Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Fine Line Between Complaint and Grief

I recently heard a talk that left me wondering "is there a difference between complaining and grieving?"  The speaker was sharing both how the Lord had brought her through very difficult trials (which was a real blessing to hear), and also how we as fellow Christians could minister and be mindful of the trials of another.  The second part was what led to my questions, my musings, and what (I hope) the Lord is teaching me. Here goes... they kind of build on each other, but are interrelated.  Hopefully it is somewhat coherent. :)

1. Grief is real.  It's a part of this life, sure as breathing.  For Christians, suffering is guaranteed, even escalated, because of our faith.  But it's also redeemed, given purpose, given a Presence.  We are comforted in our suffering by the One who knows us best and loves us most, we are assured that this suffering is doing wonderful things in us, and that it will make us happier in the long (eternal) run.  Our Savior picked up every bit of leftover bread when He fed the multitudes-- would He ever waste our sufferings?

2. We are commanded to share each other's joys and griefs.  That is, there will be times when someone else is crying when we feel like laughing, and we are supposed to put aside our desire to whoop and holler and try to enter into their grief, as if it were our own.  There will be other times when our pain is so deep that we wonder how anyone anywhere could even smile.  In those times, we are to give thanks for another's blessings, and rejoice with them.  WOW!! I remember reading something that Richard Wurmbrand, who was tortured for 14 years in Soviet Romania for his confession of Christ and continued preaching of Him, wrote-- something along the lines of "I remembered that somewhere, some believer was full, some believer had his children around him, some believer was worshiping God freely, and so I could rejoice for them, with them, even in my prison cell." (Read his description of the priest who taught him this here.)  Talk about humbling. 

3. The Biblical command to 'do all things without complaining' is not a gag order on grief.  We CAN grieve without complaining, but we have to watch ourselves!  Picture this:  an obviously-pregnant woman enters a room, sweating in the July heat, ankles swollen and face tired.  She immediately begins bemoaning how uncomfortable she is, how hard being pregnant is, how she just wishes the baby would hurry up and be born.  That's complaining, and it probably isn't exactly "helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it might benefit those who listen." (Eph. 4:29)  As my mom often chided us, "That's the sort of talk that got Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years!"  Picture another scenario, though:  the same obviously- pregnant woman comes into the room, and at the question "how are you?" she says, quite seriously "I am having such a hard time being pregnant right now.  I really could use your prayer-- everything hurts and I haven't slept a solid night for 5 months now."  That's not complaining, that's grieving (at least as I see it), and any one who hears that-- man, woman without kids, woman with 5 kids, woman wishing she had kids-- can and should acknowledge that her grief is real, and do what they can to ease it, whether it be with encouraging words from Scripture, with reminders that something beautiful will come of this pain, prayer, a glass of cool water, or a big hug. But expressing our pain, our emotion, our questions, our confusion, can be a part of grief, an asking for burden-sharing, even of worship-- just check the Psalms!-- and doesn't need a Phil 2:14 "do all things without complaining!" slapped onto it.

4. Different kinds of grief are... different, but all potentially equally painful.  Suffering naturally turns us inward and make us so selfish.  When I hurt deeply, it is all too easy to let that pain become the lens through which I interpret everything around me.   "How could she share her struggles? Can't she see that MY pain is the worst? How dare he laugh around me?  Doesn't he know I'm suffering?"  You get the idea.  But that's just not Biblical.  If I'm a Christian with a chronically painful back, and my sister in Christ is crying because she didn't get accepted into the study program she wanted so badly, we can both validate each other's grief.   We can put our arms around each other and say "we're both hurting-- let's take our pain to Jesus together."

Two areas I've felt this and seen this at my stage of life are singleness v. marriage and infertility v. child-rearing.  I've heard things like "Don't complain about how hard your marriage is to your single friends.  They don't want to hear it."  Similarly, I've heard "If you're having a hard time being pregnant, only talk about it with people who are 'like you' (as in, people who are not infertile)."  I think both of those are dead wrong. Of course, I don't think that complaining is ever right, especially not about one's husband, whom we have vowed to honor and are commanded to respect (Eph. 5:33), BUT to say that one can only share one's sufferings with one who has suffered the same sorrow kind of defeats the point of verses like "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2).  It doesn't say anything about only sharing burdens like the ones we already carry.   That would imply that our pain is more valid than another's. Honestly, I think it's very helpful for singles -- who so often are tempted to make an idol of marriage-- to hear the struggles and heart-aches that marriage can bring.  Similarly, it is a good reminder to the one who is overwhelmed and weary from day-and-night childcare to hear that others would give anything to have a child.  And the converses are true.  Other griefs act as great perspective checks.

5.  It seems the best way to share grief is to first just listen, probably hug, too, and then offer to pray (possibly right then & there).  However, hearing a litany of "what not to say" is only so helpful.  If we rather start at the point that everyone has hurt, and probably means to comfort, we'll be way better off-- less offended for sure-- than expecting everyone to walk around eggshells around me because "I'm suffering."

So back to the beginning, and also the conclusion... everyone has hurt.  I read Proverbs 14:10 as a depressed and confused 6th grader and was struck by its truth "Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy."  We are all the walking wounded, despite the smile and clean clothes.  For some, the hurt is clear and public, perhaps painfully obvious:  the broken engagement, the death of a child, the sudden loss of a job.  Their grief is easy to spot, so easy that these grieving are likely to crave anonymity instead of sympathy.  For others, the pain is buried deep, darkly shrouded, the despair so often borne alone:  the spouse addicted to pornography, the dream that must be buried yet again, the secret hope so long deferred, a long loneliness that wears down the soul.  Talk to anyone long enough, though, and you will find a fellow sufferer.  Our challenge in Christ is to extend a hand, then put our own shoulder gently under the other's burden, and together face the Light. I like how the ESV puts that verse-- "The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy."  Let us not be strangers!

I guess the one-liner swirling through my mind after typing and thinking and praying a bit on this is: let's SHARE our burdens, without complaining, yet without guilt.  What are your thoughts?  Anything to add or share?


MSF said...

I have found several posts on Molly Piper's blog very helpful in thinking about how to come alongside of others when they are suffering. Here is her most recent on this subject: http://mollypiper.com/2011/02/when-you-want-to-say-i-cant-imagine-just-try/
And you can look her whole series on "how to Help Your Grieving Friend".

Ashlea Davenport said...

Ashlea's thoughts on grief (or some of them) borne out of study and experience. First, as a culture, we have lost the ability to grieve. It doesn't fit nicely into the American dream or "now I'm happy all the time" attitude. We also expect everyone to "get over it" quickly and get back to "normal." So, as believers, we have to learn how to grieve and be around those who are grieving. Everything else I have to say kind of follows from that.

Sometimes grieving can sound like complaining. To the person who is not grieving, the why and how questions may give the impression that the griever is complaining. And they may be, but the questions could also just be an expression that the source of the grief is simply too big for the griever to comprehend. At those times, we really need to ask for discernment to know when to listen quietly and when to instruct or correct.

The grieving can last a long time. I don't just mean a couple of weeks, but sometimes years. For some people the grieving may last until their last breath on earth. I'm not talking about despairing of hope in the gospel, but the reality that some hurts do not go away until we see the face of Christ. Then it is the job of the comforter to continually point the griever to Christ and remind them of the sovereignty, the faithfulness and love of God; remind them that Jesus has carried all of our sorrows and griefs.

You are absolutely right that we all suffer and grieve. We must remind ourselves and each other that pain and sorrow are not strangers to the Christian life. That said, none of really have an excuse for saying flippant or trivial things (though we will because we are still growing and at time or often clumsy) to each other. Even if our own experiences haven't prepared us to empathize with someone else's particular grieving, we have the Word of God and the Holy Spirit to instruct us.

About touching: honestly a hug is sometimes not appropriate, especially if someone is weeping. This probably seems completely counter-intuitive. However, crying can be the bleeding of the soul and is necessary for healing. So, unless a crying person asks for the hug, limit yourself to a touch on the back.

To the grievers: be patient in grieving, realizing that your grief may last a long time, and that's ok. Cast yourself on your God who is your Father and loves you. He has complete control over the circumstances of your life and is using your grief to conform you to the image of Christ. Be generous to those are trying, and maybe badly, to give comfort. Use your grief to empathize with others who are grieving.

Perhaps one of the biggest lies that tempted me when I was grieving is that when it came to rejoicing with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, I was only a cause for weeping. I wanted a reason for people to rejoice with me rather than always weep. But that was a short-sighted and earthbound lie. Circumstantially, yes, I really did only give people a reason to weep with me. But in growth in character and Christlikeness, there were multitudes of reasons for rejoicing. And I guess my conclusion would be that where there is true grieving, we should all look for growth in Christ and rejoice.

Eowyn's Heir said...

Thank you, Ashlea! SO true! When I was a hospital chaplain, we were taught to always ask people "do you mind if I touch you?" before hugging them... and I only once had a person say 'yes, I'd mind.' I made a special effort to touch people as much as I could if they were ok with it; holding their hand, whatever I could reach around IVs etc. We all crave human contact, especially in pain. I think it does depend on your personality, but I know in my deepest grief, when I got plenty of back-pats and people sitting quietly by me, what I desperately wanted was someone to throw their arms around me and let me literally cry on their shoulder. I felt like a pat on the back was deameaning, easy, and kept them emotionally detached. SO I guess asking before doing is usually the best route, though I'd also say go with your instincts-- if you are holding back what you would naturally do it often comes across as strained and stilted.

Eowyn's Heir said...

Thanks for the link, Mary Scott-- I love it!

Rebecca Elves said...

love this. and ashlea's comments are great. thanks for posting.