Introduction – A Brief Story
Christmas was our favorite time of year and this second time around without my wife, who went to be with the Lord, seems slightly more grievous than last year’s. The window between March 28 and December 3, 2021 was jam-packed with busyness, flurry, and other stressors that, for the most part, kept grief at bay. During this time last year, I had just resigned from my job, my Connecticut home was empty because my moving truck was loaded and my new (temporary) home in Maryland awaited me. In reality, many parts of me had not been allowed grief to run its course.
I settled into my new (more permanent) home and started my new job in late February ’22 (in the same week, I will add). But by this point, I had grown to feel comforted by seeing God’s hand guiding my steps. In the ensuing months, I slowly settled into my new church, community, and home and developed new routines. In some ways, the old had gone, and the new had come.
Yet, as seminary started in late August, I felt a lag in my spirit. I didn’t really want to begin because it represented another layer of separation from my old life with Heidi. I was already planning to start seminary on April 1, 2021, but she went to be with Jesus just a few days prior. So all the reading and writing that comes with seminary became a chore, not a joy. But I pressed on because I knew that God was with me.
Below are three ways to deal with grief during Christmas: (1) Realize the course of grief, (2) Accept the Grief by Grieving with Integrity, (3) Come to Jesus
The Course of Grief
The course of grief is like other aspects of our lives: Guided like a water course by God himself (Pro 16:9, 21:1). And to the extent we understand the bigger point that God directs a person’s steps, we can grow to accept the adjacent point: We will not always understand it but He is always faithful. Proverbs 20:24 (NIV) says, “A person’s steps are directed by the LORD. How then can anyone understand their own way?”
We did not wake up one day, randomly, in a state of grief. God brought us here. He brought us to embark on a journey which we don’t fully understand, but because of our core and innate trust in the One who brought us here, we walk forward by faith. But we do so not in order to understand inasmuch as to demonstrate trust and obedience in the One who does because he brought us here.
With each step, we demonstrate the faith God gifted us. For those in Christ, the direction of the course of our lives (including the grief) is always heavenward (Phil 3:14), and the object of our faith is always Christ (Phil 3:10). Think for a moment. Our grief is pressing heavenward.
The course of grief invariably leads us through seasons, like Christmas, and it invariably crosses thresholds of painful memories. We lap our lives, year to year, remembering things we loved about the one who is now with Jesus. The pangs of loss can surface when the stages of life develop and new things appear. The course of grief has parts that rush more heavily while others are tamer and milder. But the realization that grief is like a water course directed by God, which we need not fully grasp or understand, will help us move toward accepting the grief when it comes.
Accept the Grief by Grieving with Integrity
One reason I think grief can be so hard to accept is that emotionally it can almost feel as if by acknowledging it, we are simultaneously rejecting the person we lost. We know, if given the opportunity, in a moment, we will take them back in happy splendor. But acceptance of the grief of the one we lost does not constitute rejection of the one we lost. We know this in our head, but the heart is often times slower to catch up.
Job, however, seemed to grasp this instantly, as far as we can tell, Job 2:9-10 (NIV):
9 His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” 10 He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.
Indeed, the Christian shall accept the trouble bound up in their grief. As complicated as it may be, the course of our grief is never out of the domain of God’s sovereign reign and control, and for reasons beyond our understanding, we are ushered into those dark and lonely places where grief dwells. But God understands it all and knows our grief’s contours with greater clarity than we ever will.
Job’s dear wife also understood this because, by virtue of her question, she intuitively knew that the most honest thing to do in the wake of such loss was to accept it. The flesh wants to do more than just reject the grief or the pain or even reasonable comfort in its wake – the flesh wants to reject God outright.
Christians grieve with integrity when they learn to accept the trouble of suffering and pain as having directly come from God’s hand, guided, and controlled like a water course. If even one tear fallen from our grief runs out of bounds of the Father’s rule, reign, and sovereign ordination of our lives, then He is no God to be loved or worshiped. Indeed, Job’s wife’s rationale would be perfectly rational.
You might be thinking: “Ok! I agree. But what does it mean to accept it with integrity? How do I actually “accept grief?”
Accepting grief is a much larger point than this article will contain, but my hope is that your heart is being stirred toward a noble theme (Ps 45:1) that leads you directly to Christ. Your first act of acceptance of your grief is to take your grief; every ounce of it; every last measure of it, all that can be weighed, take it in hand to our Lord to the one acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3 ESV).
Come to Jesus
Jesus gives you something no counselor ever can: Rest for your soul. And when we come to Jesus as he wants us to come to him, we must remember that such an act is a tangible manifestation of the ministry of the Holy Spirit at work in us. When, in our pain, it occurs to us that Christ is our only refuge beyond the pain, we are, in real time, experiencing the mercy of God toward us as a lowly suffering sinner.
One of the horrible realities of grief is that even our grief is tainted by the fall. Our doctrine of total depravity helps crystallize this point, so it helps us be on guard against any notion that our sinful flesh may entice us to believe that there is some special component to our grief beyond the pale of hope for our Lord to handle. May this never be said of us.
The Holy Spirit enables us to bring our hardship, our pain, our heartache, our loneliness, our grief, and every tear that we shed. He helps us come to Christ, that great and mighty Shepherd of your soul (1 Peter 2:25). We come to Christ to receive the promised rest built-in and undergirded by perhaps the greatest invitation ever offered. Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV):
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Your grief is a burden, and it is wearisome. It is beyond the scope of our ability to handle it. There is no shame in admitting this, but only peace and security for those who do. As we come to Christ, you bring the trouble of your grief to Christ. He understands the storyline of your life. He knows your secret thoughts you’re too afraid to utter. He knows the temptations buried in the flesh-part[i] of your heart where you might be tempted to want to curse God in your grief.
Your grief is the burden to take to Christ, but unless you have accepted it as having come from him in the first place, you may be tempted to hold on to your grief as a medium to hold on to the one you lost.
Imagine this: God gave you the trouble of grief so that you go to him with it to give to him so that He can give you rest so that you can exercise that rest back into Him.
As you journey this Christmas, another year in your acquaintance with grief, may you understand in new ways how God is guiding your life, including your grief, like a water course; teaching you to grieve with integrity by coming to Christ as he wants you to come to him.
As you celebrate Immanuel this Christmas, though that celebration may contain remnants of grief, may it be subdued by newfound joy in your pain because what we celebrate this Christmas is the inauguration of the King of kings, who, by his death and resurrection, extinguishes grief always.
[i] “Flesh-part” is an adaptation of Francis Shaeffer’s idea of the “mannishness of man”.
Edward Ruiz is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor serving with Safe Harbor Christian counseling as well as Life Counseling Center Ministries in Maryland. He attends Columbia Presbyterian Church and will begin Seminary with Metro-Baltimore seminary in the summer of 2022. Edward served in the U.S. Army as a Chaplain Assistant 2003-2010 with two Iraq tours. Edward has two dogs, Jagger and Mowgli. Edward enjoys cycling, writing/blogging, teaching the Bible, podcasting, writing Christian hip-hop music, and spending time with his family. Learn more about Edward’s work at https://ccfamilyservices.com/