This life is full of loss and full of grief. Though there are times we experience great swells of joy, we also experience deep depths of sorrow. No sorrow is deeper than the sorrow of loss. At such times it is important to consider how Christians grieve. Christ has Lordship over all of life, even grief. The gospel informs all we do, including our grieving. When dealing with the loss of a fellow believer, it is a privilege to grieve in a distinctly Christian way—to grieve in one way instead of being left to grieve in another way.
What is that way? How do Christians grieve? Paul provides helpful instruction and begins with these words: “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” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
The first thing is this: Grieve! It’s good and right to grieve. We grieve genuinely and unapologetically. Death is tragic; death is sorrowful; it is good to grieve and this text gives us permission to do so. While it’s always important to ask “what does a text say?” it’s equally important to ask, “what does a text not say?” In this verse Paul could have said something like, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve.” He could have ended his sentence there are forbidden all grief. He could have been a good Stoic and insisted that Christians must not waste their time and emotional energy in crying. But no, he doesn’t say that. He doesn’t tell us we must not grieve at all. Rather, he tells us we must not grieve in a certain way. There is a way that Christians must grieve. What is that way?
Grieve hopefully. When Paul says, “you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” he is really saying something like, “we grieve, but not in the same way as all those other people who have no hope.” Or, “even though we do grieve, we grieve differently from those other hopeless people.” Again, we see there’s a distinctly Christian way to express grief. We must not grieve like unbelievers do. What is this Christian form of grieving? Christians experience grief but without despair, sorrow but without defeat, sadness but without hopelessness. It’s true sorrow and true hope. These things don’t cancel out one another. We feel the great weight of sorrow and the great thrill of hope. In moments of deep sadness, we feel both. But why? How? How is it that we can have hope?
The reason we have hope is that Christians grieve temporarily. We grieve genuinely but hopefully because we grieve temporarily. Our grief will come to an end. Paul proves this by pointing back in time, then pointing forward: “For since we believe that [in the past] Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will [in the future] bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Paul anchors future hope in past reality. He first points back in time to the historical events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus truly died and truly returned to life and his resurrection is a promise, a proof, and a down payment that we, too, will return to life. What happened to him will happen to us. If it wasn’t for Jesus we’d have no hope! But Jesus rose so we have the greatest hope!
Having pointed back, Paul points forward. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” He goes from the past to the future. He points forward to the time when Christ will return. He points forward to the time when the great promise will be fulfilled. At that time those who are dead and those who are alive will be reunited. They will be united to Jesus and live together forever. Here is how the passage continues: “The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” Our hope for the future is that we will be with the Lord. We will be with the Lord together and forever. Those who have gone before and those who remain will be reunited in the presence of Jesus Christ.
While our loved ones have left us, they have not ceased to be. They’ve simply gone on ahead. Because Jesus rose again, they will rise again. Because Jesus conquered death, they will conquer death. Because Jesus lives, they live. And so we grieve. We grieve in times of loss and our grief may last many days, weeks, or years. The pain is real, the sorrow is real, so the grief is real. But we grieve hopefully because we are convinced we grieve temporarily. No wonder, then, Paul concludes in this way: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”