One of the difficulties grievers experience is the sense that they're are doing it wrong. Cultural norms and expected timelines seem to suggest that the grieving period should be short, linear, and end with getting back to "normal" long before the healing journey has even begun.
This is amplified in Christian communities. After all, we have a command to not "grieve like the rest of mankind who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). Shouldn't Christians who experience loss express hope instead of sorrow?
I love the teachings in this passage of scripture, but often feel a sting when people mention it. As someone who has been grieving my husband's death for over 2 years (and all that illness stole from us for 13 years before he died) I often feel like people quote 1 Thess. 4:13 to admonish people they think are grieving too much and for too long.
The disconnect for me is that it is so often shared by someone who is not grieving, and maybe even has a big cheesy grin on their face as they speak of death. It's shared in a way that implies that Christian grief shouldn't be so gosh-darn sad and long-lasting. It's been shared as if hope is the panacea to pain, and the promise of eternal life for those who are in Christ makes death acceptable and even something to rejoice in for the loved ones left behind.
Is that what this passage is really all about? Did Paul mean it to shut up grievers or to get them to look on the bright side? Should Christians make lemonade out of the lemons of loss? Is this verse supposed to be the litmus test for how Christianly someone is grieving?
I don't think so. And never has an admonishment to be more hopeful in my sorrow brought me closer to Jesus or helped me feel safe in his arms. Instead, it makes me feel like I've failed at this whole Christian grieving thing.
I'm not contesting the words of 1 Thesselonians. 4:13 themselves: they are scripture, breathed out by God himself. I'm questioning the application.
Let's look at the passage together:
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. - 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Paul is giving us truth that will inform and transform our grief, not do away with it. He writes that mankind is grieving without hope. Death is a horrible reality. It isn't what we were meant to experience, rather it is the result of our rebellion against God. The Bible calls death an enemy, saying in 1 Corinthians 15:26, The last enemy to be destroyed is death." Jesus died and is coming again to destroy death forever - that's how terrible it is. Anyone who has watched their beloved's body be lowered into a grave knows the utter finality and despair that accompany death. Death breaks relationships, permanently separating people from those they love. It is too late to say goodbye, ask for forgiveness, and make right an estranged relationship. All that is left unsaid can never be said. To look at death and feel hope would be absolutely insane. It would be unbiblical.
The Bible teaches that all people deserve to be separated from God and his goodness forever after they die - the most horrible fate imaginable. People who are not followers of Christ do not move onto a peaceful existence after death - they are permanently separated from God and all goodness. No suffering on this earth can compare to that.
But we live in a culture that tries to minimize the pain of death. Not wanting to face the painful realities it brings, people cling to heartfelt well-wishes like, "He's in a better place", "She wouldn't want you to be sad", "Her light will stay with you", "He's watching over you". Empty promises. Empty words. Empty hope.
The church tends to respond similarly. Long before a person has been able to grieve, we try to cheer them up. "He's in Heaven!" we proclaim. "Her suffering is over!" we rejoice. We prefer "Celebrations of Life" to funerals. We extol the joys of Heaven without mourning that graves are not yet empty.
This isn't what we see in the Bible. When Jesus sees his dear friend Lazarus' sister weeping, we read that, "he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled." (John 11:33). His response sounds mild in our translation but the word translated "troubled" comes from a Greek word that means "to snort with anger". Jesus' response to death isn't "there, there, it's not so bad" but rather that of an angry bull that sees a threat come into his pasture and is ready to charge and destroy. And then Jesus himself weeps outside of his friend's tomb. Sorrow, grief, and anger are Jesus' response to death - even a death that he is about to reverse when he raises Lazarus from the dead.
"But this is before Jesus goes to the cross to defeat death!", someone might argue. Yet, we see the early church having a similar response. After Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is stoned to death we read that, "Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him." (Acts 8:2). Read that again. Godly men mourned deeply for Stephen. They mourned deeply even though, "Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts. 7:55-56). Though Stephen glorified God, served Jesus faithfully to the point of death, and was undoubtably ushered into the presence of God when he died, godly men grieved his death.
So what does Paul mean when he admonishes Christians to not, "grieve like those who have no hope"? It's important to understand this verse in light of the verses that come after. Paul is pointing believers to the hope that those who are in Christ and have died will one day be raised to new life. The hope is a future hope - a hope that points to the day when, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4). Mourning, crying and pain will finally end when death is forever destroyed. As Christians, we have hope that one day these things will come true. But they haven't happened yet. For now, we still mourn because, for now, people still die.
Ours is a beautiful hope. A hold that one day those who trusted Jesus in this life will be raised to new, physical, life when Jesus returns. On that glorious day, we will be with Jesus and each other forever.
For those of us who have lost a spouse at a young age, that future day can seem so very far away. The truth that Greg is with the Lord is something to rejoice in, but I still wish he was here with me. The future resurrection of his body- this time without the effects of sin and disease- is a joyous hope, but it doesn't take away the sting of walking through this life without him.
So, we hold a tension. We grieve. We grieve long and full and hard. And we hope - we hope because for followers of Jesus there is life after death and eternity will last so much longer than we can imagine.
Though I have rarely felt hopeful in grief, I have grieved with hope. Grief has been the most sorrowful and darkest time in my life, yet I have grieved with hope. I have rarely felt positive or trusted that life could eventually get better and that the pain wouldn't always be so intense, but I have grieved with hope. There were times when it felt wrong to even consider living through a day with less pain - as if any hint of relief would be a betrayal of my love for Greg - yet I have grieved with hope.
Maybe from the outside, the intensity of myh sorrow and pain has appeared to be a lack of hope. Maybe those who haven't experienced this type of loss look at me from a comfortable distance and assume that their faith would lead them to "do better". And maybe it would. But I have still grieved with hope.
Grief has transformed my hope, making it more like the hope of the Bible than the American dream. Grief dashed my lesser hopes of Greg's recovery to pieces. Grief took the dreams I had for my life and for my son's childhood and tore them apart. Grief forced me to place my hope on the only sturdy foundation there is - eternal life with Christ.
Grief hasn't made me a more positive or light-hearted person. Grief hasn't made me more fun to be around or enabled me trust God more readily. But it has taught me that this life and all we achieve in it can be over before we even know its ending, and that my only real security is that I'm being held in the everlasting arms of Christ.
And that, my friends, is grieving with hope.