Grief Counseling

By James M. Rochford

Jesus at a funeral

In John 11, Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus fell deathly sick (v.1). In this day and age, medicine was a joke. But fortunately for them, these two women had a friend—a miracle worker—named Jesus of Nazareth. They sent messengers to contact him saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick” (v.3).

But even after he received their message, Jesus didn’t come charging to the rescue. John writes, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was” (vv.5-6).

Are you confused yet? Why would Christ wait because he loved them? What kind of love is that?

By the time Jesus arrived at Mary and Martha’s house, the physician had left and the mortician had arrived. Jesus didn’t come to visit Lazarus in the hospital, but at his funeral. Both sisters had the same thing on their mind:

Martha said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v.21, NLT).

Mary said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v.32, NLT).

Were the two sisters crying together before Jesus arrived, complaining about Jesus’ lack of concern? Of course, these women had seen Jesus heal others before, so they knew he was certainly capable of healing Lazarus. Why wasn’t he there on time? Why had Jesus abandoned them in their time of need?

Jesus told Martha that Lazarus would rise from the dead (v.23). Martha must’ve balked at this: You could’ve healed him from his sickness, but instead you walk in late, dishing out spiritual clichés?! She replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (v.24). In other words, Martha was saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah… I’ve heard all about that before… We’ll see him one day in Heaven…”

I wonder if Martha’s demeanor changed when she saw Jesus enter the funeral. John writes, “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled… Then Jesus wept” (v.33, 35 NLT). In fact, Jesus wept so loudly that “the people who were standing nearby said, ‘See how much he loved him!’” (v.36 NLT).

Some of the people at the funeral wouldn’t be consoled so easily. A few of them said, “This man healed a blind man. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” (v.37 NLT). Have you ever felt this way? If God is all-powerful, couldn’t he just cure the cancer or reverse the coma? Why would he allow suffering to take place if he could snap his cosmic fingers and end it?

Jesus wasn’t deterred. He ordered the people to roll away the stone, and in a loud voice, he screamed, “Lazarus, come out!” (v.43)

From the darkness of the tomb, Lazarus stumbled clumsily into the light of day—still wrapped in his burial garments. Instead of a mere healing, Jesus showed that he had power over death itself.

What do we learn from this account?

Mary and Martha brought their need to Jesus. They didn’t know God’s will in this area, so instead of making demands or trying to manipulate Christ, they simply made their need known to him. When we go through grief, we don’t always know what to pray or how to pray it. But like these two women, it’s also okay to simply bring your needs to him. We don’t need to instruct God what to do when we’re confused. We can merely bring the need to him and trust that he’s in control.

Jesus loved this hurting family far more than they anticipated. When we read this story in English, we miss a nuance in the original language:

“The sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love (phileo) is sick’” (v.3).

“Jesus loved (agapao) Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (v.5).

In English, the same word is used for “love,” but not in the original Greek language. Phileo refers to a brotherly love, while agapao refers to a deeper, sacrificial love. Through this suffering, Mary and Martha learned that Christ loved their family far, far more than they ever imagined.

We all have our own misconstrued views of God and his character. In extreme cases, we might think God exists to pamper us with pleasures at all times. Thus when we experience suffering, it shatters our expectations and our view of God.

God wants to shatter false views that we hold of him. He shatters these out of mercy for us. In this case, Mary and Martha believed that Jesus “loved” (phileo) their brother enough to heal his sickness. But in reality, Jesus “loved” (agapao) Lazarus far, far more than they could’ve imagined.

Jesus was patient with these grieving women. When we go through suffering and grief, we discover emotions we never knew we had. We might discover bitterness and anger bubbling to the surface. When the grieving family accused Jesus of being unloving or weak, he didn’t defend himself; he just sat and listened patiently. Billy Graham notes, “Jesus didn’t reason or argue with Martha when she accused Him of neglect. He patiently understood.”[1] Regarding John 11:32, Graham writes, “I wonder if she later wished she had never said those words when Jesus brought Lazarus out of the tomb.”[2]

Jesus was sad and even angry at death. John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the entire Bible, but it says the most: “Jesus wept.” Death was never in God’s design. The psalmist writes, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones” (Ps. 116:15).

What did this experience feel like for Lazarus? The real victim in this story is Lazarus—but not for the reason we might initially think. Greg Laurie states that he feels bad that Lazarus had to come back from Heaven: “That would be like trying to take a kid out of Disneyland who has been there for twelve minutes.”[3]

Keys to processing grief

Allow God to speak to you in your grief. The psalmist writes, “I weep with sorrow; encourage me by your word” (Ps. 119:28 NLT).

Allow God to comfort you. God will ultimately comfort us in Heaven. Jesus promised, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt. 5:4). But God also wants to comfort us right now. David wrote, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).

God wants to comfort us, so that we can comfort others. Paul writes, “[God] comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Cor. 1:4 NLT). Billy Graham writes, “God doesn’t comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.”[4]

Don’t blame. When we go through tragedy, we want to find someone responsible. We blame the person, ourselves, or even God. We might even blame ourselves for feeling guilty about moving on to new friendships, relationships, and goals.

Don’t rush the grieving process. Western cultures value pragmatism and efficiency, so they try to end the grieving process as quickly as possible. We don’t all grieve at the same time, the same speed, or in the same way. Counselor Gary Collins writes, “Today it generally is agreed that there is no orderly succession through which all grieving will pass.”[5] Sometimes, grief can occur before the tragedy, as when Jesus was “deeply grieved” the night before the Cross (Mt. 26:38). Sometimes, it occurs far later. Psychologists refer to this as “delayed grief.”[6]

Learn to discover and express how you’re feeling. During grief, we feel shock, anger, sadness, vulnerability, or simply numb. Express your thoughts and feelings in writing. Tell stories. During grief, we often feel confused, forget things, or lack energy. Don’t make any drastic, life-altering decisions during times of acute pain like this! Have enough control to wait until you’re thinking clearly again.

Be prepared for insensitivity. People say things during grief that will anger you. You’re not going to feel understood. You might experience tension in your relationships as a result. The key is to not withdrawal from those closest to you. Keep talking. It’ll relieve the pressure you feel.

Learn to ask for help. Grief is a stressful time: getting the funeral in order, contacting the life insurance company, hospital and funeral expenses, meeting with lawyers. Ask trusted friends or family to help out or delegate this as much as possible.

Acceptance. Life will never be the same. The loss is real and permanent. Those in grief often say that life doesn’t return to normal, but to a “new normal.”

How do I help a loved one who is grieving?

Don’t offer selfish comfort. Are you trying to comfort your friend for her sake—or for your own? Get the focus off of yourself, and onto your friend. Try to meet needs where they come up. Don’t try and get her to open up and gush on command. She might be enjoying a “mental break” by being around friends and family, or sitting under the teaching of the word. Just make yourself available and accepting. Don’t push.

Anniversaries, holidays, or even subtle reminders will bring the grief back to the surface. Help your loved one to be prepared during these times.

Count the cost of investment. Keep coming to help over the long haul. Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2).

Offer emotional support. Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Don’t talk, moralize, or use clichés.

Don’t say too much. James writes, “Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19). Job said, “Listen carefully to my speech, and let this be your way of consolation” (Job 21:2).

(Prov. 18:2) A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.

(Prov. 18:13) He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame.

(Prov. 20:5) The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.

(Prov. 29:20) Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.

Further Reading

Lee Campbell and Amy Moreno, Constructive Suffering (Columbus, OH: New Paradigm Publishers, 2016).

Gary Collins, Christian Counseling (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), chapter 25: Grief.

[1] Billy Graham, Death and the Life After (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 2001), 116.

[2] Billy Graham, Death and the Life After (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 2001), 115.

[3] Greg Laurie, As It Is In Heaven: How Eternity Brings Focus to What Really Matters (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), 52.

[4] Billy Graham, Death and the Life After (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 2001), 68

[5] Gary Collins, Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), 469.

[6] Gary Collins, Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), 469.