Are Christians Allowed to Grieve the Death of a Loved One?
Published by Jeffrey Weima
Professor of New Testament
“God must be disappointed with me.”
Those words were spoken by Wilma, a member of the church where I was serving as interim pastor. Her husband had recently passed away from pancreatic cancer and on one of my visits to this new widow she stated those memorable words: “God must be disappointed with me.” At first I was puzzled by Wilma’s comment, since she was a fine Christian woman who always exhibited the virtues of a Spirit-filled life. The situation became clearer when she went on to say: “I know that Bill is in a better place now. I know that I should be happy that his suffering is over. But I just miss him so, so much.” Not only was Wilma grieving the death of her husband which was traumatic enough, even worse, she was feeling guilty about grieving the death of her husband.
This situation raises an important pastoral question: Are Christians allowed to grieve the death of a loved one? Or are such expressions of grief evidence of a weak faith that somehow disappoints God?
One key text relevant for this question is Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonian Church: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). This verse has been wrongly understood in a way that prohibits grief in the context of death—that the apostle is exhorting the believers in Thessalonica not to be like their pagan neighbors who mourn the death of others. Over the years, I have met several Christians who mistakenly have the idea that tears and expressions of grief when a loved one dies undermines the Gospel claims about the blessings that await those who die in the Lord.
Even a quick review of other biblical texts, however, demonstrates the error of such thinking. That Paul here in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 is not prohibiting grief in the context of death is obvious from his words to the Philippians that, if the helper, Epaphroditus, whom they had sent to assist the apostle, had died from his illness, Paul would have had “sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2:27). The appropriateness of grief in the context of death is also clear from Paul’s general exhortation to the Romans to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). It is further supported by the apostle’s identification of death as “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). Paul, no doubt, knew the story of how Jesus wept over the death of his dear friend Lazarus. And when the crowd saw the tears of Jesus for his deceased friend, they did not respond by saying, “See what little faith he has!” or “God must be disappointed in him!” They instead rightly interpreted the grief of Jesus as a powerful expression of his love for Lazarus. As John 11:35-36 states, “Jesus wept. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’”
There is no justification anywhere in Scripture for Christians to gloss over the pain of death and glibly utter pious phrases about the deceased “being in a better place.” Tears and other expressions of grief by believers in these situations are not evidence of a weak faith but only of a great love. The difference, then, between the way that Christ-followers versus non-Christians respond to the death of a loved one has nothing to do with how many tears are shed. The difference is that Christ-followers grieve with hope—a confident expectation that our deceased loved one is not only now with the Lord which is “gain” (Phil. 1:21) and “far better” (Phil. 1:23) but also will be resurrected and reunited with us on the great and glorious day of Christ’s return (1 Thess. 4:14-18).
Visit Calvin Theological Seminary’s Campus
We can’t wait to host you on campus! Schedule your visit today, or, if you need more time to find a date that works for you, please request information so we can continue the conversation about supporting your calling!