Seven years ago, my father-in-law lost his battle with cancer. My family entered a turbulent time of grieving. No matter how imminent the death of loved ones, nothing prepares us for the rollercoaster of emotions once they’re gone. Their face will never be seen again in this life; their laugh never heard; their company never enjoyed.
Grief is an all-consuming, universal human experience that takes many forms. Parents grieve a child whose life is cut short; children grieve a parent whose memory fades; childless couples grieve what could have been and may never be. The ill and elderly grieve losing health and independence, and unprocessed grief can lead to illness and suffering of its own. And if we’re not the ones grieving, we’re an onlooker to someone else’s grief. Attacks this year in Brussels and Lahore are stark reminders. Families together one minute are irreversibly torn apart the next.
What does this grief do to a person? What road are distraught families forced to travel? We mentally put ourselves in their shoes, trying to imagine how it feels, but it’s too hard.
Grief is part of life, but why do we experience it? In evolutionary terms, there is a conundrum: don’t the fittest survive and the weakest die out? Isn’t that the natural order of things? Surely grief hinders reproduction and therefore survival. Wouldn’t natural selection want to bypass such emotion?
At this point evolutionary biologists cite attachment theory. Staying together in families provides an evolutionary benefit: parents can protect their children and increase their likelihood of having offspring. Grief, then, becomes a reaction to losing that protective relationship or, as John Archer, psychology professor and author of The Nature of Grief defines it, an “alarm reaction set off by a deficit signal in the behavioural system underlying attachment.” The greater the attachment, the greater the grief.
These are valuable insights into some of the mechanisms underlying grief, but it leaves questions unanswered. Evolutionary biology cannot explain why we grieve an aging parent whose capacity to protect is long gone, or a long-term friend with whom we’ve lost contact, or why we sometimes grieve inexplicably over someone we’ve never met. I remember entering a 24/7 prayer room a few years ago and looking around at the verses and images posted on the walls. My eyes fell to a picture of a 9-year-old boy at the funeral of his younger brother, killed in a bomb blast in Gaza. The expression on his face was enough. I was in pieces. His face galvanized my prayers.
But why grieve on that boy’s behalf when there’s no attachment and no obvious benefit, evolutionary or otherwise?
First, Christianity insists that we grieve because something is wrong. There’s much good in this world, all of which comes from God. Yet brokenness pervades it all. Why? Because in the Garden of Eden, humanity’s relationship with God was fractured. The fall flung open the door to sin, suffering, and death. Second, Christianity insists that God has handcrafted each person on the planet. There is intrinsic value, therefore, to every human being—regardless of his or her capacity to protect or extend the genetic line.
So what else can be said? Three truths come to mind.
1. If God exists, our sense of loss doesn’t need to be suppressed.
Grief is an expression of injustice. Death is not natural; it’s an aberration that jars against the core of our being, regardless of our attempts to rationalize it. In fact, our cries point toward God rather than away from him. A few years ago, I wrote a book on suffering titled Why?: Looking at God, Evil, and Personal Suffering. I gave it this title since Why? is the question so often on our lips amid tragedy. But this question raises another: whom are you addressing? If God doesn’t exist, there is no one to ask. I believe we instinctively ask Why? because God does exist, and he hears our cries.
The Bible is packed with people being real with God about their circumstances, expressing a whole range of emotions. The writer of Psalm 22 cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v. 1). Job, who loses everything, doesn’t hold back his grief. He and the psalmists help us find words for our own experience, or even to accept that there often are no words (Job 2:13). In such times “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Rom. 8:26). It’s not always pretty, but God comes close to those who bring their grief to him rather than suppress it.
2. If God exists, we don’t grieve alone.
At the heart of the Christian faith is One who says he’s always with us—and who stared grief and loss square in the face. Isaiah described him as a “man of sorrows and familiar with suffering” and “acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). When Jesus experienced the death of his close friend Lazarus, he wept (John 11:34). On the cross, Jesus took grief and loss to unfathomable depths, such that the forsakenness he endured caused him to cry out the Why? question of Psalm 22.
God isn’t immune or indifferent to grief; he’s experienced it at the deepest level possible. And this same God is with us in our grief. He doesn’t always tell us why we’re suffering, but he does offer us himself: “The Father of all compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (2 Cor. 1:3–4). In our grief seven years ago, this comfort was real.
3. If God exists, there’s hope beyond the grave.
Grief doesn’t need to be suppressed, nor does it need to bury us. Job, in the middle of his troubles, makes an incredible profession of faith: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25–26). Jesus, standing in front of Lazarus’s tomb 2,000 years later, brings incredible hope out of deep despair. Psalm 22 ends in victory. There is hope.
If God doesn’t exist, this is the only life we get. Death marks the end, and the loss is permanent. But if he does, then death doesn’t have the last word. Jesus has defeated it. And one day, he will remove it entirely.
On that day, God will personally wipe away all our tears and bury our grief for good.