Life is full of tremendous joy and also great pain and loss. There is no greater heartache than that caused by death. I walked along its paths this past week with my Nan passing away. Yet grieving the death of my Nan allows me the privilege of grieving in a different way – a Christian way.
My Nan, Jean Germon, was nearly 90 when she died. Not only did she faithfully follow Jesus, but her legacy is of 3 daughters, 15 grandkids and 27 great-grandkids the vast majority follow Jesus. I have no doubt this is in part due to her constant prayers for us. It was such an honour to read Psalm 121 at her memorial service, the same passage I read at Pa’s a few year’s previous.
So, how does a Christian grieve? Well, take a look at what Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14:
‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.’
Three things can be said about this passage
First, grieve. Death is tragic. Grief is a right response in the face of tragedy. Paul doesn’t forbid Christians from grieving, instead he calls them to have hope in the midst of grief.
Brad Watson recalls growing up as a child on the streets of Lisbon among traditional old Portuguese widows in a podcast on grief. These women always wore black, and yet they were still able to laugh and experience joy.
I think this is a great picture of the way Paul is calling followers of Jesus to grieve. Seeing fellow Christians die invites us to put on the black clothes of the Portuguese widows and embrace the fact the our world is very much broken. Our grief is not meaningless. Our tears are not in vain. Instead they are the embodiment of our trust that Jesus will redeem all things. How so?
Paul reminds that it’s ok to grieve, but our grief is full of hope. It’s a paradox – sorrow without despair, mourning without defeat, anguish without hopelessness.
My grief is full of hope because I know my Nan wasn’t alone when she died. David writes in Psalm 23:
‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For you are with me.’
What comfort it is to know that God reserves the privilege of walking with his followers through death’s arms for himself.
One of my favourite worship songs is Oceans (Where Feet may Fail) from Hillsong United. In particular, I loved joining in worship when my friend Ty Soupidis leads it. The thing I love about this song is that it helps me express trust in God through uncertainty.
Now, I know this song isn’t about death, but death is the perfect picture of the uncertainty it speaks of. I can imagine as the waves of death rose around my Nan, she felt the embrace of her beloved Saviour. And her pain-filled body found healing because of Jesus’ presence.
Grieving with hope doesn’t equate to the platitude ‘She’s in a better place.’ Instead, Christian grief is built around the hope that our grief is temporary. Paul shows a gospel truth that affects our past, present and future. He starts in the present saying we should grieve with hope then explains why.
First, Paul points to the past as the source for hope. He looks to the past reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection as proof and down-payment that he will also resurrect us. It’s the very foundation of hope. What happened to Jesus, he will do to us.
Second, Paul points to the future. Our grief has an end. He points forward to Jesus’ return – a time when those who have died will be bodily resurrected and together with those still alive, be reunited with Christ. This future reality is on-going, forever, unlike our grief.
And so, as Christians we grieve because we feel the loss, the sadness, the sorrow. The pain is real. We should never try to deny this. Yet we also grieve with hope because of Jesus. My Nan hasn’t simply gone, she’s just gone on ahead. Because Jesus rose again, she will rise again. Jesus lives, and so she lives.