Grief and the kingdom of God

Written on 07/21/2023
Axel Schoeber

Sorrow is an expression of appreciation for God’s good, but temporary gifts

Written by Axel Schoeber

“When did Marcus die in that accident?” Sheila asked.

“Four months ago,” I replied. We were speaking of a congregation member, who I’ll call Maggie, who had recently become a single mother after the death of her husband, Marcus.

“I know it’s hard, but don’t you think she should be over her grief? Christians are not to grieve like those who have no hope,” Sheila (name has also been changed) wondered aloud to me, her pastor. “Shouldn’t we all—including Maggie—rejoice he is in heaven?”

Here’s the answer I wish I had given to Sheila. (I don’t always offer my best thoughts on the first try.)

The Apostle Paul does say we are not to grieve like others who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). But does he say Christians are not supposed to grieve?

The reason we often think grief is wrong is that we are confident there will be no cause to mourn in eternity. Referring to new heavens and a new earth, Isaiah proclaims, “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 65:17-25). Even venomous snakes and children will be playmates! (Isaiah 11:1-9).

In eternity, “the old order of things” is gone. God ensures “no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” The Lord tenderly wipes away all tears. We find healing, not curses (Revelation 21:4; 22:2-3).

We do look forward to eternity with profound hope to strengthen us in all we face in life. But does belonging to Christ’s kingdom preclude all grief?

I think not. The Lord wipes away real tears. We do not live in eternal perfection yet, but in the present finite and broken creation.

Grief now is both permitted in the Bible and commanded. At times, it helps us live more fully within the kingdom.

The good things of this world are temporary, but gifts still come from above. When we lose them, we are permitted to grieve. Abraham wept over Sarah. Joseph, his brothers, and the Egyptians mourned for seventy days at Jacob’s death and another seven days when they buried him. Israel wept over Moses for a month. Tabitha’s friends remembered her with tears when she died. Jesus himself wept at Lazarus’ tomb. None of this grief is rebuked.

Not all losses involve death. Depending on how close we were to the lost person, thing, or situation, and depending on our personality and circumstances, grief varies in its duration and intensity. Let us refrain, then, from criticizing those who grieve longer or harder. In fact, this grief may be an expression of appreciation for God’s good, but temporary gifts.

Yet there is another layer to mourning while we live in this present world. The Bible instructs us to grieve over two things in order to grow as disciples. First, we mourn over our own imperfections. We are not yet all we should be. Writing to fellow believers, James commanded: “Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:7-10).

Yes, Christians have good reason to be joyful—but not all the time. A searching time of grief over our not-fully-redeemed state can help us draw near to God and cleanse us. Repentance should not only happen when we come to faith.

We are also to grieve over the fallen state of the world. Referring to his impending death, Jesus stated, “You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices” (John 16:20). We view life from a perspective that contrasts with an earth-bound viewpoint, and it can hurt.

In the beatitudes in Matthew 5, Jesus declares us “blessed” when we mourn as we hunger and thirst for righteousness and pursue mercy and peace. Our incomplete efforts disappoint us, but disciples press on, growing in trust while grieving the world’s pain.

At this point in God’s kingdom, we may indeed grieve over losses, failures, and brokenness. Yet our grief can find its way to hope. Eternity is coming.