Grief is something which all of us will go through at some point in our lives. This is not meant as a melancholic reflection, just a statement of fact. Yet curiously, it is largely a taboo subject, at least in British culture. It’s as if there’s a fear of the very mention of it, almost a sense of wishing it away. However during bible times, grief was handled very differently to what we usually see in the cut and thrust of 21st century life, something we would do well to observe.
Interestingly, the shortest verse in the entire bible is also one of it’s most insightful statements, revealing much to us about God’s compassion in the midst of his own experience of grief. It tells us that ‘Jesus wept‘ (John 11:35). This occurred at the burial of his dear friend Lazerus. One of the dangers when reading John 11 is that we can rush ahead into a rousing celebration of Lazarus miraculous raising from the dead – but miss the sheer importance of Jesus taking time to grieve his friend’s death. This is highly significant, a moment of truly profound empathy which has massive implications for us.
As if the sadness of his loss wasn’t already painful enough, a gang of self serving religious bullies known as the Pharisees (a group who detested Jesus) sought to exploit the situation in a manipulative and accusatory way which was intended to hurt Jesus. This only added to his sense of sadness and, in itself, illustrates how hate-filled hearts know no bounds when it comes to cold and calculating spitefulness, even using personal pain as a means of undermining good character.
However, what followed was a manifestation of vulnerability by Jesus which would have been deeply humbling to observe, perhaps even troubling. Think about it…this is Jesus, the saviour of the world, the Messiah, God in the flesh…now in a public display of agonising sorrow. It’s as if the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and shines a spotlight into Jesus heart so as to allow us a glimpse of his anguish. It certainly teaches us something about handling grief, a complex emotion that is deeply personal but which is never meant to be confined solely to the private place. Unfortunately, our British ‘stiff upper lip’ culture is often dismissive of grief because it is largely bereft of a sense of genuine community. Yet God created family and it is here where he intends grief to be shared (Psalm 68:6). That’s why, as a pastor, I always say that if you’re going to have the worst day of your life, have it in church. Jesus vulnerability in John 11:35 powerfully illustrates the huge benefit of this.
Interestingly, the Greek word for ‘wept‘ in John 11:35 is dakruo, which conveys a very real sense of the authenticity of this moment. It wasn’t ‘over the top’ emotionalism, but rather a quiet & genuine brokenness. Hence, the compassion and humanity of Jesus was clear for all to see. In the midst of sorrow and even provocation, Jesus was filled with indescribable grace. It might even be said that this expression of empathy was as powerful as the miracle that was about to follow, perhaps even more so. It makes Jesus real to us. Leaders would be wise to observe that it’s not bravado which ministers to people, but vulnerability.
The shortest verse in the bible provides some of the greatest comfort we can ever experience. It shows us that when we shed a tear, Jesus sheds a tear too. It reveals his tenderness toward us in the seasons of sadness. We also catch his heart of pure, unadulterated compassion. Of course, the story of Lazarus ends with Jesus friend being raised back to life. However, this must surely be a prophetic portrait which speaks of God’s purpose that goes far beyond our understanding. That’s why Jesus declared at the start of the whole narrative that the situation about to unfold was ‘for God’s glory’ (John 11:4). Surely this implores us to trust God’s best, even in the worst of times. John 11 teaches us that for God’s people, there is always hope. We must never stop daring to believe that, even when we can’t see what God sees.
If you’re experiencing grief in your life for whatever reason, there aren’t any easy answers to offer. Words will probably seem futile, providing little or no solace. But there is a God who loves you and is for you. There is grace for you, no conditions and no stings attached. Words aren’t necessary. Just dare to lean into His grace. This is what sustains us. Jesus knows all too well what grief is like (Is 53:3).