In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul tells us that he does not want us to grieve over death like those “who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
What does that mean for us? Is a Christian not supposed to cry when a loved one dies? Is a believer expected to ‘suck it up’ and trust that ‘everything happens for a reason’? Are God’s children not allowed to admit to the pain of a broken heart?
It is not by mistake that the Bible records that Jesus cried at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35). It is okay for Christians to cry. Indeed, it is right for a Christian to grieve with a depth of sorrow over the hole that is pierced into one’s heart by the death of a loved one.
In their book When You Can’t Come Back, Dave & Jan Dravecky point out, “Katherine Patterson wrote the Newbery-Award-winning children’s book, Bridge to Terabithia, because of a loss that her son David suffered. The loss was the death of his best friend, a girl named Lisa. Katherine Patterson describes the effect of that loss on her son: ‘But he is not fully healed. Perhaps he will never be, and I am beginning to believe that this is right. How many people in their whole lifetimes have a friend who is to them what Lisa was to David? When you have had such a gift, should you ever forget it? Of course he will forget a little. Even now he is making other friendships. His life will go on, though hers could not. And selfishly I want his pain to ease. But how can I say that I want him to “get over it,” as though having loved and been loved were some sort of disease? I want the joy of knowing Lisa and the sorrow of losing her to be a part of him and to shape him into growing levels of caring and understanding.’”
Earl Grollman adds, “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
When Paul encourages us not to grieve like those “who have no hope,” he is not advocating the absence of grief, but he is inviting us to a different kind of grief. We can grieve with deep sorrow over the hole that is left in our heart by the death of the person we love, and we can grieve with confidence that the One who gave His life to conquer death is graciously caring for the one who is now out of our sight. We can grieve with confidence that the One who rose from the dead has raised our loved one to new and eternal and glorious life.
In his book, Till Armageddon, Billy Graham tells the story of a widow and her son who lived in a miserable attic. Years before, she had married against her parents’ wishes and had gone with her husband to live in a foreign land. He had proved to be unfaithful and irresponsible. After a few years, he deserted her without leaving any provision for her and the child. It was with the utmost difficulty that she managed to scrape together the bare necessities of life.
The happiest times in the child’s life were when his mother took him in her arms and told him about her father’s house in the old country. She told him of the grassy lawn, the noble trees, the wild flowers, the lovely pictures, and the delicious meals. The child had never seen his grandfather’s home, but to him it was the most beautiful place in the world. He longed for the chance to go there to live.
One day the mail carrier knocked at the attic door. The mother recognized the handwriting on the letter he brought. With trembling fingers, she broke the seal. There was a check and a slip of paper with just two words, “Come home.”
Someday a similar experience will be ours—an experience shared by all who know Christ. Someday a loving hand will be laid on our shoulder, and this brief message will be given: “Come home.”
A Christian can grieve with deep sorrow over the loss of a loved one from our lives and with the confidence and peace that our loved one has been invited to “Come home.”
God wants people to come to know Him. The way He pursues this goal is through us. God’s strategy is to draw people to Himself by entering the lives of His children—those who believe in Him—and drawing others to Himself through what people see in us.
That strategy worked for me. As a young man, I got to know some Christians who revealed the character of Christ to me through their lives. I saw in them the love and joy and goodness and hope and peace of Christ. Because of what I saw in them, I was drawn to Christ.
This is one reason why the Bible so often calls us to love others. When Christians graciously, courageously, genuinely, and compassionately love people, individuals experience God’s love in a personal way and are drawn to Him.
Christians need to face the fact that people form their opinion of God based on what they see in us.
While commenting on Paul’s remarks in 1st Thessalonians 4:12 about the impact our behavior has on “outsiders,” William Barclay writes, “A tree is known by its fruits; and a religion is known by the kind of [people] it produces. The only way to demonstrate that Christianity is the best of all faiths is to prove that it produces the best of all [people]. When we Christians prove that our Christianity makes us better workmen, truer friends, kinder men and women, then and only then are we really preaching. The important thing is not words but deeds, not oratory but life. The outside world never comes into a Church to hear a sermon, but the outside world sees us every day outside the Church; and it is our lives which must be the sermon to win [people] for Christ.”
In 1873, a Belgian Catholic priest named Joseph Damien de Veuster was sent to minister to lepers on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. When he arrived he worked at meeting each of the lepers in the hopes of building friendships. He built a chapel and conducted worship services, but the people remained cold toward him, uncertain if they could trust him. After 12 years, Father Damien considered giving up and leaving Molokai. One morning, though, before the daily worship service, while pouring some hot water into a cup, the water swirled out and fell onto Father Damien’s bare foot. It took him a moment to realize that he had felt no pain. He poured more hot water on his foot to verify his experience. Again he felt nothing, and he understood that he, too, had contracted leprosy.
In every worship service up to that point he had begun the service with the greeting, “My fellow believers.” But that day he said, “My fellow lepers.” Quickly, word of his condition spread throughout the island. The next morning when Father Damien arrived at the chapel he was met by hundreds of worshipers. By the time the service began, the chapel was completely filled. Father Damien’s ministry on Molokai became extremely successful. The reason? He was one of them. They knew that he understood and sympathized with them.
When it comes to caring for people, we may not have all the solutions, but that’s all right. The most critical issue is this: Are we willing to come alongside others and love them?
That’s what will draw others to Christ.
Why does the Bible care so much about holiness?
Much of the world thinks that holiness is a waste, that holiness stifles life and detracts from joy.
In his book, The Fight, John White shares a list of images that often come to people’s minds when they hear the word “holiness”:
- Hollow-eyed gauntness
- Long robes
- Stone cells
- No sex
- No jokes
- Frequent cold baths
- Hours of prayer
- Getting up at 4 a.m.
- Clean fingernails
But from God’s perspective, it is holiness that truly makes us human.
Many years ago, a man wrote to a newspaper advice column, “Dear Abby, I am in love and I am having an affair with two different women. I can’t marry them both. Please tell me what to do, but don’t give me any of that morality stuff.”
Abby wrote back, “Dear Sir, the only difference between humans and animals is morality. Please write to a veterinarian.”
From God’s perspective holiness (morality) is what makes us human (beings created in the likeness of God), and from God’s perspective holiness is actually what leads to the abundance of life rather than detracting from the quality of life.
Jesus tries to make that clear to us in John 15:10-11: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in His love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete!”
David Seamands observes, “The word evil is the word live spelled backwards. It is life attempting to live against itself. And that can’t be done…it is an attempt to live against the nature of reality and get away with it. It is an attempt at the impossible. The result is inevitable—breakdown and frustration.” (Freedom from the Performance Trap, p. 192)
From God’s perspective, immorality corrupts and squelches life; holiness enriches life!
It could be said that holiness is to unholiness what
- whole is to broken
- clean is to polluted
- healthy is to diseased
- fresh is to spoiled
- true is to counterfeit
- full is to empty
- abounding is to inadequate
No wonder the Bible cares so much about holiness. God cares that much about us.
Though I have been a Christian for almost 50 years, when it comes to the matter of prayer, I still have a lot to learn, and I find it helpful to learn how to pray from those whom I look upon as “masters” of prayer—people like David and Moses and Habakkuk and Paul.
My prayers easily sink to the level of trite and trivial, or to shallow and selfish. But when I look at the prayers of these “masters,” I discover better things to pray for on behalf of those whom I care about.
Nearly all of Paul’s letters include a rich expression of what he prays for on behalf of the people he writes to. For example, in 1st Thessalonians 3:9-13, Paul prays about four things that I want to incorporate more fully into my prayers:
1: In verse 9, Paul expresses how he thanks God for the joy the Thessalonians have brought to his life.
Gratitude is an incredibly powerful force, changing us from the inside out.
Brother David Steindl-Rast states, “The root of joy is gratefulness…. It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.” It is not surprising that Paul expresses both gratitude and joy in his prayer for the Thessalonians. Gratitude and joy go together.
Thornton Wilder adds, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” It is gratitude which makes us conscious of our treasures which makes us come alive!
When we recognize the “treasure” that others are in our lives, and when we express our gratitude for them, our love for them and bond with them is deepened.
No wonder Paul so frequently articulates his gratitude for others. What a great element to add to my prayers for those whom I care about.
2: In verse 10, Paul writes about how he prays most earnestly night and day to be able to see them face to face and to “restore whatever is lacking in your faith.”
Paul’s prayer is that God will give him an opportunity to be of help and encouragement to them.
In his inaugural address, John Kennedy stated, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Often our prayers focus on asking God to do things for us. What a great thing it would be if our prayers began to ask God to give us opportunity and wisdom to be of help and encouragement to others.
3: In verse 12, Paul asks God to make the Thessalonians “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”
Since 1 John 4:16 stresses that “God is love,” when we pray for a person’s love to increase and abound, we are actually praying for that person to live more fully in God, and for God to live more deeply in that person. Can there be any greater prayer than that?
Geoff Gorsuch remarks, “The question to ask at the end of life’s race is not so much, ‘What have I accomplished?’ but, ‘Whom have I loved, and how courageously?’” So when we pray for a person’s love to increase and abound, our prayer is addressing the most important question of life.
4: In verse 13, Paul prays for God to strengthen their hearts in holiness.
Susanna Wesley captures well the truth about the Christian faith. She writes, “There are two things to do about the gospel: Believe it and behave it.” Our faith is not just about believing certain doctrine, but about living out our faith. So our prayers for one another ought to include prayers for integrity in how we live. Desmond Tutu stressed, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
What a great way that would be to pray for those whom I care about: That God would strengthen their hearts so that they behave the gospel and overwhelm the world with their “little bit of good.”