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Tinsel and Tombstones: Combatting Holiday Grief with the Hope of the Gospel

By J. Aaron White

Despite gladly calling Minnesota my home, the fact remains that I’m a closet redneck. As a kid growing up in the not-so-cosmopolitan northern region of Florida, country music was a staple of my diet (in addition to lard biscuits and pecan pie). I still harbor an appetite for steel guitars and fiddles. Though I don’t venture to the country stations on my dial very often these days, occasionally a song will arrest me. This happened while listening to the country duo known as Joey and Rory. In their achingly relatable song, When I’m Gone, they open with this poetic stanza: “A bright sunrise will contradict the heavy fog that weighs you down. In spite of all the funeral songs, the birds will make their joyful sounds.”

Tinsel and Tombstones

The emotions captured in When I’m Gone are shared by many Christians around holidays. As recipients of God’s sovereign grace, we are an incessantly joyful people. Yet, we often find ourselves wincing from the pain we experience in this yet-to-be-redeemer world. For certain saints, the twinkling lights and triumphant choruses of Christmas collide with deep pain to produce a mongrel of emotions. In other words, tinsel and tombstones make for a macabre choice of holiday decorations.

To the Scriptures!

Weary Christians combat the perplexing undertow of grief with blood-bought promises. We run to God’s authoritative Word and anchor our racing minds in its pages. There we find comforting counsel. We find a Savior who affirms the reality of pain and offers unassailable hope. When those pesky birds insist on singing while we stand at the proverbial graveside, we need to remember a few things:

1. Tears Are Not Forbidden – The apostle Paul was a buoyantly joyful man, but he was not a Stoic. He knew from his own experience that a Christian’s life (on this side of heaven) is marked by pain. In his magnum opus (i.e., the Book of Romans), he says this: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18, emphasis added).

Did you catch that? He even used the plural form to indicate that there are myriad ways to experience heartache in this life. From cancer to car wrecks, polio to persecution, or mental illness to martyrdom, the saints are justified in their weeping. Moreover, the pain of grief is very real for many of God’s beloved people. An empty chair that once occupied a doting spouse, a pillow that no longer bears the indentation of an often-kissed head, and the silence of a home once filled with laughter can sour the sweetest Christmas dainty. So, grieving saint, be like your Savior at the tomb of a deceased friend and let the tears flow.

2. Tears Are Not Wasted – In a flippantly consumeristic society like ours (are you going to take the time to dismantle and fix your $20 toaster or just buy a new one? That’s what I thought.), we have become accustomed to the idea of wastefulness and transience. Things come and go, experiences are fleeting, and few things offer the promise of an increased return. We just use it and move on; we experience it and forget about it. So, we need to pump the brakes and consider what a biblical worldview has to say about our experiences of pain. Should we simply push through the veil of tears, never expecting it to produce anything positive? Do tears offer the hope of a return?

Scripture resounds with an unequivocal answer: Yes! Tears in this life are not wasted! Rather than viewing our experiences of pain as unavoidable moments of agony that sting and maim with no redemptive purpose, Christians have a better promise. Read Paul’s words slowly, savoring each one: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:16-17). In God’s economy, every tear that his children shed is deposited into a heavenly account with an exponential interest rate! One tear produces a return of a thousand years of uninterrupted, Christ-centered delight. Toasters come and go, but hope-filled tears carry the promise of correlative joy. One hundred tears shed over a lost loved one return to us with a million centuries of bliss in the presence of the Lord Jesus.

3. Tears Are Not Permanent – If you have little kids or have spent any amount of time around them, you know that they are prone to injury. If you are part of the guild that I belong to (i.e., having more sons than daughters), you are keenly aware of this reality. From bruises incurred during epic Nerf wars to toddlers who insist on sanding the corners of wooden furniture with their supple foreheads, tears make regular appearances when kids are around. As my grandmother would glibly say, “Bless their hearts.”

Yet not all is lost in these moments. In fact, a parable of sorts often presents itself in these times of sobbing. When my son runs to me after a fresh encounter with the coffee table’s unrelenting corner, I instinctively bend down, place my hands on his chubby cheeks, and use my thumbs to clear the heartbreakingly large tears that have formed in his eyes. In those moments, a verse comes to mind: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Grieving saint, there is a day quickly approaching in which nail-scarred hands will touch your face and wipe away your tears—and they shall never return.

Theology books are better than country songs. But every now and then, a doctrinal gem is found shining in the midst of the lyrical fodder. Dear saint, if a bright sunrise seems to contradict the mental and emotional fog you are experiencing, take heart. The Word of God is sufficient to bear the weight of your sadness. The Lord Jesus both wept and worshiped; he now sympathizes with his groaning followers. If your Christmas is decorated with tinsel and tombstones, rest in the Words of the Lord. Go ahead and cry, knowing that one day tears, tinsel, and tombstones will join last year’s wrapping paper in the landfill of the old creation.

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