved ones in order to grieve together. When Abraham died, his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, came together to bury him (Genesis 25:9). And when Isaac died, both his sons, Esau and Jacob, came together to bury him as well (Genesis 35:29). So one way to prepare for moving forward after loss is to gather together with those who have suffered the same loss and grieve together. Sharing our grief can be a great comfort. Perhaps that is why Paul commanded the Romans to "weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15).
When Jacob's beloved wife Rachel died in childbirth, he "set up a pillar over her tomb" (Genesis 35:20). He marked the place of her burial with a physical reminder of his love toward her. This pillar could be visited in times of missing her and it reminded others of the loss he felt. With this visible pillar in place, Jacob "journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder" (Genesis 35:21). Having physical reminders of our loss in place can help us journey on.
When David's son was dying, he fasted and laid on the ground pleading with God and weeping (2 Samuel 12:16, 22). However, when the child passed away, "David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate" (2 Samuel 12:20). There is something to be said about just putting one foot in front of the other and returning to normal activities, especially when it comes to self-care. David washed, changed his clothes, and ate. He took care of his body's physical needs, but he also saw to his spiritual needs as well because he went to the LORD's house and worshipped. Similarly, Job saw to his spiritual needs because even during his time of mourning, "Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD'" (Job 1:20–21). Here we see that worshipping God is an important step in moving forward through our grief as we return to caring for our own needs.
After David returned to his normal self-care, he "comforted his wife, Bathsheba" (2 Samuel 12:24). David recognized that his wife was still in the throes of grief and was not yet ready to move forward. So he lovingly came to her side to comfort her in her time of mourning. Reaching out to help others, taking the focus off of ourselves, also helps us in overcoming grief. Paul wrote to the Corinthians "we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Corinthians 1:4). Part of overcoming grief is to share the comfort we've been given with those who are currently still grieving.
Paul wrote that we do "not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). When David's servants asked him how he was able to move forward after such an intense time of grieving, he responded, "now he is dead… I shall go to him, but he will not return to me" (2 Samuel 12:23). David held hope that he would join his son when he himself passed away. Paul explained the hope the Thessalonians were to have saying, "For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep [died]" (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Our hope and comfort come from the fact that we will one day be reunited with our loved ones who also trusted in Jesus' death and resurrection. We are to grieve with an eye toward the future hope of seeing our loved one again.
When the Israelites were grieving their own shortcomings after hearing the reading of the Law, Nehemiah said, "do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10). Whether we are grieving our own sins, the death of a loved one, failed plans, or some other disappointment, drawing near to God is our only viable option. James commanded, "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you" (James 4:8).
In our attempt to overcome grief there are a few things to remember. First, grief is a right and godly emotion. Second, grief can be overwhelming especially in the beginning and should not be rushed. Third, there is a time for moving forward. Fourth, gathering together, setting up visible reminders, taking care of our physical and spiritual needs, and reaching out to comfort others are practical ways to move forward. And finally, holding on to the hope of resurrection and allowing the joy of the Lord to be our strength will sustain us as we walk the long road of overcoming grief.
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