Go Ahead and Grieve

1 And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. 4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralysed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.  (Acts 8:1-8)
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 Thessalonians 4:13)
The past eighteen months have been pretty difficult for all of us. How do you think the Lord wants you to respond to that pain right now? It is easy for us to feel, as Christians, that we need to be jolly and chirpy about everything. Doesn’t the Apostle Paul tell us in Philippians 4 to “Rejoice in the Lord always”? Yes, but have you noticed that he also tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 that it is OK for us to grieve? He warns us not to grieve like nonbelievers, who have no hope, but he doesn’t command us not to grieve at all. Just take a look at some of the Psalms! Some things in life are so painful that the only Christian response is for us to grieve deeply, yet hopefully.

I have an elderly friend whose husband died several years ago. They had been married since the late 1940s, and she was naturally devastated. Fortunately, she had a large group of friends who rallied round to support her, but one of them grew very impatient with her in her grief. Why was she so upset?, her friend demanded. Didn’t she realise that her husband was now with Jesus in a far better place? Why wasn’t she rejoicing in the knowledge that he was now free from his worn-out body and enjoying the delights of heaven? Whether she meant to or not, the friend was serving a side-plate of guilt to a woman who was already choking on her main-dish of grief and loneliness. It was a well-intentioned act of cruelty.

The truth is, there is nothing wrong with Christians grieving at all. Acts 8:2 tells us that Stephen’s friends were being godly when they beat their chests in deep grief over his death. What is more, John 11 tells us that Jesus himself mourned deeply at the death of his close friend Lazarus. He wept so much outside Lazarus’ tomb that even the cynical crowds of Bethany exclaimed, “See how he loved him!” He was so moved as he drew near the dead man’s house, that John tells us literally that his spirit was “stirred up” within him and he “snorted with anger on the inside.” If Jesus treated death as a repugnant intruder, even when he knew that he was about to raise his friend back to life again anyway, then there can be nothing wrong with Christians today grieving deeply and in agony over those they love. We, above all people, know that humans were never created to die in this way, so perhaps we should even grieve more than unbelievers who don’t know any better. Since the Psalmist tells us that the death of believers is “precious in the sight of the Lord” (Psalm 116:15) we should not be browbeaten into thinking we honour him by treating their deaths as less precious than he does.

The reason we fall for this muddled way of thinking is that the insensitive comforter was not completely wrong. As Christians, we have more reason to grieve over death than unbelievers, but we also have more God-given insight to combine our deep grief with an even deeper hope. One of my friends is a very gifted professional artist, who he has felt unable to put brush to canvas for several years since the death of his young son to cancer. It is a privilege to watch him learn to live in the good of what Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” By God’s grace, he is learning to hope in the midst of grief and return to his painter’s easel. By God’s grace we can all learn to grieve with hope like him.

We can grieve with hope because we know that death is not the end, but the beginning. Just as Jesus rose from his heavenly throne to greet his battered martyr, Stephen, so too he rises to greet any of our loved ones who die in faith as his followers. My elderly friend’s husband was freed from his crippled legs the moment he died and his disembodied spirit rose to be with Christ in heaven. One day, when Jesus comes back, he will run with legs that will never grow old when he receives his resurrection body.

We can also grieve with hope because the Gospel gives life meaning, even when it is cut off in its prime. Stephen’s exit from life was tragic, as his spiteful enemies dashed his skull, but they could never rob his days of their meaning or significance. His untimely death was victory, not defeat, even as his name meant Victory-Crown in Greek. Stephen’s life had meaning even as he lay dying because he sowed seeds of future salvation in the heart of Saul of Tarsus who was watching from the sidelines. He had thrown away his life as a willing pawn in the great chess-game of Church history, and God ensured that his sacrifice checkmated the Devil across the Roman Empire.

We can also grieve with hope because “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). When the godly King Josiah died, the whole of Judah mourned so deeply for him that the prophet Jeremiah composed laments for them to sing for many years to come. Nevertheless, God sent the prophetess Huldah to announce that his untimely death was in fact an act of mercy. The Lord had blessed him with an early grave to spare him from the judgment which was coming on his land (2 Kings 22:19-20, Isaiah 57:1-2). Luke doesn’t tell us why God saved the lives of the apostles in Acts 5 but not the life of Stephen in Acts 7, but simply hints that it was a blessing and not a curse for the young deacon. Like the Old Testament hero Samson, who did more in the purposes of God through his death than he ever did through his life, Stephen’s death drove the Christians out of Jerusalem and planted churches throughout Judea, Samaria, Phoenicia, Antioch and Cyprus. Even when loved ones die young and in the most baffling of circumstances, we can grieve with hope because our God can bless his People, even in death.

So let’s grieve for those who die, and let’s do so with clear conscience, knowing that we are following in the footsteps of Jesus and the godly friends of Stephen. Let’s grieve deeply and for as long as we need to, but let’s always grieve with hope. Death is not the end and neither is it always tragic. Because we follow the extraordinary God, even days of grief can be days filled with everlasting hope.
1)   What saddens you most when you look back on the past 18 months?

2)   How much have you spent time grieving those things? How much have you pushed it to one side, soldiering on because you think that being a Christian means being perpetually positive?

3)  How can the verses that we have read today together help you to “grieve with hope”? How does the example of the Psalmists help us to express our grief in godly ways to the Lord in our prayers?
Today we have not written a prayer for you to pray. Instead, we invite you to pray your own prayer of lament to God, confessing your grief over the events of the past year, while expressing an even deeper hope in him.
Today’s Everyday Devotions were brought to you by Phil Moore, who leads our team of whole-church elders.

If you have time, consider carrying on your conversation with God using one of our helpful Prayer Pathways.

Today’s Everyday Devotions have also inspired a devotional video that you can watch on our YouTube channel.