by Felix Arellano on May 26, 2023
A Thought on Faith and Grief from the Shortest Passage in Scripture
My heart broke for the dear soul on the other line of the phone as she shared with me her failed attempts to suppress her grief. She expressed the guilt she was carrying for not being able to “get over it.” Had it not been for my own journey with grief, I don’t think I would’ve been so quick to refute her idea of suppressing sorrow. I felt compelled to rescue her from a common misconception that many well-intentioned, good-hearted people have.
We’ve come a long way in our collective understanding of grief, but there is still a lingering, erroneous idea that we need to “get over” our grief and “move on.” I shifted the conversation by inserting an impromptu Bible trivia question. I’m sure it felt random, but it was intentional.
I asked, “Do you know the shortest verse in the Bible?”
“John 11:35! ‘Jesus wept’,” she replied confidently. There was a quick rush of excitement in her voice at her trivia knowledge that surprised both of us. The break in her emotional downward spiral allowed me to ask for permission to share a story about that Bible verse.
I remember as a kid, my dad came home from visiting a family who had just lost a close relative. He was emotionally spent but not in a bad way. I could tell something special had occurred during his visit. He shared that the most peculiar but amazing thing happened. With the family lined up on their couch, my dad read John 11:35 to them. “Jesus wept.” He said that that was the only thing he managed to say, and the entire family broke out in tears. He simply sat with them as they wept together and a few moments later, he was given the opportunity to lead the entire family to the Lord.
I was completely perplexed.
I questioned my dad, “How did two words lead to an entire family to place their trust in Christ? That makes no sense!”
He did not offer an answer. He didn’t even try. It was as if he knew that only more life experience would help me understand what had occurred.
I have carried that question all these years. It wasn’t until my father passed away just two years ago that this story finally began to take shape for me. In fact, it was my new-found relationship with grief that unlocked my understanding of John 11:35.
When we read this verse in the context of the story, it’s easy to overlook the author’s brief description of Jesus’s raw emotion and get to the grand finale of his epic flex over death when he raised Lazarus from the dead. Through the lens of grief, this is what I now glean from this simple verse:
Permission to grieve
Let’s back up a few verses to see Jesus’s intention in visiting the family:
So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Luke 11:3-4, ESV)
Later, Jesus announces to his disciples:
“Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (Luke 11:14-15, ESV)
Christ arrived on the scene with a mission to bring glory to God by raising Lazarus back to life. With an agenda, and the power to see it through, why spend your emotions when you know you’re about to supernaturally reverse the circumstances? He came to display his authority over death, but not at the price of foregoing his heartfelt expression of pain.
Jesus took the time to grieve.
Let that sentence settle in your soul for a bit and please don’t allow this truth to escape you. Ponder the fact that the God, with the power to command a dead man to live again, is the same God who was overcome with emotion and mourned with the family. His emotion even captured the hearts of spectators as they exclaimed, “See how much he loved him!” (John 11:36, NLT) Authentic relationship was recognized because of Jesus’s expression of grief.
The Disney+ program, “Wanda Vision” struck a chord with audiences when thousands of viewers took to social media and posted Vision’s profound statement to Wanda, “I’ve never experienced loss, because I’ve never had a loved one to lose. But what is grief if not love persevering?”
If we carry with us the tension of a theology of miracles as well as a theology of suffering, we come to find just as much power and even healing in Jesus’s weeping as in the miracle of Lazarus. Why? Jesus’s display of power showcased his divinity, but his expression of emotion speaks to our humanity. Because Jesus took time to grieve, I can give myself permission to grieve.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. (Luke 11:33-35, ESV, emphasis mine)
Healing did not just occur with the miracle of Lazarus; healing occurred when grief was honored by Jesus’s demonstration of emotion and participation. Because Jesus wept, I understand my emotional healing is as important as physical healing.
In the TIME Magazine article, The Science of Crying, Professor Michael Trimble a behavioral neurologist explains that “The same neuronal areas of the brain are activated by seeing someone emotionally aroused as being emotionally aroused oneself. Tears became something that automatically set off empathy and compassion in another. Actually, being able to cry emotionally, and being able to respond to that, is a very important part of being human.”
Ad Vingerhoets, author of the book, “Why Only Humans Weep”, wraps up the TIME article by summing up his research with this conclusion, “Tears are of extreme relevance for human nature. We cry because we need other people.”
Considering recent research, Jesus’s weeping is much more profound. He immersed himself in the human experience by fully expressing his emotions with sorrow and tears. Not even the Son of God used his divinity to suppress his grief! While his divinity requires us to look up to him, Jesus used his humanity to reach down to us. Through his example, he not only gave us the hope of heaven, but he also gave us hope for our earthly reality.
Jesus told Martha:
“The one who believes in me will live, even though they die and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11: 25-26, ESV)
The beauty and complexity of the Christian life is seen in the contrast of hope against the backdrop of the human experience. Through Christ’s example, not only are we given permission to grieve, but we’re encouraged to grieve well. It's in suffering that we experience new dimensions of intimacy with Christ. We also grow in closer proximity to God when we learn to strengthen ourselves in the Lord when our hearts are broken. Our grief does not reveal a weakness but provides an opportunity to find new levels of communion with God.
When I think of my dad’s story, I now have a better understanding of what that family lined up on the couch felt when he read John 11:35. Perhaps they knew God as a distant power or a supernatural deity, but in that moment they discovered what would take me a few more years to understand — I can find healing in the presence of the God who weeps with me. Christ empathizes with my pain and invites me to be honest with him. His tears give me permission to cry too.
Remember, the God with the power to heal also had the heart to grieve. There’s healing in your tears as he invites you into his presence. There, you will discover the rich fellowship available from the God who weeps with you.