1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 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. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 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. 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. Therefore encourage each other with these words.”
I haven’t done a lot of grieving in my short lifetime. I’ve only lost a few loved ones – and most of those were when I was quite young. In retrospect, I’m incredibly blessed in that way I guess. I can remember as a child seeing my mother get upset and cry over something she saw on TV and I remember how incredibly ridiculous that seemed to me. How could she identify with someone else’s pain that she didn’t even know? So over the past 12 weeks I’ve found a whole new appreciation for grieving. I guess it all started when we first found out about Jacob’s trisomy 18. You can’t help but be overwhelmed with what that means. But God has been faithful and has realigned my thinking to understand and appreciate each day to a greater extent. And as we’ve walked this journey we’ve found others who are in similar situations and we connect and follow their lives and experience their joys and their sorrows. Recently with the passing of Eva, Joshua, and Molly it’s reminded me of what could, but for the unmerited grace of God, happen to Jacob. And this verse keeps popping into my head. I’m called, no matter what happens to my friend’s or my own child, to grieve in a godly way – not like the rest of men who have no hope. So what is grief exactly? It’s defined as “suffering caused by sorrow” or “deep mental suffering often endured alone and in silence but revealed by one's aspect.” When someone dies (ie. ‘falls asleep”) there is naturally sorrow (“distress caused by loss, affliction, sadness, pain”). I think what God is stressing here in this chapter is that our sorrow does not have to cause us to suffer. In fact our sorrow can be a source of rejoicing. The world has no light of hope to offer us in the darkness of our despair. But God has given us hope (not wishful thinking but rather a confident expectation) that there will be light on the other side for those who know and love Christ. Godly grief = Hope. Ungodly grief = no hope. And our hope is not some intangible feeling or guesswork – rather it is placed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Knowing that He sacrificed Himself on the cross to take the burden of sin and conquered death for us just as He said He would, we rest calmly in the fact that some day He will return again as He said He would and that He will not miss one soul who trusted in Him. Not even death or the grave will be able to stop Him from calling up all of His saints! These words are meant to encourage us because we know that no life lived for Christ will be in vain. One day there will be a great reuniting. And as I think how children like Eva or Joshua touched so many souls for God’s kingdom, I can’t help but think that they too will be involved in that great celebration of the saints. So while I pray daily for Jacob to be healed and to live a long healthy life, I know that some day God may answer my prayer by taking him home to be with Him. My earthly flesh feels sorrow and grief and screams “NO!” but my spirit knows, confidently expects and whispers quietly reminding me of our hope in Christ. This whole experience has given me a greater appreciation for what heaven is and will be. Prior to this I could read Revelation 21:4 which states, “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" and breeze over it and think “yeah, that will be cool.” Now I can understand and appreciate a little more fully how great that really is. There will be no pain and thus no crying… no tears. And now I desire God’s Kingdom more.
Recently a friend asked me to make sense of the “Why?” in situations like ours and when children pass away. It’s such a common question for those of us going through the “five stages of grief.” The first stage, denial, we just can’t believe that this is happening to us. The second stage, anger, is usually where we find ourselves asking the “why me?” question. Our neighbor is dealing with the loss of her husband and I had a conversation with her this past winter that indicated exactly where she was. She said, “I’m angry. I never thought I’d get here, but I’m really angry, and I want to know why? Why did God let this happen?” The third stage, bargaining, we plead and beg with God to reverse the situation or to bring someone back. The fourth stage, depression, can be crippling if we don’t look to God with a proper worldview. The last stage is either resignation or acceptance. We can’t just resign to suffer with the loss we must learn to accept it. So why?
First we must make sure that we have the proper worldview. If our view of the world is man-centered then we will never come to an acceptable answer to that question. We must realize that everything in life must be viewed through the lens of “God is the reason for existence.” When God is viewed properly as the most holy and powerful Person that He is, then we can start to understand what an affront to God our sin really is. Sin must be separated from God who is the epitome of everything opposite of sin. The world that we live in is cursed by sin. It has warped and skewed everything that God made “good.” It is the reason for war, hatred, sickness and death. These things were not created by God but by mankind. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death” and “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” How do we know that all sin? Because all die. Rarely does someone ask “Why?” when someone who is 100 years old dies. Somehow we rationalize that the length of their life somehow offsets the fact that they have died. We have expectations of what life should be. “Oh he lived a good long life.” Really? That’s not how it was originally intended, but how it’s become due to sin. And yet God is still above all that, intimately involved with His creation – knowing the number of hairs on each of our heads and not allowing a bird to pass away unnoticed by Him. So we are each here for a purpose, long or short, and someday will stand before God and give an account of what we did with the gift of life He has given us. On that note, the Book of Revelation not only talks about how wonderful heaven will be with no tears, but also something known as the “second death.” This second death is for those who have died (the “first death”) and have rejected God’s remedy for sin, Jesus Christ. All those who have not accepted Christ by faith will be cast into the lake of fire. Think of how much grief we experience from “first deaths” here on Earth and then imagine what it would be like to know that someone you know experienced the “second death” as well. The really neat part is that there will be no tears in heaven. This is where the God-centered worldview comes in…. in heaven we will realize the absolute holiness of God and despite any personal feelings of love or attachment to those condemned to the “second death” we will know that this is the just thing and that God’s glory and righteousness is more important than our feelings. I don’t think any of us can really understand that here on Earth.
So how do we make sense of our pain and suffering? I don’t think we can. It doesn’t make sense. We live in a messed up world, so messed up things happen. I do believe, however, that even though God did not “create” or “allow” certain things to happen – He is able to use them to draw us closer to Him. Ecclesiastes 7:3-4 says, “Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.” Quite simply, we are more likely to think about our need for God at a funeral (house of mourning) than we are at a party (house of pleasure). Maybe then a better question to ask is not “Why did this happen to (fill in the blank)?” but rather, “What does God want to do in my life to make me more like Jesus, that He allowed me to come in contact with this situation?”
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.”