Grief in the Psalms

By

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1).

Psalm 13 captures the heavy heart of Lent in this somber passage. Alone with his grief, the Psalmist cries out to be seen by God. Similarly, Psalm 22 begins, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” a phrase made famous by Jesus quoting it from the cross (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46). The grief in these statements is palpable.

Simply defined, grief is our response to a significant loss, especially the loss of something that we deeply and personally hoped for. Sometimes this loss looks like: unmet expectations in a career or a loved one; loss of a relationship due to death, abuse, or sin; unrealized dreams; or loss of health, security, or stability. As we enter into a place of grief over these losses, disappointments, and endings, we find God there, grieving with us.

Sponsored

Lent can be a confusing season for Christians. With Easter’s glorious celebration right around the corner, why spend all this time focusing on sin and sorrow? The short answer is that God and Jesus grieve, and by allowing space for our own grief, we find a new way to understand and relate to God. In grief, we gain a fuller understanding of God’s heart. The longer answer is that grief provides us a way to move through the weight of our loss or disappointment to arrive at a place of glorious joy.

Grief in Clinical Practice

Several years ago, I began meeting with Chris and Polly (names have been changed to protect confidentiality) because they were at a loss regarding how to help their son, Mason, who was struggling with suicidal ideation and depression. No matter what efforts Chris made to connect with his son, Mason only responded to Chris with more contempt. Deeply grieved by the loss of this relationship, Chris searched for an explanation for his son’s attitude and eventually agreed with Mason’s repeated accusations: “It must be my fault.”

In one session, Chris tearfully shared this story: Several years before Mason’s behavioral changes, Chris forgot to pick up Mason after a soccer game. When Chris eventually arrived, Mason was in tears, hurt and angry that Chris had forgotten him. Though Polly and I saw that there was little chance that this story was the root cause of Mason’s behavior today, the grief resulting from Chris’ guilt was crushing him. Through his tears, he looked to Polly and asked, “can you ever forgive me?” Polly was shocked. She replied, “Chris! There’s nothing to forgive! It was just a mistake!” I gently redirected Polly and helped her meet Chris in his grief. With great tenderness, Polly turned to Chris and said, “I can see how much this is weighing on you. You made a mistake, but you’re not a bad father. I love you.” She met him in his grief and extended a loving embrace to him. He continued weeping, but something changed.

The following week, Chris and Polly came in and began discussing the week’s events. I asked Chris if he had any reflections about last week’s experience. “Not really, that’s all done,” was his simple-yet-significant response. The grief was gone; he had put down the weight he was carrying and experienced renewed life. Rather than ignore or bottle up his grief, Chris allowed himself to feel it. Chris arrived at this place of life not in spite of his grief but because of it. The relief from holding himself unduly responsible allowed Chris to take a step back and return to Mason appropriate responsibility for his own actions and decisions.

From Grief to Joy

In many instances, grief provides an invitation to move toward joy. Psalm 13 exemplifies this process: The Psalmist, feeling alone in his grief, expresses this grief to God, pleading for God’s countenance. In the end, the author writes:

But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me (Psalm 13:5-6).

This transformation from grief to joy is repeated throughout the Psalms and in many other places in the Bible (See Psalm 30:5, 11; Psalms 126:5-6; Jeremiah 31:13; Matthew 5:4; John 16:20).

The parallels between Chris’ story and Psalm 13 illustrate another critical point: Grief can turn into joy only when it is shared through relationship; grief left in isolation turns into despair. Through his grief, Chris invited Polly to touch his heavy heart, and she responded by moving toward him in love. Equally, the Psalmist, feeling isolated from God, cries out for God to turn to him, so he is not alone.

Rest from Grief

Men and women are created for connection, and in times of grief, we feel this yearning in our souls. God is not afraid, overwhelmed, annoyed, angry, or exhausted by our grief; he seeks to know us fully. Perhaps you have heard the following verse:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29).

Though you may have heard this ubiquitous verse before, it should stun you every time. Our personal, loving God–the infinite God of the universe–sees you. He sees the weight that you carry and comes to you with tender, gentle love to give you rest.

The journey of Lent ends with Jesus’ victory over the grave. Yet, Jesus’ path to the resurrection was marked with grief and suffering. By observing Lent, we can experience the same release that the Psalmist expressed, that Chris experienced, and that Jesus models. The story of Lent reflects the trajectory of the Christian faith: a journey through death to life.

Further Resources

Scripture

Psalm 30

2 Corinthians 6-7

Prayer

For the Discouraged and Downcast (BCP p.663)

O God, almighty and merciful, you heal the broken-hearted, and turn the sadness of the sorrowful to joy, Let your fatherly goodness be upon all whom you have made. Remember in pity all those who are this day destitute, homeless, elderly, infirm, or forgotten. Bless the multitude of your poor. Lift up those who are cast down. Mightily befriend innocent sufferers, and sanctify the endurance of their wrongs to them. Cheer with hope all who are discouraged and downcast, and by your heavenly grace preserve from falling those whose poverty tempts them to sin. Though they be troubled on every side, suffer them not to be distressed; though they are perplexed, save them from despair. Grant this, O Lord, for the love of him who for our sakes became poor, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Song

Published on

March 9, 2023

Author

Peter J. Buckingham

Peter J. Buckingham is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in the Washington, DC, metro area and a Ph.D. student at Concordia University-Irvine. He and his family attend Restoration Anglican Church in Arlington, Virginia.

View more from Peter J. Buckingham

Comments

Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments