Mourning and Grief: Even Jesus Wept

In the book of John, we read the one verse almost every kid in church memorized, if only for its brevity: Jesus wept. I hadn’t given much thought to the passage until recently, but there’s a lot going on there. Let’s set the context.

Jesus receives word that Lazarus is sick from Mary and Martha. Jesus decides, in spite of this, to stick around where he is at for a couple of days. Jesus then announces to his disciples that they should go to Lazarus, who has now “fallen asleep,” so that Jesus may awaken him. The disciples are confused. For starters, Judea is dangerous for them; the last time they were there, the religious leaders were seeking to stone Jesus. In addition, why travel into dangerous land just to see someone who is sleeping? In spite of the prevalence of “sleep” as a metaphor for death in the Old Testament, Jesus is forced to clarify: in verse 14, Jesus tells his disciples that “falling asleep” actually means that Lazarus has died.

Even with the knowledge that he will “awaken” Lazarus, Jesus doesn’t weep just yet. In fact, Jesus doesn’t weep until after he’s reunited with both Mary and Martha. Once he sees the two of them weeping, he is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” After asking where they have laid Lazarus, Jesus finally weeps.

What causes Jesus to weep here? If Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus—and he has already made it explicit that he was going to do so—then why weep in the face of this death? Jesus knows the outcome, so couldn’t he comfort others with his confidence that everything would be okay?

Jesus weeps in spite of his correct knowledge regarding Lazarus. The emotions overwhelm him, and he proceeds to mourn with Mary and Martha.

We do the same thing when a fellow believer passes away. We can be certain, or at least nearly certain, that the loss on earth is a gain in heaven and yet, we mourn. This isn’t unhealthy, but it can sometimes riddle us with guilt.

It is appropriate to mourn the loss of someone, even if we rejoice in where they have gone. It is also appropriate to grieve, even if we know that God will be glorified with the result. This need not be restricted to death, of course: sometimes our circumstances are troubling, even if we have the confidence in faith that they will work out in the end.

Christian funerals, at least as they are practiced today, often ride the strange line between true mourning and celebration. On the one hand, we recognize (simply by looking inward) that death is difficult, saddening, and can make us feel as though we are going to collapse. This is often at the forefront of our graveside services: the casket is ceremoniously lowered into the ground, as family and friends of the deceased look on.

The other side of our funerals, however, are often filled with worship and celebration. Pastors and family members will say that our loved ones are standing in heaven, looking down at us. They’re running with Jesus, laughing with him, and doing what they love. In light of this fact, we should rejoice. Let’s celebrate our fallen friends, with loud worship music and (somewhat) forced smiles.

There’s truth to the reaction. I won’t argue that we ought to allow our grief to overwhelm our sense of perspective. There’s a time and a place to remember that to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if Jesus wept for Lazarus, or even just for those around him who were experiencing the loss, then we mustn’t throw off grief entirely. It’s appropriate to cry, to mourn, to sit in the discomfort and sadness that naturally comes with death, even if our knowledge doesn’t quite line up. Sometimes, our call is to comfort those who mourn, rather than mourn ourselves. We would do well to remember that grief is temporary, but still real.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • Matt Jenson

    Thanks for these words, James. There’s a lot of wisdom here. I suppose one of the biggest challenges is orchestrating the intersection of grief and hope.

  • jamesfarnold

    That’s definitely the case. It is a healthy reminder to say that we are allowed to grieve; we needn’t feel guilty when we are overwhelmed by the emotional pain of loss.

    But if we stay in grief, if we never leave and remember hope, then we’ve missed the rest of the story. Jesus weeps for Lazarus, but he also resurrects him.

  • Samuel Grummons

    There has been something N.T. Wright said in an interview that has been ringing in my head as of late. To paraphrase, “Death is a monster, and anyone who has lost anyone knows that.” Now, for me, now is not the time to debate or analytically examine what that means. What I can say is that, right now having just had that loss, attempts to “soften the blow” of death just seem to cheapen the loss. I feel (notice my use of the term “feel” as opposed to “think”) that I need to let this loss sink in and lament as David, Jeremiah, the psalmists, and Jesus did. Feeling the horrid sting of death just seems right and appropriate right now.

  • jamesfarnold

    That’s exactly my feeling and thought, Sam. Know you’re in my prayers.

  • Amy Mantravadi

    I heard someone say once that the reason that Jesus cried was because the people lacked faith, not realizing that He was capable of raising Lazarus from the dead. I think that’s an unfortunate interpretation, not just because of Martha’s declaration of faith in the same passage, but also because it makes Jesus’ tears all about how terrible humanity is rather than how terrible the consequences of sin are. The fact that death and mourning occur in this world is undoubtedly a cause of great sadness for God, who created this universe to be perfect and free of such pain. I don’t think that Jesus was too holy, too otherworldly to be moved to tears by the grief of His friends, even if He did know they would eventually be reunited with their brother. In other words, I agree with what you have to say.