Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
In the previous article we remarked that the elders must not ignore the needs of the loved ones of the dying. They need to be prepared for the reality of the death of their loved one as much as or more than the dying person himself.
If this be true, and it is, certainly the elder must not ignore the bereaved. They need the comfort of the Word of God. They, the ones left behind when the Lord takes a loved one to glory, experience the loss of that loved one. The earthly relationship has been violently and finally and forever broken by “the last enemy” ( I Cor. 15:26). A wife loses her husband, a husband loses his wife. The widow or widower now “goes down life’s pathway alone”! Parents lose a dear child, or children are left by parents or grandparents. Or one’s beloved friend is taken by death.
Let no one be mistaken, certainly not the elders of Christ’s church, these losses are not easy to bear. Even those who appear to cope well with the loss of their dear ones often endure a great struggle. I recall one such widow in the churches who gave every indication of bearing up well with the loss of her husband. This dear saint said to me, and this was at least ten years after the Lord took her husband, “I cry a little every day.” Another, this one a widower, gave expression to his loneliness with this statement, “the walls don’t talk.” God’s bereaved people need the comfort of the gospel!
The needs may vary a bit. Some are shocked, benumbed by the sudden death of a loved one. Others are bitter and even angry with the Lord. Still others are withdrawn and depressed. Some are so overcome with grief that it is impossible for them to function normally in their life’s calling. Let the elder carefully listen to the bereaved so as to determine his/her needs. Let the elder listen sympathetically to the bereaved. In a real sense the elder cannot effectively bring God’s Word of comfort unless he “feels with” those who are grieving. Elders must not perform the duties of their office perfunctorily. Certainly they must not do this with the bereaved. Just as Jesus, our merciful High Priest, is touched with the feelings of our infirmities (Heb. 4:15), so must His servants, the elders, be touched with the feelings of God’s sorrowing children.
Still more, let the elders listen to the bereaved with much patience. Some of God’s people struggle with their loss for a long time. With some it takes months, even years, before a certain measure of recovery is attained. So the elders must be patient. And they must continue to bring the Word of God in the confidence that God’s Word will be of comfort to the sorrowing. God Himself says of His Word, “it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Is. 55:11).
Let the elders listen to the bereaved in the love of Christ. The motive must be to edify the sorrowing by bringing them the comfort of the gospel. That comfort is grounded in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, and that comfort is sealed by the victory of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead! Our sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. In the risen Jesus we have been raised to newness of life. Jesus by His death destroyed “him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And delivered them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). Because Jesus did this, “Our death is not a satisfaction for our sins, but only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism, L. D. 16).
Herein lies the comfort for God’s grieving children. When we die, we are forever freed from the bondage of sin. And when Jesus returns at the end of the ages our bodies will be raised and reunited with our souls. In those transformed, resurrected bodies we will enjoy, together with all the saints of God perfect fellowship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus the earthly relationships need to be broken in order that they may be restored in a new, heavenly relationship in the glory of the new creation. In this way the elders must bring the comfort of the gospel to the bereaved in the congregation.
Having made this point, however, it is often necessary to stress one great truth of the gospel to the bereaved, viz., that God’s way with us is always good. We may not, in fact often we do not, understand God’s way with us. Whether we understand it or not, God’s way with us is always good. It’s a way which prepares us for glory. This is God’s Word through the prophet, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is. 55:9, 10). In his or her grief, often the believer has to be satisfied with this Word. To us, God’s way can seem so wrong. A mother or a father is taken from a family of young children. A child or teenager is taken. In these instances we just do not understand why God does this. But we do believe that God’s way is good! The fact that God in His infinite love for us in Jesus and in His wonderful wisdom knows what is best for us is in the last analysis the believer’s comfort in his/her sorrows.
One caution is in order at this point. The elders must never neglect the grieving saints after the funeral. A week or so after the funeral is when the reality and the finality of the death of a loved one really hit hard. The busyness of making funeral arrangements, receiving comfort from the visits of loved ones and friends, and the taking care of other details—all this is over! Suddenly the widow or widower feels the full weight of the loss. She or he becomes extremely lonely. This is when the elders are needed most. Call on the bereaved. Continue to call on the bereaved for as long as it is necessary. Pray with them and bring them the gospel of their only comfort in life and in death.
The elders are also called upon to care for the chronically ill, the elderly, and the shut-ins of the congregation. This too requires careful, diligent preparation. In these instances the elder finds himself visiting the same person weekly or, perhaps, bi-monthly. The visits must not be repetitive. So the elder must take care in preparing to bring the Word of God on these visits, lest he repeat the same truths over and over again.
Those chronically ill or suffering from debilitating, lengthy illness can sometimes become very discouraged and even dissatisfied with God’s way with them. Let the elders with sympathetic understanding and patience bring encouraging words to them from the Scriptures. Sometimes, too, these folk find it very difficult, and in some instances impossible, to pray. While the elders must always include prayer when they visit the sick and bereaved, it is especially necessary to bring the prayer of faith to the chronically ill (cf. Jam. 5:13-15).
Shut-ins need the care of the elders too. They are cut off from the means of grace and the fellowship of the communion of the saints. This is a huge void in their lives. The regular worship of the Lord is what they so sorely miss. The elders, therefore, ought to visit them often. These ought to be visited once per week if at all possible. Often it’s a good practice for the elder to bring a summary of what was preached in one of the previous Sunday’s sermons. In this way the shut-ins are given a steady and varied diet of the Word of God. We might add that these visits often prove to be very pleasant, rewarding, and enriching for the elders. They often come away from a call on the shut-ins feeling more blessed than the one they visited!
The same is true when the elders minister to the elderly. Because of the frequency of the visits the elders often develop close friendship with the elderly. Not only so but also, simply because of their many years of experience in the church and in the “good fight of faith,” the older members of the church can be good teachers for the elders. The aged saints are often the elders’ wisest and best critics as well. This being the case, the elders do well to listen to these older members. By listening the elders not only learn from the aged members, but they also learn the specific needs of these saints. Thus the elders are enabled to bring a passage of Scripture appropriate to the specific need. Some need encouragement, others need comfort,. A few become somewhat disillusioned with the church and even embittered. These need the admonition of God’s Word. They must learn to be content in their old age.
All in all, most elders will testify to the fact that visiting and caring for the shut-ins and elderly of the church is one of the most enjoyable and blessed aspects of their task as overseers of Jesus’ precious flock.
The next article, D. V., will deal with the elders’ calling with regard to the widows in God’s church.