Grief floats through the air like smoke above us, entering our lungs—a breath thief. I look around to see hands wiping tears from eyes, looks of shock and helplessness. Death has shaken us again. My four-year-old sits under the smoke, unmoved, unaware. He flips through the pew Bible and smiles up at me, then at his daddy. He doesn’t notice the tears glazing my eyes; he can’t see the lump in my throat.
At first, I’m almost annoyed—doesn’t he feel sorrow shifting the air? Doesn’t he see the frowns on our faces? But then, if I’m honest, I’m a little envious of him. What would it be like to be unfazed by life’s woes—to not know how much tragedy a sin-infused world can carry? How peaceful would it be to be oblivious to it all?
But that would be a false sense of peace, wouldn’t it? For my children, yes, to be young and unaware of grief and severe suffering is a protection that many, even very small children, do not have. Yet as adults, we know the truth. We try to hide tragedy from their pupils and shield their hearts from pain as best we can. Eventually, we won’t be able to protect them from it. One day they’ll feel the ground shifting beneath them like quicksand, pulling them into sadness. For now, we let them play and be young. We praise God that even as tragic death is announced from a pulpit, they smile, unsuspecting of life’s cruelty. Like an inside joke that isn’t funny at all, the smoke goes right over their heads.
It doesn’t go over mine or your head though. No, it fills our lungs and we cough from the pain of it. We know we can’t escape the suffering in this world. We try, but like the smoke-monster in the TV show Lost, it will eventually chase us down. We might lament this fact, wishing we had nothing to lament—wishing we could rid our vocabulary of words like crisis, tragedy, and death. We don’t want to believe in things like broken marriages, child loss, and terminating illnesses. Let us wish them away! That’s the definition of wishful thinking. As my sons grow, they will understand more and more and their vocabulary will widen with these very words. Death will no longer be a foreign concept to them. It seems it’s a grace right now for their little minds to not have to bear the weight of tragedy.
When I’m tempted to desire the same protection from pain, the Spirit reminds me that in a world awaiting redemption, feelings of sorrow can be a grace, if we let them move us toward God and others. Hurting on behalf of another person is an opportunity to grow in love and show Christ’s love. Not love like, “I love how much fun we have together” or “I love how much we have in common” but actual love—love that sees the brokenness and digs its nails in the dirt with our fellow sufferers, searching for beauty among the muck together, for something good in the horrible, for God. If God granted my wish and made me oblivious to all things painful, then I wouldn’t be able to love others in the way in which I’ve been called by his Word.
Jesus showed us exactly how to love in the midst of pain. When Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus died, Jesus, the Creator of the universe who knew he would later raise Lazarus from the grave, was deeply moved by the sorrow of his people. John 11:33 describes Jesus’ feelings: “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” Jesus knew that just moments later Lazarus would be alive—more than that, he knew that one day he would erase every grief. Still, he grieved alongside his friends. He saw their heartache and his heart ached too. He wept with them (John 11:35). Jesus provided his presence and his tears.
As Christians, we know the end of the story—that one day all will be made right—but to follow Christ in his example would mean we must experience the pain of suffering so that we might be deeply moved toward loving our brothers and sisters. To be oblivious to our own suffering and the suffering of others would save us a lot of grief, but it would also steal away a deepened love for God and others. The smoke mustn’t go over our heads. We can’t afford to let it pass by—to remain unchanged by pain.
Isn’t it that pain, felt in the deepest part of our core, that pushes us into Jesus so he can shape, heal, and comfort us? Isn’t it that pain that moves us toward comforting others with the comfort from the God of all Comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3–4)? The suffering that caused the pain is not good—far from it—but God is doing something in our hearts through it, and that is good.
I don’t want to be oblivious, even if that means I choke on grief from time to time. I don’t want my sister to suffer, but if she does, I want to take on her tears as my own. I want to love others well. I want to love others like Jesus does. Spirit, I need your help.