What does the Bible say about grief?


I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:

Here I look at what the Bible says about grief and grieving.


It sometimes seems as though our world is full of grief. In the last year we have mourned the premature loss of loved ones, the pain of their parting made more acute by the loss of contact as they approached their end. We are used to keeping grief at arm’s length, but it has now visited us close as it has done to most of humanity for most of history. 

Grief in Scripture

The story of Scripture is full of grief, in every part save two (to which we will return)—but it is often expressed in ways that are strikingly different from our own experience.

There is a beautiful cameo of grief in Gen 21. Sarah had told Abraham to have sex with Hagar her slave, since she is barren, and she gives birth to Ishmael. But when Sarah then bears Isaac, she fears Ishmael will be a rival to him, so insists Hagar is driven away with her son to die. When they run out of water in the desert heat, Hagar

…went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. (Gen 21.16)

The despair we recognise, as we do her turning away; so often the pain of grief and death is too much to contemplate, and we turn away from our own pain and that of others, making grief a lonely experience of isolation. 

But here we see a difference too; where we often turn inwards and keep silent, she turns out and weeps aloud—and God hears her cry. Throughout Scripture, grief is expressed loudly, in a way we still see on our newsfeeds in the ululating women of other countries. 

Concrete and communal grief

So if you want to find the grief in Scripture, you actually have to search for the word ‘weep’, which occurs more than 230 times; the river of tears runs from beginning to end. Two striking examples are found at the deaths of Aaron and Moses, who have not just led the people of Israel from freedom to the Promised Land, but have been their foundation as the first Priest and Prophet for the people. 

The grieving for each is expressed in similar terms:

And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended (Deut 34.8, cf Num 20.29).

Where we often grieve inwardly, silently, and alone, here the people grieve outwardly, loudly, and together. And there is a clear, ritual structure to their grief, which on both occasions lasts ’30 days’. Grief is a process, and takes time to pass; remembering anniversaries of loss, particularly the second year, is a vital thing to do together. 

When John Donne reminds us that ‘no man is an island’ and the bell that tolls for others ‘tolls for thee’, he is reflecting this corporate biblical perspective.

The Grief of God

But the most surprising thing about grief in Scripture is that God experiences it. He hears and responds to the cry of his people; ‘precious in his sight is the death of his holy ones’ (Ps 116.15). As a wife grieving at the departure of her husband for war collected her tears in a bottle, so God remembers us in our loss and grief (Ps 56.8).

The convergence of human grief and the grief of God is found most clearly in the person of Jesus. Both his birth (Matt 2.18) and his death (Luke 23.28) were marked by weeping, and there was much weeping in between. He is grieved and angry at the sickness of a leper (Mark 1.41); he is grieved at the hard hearts of his opponents (Mark 3.5); he is deeply moved at the tears of a grieving widow (Luke 7.13); and in the shortest and most poignant verse in the whole of Scripture, Jesus weeps at the death of his dear friend Lazarus (John 11.35). 

No wonder the writers of the New Testament saw in Jesus the servant of Isaiah 53, a ‘man of sorrows, acquainted with grief’. 

Yet there was no grief in creation in the garden, until there was sin—and there will be none in the garden-city of the New Jerusalem. 

God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Rev 21.3–4)

How so? Because Jesus was not only a man of grief; he ‘bore our grief and carried our sorrows’ to the cross and dealt with them there forever. He did not merely taste death; he swallowed it up in victory. Though we now walk through a vale of tears, one day that victory will be ours too.



DON'T MISS OUT!
Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.


Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.


Comments policy: Good comments that engage with the content of the post, and share in respectful debate, can add real value. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Make the most charitable construal of the views of others and seek to learn from their perspectives. Don't view debate as a conflict to win; address the argument rather than tackling the person.

14 thoughts on “What does the Bible say about grief?”

  1. Thank you Ian.

    This is, for me at least, really important as the under-recognised background to so many things that are happening, including in the Church of England. It’s certainly there in many parish clergy… and also (I want to stress) in the wider church membership.

    That lack of recognition is surely behind.some of the discussion, anger and angst around church planting (not alone).

    Unless this is recognised more damage will be done. Leadership /management and its allies are not served by a lack of pastoral nouse. There are a lot of struggling people around whose lives could be made a lot better by being actually seen.

    Reply
  2. Superb. Thank you for this. Indeed, grief happens best with a scuba tank, not just snorkel. Splashing around on the surface does not address the depth of out sorrow.

    Reply
  3. ‘there was no grief in creation in the garden, until there was sin’. It is true that is what we read. But what are we to make of this? Is our human experience of grief and pain only part of a fallen world – a fruit of sin? If life in the original, pre-fall world God’s goodness was one in which there was no experience of grief, pain, tears, loss, disappointment or death, in what meaningful way could it be a world in which there were real, free choices (and therefore, possibly, mistakes), growing and developing, maturing, learning, exploring and taking risks, dreaming, hoping and seeking God? Aren’t we left with a rather pointless world of benign contentment like those children’s Bible Picture Books where all kinds of species are lying around in harmless harmony on vegan diets while the naked Adam and Eve stand in the background behind shrubs with unusually large leaves? A genuine question I have struggled with for years.

    Reply
    • Hi David and Ian,
      Where does it say in the Bible ‘there was no grief in creation in the garden, until there was sin’?
      Genuine question. Is it implied? Do we know? How did Adam feel after stubbing his toe?

      Reply
      • My question put much more simply – thanks Steve. We do not know do we? Genesis tells us absolutely nothing about what life was like in that paradise garden before what we call ‘the fall’. That should make us cautious at least. Would Adam even stub his toe at all in a perfect world? But then why is a gardener needed in a perfect garden either?

        Reply
        • Even if you believe Genesis 1 & 2 should be read literalistically, which I dont, where does it say there was no pain before the ‘fall’? I think that is an example of the baggage we bring with us when we have been brought up with certain teachings which are actually just assumptions, often false, and read into the text.

          As to your question in your first post, if the next life on a renewed earth is with God in all His fullness, will that be a ‘pointless’ life? If it means the removal of the power of sin, evil and death, restoration to perfect physical and mental health, and beyond, bring it on! I think some people (not you) dont appreciate the joy that will bring given their current experience of life.

          Peter

          Reply
  4. David,
    This is a far too simplistic and thin, but:
    1 I think you set you are setting up a false dichotomy between the Goodnes of God and human freewill and between God’s purposes and human desires.
    2 God created humans (see comments on Son of Man) in his likeness to have fellowship with them
    3 God spoke to them. He went looking (in the cool of the day). They didn’t seek him out. The movement is downward, always intitiated by God.

    4 They were free to chose, to desire a life with God or without him. Choice had consequences.
    5 If we truly knew the Goodnes of God, why would we not desire him above all else?
    6 Augustine’s theology of pre and post fall free will, is likely to unsettle a lot of us.

    Reply
    • Geoff. Thanks but I do not find here a response to my questions. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you.
      Let me offer another angle on this. If, as Ian rightly notes, God ‘experiences grief’, this quality must be part of his Original goodness and character, is it not? Grief is not something God only discovers in himself after the fall. So creatures uniquely created in his image and likeness would be expected to know this divine capacity for grief as part of the original ‘good’ gift to life – and not just as a response when things go wrong. Once again genuine questions …

      Reply
      • Grief is not necessarily bad. It indicates that there is worth in something that is lost rather like a searchlight that illuminates the value of something, we might not normally be aware of or take for granted.

        Reply
  5. Thanks David, for further explanation.
    I understand your point now.
    Maybe there is a distinction is between who he is, his *vested* attributes, his nature and character, in contrast to his contingent responses in regard to his nature and character. Seen explicity in Christ, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit (with reference to His nature and character – see fruit of the Spirit).
    He is Good, he is Holy, he is love. His grieving, hatred even, grace and mercy, laughter, joy and singing flow from his unchanging nature and character, which he has made known, revealed in biblical theological history (as opposed to history of theology) – thanks to Andrew Wilson for that category.
    I don’t doubt this is too simplistic for theologians and won’t take you any further, David.

    Reply
    • Geoff I do not know on what basis you divide you divide up God into what you call vested attributes and contingent responses. God is God. Nor do I understand how responds to my comments about creation.

      Reply
  6. David,
    It is all about the nature and characture of Triune God in creation. All Good, very good. Ultimatey it’s a declaration of, about, himself, manifest in creation.

    Reply

Leave a comment