What happens when what we want turns out to not be what God wants? What does it feel like when our dreams of grandeur and prestige turn out unlike any of God’s dreams, either for us or for Themselves?
The David story is one case study after another in just that. He is chosen as a boy for his heart, and every king thereafter is measured against him. While he united the Kingdom of Israel and is a warrior of great renown, his misdeeds are equally well known. Most egregiously, his desire leads him to rape a married woman, then kill her husband to cover it up. And in this week’s reading, David’s dream of being the builder of a house for God is so alluring it leads even the prophet Nathan astray.
“Did I ever ask you to build me a house?” God asks, in a tone that may as well have said, “Ew, David.” God’s is not a real question, but a way for Them to launch into a detailed explanation of what David should be focusing on going forward. HINT: it’s not about you, David. God’s got something much bigger than you in mind.
Those who follow the call of God with any seriousness will recognize this kind of moment. Discernment of God’s will is tricky business, and the closer one is to the seat of power, the tricker it gets. Our pride, our security, and our comfort get in the way of God’s will for us, or, more dangerously, for those we lead. Like David, we want to build something with our own hands that will last, that will maybe even be talked about by future generations.
This amounts to building idols, however, for whenever what we build is about us and for us, we are tempted to trust our own building instead of our God.
The course corrections we receive from God are part of the deal of discipleship. However, just because we are getting what we signed up for doesn't mean we should ignore the real grief that comes with having our misguided dreams dashed. It has been my experience that I learn most about discerning God’s will by failing to do just that. And it is okay to grieve a failure, as long as you don’t get stuck there.
So go ahead and be sad that what you want isn’t the same as what God wants for you. Rage against God’s revealing Their will in such a slow and piecemeal way. Wallow in the depression that follows a dream-dashing. Try to bargain with God so that you both can get some of what you want.
But don’t forget the final stage of grief, in which you make meaning out of your loss. This is the part God is best at, after all, making meaning where there seems to be only chaos and pain. This is the hardest work of faith to make such meaning, but it also has a reliable starting point.
The entry into meaning-making is always what God offers David after nixing his grand house scheme: a reminder of God’s forever love and arching salvation story. You are bound up by God’s promise into something beyond your most beautiful dreams. You are loved beyond measure and without end. God holds you in Their heart, prideful visions and misguided desires and all. And as long as you are there, in the very heart of God, you will live to dream again.
This is one of my favorite chapters in the whole bible, and reading it now through my grief further enriches its meaning. This is a story that makes me not only love but like God, for They seem so relatable. Like, who hasn’t wanted to destroy the people who’ve betrayed them? I know I have, so I get God here. And I also get Moses, because I’ve also been the one talking a friend down from their vengeance.
God and Moses are in the midst of a holy getaway from the very irritating Israelites. They are sitting on the mountain together having beautiful conversations about how to create a community that both loves God and each other. God has just given Moses the Law, which was shared with the people, who responded enthusiastically “Everything the LORD has said, we will do!” (Ex. 24:3).
After sealing this covenant with blood, Moses goes back to the mountaintop with God for 40 days and 40 nights. We already know that the Isrealites quickly forget the goodness of their God, so we shouldn’t be surprised when they decide that a God they can’t see is not a good enough God to worship.
What is surprising, however, is how quick Aaron is to gather up the people’s gold and re-form it into a golden statue. It should rightly be Moses who feels betrayed in this story, but God’s immense anger overshadows whatever his right-hand man might be feeling. And Moses proves himself a true friend of God by talking the Almighty down from his homicidal plans.
I like to call this stage of grief that God experiences in Exodus 32 the “rage-sads” (h/t Disrupt’s co-founder Elizabeth Rawlings for coining the term for me). It’s when the sorrow of grief expresses itself in a blind rage, often because the circumstance causing your grief involves betrayal at the hands of the loved one. The rage-sads are particularly familiar to women, I think, who find themselves inexplicably crying while trying to express their deep anger.
While anger in this biblical story, and many other situations of grief, is justified, it can also be destructive. Like God here, when we are betrayed, our first instinct is to hurt the other person as much as we’ve been hurt. This anger must be expressed, partly to let the sadness that undergirds it come to the fore.
Thank God for Moses, who is just the friend God needs in his moment of rage. “Whoa, my Divine Dude,” Moses says, “The Israelites really do suck; I’ll give you that. But, YOU DON’T, remember? You’re literally the best. Don’t give the Egyptians the satisfaction of seeing you slaughter your people.”
It is easy to forget who we are in the midst of righteous rage. It is easy to do things in those moments that we’ll later regret. Apparently, the same is true for our God. The Divine Being, as well as those made in Their image, needs good friends to remind Them who They said They want to be. Ours is a God who continually makes Themselves vulnerable for the sake of covenantal relationships, and this means that God allows Themselves to be hurt by us. It is often said that grief is the natural consequence of love, and this is never more true than for God. Because God has opened Their heart fully to imperfect people, that heart is continually broken.
Yet God keeps Their heart open, even if They sometimes need to be talked into it by Their friends, and that is when grief becomes transformative. When we allow the pain to be all that it is, when we allow it to shatter us completely, we find there is a reconstructed life on the other side of it, a resurrection even.
It is this kind of shattering and re-making, I think, that leads God to choose incarnation in the person of Jesus. Every time God’s heart is broken by God’s people, they remake Themselves and risk love again. Every new covenant is another attempt by God to let the grief They’ve experienced with their people transform Them, in hopes that the people too will be transformed. The cross represents the ultimate shattering of God, in Spirit and flesh together, so that it is not just God who breaks this time, but the whole unholy system of betrayal and atonement.
The question for the people of God in every age is this: are we willing to follow the lead of God who allows themselves to be shattered by grief and re-made for the sake of the world? Are we willing to trust that the shattering will not destroy us or those we love, but lead us deeper into love?
In this week’s reading, we hear one of the most central stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, the deliverance of God’s chosen people from slavery in Egypt, and the inauguration of the Passover festival which celebrates God’s mighty act.
The problem here, from a grief perspective, is that this great liberation comes as a result of the death of the firstborn among the Egyptians, the final plague loosed by God on an obstinate Pharoah. So while the Israelites are preparing for a new life, and celebrating justice done by the God on whom they have waited their whole lives, the Egyptians are grieving more loss than they’ve ever experienced, including at least one member of every family. While the Israelites set out in freedom with God in the lead, the Egyptians are left without their firstborn, their crops and livestock decimated, their family heirlooms plundered.
Please don’t mistake me here: I am not asking you to have compassion on the slaveholders, on the oppressing empire, in their grief. I am simply noticing that this story is emotionally complicated, as most stories are, and wondering about how that kind of complication is still impacting our congregations, communities and nations today. The empire’s grief shows itself to be a powerful force every time the status quo is challenged.
When a woman accuses a powerful man of sexual harassment and/or misconduct, the old boys club grieves the “jokes” they can’t make anymore. When a white person uses an outdated and racist colloquialism they grew up using and gets called out for it, they grieve the rise of “political correctness”. When a pastor calls God “She” or “They” or “Mother”, congregation members grieve the loss of the God they identified with, which they identified as theirs.
This kind of grief is born of sin, of status quo that has always been antithetical to the ways of God, but it is still grief. And if there is one thing I am sure of in grief, it’s this: Grief doesn’t care whether it is right or wrong, whether it’s feelings or thoughts can be justified. Grief simply demands space to be what it is, and not allowing that space is dangerous to our individual and communal health.
The church is rife with such grief, largely unacknowledged and often judged by its clergy as inappropriate or unbecoming of “good Christians”. So it festers in silence, manifesting in passive aggressive actions, anonymous notes to the pastor and leadership. It creates silos inside and between our congregations. Grief is the number one force that makes our congregations resistant to change, even if most of that grief is anticipatory, based on the fear that change means losing something precious to us and gaining nothing.
It is not every pastor’s job to tend this grief. In fact, for those whose grief is caused by the status quo the church wants to maintain, it is violence to ask them to tend the grief of the other side. But for those who understand (and maybe even share) their members’ grief about the ways the church and world are changing, perhaps the most important pastoral work they have is to help members process this grief. There can be no moving forward as a whole when a portion of the body of Christ is mired in what they’ve lost.
I can’t imagine that Pharoah made space for the grief of the Egyptians, since he acts out of his failing power to send his army after the fleeing slaves. But I can imagine a present-day empire, either the church or America, which makes space for some to process their grief over what is no longer, while others build a future that will cause fewer to grieve.