Our Bayside Church community is in the midst of grief as we stand alongside a family whose eldest daughter took her life a week ago. The family are foundational church members, joining Bayside Church in its first year in 1992. So, they are well-known and deeply loved. The pain they and others are experiencing runs deep. And so, I write this blog hoping to comfort anyone who faces the depths of grief and loss.

The Psalms

The Psalms are an excellent source of the expression of genuine faith. The 150 Psalms can be divided into three main groups:

Group 1: Everything is lovely; praise the Lord, hallelujah.

Group 2: Everything is not okay. I’m struggling intensely, but the Lord is going to rescue me.

Group 3: Everything is not okay. I’m struggling intensely and praying hard, but God seems absent. These are the lament Psalms and make up almost one-third (42 out of 150) of the Psalms. Let that sink in.

Psalm 88

One such Psalm is Psalm 88, which Charles Spurgeon described as follows: “In this Psalm, Heman makes a map of his life’s history. He puts down all the dark places through which he has travelled. He mentions his sins, his sorrows, his hopes (if he had any), his fears, his woes, and so on. Now, that is real prayer, laying your case before the Lord.”

Please read and reflect on this Psalm and the raw and honest words the author uses. He was overwhelmed with troubles, drained of strength and abandoned by God. Although he prayed daily, he felt cut off from God’s care. “My eyes are dim with grief. Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” The Psalm concludes with, “Darkness is my closest friend.”

The Psalm title instructs the music director to set the song to Mahalath leannoth: “The Suffering of Affliction.” This contemplative poem helps us understand that human existence is not always easy. Wherever we live, whoever we are, and whatever faith we have, there will be terrible times when we wonder where God is and why he let “it” happen.

The lament Psalms sanction our grief, honest questions, expressions of doubt, and anger at God. I am so grateful that the Holy Spirit inspired their inclusion in the Scriptures.

Express Yourself

When life is unfair, we suffer and grieve and have many unanswered questions; it’s okay to say exactly how you feel. That’s what Heman did. Over 2,700 years since it was written, we’re still reading Psalm 88 because Heman expressed himself. Imagine if he had bottled up his feelings because he didn’t want people to think he wasn’t a real man.

All the Psalms were sung publicly in the community. Heman voiced his feelings in a community of people who could support him through his grief. I am so grateful to belong to an authentic community of faith where we can be honest.

Good Grief

Grief is a process with many ups and downs. Losses that cause grief include the death of a loved one, a friend, or a pet, the ending of a marriage, or a miscarriage or stillbirth. We grieve the loss of friendships, a job, health, and life changes like retirement or moving house. We’re pained when dreams fail, future plans don’t eventuate, or our financial security is shaken.

Grief is a proper emotional response to these and other losses. In Bible times, grieving people would dress in sackcloth and pour ashes on their heads. Jesus spoke of this as a favourable expression of sorrow. Our modern Western mindsets could benefit from the example of our Eastern friends, whom we often judge as “over the top.” A healthy expression of grief is one way to live through it.

The fact that the lament Psalms like Psalm 88 are included in inspired Scripture tells us a lot. It tells us that God is totally okay with human grief and with humans expressing that grief. He’s alright with being questioned, with people being angry with him and accusing him. God is not going to smite you, turn away from you, or stop listening to you, and he will not have a holy huff. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Resist Platitudes

In my work as a pastor, I have noticed how uncomfortable we Aussies tend to be around death, grief and loss. And in our discomfort, we tend to say thoughtless things. My eldest daughter told someone this week that a lifelong friend had just ended her life. His response? “Well, life goes on.”

If you don’t know what to say, say nothing. Be present and listen. Give a hug or an arm around a shoulder. Don’t say, “I know what you’re going through” unless you do. Give practical help where possible and let people know you’re thinking of them, but don’t be intrusive. Resist platitudes like:

  • There’s a reason for everything.
  • They’re in a better place.
  • Time heals all wounds.
  • They wouldn’t want you to cry.
  • It’s all happened for the best.
  • It’s time to put all this behind you.

The last one is only for the grieving person to decide.

Not Okay

People say, “Well, everything will be okay,” but none know that will happen. What if things aren’t okay? Not everything ends well, even in the Bible, and a faith that tries to convince you otherwise is bogus.

Christie and I have a friend in South Africa who lost her son in a tragedy many years ago. At the time, she was a member of a Word of Faith church and was told by her pastor that she didn’t need to grieve because Jesus “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” When we met her, she still hadn’t grieved her loss.

The Hebrew word translated borne means to be lifted like Noah’s ark on the flood waters. It’s a stunning picture of God’s promise to carry us as we live through grief. It reminds me of the Footprints story.

Because of Jesus, we have hope in the resurrection of the dead; we do “not grieve as others who have no hope,” but we still live our way through grief. Today, our friend has processed her heartache and joined a Christian community free from toxic positivity.

Weeping and Laughter

The Psalms intertwine joy and grief, rejoicing and mourning. This is a very realistic picture of life. At funerals, stories are told that make people laugh, but we also cry. If you’re living through grief and loss, I encourage you to be gentle with yourself and incredibly honest with God. As you live your way through grief, something beautiful happens within. Paul wrote about it like this: “The Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

If you are struggling in any way and need support, please call
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
Pastoral Care Phone: 0401 721 912

Last year, I wrote a blog addressing some of the mistakes I’ve made and traps I’ve fallen into in my years of pastoring. The blog was written in response to the scandals at Hillsong Church, and the documentary The Kingdom screened on SBS.

Two pitfalls I succumbed to as a younger pastor were the frenetic pace of the contemporary church and unholy expectations. I have tackled these two irritants in my life and our church, and we are all happier and much more relaxed.

The Relentless Pursuit of More

The contemporary church has bought into a secular myth that constantly desires more. I’ve already seen it on social media at the beginning of this new year: “So much more in ’24” was the clichéd rhyming statement posted by a pastor who took most of last year off because he was burned out.

We do ourselves and the people we lead a disservice if we are constantly dangling a carrot of grander visions and dreams and striving for more because it ultimately leads to disappointment. It also buys into the original temptation in Eden. The first humans had everything. The snake came along and whispered, “There’s more. You’re missing out. What you have is not enough.” Adam and Eve embraced it, and we’re still paying the price.

A Better Way

I’m not saying that churches (or businesses) shouldn’t seek growth, but we need to be on our guard for the relentless pursuit of more. Not all growth is healthy. Cancer is growth, and we deal with it harshly.

There’s a better way which says, “What I have is more than enough!” It’s called contentment. Jesus said, “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are — no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.” I invite you to reflect on these Scriptures: Philippians 4:11-13, Hebrews 13:5, 1 Tim 6:6-10.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 speaks of humanity’s primary goal as glorifying God and enjoying him forever. At the start of this new year, I encourage you to ponder questions like when is enough enough? And, what gives me the greatest contentment in life?

Set the Bar Lower

Practising contentment helps avoid disappointment. Another way is to have low expectations. There’s a message you won’t hear in most of today’s overactive churches, yet that’s a strong message in scripture. Consider the chapter on faith, Hebrews 11, in which the author writes about extraordinary men and women of faith who all died without receiving the things promised (13). Let that sink in.

Then, the author focuses on people called “the others.” These faith-filled people experienced great suffering that didn’t end until they passed from this life to the next—the world was not worthy of them. These were all commended for their faith, yet none received what had been promised.

They were still living by faith when they died.

They were all commended for their faith.

They hadn’t received the things promised.

They only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.

They were full of faith and vision but were realistic in their expectations. When we’re unrealistic, we get disappointed, so why not lower the bar?

I know many wonderful faith-filled people who suffer in life and, short of a miracle, will continue to suffer till death. Such people should not be made to feel like second-class Christians because they haven’t received an answer to prayer.

A Happy Life

In his book, “The Paradox of Choice,” psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote, “The secret to happiness is low expectations.” Lowering your expectations increases both your resilience and your happiness almost every time.

  • You’ll be frustrated when you have high expectations, and the outcome is worse.
  • You’ll be grateful when you have low expectations, and the result is better.

Jim Stockdale was an American Vice Admiral captured and imprisoned during the Vietnam War. He was held and tortured for seven years in what became known as the Hanoi Hilton. Stockdale said the first people to die in captivity were the optimists, who kept thinking things would get better quickly and they’d be released. He said, “They died of a broken heart.” Instead, Stockdale argued, the key to survival was to combine realism and hope. Stockdale wrote, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Confront the facts, but always keep hope. Set Low Expectations. Practice contentment. And you’ll avoid disappointment.

I wonder if you’ve ever been told NOT to question God?

I have. It’s disrespectful, irreverent, and overly-familiar, apparently. Questioning God shows a lack of faith and fear of the Lord. I mean, God is GOD, and who are we, as mere mortals, to interrogate him?

Verses such as Romans 9:20 are quoted to support this argument: “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'”

In my early years as a Christian, I wouldn’t question God. Even questioning pastors was frowned upon. I mean, “touch not the Lord’s anointed,” right?

My Quest to Question

Because asking questions of God and faith has been frowned upon, those who have dared to have not been treated well. I have experienced this first-hand over the past two decades as I have started investigating aspects of my faith.

To be clear, I do not question the existence of God. Neither do I find difficulty believing in who Jesus is or what he achieved through his life, death, and resurrection. I believe Jesus is alive and reconciling people to God.

In the early 2000s, I began struggling with God ordering his chosen people to commit acts of genocide. That was followed by investigating if the Bible teaches that God deliberately tortures people forever in hell. I read widely on these subjects and published some blogs and podcasts detailing the various views Christians have held on these matters over the centuries. What became clear was that there has existed more than one perspective on each topic for hundreds of years.

How We Treat Questioners

The challenge is that most Christians are only taught one interpretation of the various themes in Scripture and are ignorant that alternative understandings exist. So, when they hear that someone believes that hell is NOT forever (for example), they brand that person a heretic or not a genuine Christian or liberal or woke.

In a recent post, a Facebook friend stated it this way: “We have also turned on our own, bullying those who wrestle sincerely with these hard questions. Are the questions themselves too dangerous? Does asking them warrant accusations of heresy? Why are we so afraid? What if Christ is up to the challenge?” Great questions.

I have been called all sorts of names by Jesus-loving people who don’t seem to be bothered by cursing another believer with unkind words (James 3:9-10). I’m a heretic, a cockroach who should hurry back to my dark places, and I’ll be sorry on the day of judgement. I think not.

The Bible and Questions

Hebraically speaking, much of the Tanakh was written to address people’s genuine questions. Consider the ageless stories in Genesis that were no doubt told and retold around campfires in the ancient worlds to answer questions like:

Why do we have to work for a living?

Why is giving birth painful?

Why do people die?

How did we get a free will or become self-aware?

Asking questions and inquiring about your faith is a healthy practice that should be encouraged rather than criticised. If you don’t believe me check out the Psalms, in which there are over fifty questions like:

Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?

Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1).

Why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22);

How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever? (Psalm 79).

How long will your wrath burn like fire? (Psalm 89)

The book of Job is full of questions. Jesus didn’t rebuke people for querying him, and Paul commended the Berean Synagogue Jews for investigating his claims against Scripture rather than gullibly accepting or rejecting his message.

It fascinates me that the Holy Spirit has inspired people to record hundreds of examples of people questioning their faith and their God in Scripture. Yet, we discourage people from doing the same and call them names when they have valid questions.

No Easy Answers

I encourage you to question God and your faith and resist trite or simplistic answers. Learn to wrestle with Scripture and live with the tension of sometimes just not knowing. The Bible and life are full of paradoxes, especially in the depth of suffering.

I believe it is helpful for all of us to move past sayings like, “pray about it, or just believe the Bible,” or my pet hate, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Some people quote that like it’s inspired Scripture, except it isn’t.

My faith has gone deeper during the times when I have grappled with doubts and difficulties. I look back over the past two decades and realise that my faith has deepened, I love God and Jesus more than ever, and I walk much more gently with people.

I’d encourage you to rest where you find yourself and be honest with yourself and God.