It was a dreary January morning. I sat with my mother and five brothers and sisters near the casket and open grave of my father. He had taken his life two days earlier. The police had found a .45 caliber pistol and a note beside his body in the apartment where he had lived since he and my mother divorced.
As we sat on those cold metal chairs, men lowered the casket into the ground, and the minister came up to each of us to offer comfort. Probably because I was almost tearless, he put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said, "You have been very strong." At that moment and for years afterward, I believed him. I have come to realize how wrong we both were.
Before I was a Christian, I tended to hold in feelings of sorrow over painful events because the emotions were so overwhelming that I chose not to face them. Far better, I thought, to bury these emotions and get on with the practical duties of living. I dodged the pain because I was afraid of despair; for without the Lord, there is only despair.
After coming to know the Lord and the truth of His Word, I gained the benefit of God’s promises and the support of other Christians. When our first child was born five years ago with spina bifida, a severe birth defect, we were upheld by the love and faithfulness of God and the prayers of Christian family and friends. But during that long first year of sorrow and discouragement, my habit of suppressing emotions was still a strong coping mechanism for me. Some mistook my composure for deep faith and told me how strong I was. That was very flattering, but it merely reinforced a bad habit rather than encouraging faith.
At the same time a persistent message from my early spiritual training reinforced my habit. Whether intended or not, the message I kept hearing in my mind was that sorrow and strong faith are incompatible. God may be patient with my sorrow, but He is waiting for my faith to bring me back to joy and to Him. In the face of grief, "Rejoice always," "All things work together for good," "In everything give thanks," were verses that echoed through my mind to "exhort" me to abandon my sorrow, even in its early stages. "Affirm these truths in your mind," I heard the message say, "and sorrow will flee." And if my sadness did not flee, I would ignore it and hope it would go away. In essence, I was burying these feeling of grief as before, but for a different reason: to be "good enough" for God and others. I did not believe that the Lord would accept me fully until faith had driven my deep sorrow away.
But since those difficult days, the Lord has shown me the fallacy of that message and the beauty and comfort of His deep compassion in the midst of my sorrow. Even as we mourn, for whatever reason, we can be full of faith because we are in the presence of—next to the heart of—a God who desires to feel our sorrow with us before He restores joy. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Mt. 5:4).
But what exactly is sorrow? How does it differ from negative attitudes such as despair and self-pity?
Sorrow. One dictionary defines sorrow as "sadness or anguish due to loss." Pure sorrow is a simple sadness over losing something that is important to us. It may be the loss of a person in death or physical separation; the loss of material things, such as house or property; the loss of a desired condition, such as the loss of one’s health, employment, or even reputation. It may be loss of emotional security due to a hurt or conflict in a relationship.
When we feel pure sorrow it does not mean we have lost faith. There is no better illustration of this than the story of Lazarus’s death in John 11. When Mary and Martha challenge Jesus' timing, He gives them answers. But when they simply weep with a pure sorrow, He weeps with them. In perfect faith and assurance of the coming glory of Lazarus’s resurrection, Jesus knew sorrow.
Sorrow and grief are natural and healthy emotions which are realistic in the face of this world’s very real woes. For the Christian, sorrow is not forever, only for now. The worst of the pain will pass even in this life. No matter how long it may linger, sorrow is temporary. Jesus told His disciples, "Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned to joy" (Jn. 16:20, NASB).
Despair. Despair is defined as "loss of all hope or confidence." Sorrow and tears are not the same as despair, for despair means a loss of hope amid grief. As Christians we need never despair, because our hope and confidence are in the Lord Jesus Christ, His work, and His promises, which never fail. Perhaps Jesus intends "courage" to be the opposite of despair in Jn. 16:33 (NASB)—"These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage [don't despair]; I have overcome the world." David asks, "Why are you in despair, O my soul?—Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him" (Ps. 42:5, NASB). David often knew sorrow, but when his soul drifted over into despair, he remembered God’s faithfulness to him in the past and was encouraged.
Even suffering deep anguish, extreme sorrow, does not mean we stumble in our faith. Jesus is described as "a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering" (Isa. 53:3), yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). The writer of Hebrews tells us, "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission" (Heb. 5:7). What anguish is described here, but no mention of despair. In 2 Cor. 4:8, Paul writes, "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair." He never claimed he was not sad, only that he was not despairing, not losing hope.
Self-pity. "Self-indulgent lingering on one’s own sorrows or misfortunes" is the definition of self-pity. "Indulgent" implies that we have drunk more than the cup of sorrow allotted to us. Likewise, "lingering" implies we have stayed too long in our sorrow, that the days of mourning have passed. Self-pity, then, describes excessive sorrow or a continuation of grief long after the grace for recovery has been supplied. It may involve accumulating sorrows from yesterday and those imagined for tomorrow, bringing all the pain of past and future into the present. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," said Jesus, and the sorrow that comes with it (Mt. 6:34, KJV).
Sorrow is an emotion, not a sin. There is nothing wrong with pure sorrow over the pain of suffering or loss. It does not have to rule us, but sorrow must be allowed to take its course within the trusting heart. Sorrow is inevitable; despair is not, because we always have hope. Sorrow is necessary; self-pity is not, because there is always comfort, in time, and the grace to go on.
Perhaps with each pain comes a cup of sorrow. Sometimes it is thimble-sized, sometimes barrel-sized, but always the amount that must be drunk is limited. Psychologists and counselors tell us that suppressed emotion will spring up eventually in negative thoughts or behavior. When we grieve with a pure sorrow before the Lord, He comforts us by being with us as our sympathetic Friend and High Priest. He has compassion, which literally means He "feels with" us, before He restores our joy. I wonder if we can know that joy fully until we have drunk the cup of sorrow with the Lord, because, by definition, we cannot be comforted until we have felt our sorrow.
This past year I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. For two weeks after the news, I glibly told people how mild the disease would be, how there was nothing to worry about. I even made jokes about it. I rushed past sorrow, a normal emotion, because of an old pattern of denial and suppression. I discovered that the person who does that—either by ignoring feelings or suppressing them with Christian platitudes—will not feel the comfort of the loving God, because that person never feels grief. There is "a time to weep and a time to laugh" (Eccl. 3:4).
After two weeks I realized what I was doing and asked the Lord to soften my heart so that I could feel my sadness with Him and find comfort by faith. He is now restoring me to His joy. Grieving with a pure sorrow, believing God’s tremendous compassion, and then receiving His gift of restored joy is a simple process of recovery.
The timing of this recovery process is a matter of the individual spirit and conscience. That is why we cannot judge when another person has cried enough or mourned enough. He needs to grieve with a pure sorrow, and he will be comforted. When a person is in pain, we cannot decide for him when to change his sackcloth and throw away his ashes. We must not rush him for our own convenience, our own emotional comfort, or worse yet, to reassure ourselves that God is still working. The only instruction we are given about how to handle those who weep is to weep with them (Ro. 12:15).
Perhaps we are in a bigger hurry than the Lord to see hurting people emotionally "up," testifying and "counting it all joy." The Lord only asks them to "take courage" rather than despair (Jn. 16:33), not necessarily to continually present a smiling face. That will come, but it may take time.
If we push the mourner (or he pushes himself) into premature abandon of his sorrow so that he misses the grace of God, he may retain a residue of bitterness. It is as if we keep taking the cup of sorrow—a limited amount that must be drunk—out of his hands, saying, "No, you don't want to drink all this. Don't be sorrowful, because you know God is sovereign and will work this for good. You can be happy now because of those promises if you just exercise faith." So the mourner forgets the half-drunk cup of sorrow still sitting in his soul, and it ferments and grows bacteria and spawns a root of bitterness that springs up and bears poisonous fruit.
For his own good the sorrowing person must shun despair and self-pity, but allow him to feel and express his pure sorrow. Share the sorrow you feel over his loss or pain. Share the cup of sorrow with him and it will be empty sooner. "Weep with those who weep" (Ro. 12:15, NASB).
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. "Where have you laid him?" he asked. "Come and see, Lord," they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"—Jn. 11:33-36
Very few people know there is a place to grieve in God’s presence. Some are too busy blaming God for their pain. Others believe that the only faith response is to give thanks, put away their sorrow as soon as possible, and try to be a "good testimony." According to this view, God may be tolerant of our sorrow, but the only way to be received in God’s presence with full approval is to partially "stuff" our emotions. We must grieve, if we must, alone, and then recover before coming into God’s presence.
In the psalms David frequently mentions his tears before the Lord. Jesus wept with Mary and Martha, and in the garden before His arrest. Job’s response after the death of his children, "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised" (Job 1:21), was true worship spoken as he "tore his robe and shaved his head," external signs of deep mourning and grief. These words might well have been spoken through tears. I have not known the depth of loss that Job experienced, but during times of great sorrow, my deepest worship of the Lord has often been through tears. It is a "sweet sorrow," and I find it hard to know whether the tears are tears of sorrow over loss, or tears of joy over His comfort, love, and glorious promises. They may be both.
In his book You Gotta Keep Dancin', Tim Hansel wrote that he has given his life to learning one verse of Scripture: "Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need!" (Ps. 23:1, TLB). As I thought about that verse in relation to sorrow and joy, I knew he meant that for him, joy is in believing that even during loss or pain, he still has everything that is vital for his welfare. That’s God’s promise. It is true.
These thoughts led me to my own definition of sorrow:
Sorrow is the sadness I feel between the moment of my loss or pain and the moment I am reassumed in my emotional being that I still have everything that I need.
It is also the sadness I feel between the time of my loved one’s loss or pain and the time when I am reassured emotionally that we both still have all that we need. During all of this time I can, by grace, maintain faith that the Lord is providing for all my needs. But my faith does not "get rid of" my sorrow, and my sorrow does not rule out my faith. There is "a time to weep—a time to mourn" (Eccl. 3:4).
And praise be unto our God of mercy that He gives us that time to grieve; He gives us compassion for our hurt; and He gives us patience for our waiting. But most glorious of all, He gives us grace and power through our Lord Jesus Christ to restore us to the joy of His salvation! Only as we know such a Comforter can we share His comfort with others. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
I can choose to trust the Lord anytime, even in my sorrow, but it often seems that only He can bring me joy. Perhaps that is why David knew he needed to pray that the Lord, not his own faith, would restore his joy: "Let me hear joy and gladness.... Restore to me the joy of your salvation" (Ps. 51:8, Ps. 51:12).
David asked for joy to replace his grief after the time of natural sorrow was over, and when joy came, he declared, "You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy" (Ps. 30:11).
Joy is a gift, David discovered, not a right. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, Paul writes, not an emotion. Only the grace of the Spirit of God can reassure us in the very depth of our being that we have everything we need. We may ask for the gift of restored joy.
How thankful I am to the Lord that He has opened my eyes since the death of my father. He has let me see that when I'm willing to come to Him with a pure sorrow, He shares my grief and gives me time to mourn. Because of His compassion, I am free to let others experience sadness and to weep with them, without feeling a compulsion to give answers or rush God’s healing.
Jesus wept with friends. He wept in prayer. He drank the ultimate cup of sorrow for us at the Cross. Today, He weeps with those who weep, just as He commands us, His Body, to do. And afterward He restores our joy, that He might have all the glory for being both the One who shares the cup of sorrow and the Source of the glorious wine of gladness.