“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” (1 Thess. 4:13 ESV)
When I was a seminary student, I had the opportunity to take a course called “Death and Resurrection.” Though designated in the catalog as an investigation of death and resurrection in Holy Scripture and Christian theology, the course was much more than that. I’m told that it’s taken a variety of forms over the years but has achieved legendary status in calling for a final project in which students plan their own funerals (which I did). The biblical and doctrinal insights imparted through my studies proved invaluable, but none of my academic work prepared me for the task of pastoral care quite as much as this class did.
One of the required textbooks was a collection of Luther’s writings called Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. The entire book is an indispensable resource for anyone undertaking the burden and the privilege of issuing pastoral care. Luther reveals himself not simply as the brilliant exegete, nimble logician, or thrilling polemicist of his other more notable writings. His letters of spiritual counsel show a different side of the reformer exercising the pastoral task of Gospel application at its absolute best.
A favorite passage of mine from this collection is a letter from Luther to his father on the occasion of John Luther’s nearing death. Inclement weather and Luther’s rather uncertain standing with peasants being what they were, Luther is grieved that he might not reach home to Mansfeld in time to bid his father goodbye. Even so, Luther writes, “Our departure from this life is a smaller thing to God than my journey would be from here to Mansfeld or yours from Mansfeld to Wittenberg” (32). Hope in the promise of eternal life enables Luther to tell his father that “faith is certain, and we doubt not that we shall shortly see each other in the presence of Christ” (32).
According to experience, the chasm which separates the living from the dead is hopelessly large. It is something over which to grieve.
According to experience, the chasm which separates the living from the dead is hopelessly large. It is something over which to grieve–perhaps even bitterly. Most human endeavors aim rather fruitlessly at bridging this chasm. Technology tantalizes us with the possibility of thwarting death and living forever in some fashion or another. Or, if death itself remains unavoidable, then we can at least defer its coming as long as possible. We can make the best of our situation in the meantime. More time means time to accomplish something. It means time to make life somehow worth it. Either such approach to the problem of death is futile, however. Both reveal the kind of grief over death which can trust nothing but human effort and artifice to unite the living and the dead. Such delusions are pathetic, and thus hopeless.
Yet Luther understands, with St. Paul, that Christians are not to “grieve as others who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Hope in the promise of eternal life counts precisely when it contradicts what is so self-evident according to reason and experience. It is when the finality of death confronts us in all its plausibility that we must “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18) about eternal life in Jesus Christ even more vigorously.
It is precisely such words about life which interrupt death’s reign. Eternal life with Christ is not simply one possible outcome for which our hope and our proclamation must plead as if to convince either God or fate to make a favorable choice. Nor is it a future to which we gesture with our goodwill, our effort, our passion for peace and justice, or even our love for other people. Eternal life with Christ is a promise which God bestows by His Holy Spirit using the instrument of the human voice declaring salvation in Christ. We grieve hopefully on account of this promise with which we must continually encourage one another.
The grieving of the hopeful calls upon God in lament over the reality of sin and death which endures for the time being.
None of this means that we can’t grieve or shouldn’t grieve. In fact, the contradiction on such vivid display between the promise of eternal life and the present reality of separation between the living and the dead invites us into a very robust form of grief. It is a hopeful kind of grief — the grieving of the hopeful calls upon God in lament over the reality of sin and death which endures for the time being. Such grief boldly demands deliverance from the God in whom faith places its unshakeable trust. Boldly demanding God to be faithful comes forth from this trust in God’s power to do exactly what He says––it’s not a plea for God to actualize one of many possible futures, but to execute something He certainly will do.
Hopeful grief acknowledges the dark truth of our separation from those who have died. But those who grieve hopefully also cling in faith to the promise of God to unite those who are in Christ together in a kingdom without end. In the meantime, all there is left to do is follow St. Paul and “encourage one another with these words.”