Forgotten Anguish

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Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (John 16:20-22, NIV)

Death brings grief to the living – which can seem dreadful to experience–but a certain amount of grief is healthy and beneficial. Grief is a natural, appropriate and necessary part of our lives. Long ago the Preacher said, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.” (Eccl. 7:2-4, NIV)

In writing those words Solomon was telling us that we need to face reality, for the sake of our own mental health and emotional well-being, and eternal preparedness. One important reality or truth is that we live with death. Death hangs over us all, all of the time. We live in an unsafe world. This truth should not be dismissed or denied, it should be faced and dealt with by conscious preparation. It is a mistake to have our hearts set on pleasure, escape, or entertainment. While these things may enable us to forget reality briefly, reality surrounds us and will again intrude on our lives, and we will (still) be unprepared to deal with it. Like it or not, all of us are directly confronted with death from time to time–the death of those we love, and the possibility of our own. Flesh is fragile and easily destroyed.

One of the many things the Christian faith and church are designed to do is to help disciples cope with grief, and in fact transform grief into joy. Prior to his own death Jesus said that his disciples would certainly grieve, but that it would be temporary. He said, “You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy,” and “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (John 16:20b, 22, NIV) The promise of life beyond death doesn’t abolish grief, but it provides the means of transforming grief into joy. This promise assures that there is genuine meaning in life, that it does all matter, that each person does truly count for something. Knowing the assurance of the resurrection, and the loving-kindness of God, Christians can experience grief without being swallowed by it, can know the emotional cleansing that grief brings about, followed by the spiritual healing of grief turned to joy, joy in ongoing life.

Christians “believe that Jesus died and rose again” and that “the dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thess. 4:14, 16). That assurance is to enable Christians to cope with grief, so that they will not “grieve like the rest of mankind that has no hope,” (1 Thess. 4:13), but rather find spiritual and emotional healing in faith, and the loving support of other believers, so that in time grief is turned to joy, not by escape into trivial pleasures, but by confidence in Christ Jesus.

(Note: An excellent book exploring grief and faith from the inside out is A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis. This short book is a sort of journal Lewis wrote after his wife died of cancer and, experience tells me, it is an accurate picture of the often painful process of grief believers go through as they move toward realizing joy.)

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