Vinoth Ramachandra

The Questions of Grief

Posted on: February 7, 2019

A number of metaphors are used to describe the experience of grief that follows the death of a loved one: the loss of a limb, falling into a black hole, wading through thick mud, submerged in a tidal wave, and so on. And the strange paradox about grief, is that although it is universal (every one of us will experience it at some time in our lives) every experience is uniquely personal, depending on such factors as the depth of one’s relationship with the deceased, one’s personality, upbringing, cultural background, and network of other supportive relationships.

In my case, thankfully, I have not needed medication or professional grief counselling. In the weeks following Karin’s death. I kept a private journal recording all my pain, questions, doubts and spiritual anguish. I have lost not merely a wife, but my best friend, a fellow-traveller, critic, encourager, soulmate. And all the philosophical and theological questions about suffering, evil and death which have haunted me all through my life have returned with a fresh existential intensity. Wrestling with these has been for me a kind of self-therapy.

Of course, tears blind us. Our cognitive capacities are clouded by pain and disorientation. But they can also embolden us to question so much of the conventional wisdom of our churches and cultures. Karin and I have always been irritated by the popular theological clichés regarding suffering and death: “God is in control”, “God took him/her”, “God has a purpose in this”, and so on. They smack of Marx called “false consciousness’ and Sartre “bad faith.”

Karin used to point out that so many Western books on suffering addressed the question “Why me?” posed by normally comfortable people whose lives are suddenly blighted by disease, accident or failure. But what of the vast majority of humankind, in history as well as in many parts of the world today, whose all-too-brief lives from the cradle to the grave fall so far short of the flourishing that the Creator intends for them- and often through no fault of their own? Traditional theodicies and rationalist apologetics seem so painfully glib and irrelevant.

Many Christians invoke Job in situations like this, while missing the point of the story entirely. I am bemused by references to the “patience of Job”, when a cursory reading of the book reveals a man who was anything but patient! He vigorously protests his innocence, and hurls his questions, longings and accusations of unfairness at the gates of heaven. Can this God be trusted? That is the basic question in such times. Job lives in the tension between faith and experience, shuffling back and forth but never settling for an easy resolution. This is the tradition of biblical lament. And I believe that the “problem” of suffering and evil can ultimately only be approached through honest lament and compassionate action; not by theological reasoning.

I have often been haunted by the thought that while our faith can be verified eschatologically, it can never be falsified. If we are all deluded, we will never know it. And there won’t be any answers to the big questions humanity has been asking throughout its history.

I am in the paradoxical situation of remaining utterly convinced of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (for I can find no other explanation for the origins of the Christian movement); and yet struggling to make sense of how the billions of people throughout history will one day be resurrected into the new creation that has dawned in Jesus’ resurrection. Clearly bodily resurrection implies a social, collective event; for our bodies are the means by which we interact and communicate with others. And the Scriptures take for granted that we shall recognize not only our loved ones but also those who have gone before us. But how does such recognition happen, given that every part of our bodies has evolved to meet the conditions of biological life on this earth? How did Peter recognize Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration? What aspect of our embodied human nature has Christ taken into the godhead for eternity? Is it only our memories, characters and relationships that we take from this life into the next?

I have long been dissatisfied with the standard models of how mind and body interact (dualism, dual-aspect monism, non-reductionist physicalism, etc.). On this and other matters I am content to be agnostic. But when in grief, we cannot but cry out for some assurance from a good and loving God that our loved ones have not passed into oblivion but are with him, in whatever form.

The typical response of my theologian friends has been either “We have never thought of that before” or “You are asking questions we are also struggling with and for which we have no answers.” At least nobody has suggested that my questions are foolish or stemming from hubris. I know that much of theology ultimately fades into deep mystery. Christian maturity is about living with our questions, practising faithfulness to Christ even as we weep, struggle and yearn for that new world.

11 Responses to "The Questions of Grief"

Thanks Vinoth.

The topic of evil and suffering seemed so very easy to figure out and address in my early years as a Christian. Lately, though, as my theology has developed and grown I have to admit there really are no easy answers to why there is so much evil and suffering in the world.

What I have been thinking about A LOT lately, now that I lean toward an evolutionary view of human development, is why God would ordain such a barbaric process in order to provide for biological diversity?

Thanks also, Vinoth, for sharing with us another portion of your journey.

Perhaps the fact that our bodies in the New Creation are not these bodies is part of the answer. Jesus had a Resurrection Body…which is not like anything that presently existed or will exist on this earth. Mystery awaits. I find comfort from the fact that we know that Jesus says we have a place prepared for us, that nothing, not even death can separate us from God and that we will be together again at the time that is coming. I am sorry for the ache that is left with the death of your life.

I was sorry to hear of the loss of your wonderful wife. I have walked the same journey and understand the pain. Know that you will be in my earnest thoughts and prayers. I could say many things I have learned and experienced through my journeys of grief and suffering, but I am confident that the One who was a man of sorrows and aquatinted with grief is faithful. He is able and will hold you close in His embrace through the sorrow and loneliness of the night watches..

Thank you for sharing…

Emmanuel. God is with us.

This is the answer, the mystery, the compassion, the truth in grieving.

May you experience it.

Many struggles, pain and questions in our life while living in this earth will only satisfy or fulfill in the promised land of Jesus Christ. Yes off course, no theology and reasons will settle this now but living with those struggles and practicing faithfulness in Christ will lead us to experience the promises in fullness. James 1:1-4.

Hi Vinoth
I appreciate your blogs as they give space to question and ponder! Suffering is an experience that is deeply personal but, in a strange way, gives us an ability to be truly alongside others in pain. I am ‘walking alongside you’ from Aotearoa.

Thank you for sharing so openly. Thank you also for the model of being in dialogue with others even in such raw pain, doubts and struggles.

Thanks to all of you for your kind comments and solidarity with me in my grief. I appreciate it very much. However, I was also hoping that there would be some critical responses to my thoughts on Job, apologetics and suffering in general.

Hi Vinoth.
I’m very sorry to read about the loss of your beautiful wife Karin.
I googled your name because I was remembering your visit to Laidlaw College in New Zealand when I was a student there in 2013/14. I’ve often thought of you and your wife after hearing you speak. I particularly remember you speaking briefly on inter-faith dialogue during a small discussion group we had after the lecture. That talk has always stayed with me.
It is a troubling and sad time in New Zealand at the moment and I remember you as a voice of clarity and compassion. I’m now catching up on your old blogposts and enjoying reading them.
Thank you for your thoughtful work.

I like Job: how is single-handedly had to defend himself to ‘friends’ who were trying to represent a god of their own making. Perhaps due to their own experiences or lack there of. They seem like those who were coming to C. S. Lewis in his grief: “talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

What helped me in my grief (and seeing suffering in the world) are not theoretical explanations
– Emmanuel, God with us, He enters us in our pain. He doesn’t shield Himself from our pain and suffering.
– Hope, not in myself, but due to the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
– Grieving!

Thanks for sharing your personal journey.
“Missing you comes in waves, tonight I’m drowning.”

“…And I believe that the “problem” of suffering and evil can ultimately only be approached through honest lament and compassionate action; not by theological reasoning….”

Another shot of concise wisdom; all the more full of impact for being visceral and, as ever, so honest. Thank you Vinoth. You won’t hear much critique of your appraisal of Job from me. I fully concur with the above. Christians can be over-simplistic and as a result glib, like you said; albeit unintentionally. I had a similar reaction watching some of the animated shorts on Youtube that attempt to explain tough biblical texts. I would be infuriated by their earnest but (again) over-simplified and cold theological explanations, particularly of the wisdom books.

Please know I find comfort from your relentless questioning. I too would rather ask ‘why’ and live without a definitive answer than never ask and settle for one of the irritating Christianese clichés mentioned. Christ Himself instructed us to ask, seek and knock. How this is so often neglected. It’s as if many Christians are afraid that their faith can’t withstand such contemplation. I’d rather face the fear and stare into the expanse of the void than live a lie.

For me asking God questions and wrestling the great ontological/existential quandaries are part of my worship. Nothing takes God by surprise. He can handle it otherwise we wouldn’t have the capacity to reason.

Blessings and shalom.

You’re in my prayers.

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February 2019
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