Grief & Growth

Sadness feels omnipresent these days.

Even in the midst of beautiful and joy-filled moments–like celebrating my Divinity School graduation and moving into my first-ever solo apartment (WOOT WOOT!!!)–I’ve also noticed pangs of heaviness in my heart. I’m not concerned, though, by these oscillating feelings of joy and sadness, because over the years, my life experiences have taught me that: 

Moments of transition are simultaneously opportunities for celebration and grief. 

It makes sense that in celebrating my graduation, I’m also grieving the loss of a community of friends and regular rhythms of learning that graduate school provided for me since 2017. It makes sense that in the excitement of having a place to call my own, I’m also mourning the reality that my new apartment location is further from the neighbors I’ve grown to love and deeply care for over the past 4 years.

The multitude of emotions that have been accompanying this current season of life transitions have challenged me to practice self-compassion and self-grace in new ways, and lately it’s looked like creating spaces for my sadness that are free of judgment and full of compassion. More specifically, I’ve been inspired by a story in the Bible about a man who is known for his sadness…

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Story Time: The story I’m talking about is The Story of the Young, Rich Ruler. This story appears three times in the Bible, and begins with a rich ruler seeking out Jesus and asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man caveats his question by telling Jesus that he’s followed every single rule of his religion, i.e. he’s never committed adultery, he’s never stolen or lied, he’s always honored his parents…“I’ve kept all these commandments since my youth,” the ruler tells Jesus.

Things then get a little spicy when Jesus responds with the following:

“There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).

The story continues on to say that the ruler hears what Jesus says, and “became sad.”

What’s interesting to note, however, is that out of the three Gospel accounts* of this young ruler, only one uses the coordinating conjunction “but”, while the other two versions avoid using a coordinating conjunction altogether, and let the ruler’s sadness stand alone:

Luke 18:23, “BUT when [the ruler] heard [what Jesus said], he became sad; for he was very rich.”

Mark 10:22, “When [the ruler] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

Matthew 19:22, “When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

*(I’m using the New Revised Standard Version to compare these 3 Gospel accounts)

Image by Katherine Sanders.

Every time I’ve heard this story preached or discussed, the assumption has always been that the young ruler didn’t sell his belongings and chose his riches over following Jesus. But riddle me this…

Where does it explicitly say that the rich, young ruler didn’t sell his belongings?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but all it says is that this man was SAD. 

I don’t think many people would outright call sadness a sin, but sometimes it feels like we treat sadness as if it is something to be ashamed of, like sadness is something bad and incompatible with living a good/righteous/successful/fill-in-the-blank life. But what if we believed that our sadness does not preclude us from living a life of faithfulness?

Sometimes it feels like we treat sadness as if it is something to be ashamed of…

Furthermore, what if the rest of the story about that young, rich, ruler went something like this:

“When the young man heard Jesus’ words, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. He felt a deep heaviness in his heart, and yet, instead of becoming resentful and ashamed of his sadness, the young man made space for his grief and took time to speak to his therapist about what he was feeling. The young man also intentionally had conversations with friends and mentors about what was behind his sadness, and ultimately came to realize he was scared. 

You see, this man had spent his entire life believing he had been living rightly because he had always interpreted his riches as a sign of God blessing him for being so perfect and righteous…but Jesus’ response turned his world upside down. Jesus’ words had shattered the young rich ruler’s ideas about pleasure, successes, happiness, joy, perfection, and he was scared to fully say yes to the shattering.  However, because the young, rich ruler took the time to honor his sadness with compassionate curiosity, he was ultimately able to find the courage to say yes to what Jesus had asked of him. The young man was able to realize that as great as his fear was, his faith was greater, and his faith was leading him to make a life decision founded upon a trust that God would reshape, reorder, and reconstruct the fragments from the shattering into something more beautiful than he’d ever be able to imagine. And so, with simultaneous sadness and hope in his heart, the young man sold all his possessions and went out to follow Jesus.”

Our sadness does not preclude us from living a life of faithfulness.

 Our sadness does not preclude us from living a life of faithfulness.

Our sadness does not preclude us from living a life of faithfulness.

On Easter of this year, I stopped on the side of the road in Newport, RI to take this photo because I was struck by these daffodils growing amidst a cemeterythe coexistence of grief and growth…

As great as his fear was, his faith was greater…

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Ultimately, the Bible doesn’t tell us whether or not the young man follows Jesus, yet we are so quick to interpret this young man’s sadness and hesitation as a lack of faith and devotion to God. I don’t think God mandates that one must always respond immediately with happiness to difficult situations, nor do I believe Jesus desires to shame us for the natural human response of fear to things that are new and unfamiliar. Moreover, I don’t think that young man was wrong to feel sad as he felt in his body and knew in his mind the depth of the sacrifice Jesus was asking of him. What does matter is whether or not we let those emotions define us.

What matters is the decisions we make in spite of our sadness, and in spite of our fears.

Because I don’t think the goal is to be perfect, but to be present–present with ourselves and God, present with our emotions and the desires of our hearts…. and being present can sometimes be and feel a lot harder than being perfect…

God desires presence, not perfection.

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I’d like to end this post with 3 things:

  1. A quote from The Alchemist (that I’m placing in conversation with the story of the young rich ruler)
  2. Reflection questions
  3. A prayer

 QUOTE FROM THE ALCHEMIST:

“The [young rich ruler] continued to listen to his  heart…He came to understand its dodges and tricks and to accept it as it was. He lost his fear…because, one afternoon, his heart told him that it was happy. ‘Even though I complain sometimes,’ it said, ‘it’s because I’m the heart of a person, and people’s hearts are that way. People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them’” (134, The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho).

REFLECTION QUESTIONS: 

  • What is your relationship like with sadness?
  • Where is/what might be the source of your fear in saying yes or no to certain people/situations/decisions?
  • What do you feel you need in order to pursue your most important dreams? Be specific.
    • Specific resources? Certain people? Internal courage/self-esteem?
      • Does it feel scary to ask for/believe these things?
    • What would it practically look like for you to live out of a place of faith, even in the midst of your fears/doubts/uncertainty? 

ACTION POINT: Share your answer to at least one of these questions with another person & ask one person at least one of these questions.

A PRAYER:

Dear Divine and Infinite Love,

Help us believe that Presence is more important than Perfection. In the moments we feel challenged, in the moments we feel fear about the unknown, help us find the courage to say yes in the midst of our emotions. May we take time to sit with and honor our emotions, especially our sadness; and may we allow these feelings to lead us into deeper revelations of true, whole, healthy, and holy ways of being. We love You, and we need You, oh God.

Amen.  

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