Grief as a Protest

Do you know that experience when an understanding becomes deeper? The knowledge you had may have been something you read and affirmed and/or perhaps you even shared with others. But then an event transpires and a layer of understanding that was previously foreign to you is now a part of you. An ah-ha moment has occurred. Your eyes have been opened as a light bulb has been turned on, and the room is brighter. There is energy and excitement as you say to yourself, “I get it!” I recently had one of these experiences.

As of late, I had the joyous experience of graduating, receiving my PhD; however, on that same day my father’s physician informed the family it was time to put my father on comfort care or hospice. Both of these experiences contain an ending and a beginning, generating sorrow and anticipation. I celebrate my father’s life and my own graduation while also mourning Dad’s death and the end of an eleven-year pursuit. It then is not a surprise that the morning following graduation I found myself in mourning. Even though I know and teach that the sense of feeling out of control is frequently associated with grief, such knowledge failed to lessen its impact. I recognize it is normal for loss and grief to cause us to wonder if we are going crazy, but this awareness does not necessarily reduce the intensity of the feelings. To put it simply: I was feeling overwhelmed. To exacerbate the issue, my physical body was also experiencing grief’s impact in that I had developed a severe migraine that morning. It is an erroneous belief that grief is merely an emotional reaction. Instead, it seeps into every pore of our lives, and my experience was no exception. Physically, I had a horrible migraine. Mentally, I was unable to think straight. Emotionally, I was sobbing. Spiritually, I was wondering, “Where are you God?” It seemed I was at grief’s mercy.

My mourning was intensified when I began to feel shame for my tears and my feelings of being out of control, demonstrating that all of my training did not completely ameliorate the experience of loss and grief. Alas, I am not exempt from the force of its grasp. In some ways, this is understandable. I live in a culture that says an employee is allotted three to five days to grieve and then it is back to life as usual. Additionally, the current trend in our culture is to adopt the philosophy that funerals are to celebrate the life of the loved one; thus, it seems that grieving is being pushed further and further out of the public eye so that mourners are becoming more and more isolated in their grief.

On that particular morning I was feeling anger as a sense of helplessness engulfed me. I could not prevent Dad from dying nor could I halt the ending of my doctoral journey. As I wept and wondered how I would maneuver my way through the aftermath of the accumulating losses and also questioning where God is, suddenly clarity appeared. An awakening occurred within my being as the Light abruptly shone in the darkness. As a Christ follower, I would say, “The Son illuminated light” as I heard the Comforter whisper, “Your tears are a protest. This is not the way it should be.” Within a split second I was able to embrace my grief—the tears, the helplessness, and the lack of control. I moved from apologizing to God to joining God in the protest. I shifted from feeling shame for having this experience to embracing the experience. I turned from self-condemnation to self-empathy. I saw in that moment that my understanding was brought to life in a new dimension—a new perception had emerged.

What does it mean to protest? Some of us may have images of people lining the streets with banners and a megaphone, demonstrating a need for change. Such a type of a protest may include an expression of grieving a loss, of something that should not be. There is a longing for justice or equality and a call for transformation. But I would ask us to consider grief as a way to protest a loss, such as a death of a person. Somehow we know within us this world is broken, and it should not be. Our tears are a protest, demonstration if you will, of this broken world. It is a cry for wholeness.

As a Jesus follower, I am reminded that Scripture is replete with protests. For instance, the Psalms are a mixture of lament and celebration, and we also read of a man’s protest of his own losses in the book of Job. As I have stated previously, these type of protests exhibit trust, a trust in the one to whom I am protesting. A protest states, “This is not how it should be.” A protest also contains a hope that it will be different. As a Jesus follower, I have a hope that believes a resurrection is coming. I hold onto a hope that a time is approaching when God will be all in all and all pain and suffering will be gone. My tears are an expression of this as I cry, “No! This is not the way it should be!”

Generally, when biblical scholars speak of lament, they refer to the Hebrew Scriptures, but I want to draw from the Christian New Testament, specifically the Gospel of John. In the eleventh chapter of the Fourth Gospel we read that Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, has died. What is Jesus’ response? Verse 35 states, “Jesus wept.” Consider with me for a moment the context of this verse. In verse 4, Jesus informs his disciples that Lazarus’ sickness will not lead to death but will be for the glory of God. In verse 11, he tells his disciples that they are going to awaken Lazarus. In verse 23 he tells Martha that her brother will come back to life, and in verse 25 he states he is the resurrection and the life. But in verse 35 John informs his readers that Jesus is weeping. Jesus knows the celebration of the resurrection is coming, but it does not remove his sorrow.

Furthermore, in this chapter there are two words that expand on Jesus’ emotional experience in this particular scene. In verses 33 and 38 there is a verb (enebrimesato) that speaks of a strong demonstration of emotion, which scholars tell us is difficult to translate. The NET translates it as “intensely moved,” but it could also be “deeply indignant.” Verse 33 has the second verb with similar leanings (tarasso) which the NET translates as “greatly distressed,” but it could also be “greatly troubled” (John also uses it in 13:21, 14:1, and 14:27). Jesus is feeling deeply in this chapter. Some scholars interpret this as anger, such as being angry at the unbelief. Others see him as angry at the powers of Satan. Others also wonder if he is angry at death. In light of our discussion I am wondering if Jesus’ tears and his powerful emotions include the idea of a protest. What if Jesus is being intensely moved and quietly weeps because he knows, “This is not the way it should be”? As a Jesus follower, I believe that Jesus is God’s response to the sin and suffering of the world. God acts within God’s own being—the divine-human one is sent. Since the person of Jesus is God’s response to sin and suffering, Jesus knows within his own being that this hurting world is not what God intended. When faced with the death of a dear friend, Jesus’ tears protest death. This is Jesus experiencing suffering and saying, “No!” He loves Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. He feels the sting of death, his friends’ grief, and his own grief. He knows this is not the way it should be while at the same time he is the embodiment of the way, the truth, the life, and the resurrection. The revealer of God to humanity and humanity’s response to God is protesting.

Perhaps one could call this a proleptic mini-experience. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and he is about to raise Lazarus while at the same time he is experiencing suffering, the loss and grief from a human’s death. One could, then, say that the embodiment of the resurrection and the life is experiencing the now-but-not-yet in the death of Lazarus. Yes, God’s reign has come in Jesus, but it is yet to come to culmination when God will be all in all. Jesus is living in the now-but-not-yet: Jesus is the resurrection and the life, but Lazarus is dead, and while he will raise Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus will die again. So, he protests death through tears and strong emotions, decrying, “This is not the way it should be,” while he calls Lazarus out of his tomb.

This insight is helpful to me in my own grief. Yes, Dad will not suffer anymore. Yes, we believe in the hope of the resurrection. Yes, God has led me each step of the way, culminating in a graduation, and so I can say that maybe in a year from now these tears will be diminished as I will be in the midst of writing a new volume to the Engelbert series. However, in the moment I am protesting. I am now weeping. I am in the now-but-not-yet, and in this proleptic mini-experience, I weep—this is not how it should be. I want stability, clarity, life, health, and understanding; thus, my tears are an expression of my grief as a way to say, “This is not right.” Yes, there is coming a time when all tears will be gone. In fact, John writes in Revelation 21:1 that in the new heaven and the new earth, “the sea existed no more.” During John’s time, the sea was a fearful unknown—it was unpredictable and uncontrollable. It was a reminder of the not-yet, the incomplete. I live in the incomplete while also embracing a hope of the new heaven and new earth. I have a hope of what is to come when ambiguity, uncertainty, and death will be gone. Oh, at times I gain understanding, have clarity, and experience healing, but it is incomplete. I live in the now-but-not-yet, and so I protest: I embrace my tears; I join the Spirit who also protests, weeping through groans for the new creation. I now leave you with the Apostle Paul’s words, “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22-23, NET).

NOTE: My father passed away on May 29, 2017.

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