Religion often doesn’t handle grief well.
Many people I have met who have walked away from church and as a result pushed God away to what feels like a ‘safe’ distance have been hurt through hollow religion at a time of intense grief. When those who are bereaved are handled by the cold, rough, unyielding hands of hollow religion, the damage can be irreparable.
Two weeks ago, my brother-in-law died in a cycling accident whilst out on an early morning ride with friends. He leaves behind my wife’s sister and two young children and a huge archive of fabulous memories. The words said about him at his funeral on Thursday were overwhelming in their honour of his eccentric, generous, joyful, character. But when we grieve we don’t want memories, we want to turn the clock back and prevent the tragedy, or rush it forwards to resolution.
George’s tragic death has hit my wife and I hard, because of our deep love for him and his family. We have been plunged again into the dark wild seas of bereavement and thrown around on it’s turbulent waves. I’m convinced that we can’t control grief, it buffets us around.
I wrote earlier this week about my experiences of grief at NewWine (Grieving-in-a-crowd/) I have had a remarkable response to that and as I’ve reflected further, I have been considering the interaction between grief and religion, linked the the material in my forthcoming book ‘Awakening: from Hollow Religion to Heavenly Relationship.’ Having first drafted this, I’ve had a number of nudges from God and encouragements from people that what I’ve written can help others. In the midst of my own grief, my passion to rid the church of hollow religion has intensified because when we are grieving, we are at our most resistant to all that’s inauthentic.
I hope what I have written in the book can speak hope and life to those who have been hurt by hollow religion at the most painful times in life. Recognising the contrast between hollow religion and heavenly relationship can help the church to love and not control those who experience intense pain. This is the first reflection I’ll post on this, with further parts to come. If you are yourself in a place of grief and bereavement right now, I pray that this can help you. If you are supporting someone through grief then I pray this can help you to love them effectively.
Hollow Religion tells us what we should believe but in the kingdom we’re invited to know the King, and believe what he says to us.
Through my own experiences and study of grief, I’ve encountered the 5 recognised stages of grief; Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and resolution. I am convinced that they aren’t linear, we are all different and go through them at different pace, different order and sometimes a few all at once! Someone could probably tell me what stage I’m in right now and why I’m writing this, but that doesn’t really interest me.
One thing that does interest me, is that those who are walking this path are not helped by being controlled or told what to do. Religion tries to either offer a dogmatic grid to tell people how they should be feeling, or facile answers attempting to rush the process. Hollow religion isn’t comfortable with death, grief and raw emotion, it’s too messy and dangerous, many religious beliefs are attempting to prop up an ‘everything is awesome’ culture. As I’ve considered how religion cack-handedly makes a mess of caring for the bereaved, it’s usually because religion wants to pull people through grief too quickly, damaging them on the way, rather than let them encounter God in the midst of the pain.
When we’re grieving we need freedom not regulations, space to be found by God, not information about Him.
That isn’t easy to write, because one of the most painful and challenging parts of grief is that we both experience the depth of engaging encounter with God and the desolation of wilderness feeling separate from him. In many ways we can’t do much about that, yet grief screams within us that we need to do something to make things right. Over the past fortnight I’ve once again experienced the troughs and crests of the unyielding waves of grief, one hour bursting with creative ideas and drive, the next crashing into a drained numbness. One thing I’ve experienced in grief is the restless angst of not knowing what to do with myself. I long for stillness and then crave distraction, all activity loses it’s appeal and yet doing nothing seems worse, I have a jumble of thoughts to bring to God and then find they disappear when I try to pray.
When supporting a bereaved person please, please don’t tread on that holy ground, don’t invade it, don’t try to tell hem why they can’t feel God, don’t give them your tips and techniques to find God, don’t invade their space with your autobiography, however amazing you are! Lovingly pray for them, listen to them and do what you can to offer practical support, to clear space around them, so that they can pause and let God find them. Let the Holy Spirit do her job, she’s better at it than you!
Religious lies which push God away.
Hollow religion develops when we believe lies about God’s character and start to live at a distance from him, hoping to appease or please him.
A few years ago, I took a funeral of a man in his 40s who had died suddenly, it was a huge crowd. He and his family and friends had almost no church background, as I prepared my talk, I heard a whisper from the Holy Spirit; “Please tell them that it’s not my fault”. I could sense God’s pain, that those He wished to comfort were pushing him away and blaming him for the tragedy. As I delivered the talk, I could feel the tension in the building, a sense of defiance. As I shared the Bible’s truth I could almost hear the resistance; “How can he dare speak about God when all this is His fault?” The Holy Spirit enabled me to speak a very clear and simple prophetic message.
“God did not cause this! He is the one who fights with us against death, not the one who makes it happen”.
Death is the enemy, not God.
The New Testament is joyful and triumphant in it’s declaration that death is defeated.
Hollow Religion mixes a cocktail, combining a view of God’s sovereignty based on philosophy not Jesus, with the desire for simple answers and trying to make everything awesome. It both leaves a foul aftertaste and is hugely unhealthy, don’t drink it! Trite comments like;
“He does everything for a reason” or “He wanted them in heaven” are both unbiblical and very damaging. – We will not go to the one we are blaming for comfort.
Religion is what we do, when we believe that we are distant from God.
When we walk with God through this process, he leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, besides still waters, through the wilderness and into his presence. He sets the pace and the rhythm of that journey, let him lead you however long it takes.