Just a few days after my grandfather died, I found a video cassette of our oldest son’s birth. I transferred the video to a digital file, and Corina and I enjoyed stepping back in time 17 years to those first moments with our newborn son: his birth, dedication ceremony, early months of growing and stretching. My grandfather featured prominently in several of the videos, and seeing and hearing him again—healthy and active—was like receiving a punch to the gut, especially coming so soon after his funeral.
Perhaps you’ve scrolled through social media or your old photos, and a Facebook Memories or Timehop blast from the past suddenly puts a loved one’s picture or video in front of you, a loved one who has since died. Grief surprises. The sense of loss comes back without warning. You ache.
Some churchgoers seem to think grief must be a sign of weakness, as if our Christian hope should keep us from shedding tears. But the stiff upper lip owes more to the ancient Stoics than the ancient Christians.
In his letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul addresses grief when talking about the day of the Lord’s coming:
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. (1 Thess. 4:13-14)
Christians Will Grieve
The assumption Paul makes is that the church will grieve. Paul wanted the early Christians to be informed so that they would grieve differently than the world grieves. Paul doesn’t condemn grief. In fact, he assumes we will grieve.
We know grief is not wrong because Jesus shed tears at the grave of Lazarus. Jesus wept, knowing all the while that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead! He had hope in the future but still cried. He knew the joy that was coming, yet still he wept.
If you feel burdened by sorrow and grief about the loss of a loved one, and if you feel like beating yourself up because the tears haven’t dried yet and the pain hasn’t subsided, please free yourself from unbiblical, unrealistic expectations.
You can cry, to the glory of God. You should never feel guilty for doing something Jesus did. Grief is an appropriate response to loss. Paul didn’t condemn grief; he gave the Thessalonian Christians hopeful word so they would have a different kind of grief than those who do not know Christ.
Grief Informed by the Gospel
Christian grief is different from worldly grief because it is informed by the gospel. Paul lays out the basic gospel truth here: Jesus died and rose again.
When Jesus died for our sins, to purchase our salvation, the Bible says we died with him. And if we died with him, and if we are united to him, we will be raised with him, as he was raised.
In describing how this works, Paul turns to the metaphor of sleeping. For Paul, Christian death is like a long nap. It’s a temporary experience. For Christians, we are laid to rest, and we anticipate an awakening, a resurrection.
We shouldn’t misunderstand Paul’s metaphor here of being “asleep.” This isn’t a soul sleep, in which we are unconscious and unaware of anything until Christ returns. In other letters, Paul makes it clear that when your soul is absent from your body, you are in the presence of the Lord. The moment someone dies, the spirit of the believer is present with Jesus. That’s part of our Christian hope.
But that’s not all of our Christian hope, because we believe God has a plan for the body too. It will be raised, just as Jesus was raised.
Grieve with Hope
We should, therefore, entrust our loved ones to the care of God. We grieve for them, but with hope, knowing that the grave is not the end. For the Christian, there’s strength in our sadness because deep down we know that Easter morning defies death. There’s hope in our tears because we know that the sting of death has been removed and that death won’t have the last word on us; Jesus will.
Those who don’t trust in Christ don’t have the same hope. In the time of Paul, a man named Theocritus said: “Hopes are for the living; the dead have no hope.” This was a common understanding of death during Paul’s day, and he wanted to ensure that the Thessalonian Christians were not falling prey to the same kind of grieving as everyone around them.
A few centuries later, commenting on this very passage, Augustine wrote:
And you should not grieve as the heathen do who have no hope, because we have hope, based on the most assured promise, that as we have not lost our dear ones who have departed from this life but have merely sent them ahead of us, so we also shall depart and shall come to that life where, more than ever, their dearness to us will be proportional to the closeness we shared on earth and where we shall love them without fear of parting.
What a beautiful comment on this hope we have as Christians! We’ve sent them on ahead. No matter how tough the loss may seem, we don’t forever lose our brothers and sisters in Christ. We may be separated for a time, but there is a mighty reunion being planned, when we will celebrate and grieve no more, together standing in the presence of our loving Savior.
If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.