How should we then grieve? The pros and cons of John Flavel’s “Facing Grief.”

Grieving the death of a friend or loved one is something that all of us will do one day, if we have not done so already.  Indeed, so pervasive is death and the curse that all of us will do this many, many times depending on how long we live.  In light of the universality of this experience, as well as the important pastoral care that accompanies it, I’ve been reading books on grief and suffering regularly over these past few years.  While no book or lecture or visit can simply “make everything better,” happier is the one who receives counsel and comfort from God’s word than the one who grieves in a wholly uninformed way.

The most recent volume I picked up is the newly printed Facing Grief by John Flavel in the Puritan Paperbacks series published by the Banner of Truth.  In typical puritan fashion, Flavel’s book is an extended discourse on a particular passage, Luke 7:13, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not.”

The chapters are as follows:

1. The Text Explained
2. Moderate and Immoderate Sorrow
3. Sorrow Permitted to Christian Mourners
4. When Sorrow Becomes Sinful
5. Counsel to Ungodly Mourners
6. Godly Mourners Comforted
7. Pleas for Immoderate Grief Answered
8. Rules to Restrain Excessive Sorrow

I was hopeful that this book might be something to pass along to those who are indeed “facing grief,” but my sense is that there are better pastoral tacks to take when ministering to those who grieve.  Flavel’s approach is very focused on avoiding “immoderate sorrow,” and – in my opinion – reads in most places more like scolding than comforting.

To be sure, many do grieve in ways that are sinful.  These immoderate expressions of sorrow not only dishonor the one who does indeed “turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in this sad world” (Q&A 26), but they cause mourners additional pain and grief.  Who in their right mind would want their grief to be worse than it had to be?  And yet this is done daily by those who mourn as those who have no hope.  When people are harming themselves with this immoderate sorrow, they do indeed need to be rebuked, for God’s glory and for their own good!

And yet two questions arise: (1) what really constitutes immoderate sorrow and (2) how should we minister to those who are grieving?

I am not really interested in answering the first question here.  It can be answered, though not as yet by me, nor in my opinion, by Flavel.  In general, my sense is that he has over-simplified the painfulness of pain and the grievous nature of grief.  In fact, throughout the book, Flavel appeals to the providence and sovereignty of God in an almost stoic manner.  Listen to some of his appeals to those who grieve:

Consider, in this day of sorrow, who is the framer and author of this rod by which you now smart; is it not the Lord?  And if the Lord has done it becomes you meekly to submit.  “Be still and know that I am God” (Psa. 46:10).

Ponder well the quality of the comfort you are deprived of, and remember that, when you had it, it stood but in the rank and order of common and inferior comforts.

Always remember that, however soon and unexpected your parting with your relations was, yet your lease was expired before you lost them, and you enjoyed them every moment of the time that God intended them for you.

Has God smitten your darling, and taken away the delight of your eyes with this stroke?  Bear this stroke with patience and quiet submission: for how do you know but your trouble might have been greater from the life than it now is from the death of your children?

How know you but that by this stroke which you so lament God has taken them away from the evil to come?

A parting time must needs come; and why is not this as good as another?

Suffer not yourselves to be transported by impatience and swallowed up of grief because God has exercised you under a smart rod; for, as smarting as it is, it is comparatively a gently stroke to what others, as good as yourselves, have felt.

Certainly these are all true statements, as far as I can tell, but while we are wrong to try to divine God’s secret counsel while grieving, Flavel seems to be doing just that in his own advice.  Note especially his comment about God having perhaps delivered our loved one from far worse “evil to come,” or him having taken our loved one before they might have caused us more trouble than they already have!  (I.e., Flavel paints death in this case as actually being a good thing!)

Now while it is certainly correct God does “turn for our good whatever evil he sends us in this sad world” (as noted above), we never do well to intimate that death is actually a good thing.  If anything, death should drive us to hate sin and the curse even more!  (Flavel himself does have an excellent section dealing with the hope of the resurrection, noting that this hope can indeed restrain hopeless or immoderate grief.)

Still, let us never treat death as simply “a part of life.”  Let us never stop hating death with all our hearts, seeing that mankind was not created to die, but to be glorified!  And though God does indeed accomplish this glorification through the faithfulness of the second Adam, that death happens at all vividly reminds us of the failure of the first Adam.  Rather than ministering to those who mourn by emphasizing how much worse off they could be, may we instead direct them to the proper object of our grief – namely sin and death itself!

When we put our energy into hating the curse, we are better able to receive the comfort of the promise of the new creation.  But when our energy is spent moping and harboring anger at God for allowing this to happen, we find it much more difficult to lift our head high enough to see that coming resurrection and receive the comfort that emanates off it like warmth from the rising sun.

In the end, Facing Grief by John Flavel is not yet the pastoral resource I’ve been looking for.  Nevertheless, it is worth having as a minister – not just because it helps us to see some pastoral care strategies that should be avoided, but because it also contains some excellent nuggets of wisdom.  As ministers, we need to search everywhere for advice about how to better care for those who mourn.  Flavel’s book should not be overlooked.

Andrew Compton

3 thoughts on “How should we then grieve? The pros and cons of John Flavel’s “Facing Grief.””

  1. As I read this wonderful critique of Flavel’s book, I thought about all the times I had “all the right answers” when it came to the grief people go through, but when I have been faced with similar circumstances later, most of those “right answers” didn’t seem so right any more. Grief and sorrow are hard issues, but I thoroughly agree that death should cause us to hate sin all the more, not love death. Sin caused death!
    I was also reminded of II Cor. 1:3-4 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in al our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
    Grief takes time to get through, and sometimes the best thing we can to as ministers is just be there to listen, and, at least at first, say very little.


  2. The book that ministered to me as my wife and I walked through her cancer was Mike Horton’s small book, “Too Good to be True.” Good solid stuff, and what a comfort.


  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Tom – good recommendation. It’s so tempting to dive right in with the advice … that isn’t a good thing … in fact, it rarely seems to be a good thing.

    Richard – amen to the book recommendation. Horton’s book is solid and its the one I do tend to immediately give to people who are suffering.


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