Grieving Deeply with Faith: Not a Contradiction

by David Prince April 3, 2020

In her poem, A Better Resurrection, the 19th-century Christian poetess, Christina Rossetti, captures a rawness of her pain that exposes violent emotions. The three-stanza poem contours the dark, depressing side to her grief that eclipses and assaults her living. The petrifying distress drags her down—soul, wit, hopes, eyelids. There is no Spring or Summer in this descent. Only faded leaves, dwindled harvests, barren dusks, bud-less, wilted Springs, broken bowls, frozen living—expressions of cold emptiness and dark solitude. Whatever the nature of her loss, her strong and vulnerable emotional pain grows exhausting, numbing, and debilitating:

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf: O Jesus, quicken me. (first stanza)

From the silent depth of the weak, grieved self, the narrator calls on Jesus three times in each of the stanzas. She calls on him for revival (O Jesus, quicken me), for indwelling (O Jesus, rise in me), and for service (O Jesus, drink of me). The language of her pleas reflects a faith that Jesus is more than capable of meeting each of her needs for life, healing, and missional use. She knows that no one else outside of Christ can and would be able to breathe life back into her wit, words, tears, hearts, hopes, fears, eyes, life, and grief. Though the poem ends with the narrator still waiting for God’s intervention, what’s been established is the reality of bringing conflicting emotions of grief in faith to Jesus, waiting for God to act. 

In my own grief, I’ve experienced a tension between grieving deeply and intensely while trusting fully and faithfully in God. On the one hand, it is challenging to reconcile how someone can trust in God and yet feel so depressingly low emotionally. Is grief a sign of weak, dying faith? On the other hand, a Christian’s emotions should gauge between joy as “the fruit of the Spirit” and thankfulness since “all things work together for our good.” Is faith better off when a stoic detachment masks the negative emotions?

While the Bible doesn’t answer exactly to how deep or painful each sufferer’s grief will become, it certainly speaks clearly to the combined reality of Christian grief and faith. From the scriptural point of view, grief and faith are not antithetical realities. In 1 Peter 4:19, Peter shows us that it is possible to suffer while we commit our faith to God. In fact, Peter doesn’t leave room for any other way to suffer. Therefore, let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator. Though, in context, this verse speaks to suffering arising from being persecuted and mocked for bearing the name of Christ, Peter expands its application throughout the letter to all kinds of God-appointed trials: Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ…(4:12-13). Since God allows suffering, our response in grief is not, therefore, the absence of faith, nor is faith absent of any suffering, either. One can grieve deeply and fully while holding strong to Jesus in faith. This verse comforts me to know there is nothing holy about grieving outside of God and to separate them is utterly unbiblical!

The gospel invites every suffering believer into a safe, biblical arena where conflicting and painful emotions are already vividly presented. Throughout the Psalms, David has an anguished cry for help while feeling lonely, broken, depressed, and extremely grieved. Elijah felt discouraged, tired, and depressed. Jonah experienced “no peace, no quietness, no rest, but only turmoil.”  Jeremiah experienced defeat, loneliness, and insecurities. As for Jesus, he lived through deep anguish “to the point of death” while facing the cross. These are all godly men who, though pressed emotionally, remained anchored in their God though faith. Their hope in God, though, didn’t keep their soul from being enlarged with sorrow and grief. 

My favorite passage that poignantly embodies faith committed to God while assaulted by disturbing emotions is the Savior’s cry on the cross in Luke 23:46: Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit! The same Greek word “commit” that Jesus uses while dying, Peter picks up in 1 Peter 4:19: Therefore, let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator. In using the same word as our Messiah, Peter calls our attention to pattern our grieving after our Lord’s who, though in indescribable anguish, placed his own soul in the hands of God. The safest place for our faith while hurting is in the hands of our faithful Creator—a shelter and a refuge for the assaulted. More than the act of entrusting our soul as we grieve, the emphases of both passages is the divine hands that receive any such assaulted faith. More significant than having the grief immediately removed and emotions healed, is being received with open arms by a faithful Creator. 

When we grieve in faith, God receives us the way we are. Reading about the very intimate moment of the Savior deeply afflicted on the cross, entrusting his soul to God, reveals to my own conflicted self that the intensity of my emotions—even the grievous, painful ones—will not shame me in God’s presence. Nor do I have to detach myself from their intensity in order to place my soul in His hands. God, who knows every depth of our emotions, is not terrified by their intensity. Instead, He has room in His hands to hold us—weak, struggling faith and enormous, tumultuous emotions alike. 

Rossetti ends her poem with the climax of utter submission (Cast in the fire the perished thing) and plea for refinement by fire (Melt and remould it) for the sole design to be used by God for his divine purposes.  

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perished thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

While sinking in her violent and weary grief, the only hope for the narrator is Jesus transforming her from an ephemeral broken bowl into an eternal royal cup for her King, purposing her life and pain for Him. She was brought to the end of herself—a painful, insufficient, broken, sober self-realization—in order to find that there is renewed hope and meaning in being sanctified by trials. In the end, Rossetti’s narrator concludes what the Scripture states all along, that nothing can ever separate us from Jesus, our Lord—not even the assaulting, brutal emotions of our own grief. And in this comforting faithful truth, may we allow ourselves to grieve in all the depths of our intense emotions.

Editor's Note: This originally published at Prince on Preaching.