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I remember attending a funeral at a cemetery in North Delhi many years ago. After the service, I made my way around the cemetery looking at the tombstones, when I came upon one that had these words inscribed, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Those words were deeply comforting and real at that moment. These are the words that the Lord Jesus spoke to Martha in John 11:25 as she grieved the death of her brother Lazarus.
The loss of a loved one is one of the most difficult experiences every person is likely to face in life. It is a sobering reality of life that people, even those close to us, die. These past few months have made this abundantly clear to all of us. From mid-April to mid-May 2021 there was hardly a day that went by without news of someone we knew who had lost a loved one. Those were tragic and exceedingly difficult days.
The account of John 11 gives us perspective on grief and how we might comfort those who are going through the loss of a loved one. Here are three key observations:
1. It Is Ok To Grieve
When the Lord Jesus arrived at Bethany after hearing of Lazarus’ illness and death, he met a grieving family and community. Not once does He forbid them from weeping over their brother and friend who had died. Neither does He rebuke them.
In fact, we read that when Jesus saw them weeping, He was “deeply moved in His spirit” and “greatly troubled” (Jn. 11:33). There is some discussion about what these words mean1, but the context makes it clear that Jesus was grieved over the way sin had infected and affected His creation leading to this kind of despair and deep sorrow. This makes sense, because a few minutes later as He is led to the tomb, we read that Jesus Himself wept. The shortest verse in the Bible speaks of one of the most profound ways in which Christ relates with us. He is a “man of sorrows” and “acquainted with grief” (Isa.53:3).
We sometimes have an expectation that people should be “strong” and not grieve. We urge them to stop weeping. Some might even go to the extreme of thinking that Christians should not grieve the death of a loved one, because it somehow shows a lack of faith.
John 11 makes it clear that we ought to allow people who have suffered the loss of a loved one to grieve. In fact, it is better they express their emotions of grief rather than suppress their emotions. This will enable them to cope better with the loss.
Grief is a normal human emotion in this fallen world. It is an expression of pain, sorrow and deep anguish that things have gone in a way that simply does not feel natural and right. Death is not normal, even though it occurs all the time. One day there will be no death. That is what God’s good creation is meant to be. So, we grieve because things are not the way they should be.
2. Grieve With Those Who Grieve
We weep with those who weep because it helps us empathize with them just as Jesus “enters into the pain of those He loves,” when He weeps with them. In a passage that is all about our love for others, Paul says in Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” In 1 Corinthians 12:26 he writes, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” This is what compassion, empathy, and love for one another looks like.
If you know of a person who has lost a loved one, you do not need to say much, but simply be present with them. Job’s friends made the mistake of attempting to answer the grief he was going through with words and explanations. What Job needed the most was for them to grieve with him and to be present with him. Your presence speaks volumes of your compassion and empathy.
3. Grieve In Hope
We are not simply talking about the doctrine of eternal life here. Martha believed in the resurrection of the dead as a doctrine (Jn. 11:24), but the Lord Jesus was focussing her attention on Him, by asking her if she believed in Him. Jesus was pointing to Himself, “the resurrection and life,” as the One she should hope in. The “Author of life” (Acts 3:15) would defeat death on the cross through His own death and resurrection. We read in Scripture that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life (Jn. 3:15; 3:36; 5:24; 20:21; 1 Jn 5:11, 12).
Eternal life is much more than a doctrine. It is a certain hope that we have in the One who has gone through death, defeated it, and now invites us into His own incorruptible, imperishable, and eternal life. Though we may face death ourselves or lose a loved one, our hope is in the resurrection of those who have put their faith in Christ. And so, we may grieve, but we do so in hope.
Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14, “But 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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
1 The Greek word translated “deeply moved” in the ESV can also be translated “angered,” and connotes anger or sternness. This Greek verb is used only five time in the NT, each time of the Lord’s words of feelings: Matt. 9:30; Mark 1:43; 14:5; John 11:33, 38. Edwin A. Blum in the Bible Knowledge Commentary says this about these words. “Why was Jesus angry? Some have argued that He was angry because of the people’s unbelief or hypocritical wailing. But this seems foreign to the context. A better explanation is that Jesus was angry at the tyranny of Satan who had brought sorrow and death to people through sin (cf. John 8:44; Heb. 2:14-15). Also Jesus was troubled (etaraxen, lit., ‘stirred’ or ‘agitated,’ like the pool water in John 5:7; cf. 12:27; 13:21; 14:1, 27). This disturbance was because of His conflict with sin, death, and Satan.”
2 Alasdair Groves podcast on the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) - https://www.ccef.org/podcast/negative-emotions/