Lent: Grief and the Renewal of All Things
Curt Thompson, MD (click here to download this article as a PDF)
Soon we will enter the season that for centuries Christians have referred to as Lent. It corresponds to the roughly forty-day period that precedes Easter, give or take a few days, depending on the tradition that observes it. It is a time that commemorates the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, contending with the devil, immediately prior to beginning his public ministry.
As I have been reflecting on and anticipating this season in the church calendar, it occurred to me how beautifully and mysteriously our observance of Lent maps on to our day-to-day experiences, as well as the whole of our lives. Not least in terms of how it connects us not only to our sin, but to our grief. And as it turns out, it is to our grief we must go if it is liberation from our sin that we desire.
At one level, Lent invites us to examine ourselves to name those elements of our lives—our sin—for which we long to repent; to repent of those characteristics and behaviors for which we seek God’s renewal and transformation. But the very moment at which I identify the sin for which I want to repent (I do not, in all honesty, always want to repent of any number of things), an odd thing happens.
If I am paying attention, and if I am honest, I become aware of that which lies just underneath and provides the energy for my sin. For it is at this point that I am brought into the awareness of my longing. For indeed, those thoughts, words and deeds in my life that represent my sin invariably also represent desires. Desires that are core to my being human—and as such, are core to my being God’s image bearer. These desires precede my sin and are even shaped by my sin to the point that I often can’t tell them apart.
My sin is, in fact, misdirected desire. Misdirected, mind you, not for the purpose of intentionally and consciously slinging mud in God’s face. (Who wakes up on most days hoping that that is what they have the chance to do before the day is over? I realize that for some of you reading this you might want to do that, but that, too, has to do with desire that didn’t start out as sin. Believe me.)
Rather, I end up misdirecting my desire because there is something that I perceive I am so desperately in need of at the moment, or over the course of my life, but that I do not believe I will have, or that God will give me. I do not believe I will (or that I am able to wait to) receive it as a gift—and so I take it on my terms and on my timetable, without regard to how it affects other people. My awareness of my tendency to do this makes me very suspicious, then, of desire.
But if we’re not careful, we can confuse our addictions or idols—our sin—with the much deeper longings themselves, given how tangled up together they can be. As a result, we potentially end up tossing the baby out with the bathwater; we conflate our sin with desire, believing that confessing the former will somehow deliver me from the latter, which could only be the right thing to do. Where else would my sinful inclinations come from, if not first from dark desires?
This is not an unreasonable question. But the problem with condemning our desires outright is that we avoid the necessary work that must be done if we are to become fully open to being loved by God and others—and thus delivered from our sin.
It was Jesus himself who, in his first words in John’s Gospel, asked of the Baptist’s disciples, “What do you want?”
If we take Jesus as seriously as he takes us, invariably, we find that what we most want,
what we most deeply desire,
most desperately long for,
is the very thing that simultaneously activates within us echoes of our deepest griefs. And often, given how painful it is, we will avoid our grief at all costs.
* * *
Just as it was for the first couple on the third page of the bible, our deepest longings—to be seen, soothed, safe and secure; to be deeply known and loved such that we can in turn joyfully create and curate beauty and goodness in the world—are ultimately realized in the context of intimate relationships of lovingkindness.
But it is those very relationships that, also, like the first humans, are responsible for the wounds that lead to our coping behavior, our sin. That leads to my “taking” in innumerable ways from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, rather than waiting to receive from God what he longs to give me.
It is our sin of “taking” that extends and exacerbates our wounds, and puts distance and distrust between us, and between us and God. And seldom it is that those wounds that lead to the taking are ever healed very quickly, if at all. Instead, we seal them over without proper attention, and we carry them as our grief. Grief that, try as we will to avoid or bury, we eventually cope with by creating even more idols, more addictions. Which leads to…more grief.
And the cycle continues.
Once an abscess is established, it will only worsen over time until it is lanced. Grief is like that. Which is why we must go to the lengths we must in order to become acquainted with it, just as Jesus did and was.
Our deepest longings, then, are intertwined in our grief—and there is no avoiding it. Perhaps not every longing. If I want my favorite black raspberry milkshake this summer while on vacation, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be able to have it without much grief, if any at all. But that milkshake will be gone in twenty minutes, if not sooner. It won’t last. But having another one won’t further satiate my longing. It will likely only make me uncomfortable.
But our deepest desires are ones that, when we sense them being met in even the slightest way, when we catch but a glimpse of them, only call for more of what we have just had.
- More kindness.
- More joy.
- More connection.
- More empathy.
- More of the sense of feeling felt.
- More satisfaction at doing something, creating something beautiful that took a lot of hard work.
- More of what it feels like when we repair a rupture of a relationship gone wrong.
- More generosity.
- More humility.
- More transformation through being vulnerable.
- More peacemaking in the face of the potential for violence.
- More attention to being loved, and less attention to my shame that I fear will imprison me forever.
More, as it turns out, of Jesus.
More of the Person who, in the bodies and voices and faces of his followers, will travel with us into the rooms of our souls’ homes in which our griefs lie in residence. Fellow pilgrims who won’t leave those rooms when we enter to where we have kept the grief hidden and protected from the gaze of everyone, Jesus not the least. The grief that must be visited in order for us to name the longing that is entwined with it that, in its misguided way, led to who we are and what we have done for which we seek forgiveness and from which we long to repent.
But that repentance and the reception of forgiveness is only fully possible by our searching out our grief to its fullest extent. If we are not present to our grief so that we can name it, healing will ultimately be elusive.
In the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John we get a picture of how accessing our grief to its deepest recesses engages God’s movement in ways that our avoidance of our grief fails to do. In the story of the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, as Jesus finally approaches Bethany, four days following the burial, Lazarus’ sister Martha comes to greet him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
She begins by leveling her complaint, initially leaning into her grief. But when Jesus responds with, “Your brother will rise again,” she makes a right angle turn, veering off the course of grief, seemingly directing the conversation onto the road of what became a theological exposition with Jesus on the topic of the resurrection. We are not given the reasons for why she did this, and indeed there could be many. But what happens next brings Martha’s response into sharp contrast with that of her sister Mary.
Martha returns to her home and tells Mary, “The Teacher is here, and is asking for you.”
What the writer of the gospel wants you to see is that Jesus is asking for us to bring our grief to him. We have no reason to believe Mary was less aware of Jesus’ proximity than was Martha when the latter went to see him. But it appears that Mary was too present to her grief to move. Until Jesus asked for her. This brings her, along with her entire entourage, to Jesus, where she repeats her sister’s words. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
In contrast to Martha, Mary had not stopped weeping. It was her tears, and those of her friends, that deeply troubled Jesus’ spirit. Who knew that anything would trouble Jesus, would move him? Who of us believe that our grief could possibly trouble Jesus to the point of his doing anything other than reminding us that our grief is our own fault, or perhaps remind us that one day everything will work out?
With Mary, there was none of that. There was no theological conversation about death, or the resurrection. There was no one telling someone else it would all be okay. There was only continual, unmitigated weeping. And in response to this, Jesus moves.
“Where have you laid him?” This, followed by his own tears. He is moved in spirit, and moved to action.
Upon arrival at the tomb, Jesus instructs those in attendance to remove the stone. He is not satisfied with merely confronting a newly deceased corpse; no, he intends—as he does in all of our stories—to confront the grief of that which is not only recently dead, but has been dead for so long that it has decayed beyond the point of recognition.
But Martha, who apparently has returned to the scene, and like all of us, is still fearful of moving into the room—in this case a small cave of a tomb—where her grief lies buried, protests one last time.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” My hunch is that for many of us, myself not the least, our grief is so malodorous that we have little interest in having Jesus move away the stone. But it is only in doing so that we create the space for Jesus to say to us, as he said to Lazarus, “…come out!” And to be certain, when we do come out, when we do reveal our grief to our trusted friends who are with us, we are often, like Lazarus, still bound up with grave clothes. It can take some getting used to, given how long our grief has been buried.
I often think that Martha gets a bad rap. It is possible that, compared to her sister Mary, she was categorically more interested in getting things done, and only dealing with the practical, the logical, living out of the left side of her brain; and that Mary was more interested in living in the present moment, being with Jesus, rather than talking about what is or isn’t getting done, or making sure that whatever is getting done is getting done the right way.
However, we must not lose sight of the gospel writer’s brilliance. What he is showing us is not just two people. He is revealing how within each of us are those parts that at times can be more like Martha, and other parts that are more like Mary. For I know myself that there are times when I am more like one, and at others when I am more like the other.
In this case, it is clear: for life to emerge out of death, we must first be attentive to the voice of Jesus calling for our grief. And when we answer, we must be willing to remain with it in his presence. It is with those conditions that move him to act.
As we, like Mary, unapologetically move toward our grief—rather than, like Martha, minimize or even deny it, replacing it with so many things, not least our theological convictions that somehow our grief is only a sign of our weakness; or an indication that we have not demonstrated that we have enough faith; such that at the very least it should be kept where we have put it, or perhaps even more so, pushed even further away—we give Jesus the freedom, both personally and through the members of his body, to meet us in our grief so that he can enable us to untangle it from our desires.
Our desire to live fully in the light of being loved, that love now having been poured like a healing balm for our grief for the purpose of resurrecting it. To be, like Mary, unabashed in our grief in the presence of Jesus moves him to tears—which moves him to move us to life.
We see, then, that Lent, as much as it is about confronting our sin, is also for the purpose of addressing and acquiring comfort for our grief. For indeed, naming our sin requires that we eventually name our griefs as well.
It is in naming them both in a community that responds with mercy—yet not without demands—that we are able to address how our sin—our misdirected desire—has hurt everyone. Others. Ourselves. And, perhaps, God not the least.
But not for the sake of having those we have hurt shame us. That is not the business God is in. Rather we name our griefs such that others can remind us of the forgiveness that in Jesus is—as it has always been—waiting for us to receive. In our receptivity to his love via the love of his body of followers we can turn and begin to name, perhaps for the first time, what we most truly desire—to be known in order to create beauty and goodness in the world—and thus live into that very vision.
In Faith, Hope and Carnage, the Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave beautifully laments how, in his journey of grief in the wake of the loss of his teenage son to a tragic accident, that very grief brings him to an encounter with God like nothing else has, or perhaps can.
It seems the case that the entire biblical narrative is one long arc of grief, the grief that is our longing trying desperately to make its way out from under the rubble of our sin, if only it could find some help. And it is in the very center of that grief that we find God already waiting, already having come for us, over and over again.
In fact, we, like Nick Cave, may discover that the greatest beauty, the deepest love that we will ever know is to be received as we wade into the grief that sits beneath our sin, beneath all of our addictions and idols that we have been using so fervently to keep the pain of our grief at bay.
* * *
What makes this whole enterprise of naming our griefs so difficult, however, is at least twofold:
FIRST… The memory of our grief is frequently so painful, and therefore something we naturally avoid. The extent of our grief is so vast.
We live with brains that carry with them the memories of trauma and grief that are held in older neural networks. This means that, despite working toward genuine healing, those older networks can be activated when we find ourselves under particularly unpredictable and deeply stressful circumstances.
The challenge for us is when we encounter the right set of wrong circumstances, and those older networks that represent our grief once again temporarily take center stage of our experience. Our minds are aware of this possibility, even after long periods of growth. Hence, at times the anticipation of encountering intimate relationships for the purpose of healing can tend to harken the memory of how intimacy has been the very source of our grief in the first place.
For many of us, then, visiting the rooms where our grief resides can be unsettling at best, frightening at worst. Which is why the process often requires a slow, deliberate approach to those rooms in the presence of other fellow pilgrims /friends…
- Friends who are willing to remain with us every step of the way.
- Friends who will be the faithful presence of Jesus when we open the door to the rooms that hold our histories of suffering. Suffering that has been foisted upon us. And suffering that we have foisted upon ourselves.
- Friends who will beckon us to pay more attention to the love they are offering to us in the presence of our grief as we are in the very middle of it.
- Friends who help us learn that our grief, though real, is no longer something we need to fear remembering.
- Friends who, like Jesus, will not leave us or forsake us.
SECOND, the process of encountering our grief is difficult because of just how much of it there is.
We wildly underestimate how much grief we carry, and we do so for good reason: to pay attention to it can begin to feel overwhelming.
To do this, we distract ourselves, and there is no end to the things at our disposal to do that very thing. From our devices to our work to our leisure, we have enough affluence that provides the entertainment that will keep us from visiting our souls. Keep us from the rooms where our grief resides. Until, of course, our distractions are no longer able to keep our grief at bay, and it presents itself as everything from our substance misuse to sexual impropriety to anxiety to depression to ennui. At which point we find that the naming of our griefs can, and must, commence—because we no longer can keep from doing so.
And this, despite how overwhelming at first glance it might be to come to terms with how great, is the acreage in our minds that it actually occupies.
It is for both of these reasons that Lent is so important.
First, we see that Lent is not a one day deal. Christmas and Easter are one day deals. Lent, not so.
For indeed we are born into the world in a moment, as was Jesus. And we are told that resurrection will happen in the twinkle of an eye.
The healing of grief?
The learning to fast from our idols long enough to give God time to feed us from the Tree of Life?
All of this takes a lifetime. Which is a good thing. Because to practice overcoming the memory of shame, and to explore our grief to the depth it exists will take a long, long time.
With Lent, we are given the opportunity to take our time, time that God is more than happy to share with us, for indeed, he is not in a rush. He is too busy wanting to make sure that we leave no stone of shame or grief in our story unturned, such that every square inch of our story that lies beneath it will come to know what it means to be loved. Loved in such a way that the deep longing that preceded any sin that is concealed there will itself be renewed and recommissioned.
As we begin the Lenten season, looking forward to Easter, may we with comfort and confidence—if even accompanied by the fear of our memories—name our sin, such that we may even more so enter the rooms of our grief, and hear our King and our brothers and sisters alike, as was true for Lazarus, call to what lies there, “Come out!”, that the mourning of our grief may be transformed into the dancing of joy.