Mourning is the state of being in deep grief. We mourn over a profound loss, such as the death of a loved one or a crippling accident. We also mourn over our own sins or mistakes. We mourn for the purity of heart we once enjoyed or for a future our choices have destroyed. Mourning is part of being human. It is an expression of our hearts when something we value has been taken from us. It can also be a way to convey our agreement with God’s moral law that we have violated. Mourning, although painful, can help us align our hearts with the heart of God: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
Mourning is a familiar theme throughout the Bible. When Israel was invaded by an enemy, Joel 1:8 compares the nation’s mourning to that of an engaged woman over the death of her fiancé. Ezra mourned over the sins of his people (Ezra 10:6). Nehemiah mourned at the news that his beloved Jerusalem lay in ruins (Nehemiah 1:4). Days or weeks were set aside for the proper mourning of a king or other important person, such as Jacob (Genesis 50:1–6), Samuel (1 Samuel 25:1), or Moses (Deuteronomy 34:8).
Common ways to show mourning in biblical times included weeping (Psalm 6:6) and crying loudly (Genesis 50:10; Ruth 1:9). Also, beating the breast (Luke 18:13), bowing the head (Lamentations 2:10), and fasting (2 Samuel 3:35) were often part of the mourning process. Sometimes, mourners would sprinkle ashes, dust, or dirt upon themselves (2 Samuel 1:2; Joshua 7:6) and tear their clothing (Genesis 37:29; 2 Chronicles 34:27). Mourning was a time to remove jewelry and other ornamentation (Exodus 33:4), walk barefoot (2 Samuel 15:30), and possibly wear a coarse, goat-hair garment called sackcloth (Genesis 37:34; Jonah 3:6, 8).
God limited Jewish expressions of mourning to keep them from copying the paganism of other nations. The Law forbade the Israelites from cutting their flesh, tattooing themselves, or shaving their heads or beards (Leviticus 19:28; Deuteronomy 14:1).
There were also times when the Lord commanded His people not to mourn at all, because His actions had a higher purpose that they were to follow without looking back (Jeremiah 16:5; 22:10; Ezekiel 24:15–17). Aaron and his sons Ithamar and Eleazar were not to show any sign of mourning over the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, on pain of death (Leviticus 10:6). God’s judgment on Nadab and Abihu was just, and Aaron, Ithamar, and Eleazar were not to imply, through their actions, that they thought otherwise.
Mourning over our sin is right (Psalm 51:17). Sinners and the double-minded are told to seek cleansing and “grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:8–9). Mourning, as part of repentance, is natural and healthy. But we are not to live in continual mourning. Ecclesiastes 3:4 reminds us that there is a time for mourning and a time for dancing. Repentance turns our mourning into joy because God washes our sin away and restores us to fellowship with Him (Psalm 30:11; 103:12; Luke 15:10; John 16:20).
When a Christian loved one dies, we mourn, but we do not mourn as the world does for the simple reason that we have an eternal hope that the world does not have. First Thessalonians 4:13–18 reminds us that death is not the end for those who are in Christ and that our mourning is temporary. Mourning is not pleasant, but it is a part of life. Those who know Jesus look forward to the day when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17; cf. 21:4; Isaiah 35:10).