Don’t Forget to Grieve

How should we approach Good Friday?

I once attended a Good Friday service where the pastor encouraged us to look at Good Friday positively, to see the crucifixion through “Easter eyes.” To be honest, the bright lights and the upbeat music and mood felt to me like a missed opportunity. His intentions were good. He wanted to protect us from feeling defeated as we meditated on the death of Christ. But in doing so, he robbed us of exactly the feeling and experience that Good Friday is meant to give us.

Those of us who inhabit the sphere of “American Christianity” live in a world that doesn’t know when, how, or even why to grieve. For us, Christianity is about victory, it’s about feeling better about ourselves. It’s upbeat, inspiring, short, and peppy. I know one pastor of a large church who once asked his worship leaders not to play any songs written in a minor key. Too much of a downer.

Thinking back… like all of us, I was hit hard by the events of September 2001. I was up early on the morning of the 11th for a meeting and was actually watching TV when the second plane smashed through the tower. I walked around the rest of the day numb and in shock. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t.

I went to services that weekend, hoping someone could help me with my grief, hoping that with the people of God I could feel what I needed to feel, process my questions and grief, and come to some resolution. But instead of mourning, instead of an honest admission that we have no idea why things like this happen, I was asked to salute the flag and sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” What I needed was a church service. What I got was a pep rally. We needed to grieve. Instead we were told to feel better.

And we wonder why so many of us struggle with a persistent, low-level depression. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because when we should, we refuse to grieve. We hold in the tears, when they should come out. That emotion tends to leak out in other ways, at other times—some not nearly so appropriate or healthy as crying.

I’m absolutely amazed when I see television coverage of third-world countries, particularly the coverage of disasters. When I see the keening, wailing women, the men tearing their clothes from their bodies and even the hair from their heads in anguish, I realize how emotionally impoverished we stoics in America are. I realize that the grief and mourning which the Bible speaks highly of is completely missing from our vocabulary. We’ve lost the ability to grieve.

And with it, I think we’ve lost the ability to be truly joyful. Have you ever wondered how those who live in other cultures, even those who live lives of impoverishment can smile so broadly and celebrate so joyfully in the midst of their impoverishment? We watch our news in amazement as year after year, at times of victory or celebration, they fill the streets, dancing in joy, eyes bright. The closest to that we ever come is when our team wins the Series, or the Superbowl. And even that is a pale mockery of the joy that we know we should feel at times, but never seem to find. We wish we could dance the way that they dance, or feel the joy and excitement they seem to feel.

Take Easter, for example. Every year the pastor stands and does his or her best to project the words “Christ is risen!” And we half-heartedly answer, “He is risen indeed.” Usually we have to try it a couple of times to work up any enthusiasm at all.

And the reason we don’t feel the joy at Easter that we know we should feel is because we don’t feel the grief at Good Friday that we could. We enter our well-lit sanctuaries on Good Friday, sing some songs, hear a nice message about the crucifixion, and go out for dessert afterwards with our friends. We enter with smiles on our faces and leave the same way.

Good Friday ruined the first disciples’ weekend. Maybe we should allow it to ruin ours, as well. For them it felt like the end of the world. Maybe we could pretend, even for a day, that’s it’s the end of ours, too—that while what Jesus went through on our behalf is something to be celebrated, it’s also something to be mourned, to be anguished about, to grieve.

This Good Friday, allow the grief to seep deep down into your bones, into your bowels. Meditate on the wounds, the suffering, and the deep, deep love of Christ. Allow the tears to well up from the pit of your being, escape your eyes, and roll down your face. Let the sobs rock your body. Leave the Good Friday service in silence. Extend your mourning through the night and into Saturday. Leave the TV off. Wear black. Refuse to medicate, distract, or otherwise soothe yourself. Mourn. Grieve.

If you do this, as the sun rises on Sunday, you will finally know what Easter is all about.

5 thoughts on “Don’t Forget to Grieve

  • Thanks, Bob
    When I was young I used to fast through the weekend of the Passion, beginning after Communion on Thursday evening, and then break the fast on Sunday morning. Among my many reasons for this small discipline was identification with the broken sense, the sorrow of those hours for all concerned. I used to try to use the hunger to remind me in a small way of what it must have been like for Jesus’ disciples to find themselves empty and bereft. The hunger drove me to prayer.

    You are right. We need to grieve if we would rejoice. As one pastor of mine used to say, “How can you hear the Good News if you have never accepted the bad news?”

    Thanks for sharing!

  • I really “enjoyed” this post. On “Good” Friday, I want to remain at the Cross, crushed, to see my Savior killed. I want to be in the place of the disciples, who, though they should have known better, didn’t. They were simply drained of hope. All was lost. They were afraid and in mourning, as was Jesus’s mother. I want to feel like them. I want not to know what comes next. I want the darkness to descend on me, so that I can feel God’s pain at watching His son die. I want to keen and wail, so that on Sunday, I can dance with abandon at the news that He has arisen.

  • I have a friend who didn’t like any Good Friday observance because she wanted to “only focus on the resurrection.” She’s also bought into the Word of Faith teaching that Christ only brings positive things, and that anything negative comes from Satan and should be spoken away.

  • I went to a Good Friday service this year. They are more and more difficult to find. I went to sit, reflect, pray, and try and feel the grief of those present at His trial and death by crucifixion. The location was a church that I didn’t attend and had been there only once much earlier (10+ months). The music was loud. The message was short. The emphasis was on each of us going to a predetermined area to confess sin etc. It seemed more like if I did all this, God would forgive me and then I could take communion with joy. It was an activity that we if we wanted to would follow by rote and then it would be ok. I did not participate in the rote activity. I just sat there praying and reflecting on what Jesus had gone through, in the best way I knew how to. God knew my heart. People were getting up all around me and for 30 or more minutes, went through the instructed routine. All this as I sat there communicating with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I asked forgiveness. I praised Him. I told Him that I loved Him. I prayed that my attitude and understanding would somehow feel the sorrow that His disciples, mother, and friends had felt. I sat quietly while all the activity continued all around me. I then got up and left, feeling as though I had been in the presence of my Lord and Savior. I thanked Him for all He did. I told Him that I was sorry that He had to go through all of this and at the same time thanked him for doing so. It is because of what He did that I can rejoice in the fact that I KNOW where I will go when I leave this body and earth. As for the others. I can’t say. It probably was meaningful to them also, but I wonder if we have the same heart experience when we spend time directly with Him, as if when we follow a man-made predetermined exercise to make us feel ok. In no way do I want to be judgmental. I only want to be sure that for me, I am honest in my relationship with the Lord and that I am in real fellowship with Him.

  • Having had a chance to grieve in real recently, and having learned to cope with small griefs throughout life, it is underrated. Yes, happiness is tethered, but nowhere else in American culture is there an acknowledgement of the importance of just grieving. Or a showing how to do it. So people are lost. I think of clips of eastern European women wailing over the lost loved ones in war zones, they are not quietly dabbing at tears carefully hidden by sunglasses, they are wailing. Western culture frowns on this, it’s uncomfortable. We have to keep ourselves in check, and recite stupid garbage about “God’s plan” (for a child? what kind of God does that? And how is that supposed to bring comfort?)

    My kids and I made playdough sculptures of the tomb, showing that Jesus was risen on Easter, they were fascinated.

    I agree. Be at home with grief. I agree!

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