If I say this inappropriately, then please forgive me. I don’t mean to offend. It is just that helping grieving people is near to my heart and increasingly I see churches doing a disservice to the grieving.
The disservice is unintentional to be sure. As Baptist Christians we understand the Bible teaches one who believes in God through faith in Jesus Christ has everlasting life. Jesus said as much in John 6:40: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Based on that assurance more and more churches hold celebration services instead of funeral services for those who die. The unfortunate thing is that sometimes a celebration service almost makes one feel guilty for grieving the loss of a loved one.
Part of it may be cultural. American society is characterized by death avoidance and death denial. Death is treated more like a video game episode than the heart-wrenching, life-changing reality of losing a loved one.
Part of it may be personal. Most people have little contact with death and dying. We don’t know how to companion someone in sorrow. It is easier for us to remember the happy times than to face the void created by the death of a loved one.
Part of it may be theological confusion. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13 the apostle Paul writes, “We do not want you to be uninformed about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” The verse does not say “do not grieve.” It says we don’t grieve like other people because we have hope in Jesus Christ.
Being a Christian does not make us immune to grief. Instead it gives us hope in the midst of grief.
Grief is real. The loss of a loved one is the most stressful experience in life. It has physical and psychological expressions. One study found the body’s chemical changes in grief increase the probability of heart attacks 21 times in the first 24 hours following the death of a loved one. A British study found the body’s immune system weakened by chemical reactions associated with grief.
Accidents and mishaps
Grieving people often report feeling like they “are going crazy” because of difficulty making decisions or remembering things.
Studies by insurance companies found grieving people are more prone to accidents and other mishaps.
These and the long list of other expressions of grief evidence the turmoil going on inside the grieving person as they cope with the emptiness created by death and the pain of absence. For one who loses a spouse there also is the challenge of identity when one has lost half of who that person has been for decades.
A sensitive Christian community will recognize these realities and find ways to walk with members in the weeks and months of finding a new sense of balance in a world which for them has turned upside down.
The declaration that Brother Jones or Sister Smith is “now with the Lord” is a declaration of the Christian faith. Adding that we therefore should not grieve misses the mark.
When someone tells survivors not to grieve because their loved one is with the Lord in heaven, that only compounds the emotions by making people feel like there is something else wrong with them because they are grieving.
In one sense grief is about the one who died. It acknowledges that person was with us. It affirms that person was important to us and loved by us. Grief affirms the departed person will be missed.
In another sense grief is not so much for the one who died as it is for those who are left. Survivors are the ones with emptiness, with absence, with confusion, with the challenge to identity, with pain.
That is one reason moments of recall and remembrance are important. Stories affirm the value of the one who died. They affirm the departed’s contributions and importance to an individual, to a community. They affirm the loss is a shared loss — a community loss.
Remembrances can be healing. They certainly are comforting.
As Christians there is another source of comfort. Standing before an open grave we dare proclaim that death is not the end. Again the words of Jesus: “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that I shall lose none of all those He has given Me but raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39).
That is our hope in the midst of grief. It is the hope Christians have proclaimed for more than 2,000 years. Reflecting on the words of Jesus, the apostle Paul said, “We know that the One who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in His presence” (2 Cor. 4:14).
Paul could ask “O death, where is your victory” (1 Cor. 15:55) because death has been swallowed up in the victory of the resurrection.
The source of our hope is the ground of our faith.
Very present help
Until that great day when time shall be no more the Christian has the comfort and companionship of God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would “be with you forever” (John 14:16). In the midst of grief, loneliness, confusion and pain the believer is never alone. Through the Holy Spirit, God is a very present help.
As Paul wrote in Romans 8:28 we know God works all situations for the good of those who love Him.
The grieving Christian is comforted by hope of the resurrection, hope in the presence of the Holy Spirit and hope in the love of God.
Christians may not grieve like those who have no hope but we still grieve.
So tell the stories and celebrate the life of the Christian who has died in the Lord but don’t forget to companion the grieving.
How blessed are those who make the grief journey in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the encouragement of God’s saints.