Saturday, 16 February 2013

Please Accept My Condolences, Not My Opinions

"Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his saints."
Psalm 116:15

Have you ever noticed that the older we get, the more the subject of our mortality comes up? It never used to be that way. As a matter of fact, throughout my 20’s and maybe 30’s too, I doubt I ever thought about it much at all. I was, after all, young and still had the better part of my life ahead of me. To think of my own death and mortality in those years might even have seemed bizarre, unnatural and maybe even, somewhat unhealthy. But now that I am well into my 50’s, and now that some of my own generation seems to be finding their way into the obituaries with greater regularity, I cannot help but think more on my own mortality as well.

Having been to a few funerals again lately (two in as many weeks, and a third friend having just passed away in another province), I was reminded of a couple things that people say at difficult times like that. What are those sayings? We often hear people say things like, “They’re in a better place now,” or “there is no more pain,” or perhaps, “they are now smiling on that great golf course in the sky,” or some other earthly activity that the deceased used to enjoy doing.

But are these things that we tell each other at funerals and memorial services really true? Oh, I know why we do it; we want to try and offer comfort to one another during those difficult times. Doing so is admirable. But if the things we say in an attempt to comfort each other are false, is it right to continue saying them? Do the ends justify the means? Do we really believe what we’re saying, because if we don’t, are we not being deceptive and dishonest, despite our good intentions? And if so, call it what we will, but are we not then essentially lying to one another? Could there be a better way to express our condolences?

Is it all simply subjective?

For many of us, the whole “life after death” question is based on large part on biblical teachings, and thus, on faith. Having said that, we can either accept those teachings, we can outright reject those teachings, or we can modify them by way of our own interpretation - thus rejecting the interpretation of others - to essentially give us what, as the Apostle Paul so bluntly put it, our “itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). Those are pretty much the choices we have before us when it comes to any biblical teachings. In the end, regardless which way with look at what the Bible says on the subject, it still comes down to our own personal faith and beliefs on the matter.

Likewise, many eastern religions and cults also have some pretty different ideas on life after death, but we won’t get into those here. Suffice it to say that, perhaps in the end, maybe the whole life after death question is simply a subjective one after all. If it all comes down to faith, regardless of the religion, is that not then subjectivity?

Obviously all of us will die one day. That much is a given. No one gets out of this world alive. As the old saying goes, “the only certainty in life is death and taxes.” The question, however, is one of what happens after that. A friend of mine used to say, “You haven’t been to heaven and back, and I haven’t been to hell and back, so we don’t really know.” That much is true. So how do we know then if the things we tell one another concerning life after death are true or false? Again, ultimately it comes down to a question of personal faith.

The Traditional Christian View

Using the Bible as a guide on the subject, the traditional Christian view holds that there is hope for a resurrection of the dead for all of us, regardless of our faith or lack of it. But here is where it gets complicated for many. The Bible also says that some will rise to life (heaven, glory, etc.) whereas others will rise to face judgment (hell, wrath of God, etc.). The Bible speaks of both eternal and everlasting bliss and joy in the presence of the Lord, but also of eternal and everlasting punishment, agony, and separation from the Lord. According to the way Christians have historically interpreted the Bible, our personal destiny depends upon Jesus and our personal choice of either accepting or rejecting Him as God’s only means of reconciling the world to Himself. We either accept that assertion, or we reject it; but I doubt we ever really see ourselves on some sort of spiritual middle ground.

The Question of Hell

Regardless what the Bible actually says, many dismiss the hell option because they feel it inconsistent with the loving nature of God. But God is love, and God proved His love for us on Calvary. The offer to receive His love is open to all, and He does desire that all of us do just that, but in the end, He lets us choose. However, if we chose to reject that love, and assuming that hell is a real place, then is it not then logical to assume that, if we also end up there, the fault is ours alone and not God’s? Having said that, is it not logical to assume that, if we end up in hell, we do so by default through our own choosing?

For me personally, the argument to reject the hell option simply based upon the love of God is itself illogical. Doing so speaks to me of people who want to do what they want to do, all the while taking no responsibilities for their own actions. Doing so also speaks to me of how we seem to have believed the devil’s lie by downplaying, or outright eliminating, the concept and need for repentance. But then again, that’s maybe just my own view and interpretation of the Bible on this subject. In the end, I won’t argue the point here.

A Parable by Jesus on Hell 
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.  
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’  
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’  
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’  
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’  
“ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’  
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ “ (Luke 16: 19-31; NIV).

What If We’re Wrong?

So when we say of the dearly departed, “They’re in a better place now,” or “there is no more pain,” are we being truthful? Certainly we all want to believe that we are, but what if we’re wrong? Is it possible that just maybe, “they’re NOT in a better place now,” or maybe, “there IS more pain,” and maybe even more than there ever was before? What a horrible thought! Still, those teachings can, and have been, developed from the pages of the Bible by many well-meaning Christians. Are they wrong? Are they right? Eventually we may each have to wrestle that question for ourselves.
“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’” (Lamentations 3: 21-24; NIV).

Peace with God

In the end, I suppose it comes down to the fact that we each need to make peace with that question for ourselves. In the end, it comes down to the fact that what each of us really needs, is to make our personal peace with God. Only then will we not have to concern ourselves with this difficult subject any more. Only then can we really begin living, knowing that whatever the future really holds, it is God alone who holds it.

Would I ever say anything at a funeral or memorial service to correct what I perceived was an error by others who believed differently than I do about such things? Of course not! That would not be the time or the place. Perhaps there is never really a suitable time or place for that discussion. Why? Because of the pain and the hurt that so easily comes along with it. Again, as my friend once said, “You haven’t been to heaven and back, and I haven’t been to hell and back, so we don’t really know.” The fact is, as in all walks of life, there are also lots of opinions concerning death and the possibility of life after it.

It’s OK to have our own opinions on these things, and like all of us, I have my own too. But it’s not always OK to share them, and sometimes, our opinions and views are quite uncalled for. As a matter of fact, Paul’s words to the Romans may apply here too. He said, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God” (Romans 14:22; ESV). In context, this verse falls in a section in which Paul deals with ensuring that we maintain a spirit of peace and mutual edification with one another, and especially so in areas in which we may find ourselves thinking a little differently on certain subjects. Perhaps we all would do well to ask God to give us wisdom to know when to shut up and offer a heart-felt hug, instead of only our divisive and often painful opinions. Just a thought.

The Bottom Line

Are we acting in love, and especially toward those who are grieving? At my friend’s memorial service recently I was asked to read 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter that has often been called “the love chapter.” Though we’ve often heard portions of it read at weddings, somehow it seems very appropriate on the sensitive subject of offering our condolences towards those who mourn.
 “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 
“Love is patient and kind; it does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 
“Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (ESV).

Discussion Questions:
  • If the deceased clearly did not believe in God or have faith in the Lord Jesus, is it lying on our part if we speak of them as being “in a better place now” or as having “no more pain?” If so, are such little “white lies” justified under the circumstances?
  • Can God still be a God of love and allow for the hell option? 
  • Is the ultimate choice of eternity yours and mine? 
  • How do we reconcile differences of biblical interpretation?
  • Does “Love” really trump all opinions, religious or otherwise, of man?

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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