September 24, 2013

Moderate Mourning

by Jesse Johnson

tearsWhen a Christian dies, other believers find themselves pulled by two competing emotions both clamoring for obedience in the heart. First, the ones left behind have the desire to grieve their loss. The father who is not there, the mother who is gone, or the child who precedes her parents in death—when someone dies there are those left who will be missing their loved one, and grief is an urgent and inevitable reality. This is why Romans 12:15 commands us to mourn with those who mourn.

But Romans 12:15 also commands us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and here the Christian finds his heart pulled in the other direction.  We desire to celebrate that a person we love has run their race, finished the course, and now resides in glory. We want to be glad because we know they are exceedingly better. Thus our hearts are simultaneously pulled to joy as to grief.

When I feel those competing emotions in my heart, my mind goes back to a letter that Jonathan Edwards wrote when one of his friend’s daughters died. 1744 was a particularly difficult year for Edwards. The Great Awakening seemed to have passed, and the lack of abiding fruit was a source of severe affliction to Edwards. He often lamented this with one of his close friends, Thomas Prince. Prince lived in Boston, and believed that the Great Awakening was a real event orchestrated by the Lord.

Because of distance, Edwards and Prince did not often see each other face-to-face. Nevertheless, because they were so like-minded, the Prince family and the Edwards family became close friends. Then, in 1744, news that one of the Prince daughters died reached Northampton.

In those days there were no phones, and it was simply impractical for Edwards to travel to Boston. Instead he wrote this letter. I quote it here because it is a wonderful picture of the pastor in Edwards, and it is an encouragement to me when the competing commands of joy and grief are held in tension in my own soul. Paul says mourn, but not like those who have no hope. Edwards simply calls for “moderate mourning”:

Northampton, July 27, 1744

Rev. and Honored Sir,

We had some time ago heard of your daughter’s dangerous illness, which my daughter in Boston informed us from time to time of the prevalence and increase of; and we have lately heard the sorrowful tidings of her death, which we have received with hearty condolence with you in your affliction; which must needs be great, but yet, by what we have heard, is attended with great ground of comfort and cause of thankfulness of god.

We have heard of very hopeful evidences that she gave in her lifetime of a saving interest in Christ, which puts out of the reach of all the ill consequences of death, or any hurt that death can do, those that are the subjects of such an infinite privilege; and not only so, but makes death their great gain.

And how unspeakable, dear Sir, must the support and consolation needs be to surviving friends, in the case of the death of dear relatives, to have ground to think of them as being now in glory, in a state of eternal rest and perfect blessedness, having all tears wiped away from their eyes, and sorrow and sighing forever banished!

And surely when we mourn for the death of such friends, our mourning should be moderate, for that which they rejoice at; and if we may mourn, our mourning may well be mingled with rejoicing.

As we hope we belong to the same society with the blessed in heaven, and have our conversation and citizenship with them, it becomes us to partake with them in their joys, and rejoice with them, especially those of them that were our nearest and dearest friends on earth; and surely we should not sink in mourning and tears while they sing and rejoice with exceeding, inconceivable, and eternal joy.

But yet, such is our infirmity, so dark are our minds, and so little do we see beyond the grave, that we need much divine assistance and support to do as becomes Christians under our trials.

And we have, therefore, to wonder that God has made such glorious provision in Christ Jesus for the support and comfort of all that trust in him under all afflictions, and that he has given us so many great and precious promises, sealed with his blood, and confirmed with his oath, that we might, in every case, have strong consolation.

We live in a vale of tears, a world of sorrow. Oh, that all that we meet with here may cause us to live more as pilgrims and strangers on the earth, and to be followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises!

Remember me, honored Sir, to your mournful spouse and dear surviving children, as one of their friends that heartily sympathizes with them. That God may abundantly support both you and them, and make up the great loss to you in himself, and grant that you may at last have a joyful meeting with your dear departed relative in immortal glory, is the prayer of, dear Sir, your friend and servant,

In Christian love and affectionate sympathy,

Jonathan Edwards.

P.S. My wife joins with me in sympathy and condolence with you and your family under this heavy affliction.

[HT: Ryan Martin]

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA.
  • http://threecalvinists.wordpress.com/ Dave Johnson

    Thanks Jesse. This is a comforting … for it helps me to balance my thoughts before God. My wife was diagnosed as terminally ill last month. We may be spending our last months together (married 40 years) and are learning to lean on God for his help and comfort. JE is very right when he says “… which must needs be great, but yet, by what we have heard, is attended
    with great ground of comfort and cause of thankfulness of [God].” God’s Word and His Spirit is the ground of our comfort. Praise to Him for His amazing and sure grace!!

  • kevin2184

    Great perspective. Thanks Jesse.

  • Karen Pickering

    Interesting post. I have great respect for Jonathan Edwards, and it is always risky to try to understand all the ins and outs of a private letter, but if I had gotten a letter like that after either of my parents had died or after one of my best friends died it would not have helped my grieving. I needed to mourn. I needed to wrestle through with God why these people I loved were taken away. Simply I needed to lament. The Psalms are a great place to look at how the church both privately and corporately should mourn together. Yes, we have a hope, but when the loss is new and fresh we turn first to the wound. We find our comfort in facing the wound face to face with God.

    • http://michaelcoughlin.net/ Michael Coughlin

      Karen – Would you consider yourself to be a Christian?

      Your comments distress me as they seem to exhibit a very low view of God and His Word and a very high view of man. I mean, I get what you’re saying, that you were sad and mourning…but did you ever wrestle through with God why these people you loved were ever allowed in your life in the first place?

      Probably not. When your perspective is “Why did God take something?” I think there’s a problem with your view of what we as humans deserve. Rather the question should be “why was He ever so gracious to me?”

      You see, Edwards’ letter, one that certainly didn’t arrive the day after his friend’s loss was intended to comfort someone who had a shared love for Christ and a proper perspective of eternity.

      Does that change that you were sad and mourning? No, of course not. But the point of the post is the consolation we are to have in Christ.

      If it is good enough for scripture, it should be good enough for us:

      1 Thessalonians 4

      13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

      I realize this comment can be taken the wrong way. It is out of concern that I share what the Bible says about these things, for the love of Christ Himself.

      • Karen Pickering

        Sorry to cause you distress, but yes, I do consider myself a Christian. I am sure of the one who at such awful cost purchased my redemption. I spoke in honesty from experience. I spoke as one who has known great loss in many ways, but has also learned much by taking my honest and raw emotions to the only one who can help me deal with them. God, Himself. My distress is that often the church pats people on the back and tells them to suck it up when they simply need someone to cry with them.
        Yes, our consolation is in Christ and only in Christ, but we must be honest with God about the hurt and confusion if He is to help us wade through it. Too many people say they are fine when they are not. I will continue to cry with those who have lost loved ones and talk to them of a great Redeemer.
        I might point you to Psalm 13, 22 and the other lament Psalms of examples of what I mean.

        • http://michaelcoughlin.net/ Michael Coughlin

          Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Karen. I agree with all that you wrote. I think the disagreement is that I believe Edwards adequately communicated that consolation to his friend, and you seem to not believe he did in the above letter.

          You are correct that too many people are holding things in or even lying about their emotions, and there are not enough church members crying with others but telling them to suck it up. I recently struggled through this myself and can tell you that I was lying and telling people I was fine when I wasn’t. Hard to get help that way!

          Lord bless you, sister. Thanks for elaborating so I understand your comment better now.

  • Cheryl Sheahan

    What a treasure of eloquence, compassion, and hope is bundled in that letter from Edwards! One has to wonder when looking at this whether having to take more time with pen and ink is superior to the speed of typing in the depth of communication present here.

  • Johnny

    Edwards is the man. For my funeral, I just want the funeral director to give out a lot of chocolate (and a few theology books) to everyone who comes to the service, so that at the very least it’s not that bad of an experience for anyone who comes to see me off to glory… :)

  • http://www.melissacollins.biz/ Melissa Collins

    I appreciated this post so much. I have a number of friends facing terminal illnesses and it has caused me to spend a lot of time pondering this life versus eternal life and as a follower of Christ, I am striving to understand it as Christ intended for the believer. At times I am joyful, at times I am distressed and overwhelmed. My prayer always is for depth and understanding and accepting that IF I believe God’s Word, then I have no need of fear and I always pray toward that for my friends as well. Thanks for sharing this today.

  • David A

    Thanks for posting this.

    This is just another example of what sets, or what ought to set, us Christians apart.
    Trials? Count it all joy!
    Passing through the fire? Thank God!
    Death of a Christian loved one? Rejoice!

    There is a time for mourning, yes. But as with every other emotion, it must be informed by Truth. And truth tells us that for a believer, “to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).

    No one is saying we discount or downplay real or genuine mourning. That’s silly. With all Christ knew, especially with what He was about to do, even He wept at the death of Lazarus. He was ‘deeply moved in his spirit’ at the sight of Mary weeping. I think its true that Christians may hide true emotions in fear of judgement by other Christians, thinking that they may lack true eternal perspective. Let’s not go down that path, but instead understand that the loss of loved ones, even with the truth of their immeasurable joy in heaven, still produces real and genuine sorrow.

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  • Caroline

    Thank you so much for this clear perspective, not only on death, but on a number of trials in life as well. It is so good to be reminded that mourning should never be to the point of hopelessness, for we continually have a hope and comfort in Christ.