Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Bible and Grief

This is a quick glance at the Jewish Old Testament (OT) and the Christian New Testament (NT) to see what they say about grief. It is not complete, and my study of these scriptures will continue.

I looked up several key words in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible and the NRSV Harper Study Bible: grief (grieving, grieved, etc.), bereave (bereaved, bereavement, etc.) mourning, widow/widower, and death.

I’m not going to make any definitive statements, other than to mention that Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love others as he loved them. Whenever religious rules got in the way of taking care of others, he broke them.
My concern for people who are suffering is pastoral, not theological. Christians and Jews are called to be people of compassion, not judgment.

In the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:4 says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” It does not, however, specify what this comfort would be.

In terms of understanding grief, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the OT and the NT. In general, the NT understanding borrows from the OT in that “godly grief” produces repentance, while “worldly grief” produces death (see 2 Cor. 7:10). I think it’s speaking about the personal and not about the relationships between people.

It helps to realize that people in the OT believed that they ceased to exist when they died. No heaven. Nothing. Zilch. End of their story. This theological understanding was evolving a bit in the NT because now there was a place to go when you died. Step One – people die. Step Two – people of faith who die go to heaven. Step Three – we really don’t get to Step Three in the NT. It would take the early Christian Church and several hundred years to figure this out, and the head people (theologians who like to tie everything up so it all connects) are still battling with the heart people (those who work behind the scenes to care for people in real life). Step Three is what to do with grievers.

Historically, Judaism hasn’t talked much about the afterlife, although I read a recent notice that this is changing, too. Judaism puts its 3000 years of wisdom and energy into taking care of people who are suffering in this world. It has a basket of traditions and rites to help grievers deal with their loss in the first week, the first month, after every worship service, and on the yearly anniversary of the death.

There is no “widower” listed in either Strong’s or Harper’s. There were plenty of widows, however. In the OT, widows suffered mightily because women had few rights, couldn’t own land, and probably didn’t have jobs to support themselves, so they needed help from others in order to survive. In the NT, Jesus and others continued this concern about taking care of widows. In the early Christian Church, there was even a specific requirement to take care of them, which in Acts 6:1 wasn’t happening. We know this because the widows complained.

Grieving isn’t addressed in the NT in the sense of focusing on how survivors of the dead should grieve. Perhaps the Jewish traditions of care were carried over. The focus was on rejoicing that our dead could now go to heaven, and this is where the discussion generally ends (see 1 Thess. 5:15). This was a new and exciting concept for that time, and my findings are probably limited by the words I referenced.

I like the take of John Donne’s, the 13th century priest-poet, as well as the take of CS Lewis’s, the well respected 20th century Christian writer, that we rejoice over our loved ones being in heaven, but we grieve our loss on earth. They said it’s proper and necessary that Christians grieve and express their emotions.

Christians try to emulate Jesus in everything they do. When his friend, Lazarus, died, Jesus wept. That’s all we need to know.

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