I read an article recently that encouraged the blogging of letters that others might find valuable. I've decided to start posting such letters as they occur, omitting those items which may identify the recipient. My prayer is that God will use these public letters to strengthen his people.
Please accept my most sincere condolences on the death of your mother. Even though her illness made such an event only a matter of time, the actual death is always so painful. Oh, we think we are prepared, but in reality one can never really be prepared for the death of one we love.
I'm thankful that God heard our prayers uttered over these many months and that "her passing was peaceful." It is also an indescribable blessing to know that "she was at peace with death and confident in her faith in Jesus." You are quite correct that such knowledge gives peace and hope for the future.
As a pastor for many years, and having mourned the death of both my parents, I've discovered a few truths about death that people who have never gone through it don't realize. These aren't Bible truths, but the numerous funerals in which I've participated have proven them true.
- When a parent dies, you're nine years old again. It doesn't matter how old you really are, what responsibilities you carry, what marks of maturity are evident in your life. The basic relationship that defined the bond between you and your mom overrides all other truths. Oh, you may continue to act the part of a mature adult, but the raw emotions that burrow a hole in your stomach are those of a child.
- When the second parent dies, you're an orphan. The safety net that parents provide may not have functioned for decades. In fact, you may have been the caregiver for your parent. But even though the roles are reversed, your memories of the ones who could "make it better" overwhelm you. The loneliness that is an integral part of all grief is even more intense when the second parent dies.
- It hurts a lot more than other people know. Even those who have endured the grief you now experience have had the memory of the gnawing, devastating grief dulled somewhat by time. This is just another reason why the mind-numbing pain we experience makes us feel so alone.
- It hurts a lot longer than other people realize. In a few weeks, other people's lives will return to normal, but yours won't. It will take about a year before the ache truly begins to subside, for it will take a year to get by all the "firsts": the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first Easter, etc. You will get better, but not as quickly as others imagine. And no, you can't just "get over it" even though others may expect you to.
All of the above is merely the fruit of my experience and observation. But at a time like this, what we really need is God's perspective, not merely on death, but on the death of a believer. Because even though I may be able to describe the grief we experience, there is nothing in my words that can comfort. Only God's Word can do that.
The Old Testament's standard way to describe God's character is that he is "gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love" (Psalm 103:8 among many other passages). Because God is who he is, death for a believer is changed from a terrible curse to a good and gracious gift.
To say that death can be a good and gracious gift is not to deny the evils associated with death. Death, the Bible teaches, is the consequence of sin. Death brings separation and sorrow. In fact, the Bible always portrays death as an enemy that has invaded the land of the living.
Even the Lord Jesus did not look forward to his death, despite his confidence that he would be raised from the grave. But the Bible does teach us that God is able to use what is, in and of itself, evil, in order to bring about what is good.
Rom. 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Understanding that God works things together for good, even an evil such as death, it seems appropriate to ask what happens when a believer dies. What is it about a believer's death that so changes the experience? Well, there are at least four truths concerning death that apply to all believers.
So what is death for a believer?
- Death is a key in a Door
Rev. 1:18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
The fact that he holds the key to death means that no one dies unless he puts the key in the door. In other words, no army no matter how great can kill me unless Christ puts the key in the door (I remind people of this truth every time I go to Africa). In the same way, no team of doctors can save me if he uses the key.
This is a great comfort when you understand who God is. As I stated above, the standard way to describe God is that he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Knowing this to be true, we can be assured that he waits until the absolute best time, having weighed the alternatives, to put the key in the door. In the same way, we can also be assured that if we had the ability to go back and undo that doctor’s report, undo all the tests, undo the illness, we would only make things worse. Jesus knew the right time before he put the key in the door.
And this also shows that this was really no mere chance occurrence. There is no such thing for a believer. God knew the best time and so arranged circumstances that he brought about the best for your mother and for you, for her entire family and even her friends.
2. Death is a Change in Location
2Cor. 5:6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
We must remember that the body that was laid to rest was not your mother. She experienced a change in location when she died. If death were all that there is, if it was really the end, then we would have the right to mourn without ceasing because there would be no way to ever see our loved ones again. But death isn’t the end.
Instead your mother is now experiencing the joys of heaven where there are pleasures at the right hand of God forever more. She now looks upon the unveiled face of God in all his holiness, and experiences freedom from the sins that plagued her and the physical ills that were her constant companions. Her body is laid to rest here, but your mother is not here.
She is in heaven waiting for that great day "when 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 him in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." (1 Thess 4:16-17)
3. Death is an Answer to Prayer
John 17:24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”
Jesus so loved your mother that he prayed that she would one day be with him in heaven and would be able to behold his glory, a glory far greater and more wonderful than anything that this world could produce. And so, even though our hearts are breaking, God has said no to our prayers for just a while, so that he could answer the prayer of his Son.
Of course, one day this prayer will be answered for us all. We will all be gathered together with those that have gone on ahead, and we will all together behold his glory forever more. Still, until that time, we can rejoice that your mom is there now, experiencing the glory of God, even though we must wait a while longer.
4. Death is the Delivery of a Gift
Eph. 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
In one sense it is true that we may enjoy eternal life in the here and now, but it is also true that the entire benefits of this gift of God are not realized until we are in his presence. Your mother has received this gift. She knew what it meant to be saved by grace alone apart from works. And now, because of God’s grace, she has received in full the gift that God has promised to all who believe.
Understanding this gift means that we realize that this is not our true life, or final life. There is something so much greater and so much more significant than the life we now live in the flesh. There is something beyond the present, so much more important than the present, that what is now is scarcely worthy to be compared with it.
The present life can be compared to the training ground for eternity. It is the mere entrance, like a porch on a great mansion. It is like the preface to a book which contains many chapters. And while the porch of a mansion might be beautiful, it is vastly inferior to the wonders that lie inside. The preface of a book gives us some clue as to the author’s purpose, but it is not the important feature. Both the porch and the preface are insignificant in comparison to that to which they lead.
In the same way, our life now is so vastly inferior to the life that is to come, that we may rightly say that your mother has entered into the life that God gave her so long ago as a free gift.
Your mother will forever experience the glories of God’s holiness. She will forever enjoy a banquet of pleasures that God has promised are at his right hand. She looks forward to an eternity of blessed contentment and will spend endless hours of unbroken fellowship with the Savior who loved her so much that he died for her.
I know _____, that you have this same hope. And while I have no delusions about the reality of grief, God desires that we do not "grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (1 Thess 4:13) Please be assured that I will continue to pray to this end, just as I prayed for you and your mother these past months.
Mourning and Rejoicing with you,