Formations 06.11.2023: Permission to Grieve

John 11:17, 20-29, 32-35, 38a, 41-44

Everybody grieves in their own way. Among the many lessons that we can learn from John 11, let’s not neglect that one. When Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died, he travels to Bethany, where he comforts Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha.

Both sisters greet Jesus with the same words: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vv. 21, 32). But pay attention to how Jesus responds to each.

John depicts Martha as someone steeped in the traditions of her faith. When Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise again, she responds with a confession: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (v. 24). That’s when Jesus draws her toward a deeper understanding. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says (v. 25). He seems to be telling her, “Martha, you’re looking for a resurrection in the distant future, but I’m telling you about a resurrection that is looking you in the eyes.”

In place of religious platitudes, Jesus offers Martha a genuine experience of God’s redeeming presence.

When Jesus later meets Mary, she is weeping at the tomb. She doesn’t voice pious sentiments. After reminding Jesus that Lazarus wouldn’t have died if Jesus had come sooner, she doesn’t say anything at all! No, all she does is weep, and so do the people who are with her.

So, what does Jesus do? He also says nothing. He joins the mourners and weeps for his dead friend (v. 35).

Jesus addresses the needs of each woman. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, he weeps with those who weep and talks theology with those who talk theology. He meets them where they are with sensitivity and genuine concern.

When I grieve, it’s comforting to know that Jesus isn’t going to roll over my heartfelt experience. He isn’t going to wait for me to conform my grief to a preferred model or template before he shows up to comfort me. He’s with me from the start, even if I don’t have the right words. Even if I don’t have any words at all.

My way of grieving doesn’t shock or offend Jesus. He’ll be there with me in the depths of my grief.


• How are Mary and Martha’s responses to the death of their brother the same? How are they different?
• What does this passage teach us about mourning?
• What guidance does this passage give us when we must comfort those who mourn?
• How can this story help us grieve when we know that our loved ones won’t be raised in our lifetime?
• How does the raising of Lazarus affect the story? Does it make the mourning less valid?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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