By: Mark Moran, MA, SCC-C
The immense grief following a death of a family member can be excruciating and overbearing
and Christian counseling sessions may be needed.The absence of the loved one creates a void that is only natural. The grieving process becomes a reaction to an extreme bond of love. In many of these moments, the Christian may become so overburdened with grief that he or she feels abandoned by the Lord and left in the desolate desert of grief. No pithy sayings, no gestures, or no religious figures can remove the pain. Yet, in this inner turmoil, one should find relief in a God that mourns with us, suffers with us and at one time within the context of historical reality experienced the same piercing prongs of loss. The pains of grief associated with death and loss cannot be avoided, it is inevitable and it favors no one. It did not favor our Lord either who unjustly experienced its bite. Who are we to run from our cross if Lord of the universe himself could not turn away from them? Instead, it is prudent to imitate our Master in all, including grief.
Story of Lazarus in Relation to Christian Grief
The story of Lazarus supplies an excellent source of proper imitation in how a Christian should experience grief and loss of a loved one. It portrays the universal human condition of death and the grief that surrounds the loss of a loved one. As anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one, so did the family of Lazarus, as well as Lazarus’ close friend Jesus. In Scripture, it is mentioned twice how Christ wept the loss of a loved one. He wept the loss of his cousin, St. John the Baptist, and also wept the loss of Lazarus. It would be naïve to discount the numerous other losses our Lord experienced despite lack of scriptural reference. There is no doubt Jesus experienced the loss of his father, St. Joseph, his grandparents and many others who were dear to him. Like our own hearts, his heart was pierced with each loss. In these losses, he magnanimously displayed the dignity of proper Christian grieving. Not a “dignity” displayed by some cultures that is stoic or void of emotion, but a grief that portrayed a dignity of acceptance. The examination of the story of Lazarus will provide an excellent case study in how Christ handled himself and the family around him regarding the death of his dear friend. In this examination, the Christian will find many elements of proper grief and proper prayer regarding grief as found within the Christian tradition.
A question that is commonly sought, within the believing community that grieves a loss, involves the exclamation, “why do such bad things happen to good people?” The story of Lazarus illustrates not so much the answer to the question but the reality of it. A reality that, while not giving a philosophical answer, nonetheless, gives a comforting ease to the soul that one is not alone in his or grief. It also shows the griever that the grief is not only particular to them but in fact a universal condition; A universal condition that even the Lord’s closest friends were not spared, nor the Lord himself. Christ became the ultimate paradigm not only as the suffering servant on the cross, but also in everyday loss. Jesus in the story of Lazarus wept the loss of Lazarus and still today weeps the loss of all that are close to him. For those who believe in his resurrection, this cannot be denied. Does not his human heart beat viably in his resurrected body even today? Does not that heart still bleed for us in our darkest hour? Does not his humanity fused triumphantly with his divine nature still yearn and mourn with us? All of these questions can be answered in the affirmative. Just as he wept for Lazarus and comforted his friends who mutually mourned the loss of their friend, so Jesus continues to weep with us in our loss of our friends.
This is the amazing element of Christianity. The theology of Christianity preaches a God that can grieve via the fusion of a divine nature with a human nature. If the Incarnation had never happened, God would still love us deeply, but it would be impossible for a perfectly content being to suffer any personal pain with us. Other than the pure love that pours out of the divine in sympathetic concern, a divine nature cannot suffer personal loss. The divine being can only be slighted due to a proportionally error of sin against justice. This slight, however, is more legalistic than personal. In the end, the divine does produce infinite love but it cannot share in an intimate discourse of emotion that involves loss, suffering, and the intensity that exists between lovers. The human element of scripture in its poetry and attempt of understanding created an anthropomorphism of the divine. Human elements, human descriptions, and human traits were given to the divine to better describe God’s ways to the childlike human spirit. The Old Testament texts, while free from error, painted an image of a God they could relate with, discourse with, and interact with. While it is true the Lord spoke to the prophets of the Old Testament, it would be wrong to attest human like qualities to the divine that portray a lack of immutability or sometimes omniscience. This is not a glaring contradiction as some may feel in theology and scripture. The reality is God did interact with his creation but not to the point of an anthropomorphization of the divine. While one could contemplate that the Lord appeared in more simple ways to people, it seems more logical that the human writers of scripture attributed human qualities to God to better understand him. These qualities, however, distorted the nature of God and created an image that varies greatly differently from Thomistic metaphysics. The story of Moses and the Burning Bush in many ways captures a more true personification of the divine than any other story. Here we see an immutable, alpha-omega being who cares for his creation but is far from resembling anything human or capable of human emotion. Is it not possible in knowing the striking difference between human and divine nature that the Lord saw this impasse? Is it not possible that the Lord hoped to bridge this impasse through a fusion of the two natures? Is it not possible that via this fusion the Lord hoped to love us more intimately and to suffer and mourn with us? In response, it is possible and it was made possible through Jesus Christ.
With such consolation and knowledge that during loss, we do not suffer alone and that our Lord has become human, not only to redeem us, but to love us more intimately and share in our sufferings and grief, one can triumphantly see a gleam of light in the dark and gloomy clouds of grief. One can also triumphantly begin to carry his own cross with more certitude that this cross while heavy will ultimately lead one towards his or her own resurrection and happiness.
The idea of resurrection becomes another important theme in the story of Lazarus regarding Christian grief. As Christians, all profess the general resurrection of the dead upon Christ’s return. This is a primary dogma of the Christian faith and was solidified in Christ’s own resurrection who as the New Adam reversed the first death with the first resurrection. As followers of Christ, we also will share in this resurrection but only after death. Hence the greatest and most ironic belief in Christianity: through death comes life. Suffering and death are inevitable elements of the fallen and temporal reality of man, an element Christ voluntarily submitted himself to. The story of Lazarus presents a prefigurement of Christ’s resurrection and hints towards man’s own resurrection. The miracle Christ performed for Lazarus was done with compassion and love, but was also done, not only to show those present he was God, but also to foreshadow the resurrection of all in his name.
The resurrection of Lazarus, however, cannot be associated with the norm. It is obvious that when someone dies they remain dead. Jesus will not raise everyone from the dead nor answer everyone’s call, even his closest friends. This is not due to his lack of love for us but his knowledge of the reality of the universe. Christ can and sometimes does answer our deepest prayers but only within the confines of the Father’s will and for the most part within the confines of the laws of nature. This brings us to an interesting element within the story of Lazarus regarding Christian prayer in times of distress and deep anguish.
A miracle is an action by God that transcends the laws of nature. While the unbeliever attempts to expose miracles as unexplained natural phenomenon, the believer holds firmly to the obvious sight that God has intervened via prayer. However, to hold that miracles can be universal experiences for all believers is a dangerous avenue of thought. This reduces prayer to mere sorcery and control of the divine. Prayer does not guarantee or demand miracles. Prayer, on contrary, seeks the will of the divine. Miracles become an occasional fruit of prayer and faith if in concordance with the divine. Miracles associated with prayer are to be seen as gifts and especially so because when witnessed, they became testimony to God and his will. While a miracle is a beautiful thing, such as the raising of Lazarus or any modern day cure, one must be sure that within his or her petition the ultimate purpose of the prayer is conformity to the divine.
Unfortunately, this misunderstanding of prayer and the production of miracles has also led to other fallacies in addition to improper intention based prayer. In many circles the idea that a lack of miracles equates to a lack of faith or purity of the individual’s prayer. Pure prayer seeks God’s will. God’s will, for hidden reasons beyond the intellect of man, sometimes permits the miraculous and at other times does not. This has no bearing on the spirituality or faith of the grieving who prayer to the Lord. It merely has to do with the will of God. Christ taught us even to death, that in prayer, we must submit ourselves to the will of the Father. In doing so, he set the ultimate example and taught us how to perfectly pray and what to expect. This is obviously easier said than done, especially in our naïve and childlike understanding of God’s ways which in some cases answers our particular cries but in other cases mourns with us in the “unwanted” ending. Christian Counselors should help to guide people to proper understanding of this.
The story of Lazarus while having a “happy” ending, still paints the perfect image of Christian prayer in distress. If one notes, Jesus does not immediately travel to the family of Lazarus, nor does he heed the warnings of the disciples not to go to Lazarus. Christ, on the contrary, waits four days to the dismay of Lazarus’ family and by ultimately going also to the dismay of the disciples. In this regard, the miracle was performed according to the will of Christ and his Father, not to the immediate cry of those who mourned Lazarus. In our attachment to the deceased or those dying, do we not wish Christ to appear at our beckon call and do as we wish? Is this prayer? Is this even an understanding of death? A miraculous event, while desired, does not justify the prayer, but the acceptance of God’s will purifies the prayer. This purified prayer not only aids the spiritual distress of the loved one who is dying, but also elevates the heavy cross of the family. In prayer, this heavy cross is to be accepted and offered in concordance with the suffering of Christ who sits with them in the darkest hour. This does not promise a release of the pain, but shows that the energy associated with the loss is channeled in the proper direction, which is towards God. In this suffering and potential “bad ending”, our prayer while seeking a different route, is still open to the final fate which can triumphantly be faced, albeit in tears. This alone is miraculous for it transforms a natural event of death into a spiritual resurrection where the loved one who is lost receives the spiritual help he needs and the loved ones who are grieving receive the spiritual graces to carry their cross. In the end, unlike the family of Lazarus, our prayers must be open to Christ’s will. To view and possibly take Christian Counseling courses, click here.