How Should Christians Mourn the Death of Loved Ones?
Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 28, 2002
Please accept our Christian sympathies in the wake of your deep loss.
To suggest that the death of a loved one should evoke in us a desire to die ourselves has more in common with Hinduism than Christianity. You may recall the practice known as suttee (or, sati) in which the mourning widow casts herself upon her husband’s funeral pyre. The proper response to death is sorrow, not a death wish. The notion that we should not grieve has no fit relation to Holy Scripture, Reformed Christian tradition, or life as we know it in this vale of tears.
Abraham mourned the loss of Sarah: “She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her (Gen 23:2).
Jacob mourned what he believed was the death of his son, Joseph: “Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days” (Gen 37:34).
All Israel mourned for Aaron’s sons: “But your relatives, all the house of Israel, may mourn for those the LORD has destroyed by fire” (Lev 10:6).
All Israel mourned Aaron’s death: “When the whole community learned that Aaron had died, the entire house of Israel mourned for him thirty days” (Num 20:29).
The Teacher said there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:4).
The New Testament has no different instruction. Jesus mourned: “When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there…When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” (John 11:31-36).
Too, “Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him” (Acts 8:2).
And we are explicitly commanded to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15).
There is no bona fide Christian tradition in all the world which denies the propriety of mourning at the loss of a loved one.
Lord’s Day 10 of our Catechism reminds us that the providence of God means that “all things come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand,” thus enabling us to “be patient in adversity,” knowing (as we’re taught on Lord’s Day 9) “that whatever evil He sends upon me in this troubled life, He will turn to my good.” Calvinists are Christians who can properly interpret “adversity and evil,” not Pollyannas who deny them. While Calvinism invigorates the soul and fortifies the spirit though its eager embrace of the utter sovereignty of God in all that transpires, it does not shrink from truth, it does not play pretend with the world as it is, in its fractured and fallen condition. Calvinism hates death, and finds comfort only in the victory wrought over it by Jesus Christ our Lord. Death, until the Last Day, remains an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26).
There is an old joke concerning Reformed folk which plays on our strict view of sovereignty and predestination: Q. What did the Calvinist say when he fell down a flight of stairs? A. “Phew! I’m glad that’s over with!” But this, while perhaps amusing, is of course a caricature. Calvinism, above all faiths, forcefully confronts the reality of sin and its consequences in the world. It is not a Christian brand of stoicism we believe in. It is a passionate—and compassionate—life lived in the sight of a sovereign Father.
The words spoken to you by your Elder remind me of a fundamentalist “Chic tract” in which a gun-toting thug breaks into a home and is caught by the Christian owner. The criminal says, “Now that you saw me I’m gonna have to kill you.” The Christian starts thanking the intruder, practically begging him to pull the trigger so he can “be with Jesus.” As I was reading it, I fully expected the pair of them to commit suicide after the thief said “the sinner’s prayer.” Thankfully. Mr. Chic, like most of our fundamentalist brethren, was inconsistent. We are Christians, and Christians are, above all people, for life!
All that being said, we are inclined to think that your Elder’s comment, however clumsy, was altogether well-intentioned. Many people feel awkward and at a loss in knowing what to say to mourners. Undoubtedly your Elder was seeking to comfort you. The Heidelberg (at #104) reminds us to “bear patiently with their infirmities” of those who have the rule over us. Here’s an opportunity for you to do just that.