Accepting, Avoiding, Embracing, or Engulfing Grief

Accepting, Avoiding, Embracing, or Engulfing Grief

“We should never forget that redemption, the world’s greatest blessing, is the fruit of the world’s greatest sorrow.” J. R. Miller, The Ministry of Comfort

In Be Still, My Soul, a book compiled and edited by Nancy Guthrie, Tim Keller has a chapter called, “Suffering: The Servant of Our Joy.” In his chapter, he recounts a study by Marilyn McCord Adams, a philosophy professor at Yale, who studied female Christian mystics of the Middle Ages. Her findings point to some important lessons regarding some pitfalls to facing grief or suffering of any kind.

And she offers some poignant counsel, in the end, which is helpful when facing grief or suffering.

Adams “…has distilled out of [the female Christian mystics’] teaching some remarkable teachings about suffering.” Further, “Adams says that the Stoics said to accept suffering, the Epicureans said to avoid suffering, and the aesthetics and masochists said to embrace suffering.”

Beware of Accepting Suffering

The Stoics, according to Adams, accepted suffering. Two aspects of the grief process are first denial and then acceptance. Early in grief you simply cannot get your mind around the new reality. Your mind fluctuates between two tracks: accepting your loss is real or denying your loss is real. While acceptance is a healthy part of the grief process, quick and simple acceptance is not healthy.

At least not in the way of the Stoics. Acceptance for the Stoics was to be…well, stoic. To be stoic is to endure without revealing your humanity. It’s the stiff upper lip approach. Grin and bear it.

Facing loss requires recognizing your humanity and accepting your loss. Accept loss, but remember your humanity.

“There is nothing incongruous in a set jaw along with tear-dimmed eyes. …We do not have to choose between cry-baby sentimentalism on one hand and stoicism on the other.” Vance Havner, Though I Walk Through the Valley

Beware of Avoiding Suffering

The Epicureans, according to Adams, avoided suffering. This is a significant warning for us in our modern day. We tend toward sanitizing pain, suffering, and death. We keep it at bay. We ignore it. We hide it. We avoid it at all costs. Our modern approach is to do everything possible to stiff arm any manner of suffering. We are unable to talk about it. It’s uncomfortable. We seem to believe suffering reveals a weakness in God’s character. So, we avoid suffering and the subject of suffering.

Facing loss requires recognizing suffering is part of living in our broken world. Refuse to avoid suffering.

“We are so accustomed to luxury we think of traffic jams as hardship.” Elizabeth Elliot, The Path of Loneliness

Beware of Embracing Suffering

The aesthetics and masochists, according to Adams, embraced suffering. The idea here is that they seemed to be drawn to pain. In fact, pleasure is gained from their suffering. I was cautioned early in my journey to be aware of pathological grief. Basically, I needed to avoid enjoying, and thus, staying in grief. Stuck. I’ve done my best to keep a balanced approach, but I have met or heard about people who seem to seek the pity that comes from staying in their valley. They embrace and enjoy their grief to such a degree that they prefer to stay in it.

Facing loss requires that we not embrace or enjoy suffering in such an unhealthy manner. Be careful to avoid staying in and embracing your suffering.

“Few perversions of life could be sadder than this dwelling ever in the glooms and shadows of past griefs.” J. R. Miller, The Ministry of Comfort

To be fair, there is a sense where it is appropriate to accept, avoid, and even embrace suffering. However, these responses to suffering are incomplete at best.

The Gospel Engulfs Suffering

Finally, Adams “…points out, the gospel does not accept, avoid, or embrace suffering; it engulfs suffering.” It is simply incomplete, not enough, to accept, avoid, or embrace suffering. It’s preferable to overwhelm suffering. Grief can be engulfed. Grief is redefined by the gospel.

You don’t simply have to accept suffering or grief as the last word. You don’t have to avoid or fear suffering because it is so distasteful. Neither do you need to embrace suffering in an unhealthy, masochistic manner. The gospel should redefine how you face your grief. We do not mourn without hope.

So, don’t succumb to some bowed-back acceptance of grief. Neither should you fear grief, and thus, seek to avoid it. And do not settle into grief, enjoying it in a pathological sense.

Instead, allow the gospel to engulf your grief!

“…every genuine disciple of Jesus, every heir of heaven, ought to possess deep and abiding resources of joy, that lie…beneath the tempests of trial…” Theodore Cuyler, God’s Light on Dark Clouds


  1. Roy McNiel

    My goodness , that’s some insight right there. Oh how I needed this!!

    • D. Ray Davis

      Welcome to the journey, Roy!

  2. Alan

    Thank you for this, I’m on a journey of suffering of a very different sort, and found this really helpful (Keller refers to Adams work in his podcast episode called Stay With The Ship). I find this so encouraging, it is the response to suffering that the devil really doesn’t want you to know…

    • D. Ray Davis

      Amen, Alan. I’m praying for you as I reply…

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