Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Dark Night of Grief

In the darkness of our grief, we have often resonated with the words of the psalmist in Psalm 88:
“…For my soul is full of troubles,
And my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;

I am a man who has no strength,
Like one set loose among the dead,
Like the slain that lie in the grave,
Like those whom you remember no more,
For they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
In the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
And you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
You have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
My eye grows dim through sorrow.” Psalm 88:3-9 ESV.

Psalm 88 is an unusual Psalm in that the chapter does not end on a confident note; there is no “ray of sunshine” or hope or promise for how God will redeem the suffering. It is suffering and only suffering. While there is an implicit recognition of the sovereignty of God throughout the Psalm, there is not an explicit resolution to the Psalmist’s sufferings. So why is this Psalm even in the Bible?

In his article entitled “Waiting for the Morning,” Dustin Shramek says that Psalm 88 is in the Bible “so that when suffering and pain come and we are between the affliction and triumph in the midst of the questions, pain, and clouds of doubt, we may see that what we are feeling is normal. It has all been felt before, and all the questions have been asked before. We are not the first. We are not alone. And we are not in danger of losing our faith (at least not yet).” Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, edited by Piper & Taylor, p. 184.

Shramek and his wife lost their son Owen in 2003. Following Owen’s death, members of their church tried to encourage them to get through their grief by providing them with “pat” theological comments or encouragements. Dustin felt that while these fellow members meant well, what they really wanted was for the Shrameks to get through their grief quickly. Shramek believes that, in times such as these, we should not move “so quickly from the affliction to the deliverance and thus minimize the pain in between.” Shramek, 179.

In 1 Peter 4:12, Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Do we really believe the Bible’s promise that we will suffer? Or are we secretly hoping that the Bible is not true when it comes to promises about suffering? We should not be surprised that Christians suffer, and that this suffering really hurts. Psalm 88 shows that God expects us not to minimize the pain of our present sufferings.

The Apostle Paul exhorts all believers to bear with each other’s sufferings as “one body.” In 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 Paul says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” In 1 Corinthians 12: 26 Paul says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”

If we as Christians are to effectively bear burdens collectively, as a body, then we need to be genuine in our grief. If we are those trying to encourage or uplift others in suffering, then we must be willing to plumb the depths of suffering with others, to wait patiently with them during those “dark nights” of the kind encountered by the Psalmist in Psalm 88. If we are the one in the midst of the suffering, then we must be honest in our own grief with others.

(1) Supporting Others in Grief

Most Americans, and most Christians, are very uncomfortable around grief. We don’t like the openness and honesty that comes from having to deal with others grieving. We also have the good intention of trying to “fix” people’s problems; this is true even in grief. We find ourselves employing our education and background to find a way out of the problem.

But nothing can “fix” the grief of a lost child. For those of us who are supporting others in the midst of the grief, we should not be afraid to enter into the dark night of grieving with our co-workers, small group members, family or friends. What are we afraid of? After all, what can separate us from the love of Christ? If God to love us through “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger or sword,” (Romans 8:35), will not God allow us to keep our faith through the emotions that come with these circumstances?

If God is sovereign over space and time, then could not He be working in our lives, even during these periods of our mourning when we do not feel any blessing from Him? Just because we do not feel God’s abundant blessing upon us does not mean that he is not working through us. For us, I trust that God is working Micah’s death and our grief for His eternal purposes and our good regardless of how we may feel at a given moment.

(2) Allowing Others to Support You in Your Grief

Heather has helped me realize that I have often glossed over my own grief. In certain contexts and relationships, it is clear that when a person asks the question “How are you doing?,” they do not really intend to elicit a genuine response. In these cases, I generally provide them the answer to the rhetorical question that they are looking for. However, even in situations when I know that a person really wants to know about us, I have often provided less than genuine responses.

The temptation is to be seen as “having it together.” I want to put my best foot forward, to speak the language of the church, to give the “Sunday School answer.” This type of attitude, which Jesus rebuked among the Pharisees, puts religious form over substance. It is seeking a superficial relationship with people rather than a genuine one. To be superficial and disingenuous about our sufferings is essentially an attempt to minimize the pain so that we can keep things at a superficial level. But to minimize the scars in my own life is also to minimize the superseding power of God to strengthen us to triumph over it, in Christ. As the Psalmist says, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” Psalm 34:19. By God’s power, I should wait in eager expectation for my deliverance from this present suffering, even if I must wait until death to be relieved of it.

So when we encourage co-workers or friends who have lost a loved one, do not be surprised or turned away by “the eyes that grow dim through tears.” Let us bear one another’s burdens in love, regardless of whether we think that they are praying enough, attending church enough, or saying the right things. And if we are suffering, do not be like me, but be genuine in your grief so that you let others bear your burdens along with you.


  1. I'm thinking of and praying for you and Heather as the anniversary of Micah's homegoing approaches. I'm praying for little Owen as well.

  2. Cory and Heather and Owen......
    You are ever!! in our thoughts and prayers! Especially this month!! Please know that we bring you before the throne of God often. Thank you for your sharing!

    Angie Carey for The Carey's

  3. Cory and Heather,
    You are on my mind and heart today! In my prayers too!

    ~~Angie Carey