“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)”
So far, we have explored two ways of considering this verse to understand mourning. First we considered the mourning over sin that begins the new life in Christ, acknowledging that this is certainly the primary understanding of this passage. Second, we considered the mourning that sometimes comes to the believer as they encounter the pervasive evil of this world. While we are called to persevere and even to overcome the wickedness and the evil of this world (Romans 12:21), there are times when we mourn this burden and lament the ravages of sin (Mark 9:19) that have so stained the world.
Now I want to briefly consider a third type of mourning, which is the mourning that comes to believers as they encounter the physical death of those whom they love. I say “consider” for this feeling of sorrow at the death of a loved one is a profound part of human experience, but I say “briefly” for the believer should respond to life’s sorrows differently than those who are of the world. In fact, if we are far along the path of sanctification, we may even think that there should be only celebration: another saint has entered heaven and has won the victory that Christ purchased for them. In his direct and challenging style, J C Ryle urges believers to see the death of a believing loved one in this way:
“Are you one who is mourning over a departed believer? Then take comfort from this Scripture (Luke 23:39-43 the thief on the cross with Jesus). See how your beloved ones are in the best of hands. They cannot be better off. They never were so well in their lives as they are now. They are with Jesus, whom their souls loved on earth. Oh, cease from your selfish mourning! Rejoice rather that they are freed from trouble and have entered into rest.” “Christ’s Greatest Trophy” in Holiness by J C Ryle
But we also see in the Bible that God in His word acknowledges the feelings of sorrow and the subsequent mourning that come to humans, even believing humans, when they encounter death. Thus the healthy response is to balance mourning with the trust and joy that are appropriate to believers when death is encountered.
What does the Bible have to say about this mourning? First, it is important to remember that Jesus Christ Himself wept at Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:35). This is profound, for in this act of sorrow and mourning, Jesus sanctioned mourning. If the Son of God wept at the event of a person’s death, then it is okay if we mourn at the death of one of our loved ones. I do not know the full meaning of Jesus’ tears, but I do know that He wept, and that is good enough.
Next, it is also significant that Jesus gave His apostles instructions about what to do when He died in Jerusalem (John 16:6, 20, 22) and His instructions included their sorrow over His death. At no time does Jesus correct or rebuke this sorrow, again indicating that it is good and right to mourn and lament the loss of a loved one.
In at least two places Paul makes clear that sorrow and mourning are appropriate and normal for all people, even believers, when they encounter death. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the apostle says that believers will grieve when their friends have “fallen asleep,” but that they should do so as people who have a sure hope. Grieving while believing is the pattern for followers of Christ. In Philippians 2:27, Paul praises God that He spared Epaphroditus from dying and thus delivered Paul from “sorrow upon sorrow.” Paul would certainly have mourned if his good friend and co-laborer in the gospel, Epaphroditus, had died of his sickness, but God was merciful and spared the man for ongoing gospel service.
Finally few believers are sanctified to the point of having no fear of death and of having no doubts about heaven and hell, but the Bible allows for disciples who still need to grow. In other words, God is gracious and compassionate toward those who have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ, even if there are still lapses in their trust. So the Bible allows the believer to be human and express their mourning in appropriate ways, but the Bible also insists that we grasp tightly to the promises of God and continue to trust the Lord with all our heart and might.
What we have seen is that, by balancing the two responses of mourning and of gripping to God’s promises, we can develop a healthy theology of mourning. In those life events when our humanity demands an expression of mourning and a lamenting of a loss, we can weep as the Lord wept (John 11:35; Romans 12:15) and pour out our pain before the Lord. We know, however, that we can only mourn briefly and we can only stay at the place of sorrow for a short time, for if we stay there too long, we run the risk of acting in unbelief. Because of the truth of the empty tomb and because of our trust in the promises of God, our mourning must turn quickly to joy. So our humanity mourns the separation from the one who has fallen asleep in Christ, but our spirit then shouts the victory cry: death has lost its sting, Christ has defeated death, and soon Christ will throw death and Hades into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).
For the believer, then, we can see that “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be satisfied.” SDG rmb 11/20/2016