To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.” Isaiah 61:3 NKJV
I want to teach you what He showed me—how to mourn and overcome loss according to the tried and true Biblical pattern to speedily progress you through the grieving process so you can move on with your life after suffering catastrophic loss, so that you too can take off the spirit of heaviness and exchange it for the garment of praise.
While leading my first church, I gained experience dealing with loss. I was leading a small church in a rural area in Alabama, married less than two years when we tried to start a family. During one trip to the fertility clinic we got the good news that my wife was pregnant. We told the whole family and then got an ominous phone call from the doctor he needed to see us. They had run a simple test and my wife had cancer. My wife miscarried but the pregnancy likely saved my wife’s life. Nine out of ten died because doctors rarely detected this cancer early enough.
Then a church fight and a horrible church split left me with a church but without an income; then my father-in-law’s house burned down. Bam. Bam. Bam.
I was reeling and staggered like Job. What had I done wrong?
When my in-laws left the church, it was like a kick in my gut. I wondered how much more I could take.
The church continued to hemorrhage families, because a spiritually sick pastor walked numb through loss after loss and had not learned to overcome it.
Added to these bruises was a deep wound, on our fifth wedding anniversary, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly from complications following surgery. I blamed myself. I had become disconnected from the Lord. My prayer life was non-existent. I hadn’t seen it coming. I had no faith to walk in victory. All I had remaining was faith to endure.
For a year after my father’s death, I barely functioned. In my spirit, I had become extremely sick and it showed itself in a depression that sought to devour my soul.
Loss is painful and comes in many forms: death, divorce, abandonment, loss of job, rejection, and bankruptcy are a few. But it can also include the loss of abilities due to age and infirmity or accident. It can even include the death of a dream.
Loss can leave anyone with depression, a weightiness, lethargy and paralysis and make it difficult or impossible to function.
I have learned it is a dangerous thing to not deal with loss, mourn properly over it and move on with your life. As a society, we fail to figure in the cost of loss. We bury our mothers and fathers and are expected to be back at work on Monday. The result is that our mourning period is extended and many resort to medications to carry them through when what is necessary is that a person be allowed to reach the end of grief and be done with it.
People did not always have Prozac and suffered horrendous personal losses. My father’s parents had 13 children but only 8 lived to adulthood. Mortality rates of infants and children used to be high. People often had twelve children hoping a few would survive to adulthood. They did not receive all the benefits of civilization we enjoy today to buffer them against the world’s brutality. Extended periods of depression could prove fatal—not just to them but for everyone who depended upon them. So what did they do in the Bible to overcome personal loss?
One day in the midst of my depression, while reading my Bible, I encountered the story of Jacob grieving over the loss of Joseph and discovered several key elements for moving past loss.
First, the ancients set aside time to mourn. Thirty days of deep mourning seems to be the standard for someone who is close family—a spouse, mother or father, child or grandchild, or sibling. A deep or profound loss of any kind should be dealt with such as a bankruptcy or divorce.
Seven days of deep mourning is more appropriate for someone who is less close or for lesser losses.
Three days of deep mourning is often used in Scripture in the face of calamity.
A day of deep mourning may be useful when suffering smaller setbacks.
The period of mourning should reflect the loss. How can we know how long? You mourn until you are ready to move on.
In addition, throughout the Bible, the ancients would tear their clothing at the seams in grief. They did not hold their grief or sorrow in but displayed to all around them their distress and sense of loss. We do not tear our garments but in our culture it would be acceptable to wear black or any other dark, dreary clothing. An armband may also be appropriate as a sign of mourning.
The point of the outward signal of loss is that we need others in our grief. One mistake I made as a pastor was allowing myself to be cut off from the Body of Christ. Soon after my first fast I reached out to other ministers again. I found good friends and fellowship and started healing from the losses that threatened to cripple or destroy my faith.
Bathing, Ointments, Soft beds
In addition, the ancients would not bathe, anoint their bodies or sleep in their beds while they mourned. While I do not believe disregard for hygiene to be wise or good, the general idea here is a reduced regard for personal appearance and comfort. The most common modern expression is to not cut your hair.
I believe the point here is to grow uncomfortable with yourself and where you are. Your life has changed. You need to change with it and neglecting personal appearance and comfort is necessary to get you ready to change and move forward with your life.
Abstinence of Venery
Not only did the ancients make themselves uncomfortable by neglecting personal appearance and comfort but they also abstained from venery. Venery is an ancient and rarely used word; it means sexual indulgence. The ancients abstained from sexual indulgence during the length of their mourning period. Only when they were ready to move on with their lives would they be ready to enjoy living.
Second, the ancients always fasted in the face of loss. Not eating for thirty days upon the death of a child, a spouse, or a parent was normal and expected. The average person can go more than a month with no food. The record is over four months. Don’t expect to function normally if you are doing a total fast but most can survive not eating for over a month. Speak to your doctor if you have questions.
When I discovered this principle in 1996, I fasted and after only three days, I saw a marked improvement. I experienced my first breakthrough.
Something about fasting changes you. My theory is that it resets your brain chemistry; the cycle of depression creates a self-perpetuating imbalance in brain chemistry and not eating breaks the cycle by resetting your brain chemistry to survival mode.
By experimenting through the years, I’ve discovered that almost any loss can be dealt with if you begin by fasting. The closer and dearer the loss, the longer you have to go without eating to break through and move on.
Soulful Music and Lamentation
Last, as an integral part of their mourning, the ancients used soulful music and lamentations. The primary purpose of the music and laments was to help move them through the stages of grief. I sing good but sound bad but laments can be spoken. A prayer that vents to God my frustrations, disappointments, grief or loss and a good cry are often enough to enable me to move on. Deeper losses may require much more time to lament.
The ancients hired professional mourners to induce them to tears. Music that reminds us of our loss and leads to weeping and tears should be heard and listened to as part of the mourning process. We need to weep. We need to unload—to lament our loss. Some people are afraid to tell God how they feel. I suggest you read the Book of Lamentations. In this song written by the Prophet Jeremiah, he pours out his grief. God hears the grief in our lamentations; the Lord gathers our tears as an offering so He may repay us with joy; He weeps with us when we weep; He mourns with us and comforts us in our grief.
The Fortress Press Commentary on Lamentations states:
The structure of Lamentations suggests that mourning should be expressed fully and emotively, and then mourning should be brought to an end… The community cannot afford to lose the input and productivity of one of its own to perpetual mourning. One must get on with life not only for one’s own sake, but also for the sake of the living community.
Following the path laid out in Scripture will progress you through the stages of grief. You may say, “But I cannot afford to stop my life to take a month to grieve!”
Can you afford to lose your sense of purpose and motivation? Can you afford the chronic aches and pains in your body and the numbness of your mind that comes with unresolved grief?
“But I just don’t have time for all this!”
So you have the time to slip into depression? You would rather be constantly sad, weighed down with anxiety and feel sad for years? Do you have time to have your sleep disrupted or to bear feelings of guilt and helplessness for extended periods? Do you really want to lose the ability to enjoy life?
The clearest example of this process of grieving over loss is in the story of Job. At hearing his tremendous loss, Job tore his robes and heaped ashes on his head. When his friends arrived, he sat without eating or even speaking for seven days, and then poured out his grief. His friends each seemed confused because in their minds God always blesses the righteous so there must be unrighteousness hidden within Job. Job works his way through his grief through a series of laments. When God arrives on the scene, Job is both rebuked and comforted and begins again despite suffering the loss of everything: his children, his business, his wealth, his health, his friendships and possibly even his marriage.
What greater example of overcoming loss can we imitate? Job enjoyed a super abundant life after all of this and regained twice all he had lost.
We cannot get through this life without suffering loss but we do not have to be overcome. You may be struggling with a series of small losses or a single large loss or like me, struggling with a mix of large and small losses. We can be overcomers and walk in a restored joy of living and clarity of purpose if we take positive action in the face of loss.
Like Job, begin with an outward sign to others. We require the fellowship of other believers. We need one another.
Next, be willing to make yourself uncomfortable. You do not want to stay where you are but you want to press forward to get through your grief and beyond it.
Next, begin fasting. Fasting is a tool to reset your direction and restart your life. It is hard. Skip meals. Eat less. Press through it so you can reach the end of your grief and move on.
Finally, pour your heart out to God knowing He is there and He is with you in the pain of your loss and grief. He gathers your tears and records them in a book for the judgment seat. There the Lord will repay your mourning with comfort and swallow up your loss in joy. “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”
Go someplace, lock the doors and turn on music; pour out your heart to God. Sling the tears and the snot and pour every grief, frustration and sorrow out in prayer. Grieve with abandon and freely speak your anger, disappointments, frustrations, depression and sense of loss.
Somewhere in the midst of snot and tears, the Comforter will wrap you in His arms and you will find the peace of God and a path forward.
After that eat, get a haircut, indulge yourself, and return to living life. Look forward again instead of backward and get on with living the abundant life Christ has promised us. Find joy in His presence and walk once again in the peace of God.
Matthew 5:4 NLT
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
About the Author
Ken Van Horn has been a pastor for over 25 years–only two years of which was full-time ministry. He has worked as an electrical contractor, editor, probate judge, web developer, consultant and recently completed “A Greater Reward” based upon what the Holy Spirit revealed to him while serving as a judge concerning the work of justice and the imminent Judgment Seat of Christ.
He is currently developing a start up church in Cusseta, Georgia and does itinerant ministry when available.
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