A Grief Embraced

by Robert Jacobs

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. – “A Greif Observed” by C.S. Lewis[1]

Originally published in 1961 under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, A Greif Observed chronicles the experiences, emotions, and thoughts of noted professor of Medieval studies and prolific writer C.S. Lewis immediately after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. Within A Grief, Lewis captures grief in its raw, unprocessed, and often confusing form. For instance, his comparison of grief and fear, while puzzling to those unfamiliar with deep loss, often resonates with his readers, including me.

The unfortunate reality of living in a fallen world is that we will experience grief in its various forms many times throughout our life. Although we may never lose a spouse to death as Lewis did, this world repeatedly inflicts a bitter pain. Some experience grief when the consequences of their poor choices fully manifest, with many at Living Hope experiencing great loss because of their sexual sin. Still others in the Living Hope family experience a similar grief not because of their own sin but because of the sin of others, with family and friends completely alienated because of their supposed hatred and narrow-mindedness.

The danger with writing a devotional focused on the topic of grief is that it can quickly turn into what my good friend Chris calls “Christian cheese,” seemingly meaningless platitudes designed to respond to grief without actually validating the pain and confusion associated with loss (i.e. “Let go and let Jesus,” “This is your thorn in the flesh,” Let Jesus take the wheel, “ etc.) While such clichés are often based in biblical truth, they are usually blindly applied by a well-meaning friend who does not truly engage with their comrade’s grief. In A Greif, Lewis describes this kind of heartless Christian feel-good theology in the following way: “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”[2]

Although grief is a complex and protean emotion that must be experienced over a long period of time, scripture does offer examples of healthy ways to process such feelings. One example can be found in an unlikely place, the book of Judges. In chapter 6, the author (possibly Samuel) recounts the calling of Gideon. While Gideon hid in a winepress underground, an “angel of the Lord” approached him, declaring that Gideon would be used by God to free Israel from the hand of Midian (Judges 6:11). Many biblical scholars believe, as do I, that this “angel”—a Hebrew word that simply means messenger—was actually an incarnation of Christ.[3]

After realizing that he was indeed in the presence of a heavenly messenger, Gideon cries out in grief, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!” (Judges 6:22) According to the linguistic work of James Strong, the word translated here as “Alas” indicates a deep pain.[4] In other words, Gideon is grieved that he, a sinful man, has come face to face with one who has stood in the presence of God. In response to his grief, the messenger, or in other semantics the ambassador for the Lord, declares “Peace! Do not be afraid” (Judges 6: 23). Rather than offering some kind of “quick fix” or verbal salve to cover over Gideon’s grief, the messenger instead extends peace. Now, scripture does not say that this gift of peace assuaged all or even part of Gideon’s grief, but instead it says that Gideon’s immediate reaction was to “[build] an altar to the Lord” in worship (Judges 6: 24).

This three-verse sequence offers us a highly unconventional, and honestly illogical in the eyes of the world, take on grief. As this “mighty man of valor” engaged his grief, the Lord intervened with His peace, which fueled Gideon’s worship in the midst of that grief.

Worship as a response to grief? Seems like one of those “Christian cheese” platitudes that I mentioned before. While I could understand if someone thought this, I would point out that Gideon’s worship was not a cover-up for his feelings. He did not put on a happy face, build an alter, and sing up-beat praise and worship music. On the contrary, the Lord met him in his grief with divine peace, a beautiful image of Christ meeting us in our darkest moments to save us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). It was out of this divine connection and amidst the pain of grief that Gideon’s heartfelt worship sprang forth.

The question for us, then, is what is our reaction to grief? Do we embrace what we feel and ask God for his peace, or do we stuff those feelings down deep inside? Do we worship God in the midst of our grief, or do we put on a smile and tell everyone we are fine? Do we allow God’s peace to meet us in our grief, or do we close him out and instead embrace bitterness?

While I can honestly say that there is no easy answer for the deep heartache and sorrow associated with grief, I can confidently say that Jesus will meet us at our point of anguish, mourning with those who mourn.

[1] C.S. Lewis, A Greif Observed (New York: Harper One, 1996,) 3.
[2] Ibid, 25.
[3] See, for instance, A. E., Cundall and L. Morris, Judges and Ruth: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1968), 103.
[4] “אֲהָהּ,” A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and the Hebrew Bible, James Strong.