When 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,
P.S. My wife joins with me in sympathy and condolence with you and your family under this heavy affliction.
[HT: Ryan Martin]