- Association of Certified Biblical Counselors - https://biblicalcounseling.com -

Embracing Grief

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have a dear friend of mine with me, I served in ministry with him at Southwestern Seminary for quite some time, Dr. John Babler. He taught biblical counseling and other related biblical courses, and pastoral theology courses for over 30 years at a seminary level. He’s now currently teaching at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, growing their biblical counseling program. I’m thankful for his work there, the enduring work. He’s been a pastor and served as a pastor on staff. He’s also worked as a fire chaplain and a police chaplain as well as seeing the beauty of biblical counseling and its effectiveness in lots of different scenarios even really large-scale crisis events that have happened around the country in most of our lifetimes. So, grateful for this brother.

I wanted him to talk about this issue of grief. Sometimes it’s an enigma to us, we’re not sure how to think about it. A lot of us are facing issues of grief, and this is something that’s ongoing. I mean the Bible talks about it, it’s appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment. We all are around death and dying, as much as we might try to avoid it and it’s not a bad thing that we would, we would learn to deal with what reality is in the world in which we live. And so, Dr. Babbler, first of all, I’m grateful for you being here. So, thank you for joining us. 

John Babler: Thank you for the opportunity. 

Dale Johnson: And then, second what I want to do is ask you a few questions as it relates to grief. Now, the idea of embracing grief might be you know, a little bit of a confusing thought. However, I think it’s a part of reality and we need to learn to engage in a lot of our grief counseling and our approaches to grief, our stages of grief are certainly not a biblical approach to understanding grief and the experiences that we truly have. So, I want to sort of set some of the record straight and how we think about grief, and man, with what we’ve been involved in the last two years with the pandemic, so many of us have been touched by death because of the pandemic. And we either are very close to someone who’s died or we know if people in our church that have. We’ve all been affected in some way by some unexpected death with COVID or some other event. So, think about how biblical counselors can respond to those who are struggling with grief, and it’s something we’ve all experienced pretty closely lately.

John Babler: I think those are great points. I think that certainly, as I look back over my life, grief, is not anything that’s new, but just the absolute prominence of it day to day for the last couple of years in the midst of COVID-19 is just with us. Like I said day-to-day. There was a period of time early on in the pandemic, where many people I knew didn’t know anybody that had been impacted by COVID. But yet today, that’s changed. And I think just about everybody knows somebody who has more than likely even died from it and, or at least in the midst of it. And so, grief is just ever more prominent in the context of our current situation in our culture.

One of my concerns is that we need to recognize that this is an opportunity for us as biblical counselors. It’s an opportunity for us, as you mentioned to help people, as they work out their salvation with fear and trembling, to help them work out what is the place of grief. What do we do with grief? And indeed, that idea of embracing grief, is that something we can? Is that something we should do? I think those are vital things for us to consider the reality is that if you think back to another time where grief was prominent in the midst of the 9/11 invasion, at that point, the collapse of the towers and all the death that came. What we found was that many people came to church. We found that people their spiritual interest was raised because life as they knew it had changed dramatically, and just in a short few hours even.

One of my griefs that one level is the fact that I don’t think we as the church in a broad sense were good stewards of what God allowed in the midst of that. We weren’t good stewards of those people who came into our church doors, we got excited and we even maybe became a little prideful, look, finally people are recognizing what we’ve known all along that God’s important, and then six months later, where were those people? Well, they weren’t in church anymore. They’ve gone back to whatever life was at that point. And so, one of my burdens at this point in time is that I don’t want that to happen in the midst of COVID. I think the very fact that it’s more prolonged is keeping it at the forefront of people’s minds longer. The fact that it’s impacting more and more people and that grief is so prominent, I would argue what a great opportunity for us as biblical counselors and those who want to encourage others with soul care, what a great opportunity to come alongside them and in the midst of that grief to take initiative to help them address and deal with the crises that are going on around us, the lost, the death that are going on around us. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, because it is our responsibility to help people deal with reality because that is a, it is a reality. We can’t slough off the idea that you know a person is experiencing deep grief from some sort of event or the loss of someone who’s very close. You know, I had something happen as a young minister and I’ll make a confession. I was on staff at a church with an older minister and we were sitting down when I don’t even remember how the discussion came up. But I think I was doing my first wedding and, you know, I was excited for the young couple. And you know, I was going to share with them and looking forward to the opportunity and one of the things that he said to me one time is—he loves weddings, it wasn’t an issue about weddings but sometimes those things can get out of hand in their celebration. And the way people approach those— he said, “I would rather do 10 funerals than I had to one wedding.” And I thought that was really interesting. And as a young minister, I don’t know that I really understood that and he’s like, “I’ll make a deal with you. You do all the weddings, I’ll do all the funerals.” And as a young man, I thought, man, that funerals are really uncomfortable. Sometimes you don’t know what to say, what do you do? And I think as I’ve grown older I realized what he was meaning is in moments of crisis like that, people are much more open to hearing about the realities that the Scripture already described and it was opportunities for ministry that oftentimes, to be honest, you don’t get in the setting of a wedding where people’s minds are on the spiritual things primarily, sometimes. I think that’s really interesting to think about that concept, to engage where this brokenness happens because Christ gives an answer for those things.

Now, that brings me to sort of a second question as I think about that reality in this particular area. Think about how biblical counselors can or maybe I should say should involve the church in their counseling. Because I think this is not just an individual ministry, it is something that the church should be engaged in to some degree. What do you think about that, Dr. Babler? 

John Babler: Yeah, I think that my observation having dealt with some death in my family at a young age, and just to be an observer of churches for many years of ministry, is that overall the church does a pretty good job with an initial response to a death. The initial phone calls come in and the visits and during the service and usually a meal. And I remember about the time when my oldest brother was killed in a motorcycle wreck when I was 17 years old, about the time that all of that stopped was the time where it began to sink in the finality of the fact that my brother had died. And about the time where I needed help the most was the time where there was no help, people had gone on with life. I wanted to shake my fist and realize that and say, “Don’t you realize that life is not normal?” But for them of course, it was.

So, one of the challenges of the aspect of grief especially in regard to the death of a loved one, is the fact that it does not end, it isn’t something that’s resolved in a period of a couple of days or a couple of weeks, those anniversaries, those holidays, all those things that occur the first time without that loved one can be very significant and very challenging. And so, when I think about the picture in Scripture of the church as a body, I think grief provides a great opportunity for the church to come together as a body and minister to those people and certainly to have a biblical counselor there that can walk with and love and encourage, speak the truth in love, that’s vital. But too along with him or her to have others that could do things such as wash a load of laundry or provide some childcare for the kids or any one of a number of practical things can be vital as well. One of the things about COVID that’s problematic too, is that it’s changed the way we grieve. Many people who would have been at the bedside of their loved one when they died weren’t able to, they had no access and I would argue that makes their grief even more difficult. He died alone, she died alone. I wasn’t there.

One of the things that sometimes comes with grief is a sense of guilt and that guilt is even more prominent in the memorial services or the funerals that were delayed for weeks or months. All of those things together, I would argue provide an even greater opportunity and even more significant time for us as biblical counselors to involve the church as a body in ministering to and asking questions that might not have been pertinent four years ago but are very pertinent today. 

Dale Johnson: I love that. I think we have to take the truth of the Gospel and meet the needs that are present. And I think that’s a really good explanation of how even grief has shifted and changed. The way that we’ve dealt with death is quite different. We experience that certainly with folks who are close to us who’ve gone through COVID and been in the hospital, not being with him. And we didn’t even lose anyone close, but just them being in the hospital, you not being there, it has an effect on you. You want to be there to care for them and especially if you’ve lost someone that way and it does change the way that we grieve.

I love the way that you’re talking about the church, being involved in the body of Christ, being involved and thinking about that more long-term and how to how to minister to the needs of that particular individual and showing the beauty of the body of Christ in an encouraging way to do the one another’s for those people and not just in meals provided that sort of thing. But even as we think about long-term and I want to bring that down to a little bit more practical.

Dr. Babler, I want you to help us with this to think about this in practical terms as individuals and then corporately as a, as a church body, what are some of the practical ways or ideas that we can assist those who are actually walking through this type of grief? 

John Babler: Yeah, I think that’s a great question again. I think this provides a great opportunity as I look towards as you’ve mentioned, I’ve taught in biblical counseling reader for many years with the Lord’s patience it looks like I have an opportunity to teach for a number of more years with His help. One of the burdens I have is to challenge biblical counselors to get biblical counseling out of the counseling office, and I think this arena of grief in this context in time with the pandemic and other issues that are going on provides a great opportunity for us to get counseling out of the counseling office and the idea of relationship. I would argue that, and I would have argued this before but now maybe one of the most effective ways to provide biblical counsel for someone who’s lost someone to COVID maybe even within the past year or so, they have been two years ago even is rather than to say, hey would you like to sit down and make a counseling appointment? And some of those are coming, but is to say, can we go grab lunch?

I would argue that sometimes informal counseling is as effective and sometimes even more effective and important than formal counseling. I found that in the midst of again, in the midst of COVID-19 of the things, as I have tried to be a good steward of the pandemic, I’ve found that a great opportunity for me to get involved in discussions, even with strangers in a restaurant or another context is to talk to them about hope. I’ve actually developed a little tract that’s based on some of my life and losses that I use as well, but that idea of just talking to them about hope. Sometimes I’ll say, “With all that’s going on around you you know on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being very hopeful and 1 being no hope at all, where do you find yourself?” And it really doesn’t matter where they answer because they’re intrigued that I’m interested enough to ask them that question and then to begin to build and develop a relationship in the midst of that great opportunity right now for people they’re not going to find it untoward, they’re not going to be surprised that somebody asks them about hope because clearly, we live in some days that are challenging. And so, getting counseling out of the counseling office, I think is important and we’ve already talked about the importance of the church as a body.

I think some key things as we deal with people who are struggling with grief, and again, I think part of that idea of even embracing grief is because of the fact that God in His sovereignty has allowed this loss, this death, this situation to occur, where we grieve and God is going to bring good out of it and you know the good that He promises and Romans 8:29 is that we’re going to look more like Christ in the midst of Him bringing good out of difficulty, and so, we can we embrace that because we recognize that even in the midst of death and loss, that this isn’t the end, that this hasn’t taken God by surprised, that this isn’t home. And there will soon be a time where there is no more tears and no more death and so, to recognize that even in the midst of providing honor for a loved one who has died, to share what God has done in their life, to be able to focus on the memories where those were appropriate, I think are important as we minister again, formally, informally. I think compassion is key. It’s easy to have compassion for somebody who’s grieving, but sometimes it’s important to step back and realize that as we are developing compassion as we think even about compassion that they may not be addressing, thinking, or dealing with things in the same way we are. And so, listening, and asking questions becomes very important in the midst of ministering to people who are grieving. Serving them.

We had some friends as my wife and I’ve experienced deaths in our family. We had some friends that were comfortable enough with us to know that in the midst of a large family, a lot of times housecleaning didn’t get top billing. And so, we got some friends that knew us well enough, and we’re close enough to us and say “hey, when you’re at the funeral home, could we come and just kind of tidy up the front rooms of the house for people to visit?” Well, that was great. Now, not everybody could have offered us that but, you know, somebody who is in relationship with us was able to offer that. You know, what a great way to serve us, and even when you offer, even if somebody says, no, you still show that commitment and desire to serve them.

Ministering Scripture in the midst of people in grief, I think is vital. If you experience a loss and I’m a friend of yours, most likely I will send you whether it’s a note or an email or text or whatever and I will include Scripture in that not, just referencing something, you know, God teaches this, but I will include Scripture because I think God’s Word is indeed living and active and it’s what we’re called to minister. Grief can provide a great opportunity for us to do that. Of course, prayer. People in grief are open to that. We need to be ready to speak the truth in love, even in the midst of somebody who’s grieving. We see somebody who’s grieving and we see their pain and we’re compassionate, people probably wouldn’t be doing biblical counseling if we weren’t and yet, when we see people who are struggling, our tendency is we don’t want to pile on. We don’t want to add to their struggle. In a very simple, simplistic illustration, I sometimes use is that if you had a friend that was struck blind and you were leading your friend, as you were leading them, they’ve really struggled with this, but they’re kind of at a point with their being struck blind and they’re kind of at a point where they’re doing okay. And as you look a little bit down the road in front of you, you see a big hole, 15, 20-foot hole and you realize that you keep going straight that you’ll miss the hole, but your friend will fall into it. And you think to yourself, well if I tell him there’s a hole in front of us it might remind him of the fact that he’s been blinded and he might really struggle with that. And so, I don’t know that I want to bring it up to it or and if I’m even if I begin to turn, he’s going to ask why I’m turning. And if I say, well, it’s because there’s a hole, he’ll say, my gosh, I would have fallen to my death in a hole and I can’t even see it. And so, I’m just going to keep walking and not say anything. Well, of course, you’re not going to do that, but I think a lot of times people in grief and in crisis as they maybe speak things that dishonor God or as they address or deal with other people in a way or do things that clearly don’t line up with Scripture. Our sense is, well, I don’t want to pile on, so I’m not going to address that and I think often asking questions can be very helpful. So, where is God in the midst of this? can be very helpful as far as providing opportunity to maybe speak the truth in love and we don’t always have to do it right that very moment, but I think we have to be careful that we don’t show ultimate lack of compassion by not being willing to speak the truth in love, even to people who are in grief. 

Dale Johnson: Amen. So many good, practical wisdom that you’re giving there and I think one of the things I want to re-emphasize, is that grief is often silent, and sometimes as counselors, we get into this unfortunate professional or formal mode that you know, if there’s an issue, it will come to us. That’s not the way God teaches us to minister and I think you bring that point out so well to be the church, which is to go out to find those, I mean grief, as I said is often silent, often isolating, and it doesn’t come to us, we need to go to them who are hurting and who we know are grieving and wrestling with some of those issues and provide the biblical context that you just described even in just relationship, the ministry of presence, the ministry of the Word, slowly with someone, all great things for us to remember. And I think it helps us to understand how we can do differently than the world. The world tries everything they can to avoid and run from grief, where we can find grief because it’s a part of reality, and embrace it in a way that God can teach us through that. He can grow us through that and we can show the strength of Christ’s work in the midst of it.

So, Dr. Babler, thanks for helping us engage this topic.