Grief is a strange thing. Months, even years after a loss, it can show up unexpectedly. About eight months after my grandfather passed away, I was traveling on the highway and passed the exit I would take to get to his house. I suddenly started crying and couldn’t stop. The wave of grief came out of nowhere; it was jarring, like being sideswiped by a car.
Grief is a wilderness we all travel at multiple times in our lives. Sometimes we grieve the loss of a loved one. Other times, we grieve a broken relationship, a shattered dream, or a ministry failure. Loss takes many shapes, affects us in different ways, and often lingers longer than it seems we can stand it.
The Israelites had a liturgy and structure they followed during times of grief. They wept and wailed. They tore at their clothes. They covered themselves in dust and ashes (Job 1:20; 2:12). They cried out to God in sorrow. They sang out in lament. In our culture, we’ve forgotten how to grieve. We rush through painful experiences to put them behind us. When others around us grieve, we are uncomfortable with their tears and do whatever we can to distract them. We might even altogether avoid the grief-stricken around us.
But grief is not something to be distracted from, overlooked, ignored, or avoided. There’s no timetable and no way to rush through it. Grief is not something that we just have to trudge through or endure until a certain amount of time has passed.
The journey we take through the wilderness of grief is necessary. There are important things that take place there. There are things we learn, experience, and walk through in that wilderness that will change and transform us into the likeness of our Savior. These lessons may be different for each person, depending on God’s specific redemptive purposes. We learn at least four important lessons in the wilderness of grief.
First, this world is not our home. Grief cuts into our comfortable everyday life and reminds us that this world is not all that there is (John 14:3). It opens our eyes to things we don’t see every day as we go about our daily tasks and routines. Grief opens our eyes to eternity. Despite what our culture says—“We only have one life to live”—there is life on the other side of death. Eternity lies ahead for us. Whether we lose a loved one, a relationship, or something else in this life that we hold dear, grief and loss remind us that there is more to come. Grief pierces at that longing deep in our heart for the joy and peace found only in the presence of God (1st Corinthians 13:12). It loosens our grip on this world and turns our heart to the joy that awaits us with Christ in eternity (Hebrews 11:16).
Second, grief teaches us that this world really is fallen. When our daily lives go on in a predictable way, we tend to forget how sinful and broken the world is. When life is comfortable and safe, we tend to forget the effects of the fall. We all too easily live as though this world isn’t as bad as it is. But then grief steps in, and we are reminded that Adam and Eve really did sin and that the curse of death is a harsh reality (Genesis 3:14–19). This means that we are right to grieve the death of loved ones (1st Thessalonians 4:13). We should weep and wail as the Israelites did. We ought to lament, bemoan, and hate the curse that has gripped our world. In fact, such grief should prompt us to pray, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).
Third, grief can reveal idols in our heart. When our lives are flipped upside down by loss, we discover just how much we cling to things other than God to meet our needs. As sinners, we often find our joy, security, peace, comfort, significance, and meaning in other people, in circumstances, and in created things rather than in our Creator (Romans 1:25). When we lose a job, a relationship, a dream, or something else we hold dear, we find out just how much we depend on something other than God to give meaning and purpose to our life. Wandering in the wilderness of grief opens our eyes to see these idols, bringing us to confession and repentance. As we do so, we can replace those idols with a greater love for our Savior, the One who alone is our joy, hope, and peace.
Fourth, grief and loss offer a unique place where we are united with our Savior in His grief and sufferings. Isaiah tells us that Christ “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3). Our Savior understands our grief because He lived in this broken world. He knew heartache, sorrow, loss, and grief. Knowing that our Savior understands what we are going through draws us closer to Him (Hebrews 4:15). When we look at the tears our Savior wept in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–46), we understand the depths of His love and grace for us.
C.H. Spurgeon once said, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.” The wilderness of grief is a stark, lonely place. But it can also be a wave that throws us against our Savior. The lessons we learn there are for our good and God’s glory, as the Spirit works in us, changing and transforming us into the likeness of Christ. Though the wilderness is a dark and scary place, we never journey there alone; Christ is with us. And having gone before us, He knows the way and will guide us through to the wilderness’ end.