I'm sure you've seen it too. You go to a funeral of someone who was a devout Christian who lived a full and rich life, and its an incredibly somber and subdued occasion. You would think the person went straight to Hell to judge from the reaction of the congregation. What in the world is going on, and who exactly are these folks grieving for? How exactly should we react when a loved one gets promoted into the living presence of God? And is the wrong sort of grieving a reflection of an inadequate faith in what comes next? If the deceased has gone to join the choir eternal and is in the arms of Jesus himself why exactly is everyone reacting as if that person no longer existed or had had something terribly tragic happen to them? These are the kinds of questions we should ask on such occasions.
Let's start with the obvious. Paul says in 1 Cor. 15 that for people who believe in the future resurrection of the faithful, which involves a resurrection like Christ's own, that they should not be grieving like pagans who have no hope. How then do we grieve as people who do have hope? You will notice that Paul doesn't suggest we should not grieve.
Of course if there is someone we deeply love who dies, we are going to grieve. That's only natural. We will miss them. There will be a void in our lives, and so on. But if we truly believe they've gone to a better place, then it needs to be said that grieving while natural, is something we are doing for ourselves! That is-- we are mourning or bemoaning our own loss. In other words, we are not grieving FOR the deceased, because they are indeed in the presence of the Lord, we are grieving because we miss them, because we have a void in our lives and so on.
Let me explain it this way. Pagan grieving is often two sided. You genuinely are grieving for the deceased because you believe either: 1) they have ceased to exist altogether; 2) they have not gone to a better place but quite possibly to a worse one, one less full of life and love and joy. But Christian grieving should never be two sided. It should never be other centered on the deceased, rather than self-centered. And here's a general rule. We should never mourn for long the loss of something self-centered, what ever it is. That's just feeling sorry for ourselves, and however natural, it is a selfish, self-centered thing that Christians should have enough hope and trust to get beyond. Of course if it is someone you deeply love you don't get over it--- rather you get beyond it. Is your trust in God deep enough, is your hope in the future and the afterlife strong enough that you can unmask the impostor called self-centered grieving if it goes on too long?
When I was pastoring four churches at once, I had a lot of widows and some widowers to minister to. Now many of them were living in the past. They felt like their life had basically ended when their spouse died. And yet many of them were devoutly Christian. The more time I spent with them I realized that this was a mixed and mixed up situation. The grieving had gone on far too long, and it had become a pity party. Some of it of course reflected how much they loved and missed the deceased. But if you probed deeper you discovered that some of it reflected they were still feeling sorry for themselves, and in fact they had an inadequate trust and belief in what comes next-- in the other world and the afterlife as it concerns devout Christians? Why had this happened?
There are probably a plethora of factors, but there are two I'd like to share: 1) these folks had not had good enough and vibrant enough teaching about the afterlife to make it seem real to them, rather than a vague possibility or distant hope; 2) their teaching about the grace of God was inadequate such that they believed they had to earn a spot in heaven, and they were doubtful they had done enough; 3) on the other end of the spectrum was a very different religion that had been pounded into their psyche by the culture. It's the religion that says "This life is all there is" or "You only go around once in life so you need to grab for all the gusto you can get", or "He who dies with the most toys wins" and so on.
Unfortunately in a secular society the default religion is a religion of hospitals, doctors, and medicine because the mantra is-- this life is all there is, so you must prop it up, rescue it, and delay the inevitable as long as humanly possible. Never mind that this sometimes leads to the bankrupting of whole families, who are guilted into shelling out top dollar so an ancient person can live six more months.
Well I am hear to say as a Christian---THIS LIFE IS NOT ALL THERE IS. In fact, this life is not even the best of all there is. The future is as bright as the promises of God. And if you really believe that, such a belief should effect everything in your life ranging from what medical decisions you make towards the end of a life (e.g. is this procedure prolonging the living or just prolonging the dying of a person who is after all on the way to Jesus) to how you grieve once the person is dead.
Our theology of everlasting life ought to permeate all our thinking and affect all sorts of decision making. For one thing it should cause us to realize that we need not prop up this life at all costs to a family and their resources. We should honestly not want our families to do this for us, and we should say so. But back to our original subject for a moment. Grieving is for the living, and if it is about a Christian, if it goes on too long, then it is an act of selfishness, not an act of a person who wishes the best for the deceased: 1) the deceased wouldn't want us to be grieving if they are with the Lord; 2) in any case they are coming back at the resurrection as is true of all those who are in Christ; and 3) grieving as one who has no hope is not only self-centered, it can be a reflection of lack of faith-- a profound spiritual problem.
So what does proper grieving look like? Well the funeral in the first place should be a celebration of the life of the deceased. The minister should neither attempt to preach the person into heaven or hell. It's too late for that. Funerals are actually mainly for the living, so they can get some closure on things, and Christian funerals ought to be joyful occasions, not filled with funeral dirges and continually long faces. They should of course be occasions when people are allowed the catharsis of grieving and accepting that the person is dead, but at the same time such a service should be permeated by joy, by celebration, by bearing witness to happy moments with the deceased and so on. It should be like the sense of excitement and anticipation that happens at the launch of astronauts into space-- they are going into a far country and we can't go with them, but we can be happy for them, not only because they are likely coming back, but also because the journey into the far country will enrich them, be good for them.
The dead in Christ are now immune to sin, suffering, and sorrow. The dead in Christ are immune to disease, decay, and death. They are in a place where God can wipe away the tears from every eye. HALLELUAH. This is worth celebrating. We commit them into the ground "ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection". Indeed. I agree that a Christian funeral of someone deeply loved will be a bittersweet occasion. Grieving and closure should happen, but joy should burst out as well to show us the way to get beyond the grief. Joyful grieving is not an oxymoron-- it's the Christian way to grieve, such that finally the joy overrules and gets one beyond the grieving.
So back to Paul for a minute. Paul thinks that what we believe about the future resurrection should change our whole approach to grieving. We should not grieve like the pagans who have no hope, because we have a living one. We have a Lord who not merely gives resurrection he IS the resurrection and the life, and anyone who clings to him will find that its contagious-- we derive life and resurrection from him, from being close to and holding on to him. If you have no joy in your religion, if joy does not permeate the way you look at both life, and that old impostor death , then you have a leak in your Christianity somewhere, and its time to go in for a check up with a counselor or pastor.
Night does not last forever, and joy comes in the morning. Easter morning. And we are supposed to be Easter people living in a Good Friday world. When people look at the way you live and the way you die, will they be able to tell you are an Easter person? One of the profound truths about Christianity is that it does not deny the reality of suffering and death, it simply says there are greater forces in this world. God's yes to life, is louder than death's no. Death has been dealt with in the present not by its denial, nor even by it ceasing to happen, but by it being transcended, much as human weakness can be transcended in a human life by grace. As Paul learned "God's power is made perfect in our weakness". So will you let the power of a great hope and a great joy transform the way you grieve and the way you look at both life and death? I would hope so. I would truly hope so.
And one more thing. We need to stop talking about lost loved ones if they are Christians. They are not lost. We might feel at a loss, but they are not lost. They've simply gone on to the next stage of life. They've gotten a promotion. They are indeed in a better place. Why in the world would we begrudge them that, or mourn that?