Jesus and Grief - What Can the Man of Sorrows Teach Us About Helping the Sorrowful?

My wife recently gave birth to our fourth child, and the circumstances of the birth were far from ideal. After several hours of laboring, it became apparent that with each contraction there was a corresponding drop in our daughter’s heart rate, a condition which got worse each time. In a matter of minutes, we went from expecting to have a natural delivery to the doctor ordering a c-section to that becoming an emergency c-section with my wife under general anesthesia. By the grace of God, my daughter, who had become entangled in her umbilical cord, was saved, and, though my wife would face an arduous period of healing, she was expected to make a full recovery.

It’s occurred to both my wife and I in the days that followed how different this outcome might have been 100 years ago. If you’ve ever visited an old cemetery, one of the things you might have noticed was an abundance of tombstones that testify to the short life span of women and children in days past. So many children and their mothers died in childbirth back then. And yet, throughout the whole experience of my wife’s delivery, I never thought I would lose my wife or even my child. I’m just not acquainted with grief, not that kind anyway.

For those of us in the western world, grief is often more the exception than the rule. Of course, as Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9); the western world hasn’t found some secret that allows it to escape the realities that promote grief – things like sickness, pain, separation, and death. However, God has so blessed the condition of most of us living in the western world that grief typically isn’t a part of everyday life. We have most if not all of our needs met on a daily basis. We are treated regularly with life-saving and life-bettering medicine and medical practices. We still face death, but often do so in predictable and expectable ways. There are many exceptions to these statements for sure, but the truth is that most of us are just not very well acquainted with grief.  

Because so many of us have only experienced hardship sporadically or, in the case of certain kinds of hardship, not at all, we’re frequently not equipped to help people through the hardships they are experiencing. Time and time again hurting people are hurt again by well-meaning people and their efforts to speak words and wisdom into situations they simply do not understand. Those suffering find in their friends what Job found in his: “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2).

Jesus had a very different experience than most modern westerners. In His world, sickness and death often worked unchecked in an environment shaped by poverty and the specter of Roman occupation. If not for Jesus and His ministry, the Gospel accounts would be anything but good news; they would be stories of sickness, suffering, death, and Satan reigning supreme over the human condition.

Jesus was not out of touch with the kinds of things that people in His world experienced. Before His life, the Spirit said in prophecy that Jesus would be, “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). After his life, the Hebrews author describes Jesus as someone Who can “sympathize with our weaknesses” having been “in all points tempted as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). While we have no record of Jesus experiencing sickness, we do see Him feeling hunger (Matthew 4:2), experiencing poverty and homelessness (Matthew 8:20), facing periods of abandonment and rejection (John 6:66-67), bearing the scorn of unbelieving family members (John 7:1-5), shedding tears over the death of a friend (John 11:35) and over the state of His nation (Luke 19:41), and many other things that are a part of the human condition. Add to that the tragic circumstances that surrounded His death, and you can see why the Spirit said He was “acquainted with grief.”

The Hebrews author also said of Him, “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). I love the prophecy about Jesus quoted in Matthew:

Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen,
My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!
I will put My Spirit upon Him,
And He will declare justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel nor cry out,
Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
A bruised reed He will not break,
And smoking flax He will not quench,
Till He sends forth justice to victory;
And in His name Gentiles will trust (Matthew 12:18-21; cf. Isaiah 42:1-4).

Nothing pictures a suffering soul more perfectly than a trodden down plant or a small fire about to be extinguished. And yet, Jesus was able to encounter souls in exactly this state and revive them to victorious life. It’s significant that even today when Gentiles, the spiritual outcasts and biblically illiterate (cf. Romans 1:18-32), discover Jesus, they find someone whom they can trust. More than that though, people find in Jesus someone who can help. Another beautiful prophecy about Jesus quoted in Luke’s account of the Gospel reads:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2).

As Christians, Jesus is supposed to be our “example”; we’re supposed to “follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). How can those of us unacquainted with grief help like the One who was “acquainted with grief” and tested “in all points” of the human condition? How can we, the fallible, imperfect, and weak, bring liberty and recovery like the almighty Son of God?
 
You know, Job’s friends weren’t always miserable comforters. Their presence – in silence – for seven days (Job 2:13) set the stage for Job to feel comfortable enough to pour out his heart to them (Job 3:1). They only became miserable comforters when they spoke. Maybe there’s a lesson there. Jesus’ work in becoming a “wonderful counselor” (Isaiah 9:6) began when He made the trip that Job’s friends made: leaving His home to come and sit in the ashes (cf. Job 2:8; Isaiah 61:3) to bring comfort to the grieving.
                     
Yes, Jesus eventually spoke. But when He spoke, He spoke with the knowledge of both God’s truth and His own experience. Of course, nothing can create experience other than, well, experiencing something. But perhaps those of us who aren’t acquainted with grief can sit and learn, first from Jesus who knew grief perhaps better than anyone and then from others who have experienced what we haven’t.

May no bruised reed break because of me; may no smoking flax die out because I quenched it.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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