We need God’s gospel to suffer well. We need it every day, and never more than when life hurts. The better we know it, and the more we remind ourselves of it, the more precious we will realize it is. Without it, suffering makes no sense—with it, suffering is transformed. (Kristen Wetherell)
I lost my younger sister and best friend 3 weeks ago to breast cancer after 5 months of fierce battles and treatments. I must admit that my soul feels like it was amputated of the part that for 32 years was living life with me, bone by bone, skin by skin, heartbeat by heartbeat. Our family is left to grieve her absence while rejoicing in her presence with our Lord.
I read somewhere that grief is a “keen mental suffering or distress over a loss or affliction—a sharp sorrow. At the very heart of the grief definition is intense sorrow. Grief is a deep emotional response to a great loss.” For me, grief is a feeling but also a relationship. My grief is a 32-year-old relationship with a younger sister I profoundly love. My grief carries her sweet face and name.
At the heart of my grieving, there is a story of one particular New Testament woman my mind keeps revisiting. There are lessons capsuled inside her story that I draw comfort from. Picked up by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this story is a relatively short one, easily read over as it is surrounded by more extravagant miracles and extraordinary events.
The protagonist of this story is the nameless woman in Matthew 9 who, like me, had her heart engulfed by pain. She found herself in a position she would have never chosen. She didn’t lose someone dear to her, this woman lost her identity in the society. She was literally amputated from anyone and anything human in her world. Her feminine issues of a 12-year-long blood discharge plagued her as a forever outcast of a religious, snooty system. She knew too well that by the Levitical law she was as good as dead (Leviticus 15:25) in her society.
So, here we are, two women of two different centuries and cultures, each grieving an intense personal loss. Both of our hearts wrestle with a deep grief that reminds us daily of what we’ve lost. But unlike my story that is still being written, hers is chronicled in the very Book of Life as a memorandum to all who are grieving still. As I read her story, I get a deep sense of encouragement for I begin to learn how to grieve well. This anonymous woman portrays gently what timeless courageous and missional grief looks like in the gospel narrative.
Firstly, her grief is courageous.
Grieving the loss of a loved one often feels to me like a maze in a beautiful and rich forest. There are trees of past memories with the loved one, painful present remembrances, and future living fears—all rising at once in my path at every step. Navigating the complexity of loss and pain can be immobilizing. There are holes and mud puddles on the path, rotten tree trunks and broken branches. Then beautiful green clearings perk up every now and then, like peaceful patches in these tiring woods, a respite of hope and calmness.
I see this woman’s grief and I begin to visualize her personal maze. In a few verses, the scripture offers enough details to begin to understand her grief. This woman’s forest maze of grief knows painful paths of intense isolation and silenced solitude. For 12 years, she has awakened only to be reminded that she is but a shadow in her society, always on the outskirts of her city, cast away from any breathing being. Every day must have been a struggle for her as she was reminded of places she couldn’t visit or people she wasn’t allowed to see or touch. Her physical disease was a daily reminder of her heartache, rejection, and alienation. She must have found peaceful solace in the safe sanctuary of her own home, away from any familiar living breath and painful geographical memories. Bankrupt financially, emotionally, and socially, she was pushed aside, discarded and dehumanized and called “dirty” and “unclean”. . . and she bore all her feminine issues in the quiet of her tumultuous heart.
And yet in spite of being accompanied by grief for 12 years, it is clear this woman didn’t allow her grief to define her. Her disease might have crippled her socially, but she didn’t allow it to victimize her. Instead, grief worked more like an active searching agent towards healing. She carried her chronic disease with her everywhere she knew to find a cure. She saw every doctor and spent all her wealth for healing (Mark 5:26). Her grief pulled her forward constantly. In fact, her grief took her to the very One who could heal her whole body. I admire how she drags her amputated anonymity and bleeding body through the dusty Middle Eastern streets, through the obstacles of judgmental crowds, for the sole purpose of finding herself near Jesus. It took courage and bravery for her to step over social norms and prongs of judgment. Her focus locked on Jesus’ presence and not the crowds’ noise or the chatter of her inner pain, but with a heart full of faith and hope.
As I read her story I am learning that grief that makes us courageous is a type of grief that is clothed in nothing less than gospel hope. In the quiet of her heart, we find her speaking this gospel hope even as she stands surrounded by crowds, noise, and oppressive looks. The breeze of gospel words gently washes over her personal dried branches and putrefied tree trunks. Her faith is bigger than her grief and that is courageous. “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well” she preaches to herself (Matthew 9:21, italics mine). Her faith overwhelming her grief. She is more courageous still: “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well” (Mark 5:28, italics mine).
I am guessing that the words of gospel hope she spoke to herself in her grief fueled her determined pursuit for healing from God. Her courageous grief has me wondering where has my grief been taking me lately. Where do I allow my grief to take me? Is my grief connecting my broken heart to the Savior and the gospel? What words am I speaking to myself in the middle of my grief
Secondly, her grief is missional.
When we begin reading our story in Matthew 9:20, we find ourselves thrown into an already fast-paced life chain events from the life of Jesus’ ministry. I struggle almost to catch my breath. The language is dynamic, the pace is intense, and Jesus is constantly busy. We often find Jesus surrounded by people for he came right into their living. He is pulled, needed, called upon, asked, begged. Jesus steps into a century and culture where people hurt, are sick, die, suffer, work, learn, and need salvation. Much like our days.
In the midst of such a noisy crowd, Jesus sovereignly sets up the meeting with this anonymous Jewish woman, even as he is pulled and prodded in every direction. Why would Jesus draw her in the middle of the crowds she is to avoid by law? Doesn’t Jesus know she is “dirty,” “unclean,” “outcast?” Doesn’t he care about her social image and deep-seated pains?
Jesus could have healed her at her home, in the safety of her walls. Or, he could have drawn her in a smaller circle of people. Or, he could have even touched her while she was alone somewhere on the street. And yet he chooses to do what seems to be the most counter-cultural: he pulls this “unclean” woman into the open Middle Eastern streets and straight through the crowds—crowds who judge her, isolate her, condemn her, and hurt her. He pulls her out from her home and into the busy streets not to cheapen her pain, but to meet her with his presence and his words. This woman’s pain needed Jesus’ powerful reassurance that next to Jesus she is safe, comforted, protected, healed. In the home or among the crowds, Jesus is sovereignly present even in places that may affront us or remind us of our loss.
You see, this chapter is not about how active people’s lives get, how needy people become, or how crazy busy Jesus was that day. This passage is not even about the nameless woman—in spite of the chapter title in my Bible. This passage is about Jesus! Jesus placing himself strategically in the midst of the crowds to be found. He places himself at the heart of daily living, noisy clutter, painful stories in order to be seen. In the streets, where people walk. In the homes, where people weep. To be called upon. To be heard. Even to be touched.
This passage is about Jesus meeting this woman’s grief with his power and salvation, healing and gentleness. Her grief makes much of Jesus on this particular busy and hot day. Her faithful grief showcases Christ even as she is candidly broken. Grief that makes us faithful is a grief that takes us straight to Jesus and nears us to the gospel in order to proclaim the glories of the cross. I’m reminded that Jesus is safe even in the midst of our grieving.
What happens as soon as she touches Jesus’ garments? The whole universe is silenced to hear the faint whisper of a bleeding reed. Jesus, her Creator, became utterly personal to her. Jesus heals her and utters perhaps the most powerful words this woman certainly must have ever heard a man speak to her: “Be encouraged, dear woman …” According to the Jewish tradition, when a woman is “unclean,” she was to be avoided and not spoken to. And yet here is Jesus, breaking down cultural and religious barriers by simply speaking to her. A statement from the Son of Man who sees women valuable, precious, and made in the image of God. Be encouraged. Dear woman. I am here to make old things new. I am here to redeem and restore. I am here to heal the sick and bind the wounded. I am here for you, too. Your faith has made you well.
Right there, in the public eye, this woman comes to testify of God’s powerful healing, as she exposes her plaguing grief for all to hear. “And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed” (Luke 8:47, italics mine). In her grief, she makes much of Jesus. Yes, she was timid, scared, shy, lowly. And yet, she used her grief as a faithful megaphone of God’s mercies on her—in spite of her broken spirit and timid posture. Her grief proclaimed the works of her Savior for all to hear. From her very testimony, we see how she drew her courage to speak from what Jesus has been doing for her and not from the fear of being judged by the crowds.
If grief is about making much of Jesus, how is my grief making much of him today? What is my grief telling about my Jesus? What are others seeing about my Savior from the way I grieve daily?
The story of the anonymous woman in Mathew 9 will be forever endearing to my heart not because it features a woman, but because it features a gentle and caring Jesus who meets a grieving soul. Christ’s heartwarming intentionality in bringing this woman out in the crowds for the purpose of exposing and healing her grieving heart says a lot about gospel grief, but even more about a God who is familiar with grief. “Man of sorrows,” Jesus, draws intimately near to the brokenhearted to be spoken about and made known in our crowds. “You may have no better platform from which to proclaim God’s grace in the gospel than that of your own suffering…Any display of the truth to others starts at the feet of Jesus. We cannot give to others what we do not possess ourselves. So, draw near to God…” (Kristen Wetherell).