Where is God When We Grieve?

It is natural to mourn a loss and go through different phases of grief—anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance—but the compass that helps you navigate grief is Jesus, the one who restores hope in unfathomable ways

“He is not a good friend,” wept my daughter.

I remained silent. It was not the right time to be defending God.

My daughter was grieving over a lost relationship. I stayed with my daughter’s emotions and the alienation she was feeling. From Jesus as well.

Grief is a natural response to loss and is often associated with bereavement alone. One can experience grief over losses apart from death—loss of relationships, of practices, of possessions, of a future, to name a few. Numerous studies have been done and books written to understand the process of grieving. There are commonly accepted stages/phases/cycles, however the way each one experiences this journey is unique to them. The commonly recognised stages of grief are anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although these stages have been widely accepted, other studies and practitioners have offered variations or alternatives to the five stages of grief as theorised by Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Grieving individuals may find themselves at any of these stages at a given time. My daughter was clearly angry. At that point angry with God as well. Why hadn’t Jesus protected her? Where was he when she needed him? This wasn’t a new theme with her—the apparent lack of a tangible Jesus.

In times of difficulties, suffering and losses, the need for the presence of God, especially the tangible kind, seems to be common if not universal.

Martha was bargaining and perhaps angry as well, among other emotions that she surely bore at that time. ‘Bargaining’ is the mind reasoning how things that could have been done differently. A response to the helplessness and vulnerability accompanying loss is an attempt to regain control. The process of bargaining assists in bringing more control by identifying what could or should have been done better. Jesus was ‘friends’ with the Lazarus family. A good friend is usually present at times of loss and bereavement. I wonder what Mary and Martha felt about Jesus. Their brother had died. This ‘friend’ apparently loved their brother and them. Where was he in that hour? Their brother had been dead three days and there was no sign of Jesus. So, when he does turn up two days later, we hear Martha saying “If you had been here, my brother would not have died…”

“Where were you when we needed you?”

Familiar?

In times of difficulties, suffering and losses, the need for the presence of God, especially the tangible kind, seems to be common if not universal. Yet, when there has been his evident presence, it has often not been sufficient—God’s tangible presence, whether as a pillar of fire, hearing of an audible voice or in the skin of Jesus—it did not necessarily increase faith or cause dramatic life changes. Then why do we still want it?

At the bottom of this yearning for presence and tangibility I see a yearning for intimacy. We are built for that and before the fall, Scripture indicates, we had that completely with God. We knew God in a no-holds-no-barriers way. Now, we are left with that longing for it, and left perpetually dissatisfied—both in our human relationships and in our relationship with God. With and through Jesus, that intimacy is in the process of being restored among other things, but it is still a process and it’s unlikely we will taste the full measure of it on this side of eternity. Being left to navigate grief with that sense of incompletion, aloneness, and the feeling of never getting to a place where we can say it’s ‘fully’ over, is part of the hopeful yet incomplete journey of rebuilding intimacy with God. Hence, I deliberately use the verb ‘navigating’ grief for it is a journey, not a destination.

I have often mulled over what this deep intimacy with Jesus looks like. I confess, I am far from understanding it. I wonder if I would recognise it if I saw it. I am so blinded and limited by my humanness, it’s hard. All I know, is that when I am hurting, I want him there. I want to be able to curl up into a ball and be hidden in his mighty arms and find refuge in his lap. But I can’t.

Being left to navigate grief with that sense of incompletion, aloneness, and the feeling of never getting to a place where we can say it’s ‘fully’ over, is part of the hopeful yet incomplete journey of rebuilding intimacy with God.

My daughter can’t.

So, when my daughter says he is not a good friend, I wonder what else is she not saying. She did say later that she did not mean what she expressed that day, but I suspect her cry is an echo of many a heart’s cry. “Where are you?” “Show me yourself?”  “Speak to me! Hold me!” “I want to feel your touch, your embrace!” “Are you real? Reveal yourself!” “Show me Jesus show me! For my faith is not enough. I am not one of those blessed who believe even though they don’t see. I am weak. So, indulge me and show me. Will you?”

We may find ourselves grieving over our lack of faith, that may lead us to further despair and anger. It’s alright to go to God even over our hurt about him! “I hurt because you weren’t there when I needed you but to heal my hurt, I come to you! I believe (in you) but help me overcome my unbelief (in you)!”

Seems paradoxical. To go back to the very one who did not protect our heart or who allowed losses causing us grief. And yet that’s how we navigate grief.  With Jesus. For he does mourn with us. Earlier, I left the story of Martha and Jesus incomplete (John 11). When Jesus saw Lazarus’ sister weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. When Jesus came to the tomb, he wept. He too mourned. He too grieved. But he can do more. As he did for Lazarus. Martha and Mary. He can revive. Restore. Resurrect. We can come to a place of acceptance that is more than a resignation to a new reality. In this new reality we may continue to navigate through our grief in different ways. But I believe it is a navigation with a promise of hope. What that hope may look like, I do not know. But this I know: It doesn’t depend on Jesus needing to physically evidence himself; and every time my hope flounders in my journey of grief, he will send me a timely lighthouse to help me navigate through. It could be the promise of Scripture, a call from a comforting friend, the love of a dog who licks your tears away, or the warm hugs of a mother who weeps with her daughter in pain.

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