The Christian Disenfranchisement of Grief

Short version: New article on a theology of grief, here.

There is so much of our theology that is precious because it is true. But too often, the power that God has entrusted to us in his word is presumed upon; wielded irresponsibly. Our peculiar religious sub-culture now thinks in blogs and tweets. The internet has magnified our bravery beyond our embodied personality, shrinking our discretion and humility. Short-form content is a funhouse of distorting mirrors that many of us have not left for several years.

And then: The death of a loved one. A parent. A sibling. No chance to say goodbye. The funhouse of fabricated intimacy cannot help us in grief. Even the “deepest” tweets are platitudes, Chinese manufactured toys under the steamroller of heavy felt-loss. None of it matters at all, but it has come to compose 90% of life — somehow.

Within evangelicalism, the genuine expression of despair often feels at odds with a confession of faith. Lament has no room. Not really. There is a short window of time, until we are required to sing “Up From The Grave He Rose” once again in a couple weeks. Patience is really the ticking clock on the time bomb of God’s moral evaluation — in evangelicalism, tears have a half-life, an expiration date, until they overstay their welcome, and survivors of greater loss are held over our heads. Real, terrible, unrectifiable tragedy is airdropped into theological air quotes — “Even the darkness is not dark to him.” And this is used to prolepticly homogenize all forms of heartbreak onto a single railroad, with a single destination: explicitly God-derived joy.

So long as our community requires its members to follow their rules of grief, we will blind the believing bereaved to the space God himself has made for us to critique him.

This is why I wrote this article on grief and lament. Christians are married to the “stage model” of grief, because it so perfectly mirrors the uniform dogmatism of our own epistemic ticks. I don’t think this article “fits” here in our world. The only consolation readers may have is that I think J. I. Packer might agree with me.

I have heard Reformed pastors say that, in the face of grief, the sovereignty of God is not the most pastorally sensitive doctrine to bring up. One might rather focus on the love of God, or God’s promise in the gospel. Yet, while some may find this aversion to the power of God in the presence of pain soothing, the problem of the goodness of God in the face of moral evil that he has ordained becomes (understandably) an object of fixation. For many, God’s sovereign decree over their pain is the most relevant thing in the world. And it is upsetting to our faith.

This is why Calvin writes, “God had given me a son. God hath taken my little boy.”[1] Calvin believed that God took his son from him because he loved him too much. This is the theological strain that living in our world places on grief — for good or ill, suffering is made to mean something; we confuse our eulogizing task with a philosophical competency to pronounce upon the meaning of death. We consequently find ourselves mumbling contentless theodicies that pit real-world, present-day despair against postmortem resolution, a category error that goes somehow heinously undetected.

There is no space for real lament over my dad in this world. I certainly don’t see it. There is no room for his story to be folded into the story of my community of faith. I have not yet found a way. He was the best dad he could have been — scratch that: he was the best dad ever. And I had a hand in his demise; in his death. How couldn’t I have? I was his son. We are blinded by our consistency-bias to allow the ambiguous complexity that death brings to emerge into — even to change — how we see the world.

Christians have recently legitimized lament, opening dialogues about “loss” that are really magical conjurations of cruel optimism (to steal a term from Voltaire). This movement is — if you will allow me a moment of paranoia — a farce, rooted in a genuine need for cathartic expression, curtailed by a culture that has informal rules that aren’t officially codified, but which we all know. We need space to “process” where our tears are not measured in terms of “progress.”

Such a space does not currently exist. One cancer survivor’s satisfaction in a Calvinist theodicy is a torturous emotional crucible for the next sufferer. Those most helpful to me in my process of grief have been those who have nothing to do with Christianity at all. They have nothing at stake in me resolving my grief a certain way. It makes them the best grief counselors. There are spaces in our culture that make some feel at home, but the diverse spectrum of grief is not really welcome at the evangelical table — least of all doubt. God forbid. We certainly don’t have tolerance for those who don’t grieve as we grieve.

Read here, if you’re interested. Be offended, if you have a habit of subjecting yourself to moral injury. Or, say what you have for too long felt you were not allowed to say.

**I am thankful to John Perrine for supplying the exegetical section on pp. 187–192, and to Andrew Schmutzer, the editor of this special issue of the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, for accepting it for publication.

[1] Responsio ad Balduini Convitia. Geneva, 1561.

One Comment

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  1. As a sufferer of severe depression, which is a form of grief, here is what is lacking in evangelical Christianity: pity (sympathy), empathy (those who suffer also are usually the WORST at this because they feel they have too much to deal with already), and patience with sufferers (this grief ain’t goin’ away, folks). You are right. I also have found non-Christians to be better comforters in grief because Christians make you feel or even outright complain you are self-pitying (Stop feeling sorry for yourself! is their mantra.) and want you to stop already- because you’re annoying, and you’re ruining their joy by raining on everything. I could go on and on but, hey, you are spot on with this. Cry if you want to, no matter what anyone says and no matter how long your dad has been dead. My dad has never been a part of my life even though he lived with me for 17 years. All these years later, I STILL feel loss, and I still grieve.

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