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The Danger of Excessive Grief

Stephen J. Tracey

No one ever prepared me for funerals. I don't mean that we did not have some lectures on how to conduct them. Nor do I mean that I had no experience of attending them. I mean that as a pastor I did not realize it would be so difficult. Conducting the funeral services of dear saints, whose lives we have shared and whom we have grown to love, is deeply painful. It may sound as though that pain contradicts the faith we preach. After all, why mourn for those who have gone to glory? The answer is simple—because we are left behind. They have gone to be with Jesus, and we want to go, too. They have reached the other side. We remain in the valley of the shadow of death. Of course, the death of a non-believer brings the pastor many other sorrows we will not address in this article.

The danger we all face is that our sorrow can become excessive. Grief does not deny the gospel. Inordinate grief denies the glorious hope of the gospel. There is a wrong way to mourn and we must be careful not to fall into it.

Mourning Too Much

What are the symptoms to watch out for?

Thinking God is cruel.

Naomi borders on this when she says, "It is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me" (Ruth 1:13). She is charging God with attacking her. She is hinting that the Lord has been a bully. Mary and Martha are more restrained when they tell the Lord, "If you had been here my brother would not have died" (John 11:21, 32). Yet their words are a thinly veiled criticism growing out of their immense grief. To think God is cruel, or somehow inadequate, is a sign of excessive grief.

Making yourself ill.

We have all known those who fall into grief and never get out of it again. They stop eating, lose weight, grow weak, and eventually die. We say they died of a "broken heart." It can sound very romantic and even spiritual. While it is true that "heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop" (Prov. 12:25, KJV), it is also true that "worldly grief produces death" (2 Cor. 7:10). Puritan pastor John Flavel says that of all the creatures God made, "man is the most able and apt to be his own tormentor." [1] To become so overcome with grief as to neglect ourselves is to allow the temple of God to fall into ruins. "We are the temple of the living God" (2 Cor. 6:16). Flavel also wisely said, "Time may come, that you may earnestly wish you had that health and strength again to spend for God, which you now so lavishly waste and prodigally cast away upon your troubles."[2]

Keeping the wound open.

Grief is a wound that will slowly heal. It will leave a scar, but God does promise to bind up the broken heart. Yet there is a way of grieving by which we keep grief alive. We keep the wound open. There is nothing wrong with going to a grave and weeping. Mary did that. When Jesus arrived, she hurried out to meet him, and the other ladies thought "she was going to the tomb to weep there" (John 11:31). Jesus himself stood at that grave and wept, knowing that in a few moments he would release Lazarus from it. Weeping at a grave is perfectly natural. We must not expect to feel no pain. On the other hand, to keep weeping, every day, is to be in danger of obsession with grief itself. It is almost to deliberately pick at the wound. We all know from childhood that wounds so picked soon fester. William Plumer says of Psalm 77:2, "When our affliction assumes such a cast that we nurse our grief, it is wrong and becomes a great tormentor."[3]

Refusing to be comforted.

It is sad to read of Jacob that "he refused to be comforted" (Gen. 37:35). He is not alone. Asaph says in Psalm 77:2, "My soul refuses to be comforted." Rachel too, refuses to be comforted (cf. Jer. 31:15). When the consolation is at hand, to be inconsolable is a great slight on the mercy of God. It is to behave as though Christ is inadequate. To recognize that God's hand causes grief is only to be half-sighted. The same hand also brings comfort, and we must not despise it. It often comes from the most unexpected source. When Moses brought glad tidings to Israel in slavery, "they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery" (Exod. 6:9). Though it is often hard to accept comfort, yet when some kind soul puts her arms around you, take the well meant Christian hug. Be glad that God has sent one of his little ones to help you. This is a lonely world, and we must help one another as we limp on our way to heaven.

Sometimes we can be so swamped in sorrow that we cease to pray and abandon Bible reading. We become so disturbed by providence that we grow cold in our love for Christ. What, then, is the remedy?

A Right Way to Mourn

Take time to weep.

Many poor souls think there is no place for tears in our religion. I once heard someone say to a woman, at the death of her husband, "Tut, don't be crying, sure he's in heaven." Such words can lead us to feel guilty for grieving. It is not a real view of the way God has made our hearts. God says, "There is a time to weep," Eccl. 3:4. The Lord Christ stood at the grave of his friend and wept. The people didn't "tut"; they said, "See how he loved him" (John 11:36). It is right to weep, because it is right to love.

Cry out to God.

There is no sin in bringing our pain and sorrow to God. We are told to do just that: "casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you" (1 Pet. 5:7). Over and over again we see the Psalmist crying out to the Lord. For example, Psalm 142:1-2, "With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him." Or Psalm 102: 1-2:

A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the Lord. Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you! Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress! Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!

Remember, God will keep our tears in a bottle and record them in his book (cf. Ps. 56:8). What a precious thought! When everyone else has forgotten your sorrows, God has not forgotten. He is the God of all comfort.

Lean on godly friends.

Job said, "Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!" (Job 19:21). Alas, none of us wants his friends! It is not wise to unburden your heart to all of your friends. Find an experienced Christian, one whom God has taken through the valleys; one whose faith shines in that quiet joy unspeakable and who will be able to comfort you with the comfort with which they themselves were comforted (cf. 2 Cor. 1:4). Proverbs 17:17 reminds us, "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity."

Some Concluding Remarks

Remember who has caused your grief.

Consider the well-known words of Job, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away" (Job 1:21). What God took away in one day was seven sons and three daughters, 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants. It was said of him that he was the greatest of all the people of the east. Now, surely, his grief was the greatest of all the people of the east. Yet from the very beginning he said, "Blessed be the name of the Lord." Nothing but a faithful grasp of the greatness and goodness of God could sustain a man through such grief. We must always begin with the greatness and goodness of God.

Remember the resurrection.

We are not to sorrow as others, who have no hope. "The souls of believers are, at their death, made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection" (The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 37). To be made perfect in holiness must be quite an experience! But to pass into glory ... ! We do not know what Enoch experienced when he walked with God and then was no more, because God took him. We have a little glimpse in the experience of Elijah, "And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven" (2 Kings 2:11). The chariots of fire were for Elijah. If this was the glory before the death and resurrection of Christ, then what will it be like for the saints of the new covenant?

I remember hearing Rev. Kenny MacDonald of the Free Church of Scotland preaching on the arrival of Christ into heaven following his death. He imagined all the inhabitants of heaven looking with eager joy at the conquering Son. Then the preacher made us look again. The Lord returned holding hands with a redeemed thief. It is Jesus who says, "Behold, I and the children God has given me" (Heb. 2:13). Kenny's sermon was all the more powerful because his eighteen-year-old daughter had disappeared on a visit to India. She was never found. Many souls came to Christ through the preaching of that godly man.

Remember we are to set our affections on things above, where Christ is.

The suffering of this present time is not worthy of comparison with the glory that shall be revealed in us. Richard Baxter warns of too much sorrow for sin, but his words fit the larger context of too much sorrow even in our grief. Our sorrow is too great, he says,

when it so clouds and clothes the soul in grief, that it makes us unfit to see and consider the promise, to relish mercy, or believe it; to acknowledge benefits, or own grace received, or be thankful for it; to feel the love of God, or love him for it, to praise him, to mind him, or to call upon him; when it drives the soul from God and weakens it to duty, and teaches it to deny mercy, and sinks it towards despair; all this is too much and sinful sorrow; and so is all that does the soul more hurt than good.[4]

Endnotes

[1] John Flavel, A Token for Mourners, in The Works of John Flavel, 5:604-66, (1674; repr., London, Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), 620. The author owes a great deal to the rich pastoral insight of this work, A Token for Mourners. Happily this work has recently been published as a separate volume by the publishers.

[2] Ibid., 620.

[3] William S. Plumer, Psalms (1864; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 738.

[4] Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory (1674; repr., Ligonier, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996), 293-94.

Stephen J. Tracey serves as the pastor of Lakeview Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Rockport, Maine. Ordained Servant Online, May 2011.