On behalf of many other godly pastors, I make a plea: Help us! We need your help in ministering to the grieving. Our prayers with the bereaved, our words at the funeral, and our care at the grave need to be complemented by your ministry. Our human limitations and inexcusable weaknesses even as we seek to comfort the brokenhearted necessitate your ministry. Your membership in the church, united to sorrowing members of Christ’s body, demands your ministry. “Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do” (I Thess. 5:11).
But how do we go about doing this without compounding the sorrow of those we attempt to comfort? One of the greatest hindrances to adequate care of the mourning is fear.1 We are afraid that we might elicit a response like Job’s: “Miserable comforters are ye all!” (Job 16:2). In order to alleviate such anxiety, the following is some advice for the body of Christ.
Be quietly present
After Job lost his ten children, his friends did one thing right: “They sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2:13). They soon ruined this good beginning, but nonetheless this was a good start. Sensing the greatness of his grief, they paused their busy lives. They traveled to be physically present, and they quietly listened.
Let us practice this simple yet necessary and initial step. Place a hold on your busy life. If at all possible, go to the side of the grieving and stick around for a while. As you make appropriate physical contact (for example, a gentle handshake, a touch of the shoulder or elbow, or a hug) you are saying with such a gesture, “I am here for you.” Since death brings about painful separation, simply accompany him who walks in that lonely valley of shadows by making yourself present.2 Be “swift to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). Especially immediately after death, let us not be quick to drop the words, “It was God’s will.” Though undoubtedly true, this often minimizes grief when spoken too soon or too lightly. The grieving heart immediately needs not our quick fixes but our quiet presence.
When Job’s friends came, they wept with him, tore their clothing, threw dirt upon themselves, and sat on the ground. When godly people of Bible times grieved, their friends and community joined in with sackcloth and ashes, and even with the hiring of professional mourners. To our westernized ears, this sounds strange, but there is a good explanation. The word “sympathy” should be more than a spoken or written word. Sympathy literally means passion with another. Romans 12:15 explains sympathy this way: “Weep with them that weep.”
Putting aside our cold stoicism, our fake manliness, and our mistaken ideas of spirituality, let us swallow our pride and express genuine feeling. Although we should not sorrow as those who have no hope (I Thess. 4:13), we should weep as Jesus did (John 11:35). His sinless human acquaintance with our sorrows is supposed to be of comfort to us (Heb. 4:15). When we allow ourselves to grieve with the grieving, we not only acknowledge the hurt and rightly condone their tears, but we reflect the compassion of our understanding High Priest.
Minister the Word
Paul exhorts us, “Comfort one another with these words” (I Thess. 4:18). With what words? Not with mindless cliches but with the inspired words of Scripture. While the pastor more lengthily explains God’s Word, let God’s people briefly quote a timely text. At death, God makes the hearts of His grieving people desperately desirous for His Word. Thus at death, God gives us a wondrous opportunity to witness of our living Savior.
Before going to visit the grieving, search the Scriptures for an appropriate text. Choose one that God has used in the past to comfort you (see II Cor. 1:4). Memorize it word for word. Meditate on how you might succinctly and meekly insert it in your conversation with the grieving. Pray that the Comforter might use you as His mouthpiece. Then go and speak the truth in love. The Spirit speaks powerful comfort with His inspired Word. Do not be deterred by the possibility that the bereaved has already heard the same words repeated by others. If everyone imagined that someone else was quoting Scripture, no one would end up speaking that effectual Word. Remember also that repetition is the Spirit’s way of impressing His Word upon the mind.
Minister the word by speaking and writing. When the prophets and apostles sought to edify God’s people, they often did so by writing. Ink on parchment was the Spirit’s method of engraving His truth upon the table of the heart. It still is. In our digital age, this has become a lost art. We have resorted to the more efficient manner of pushing buttons on our keyboard or phone. An email, text, or some sort of social media mode has become the norm even in addressing the most sensitive and profound topics of the Christian’s comfort in life and death. Is it wrong to use technology? No. But has not God given us a far better method? Taking the time and effort to pen words on a card or paper is one of the most meaningful means of communicating comfort.
Provide long-term care
Immediately after death, God’s people often care well for the distressed. The number of visits, calls, meals, and gifts may even at times overwhelm the burdened heart. and then the church moves on. A month and a half or so later when things die down, the lonely realities of life hit home. Who cares then? Does anyone else remember the day of his birth, the day of her death, their anniversary, or that lonely special holiday? We must learn to extend the length of our ministry.
This long-term care in reality begins even before a family faces death. God’s people need to be proactive in cultivating good relationships with others in the church and especially those on the fringe with fewer friends. Sooner rather than later, this last enemy will touch every family closely. Caring for those relationships before death leads to more effective care afterward. With our hearts already knit with theirs, we will remember to pray for them and with them. We will remember those special dates. And when we forget, our hurting friends will dare to remind us as they seek out our care. There is no quick fix to grief (or most trials for that matter). Death’s burden gets lighter over time, but it remains a burden we carry till we ourselves die or Jesus returns. Until then, let us learn to “bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
While not comprehensive, these are four pieces of advice to all whom God gives the opportunity to minister to the grieving. Those in the office of believer engage in this ministry far differently than the world. To cope without hope, the unbeliever distracts rather than deals with the pain. With surface chit-chat, jokes and euphemisms, and fun anecdotes of the deceased, there is every attempt in our day to renovate the house of mourning into a house of fake frivolity. Such diversion from the reality of death is like taking medicine to mask the symptoms instead of dealing with the problem. The church is tempted to do the same. We feel like ignoring the dead, minimizing the grief, and sidetracking the conversation to something else. But a true comforter does not help avoid the problem; rather, he strengthens the sorrowful to face the problem.
Face up to the finality of death and all its misery. Remember that death has come as a result of sin. Stand respectfully beside that open casket and gravesite, allowing the waves of sorrows to flow over your own mortal heart. Let them see in your eyes and hear in your voice that sorrow tempered by the sure hope we have in Christ who has conquered that sin and its punishment of death for us. Apply the soothing gospel of the risen Savior to your heart and to theirs. Then continue to support them, staying committed to their long-term care.
Those who truly believe this gospel are “able to comfort them which are in trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (II Cor. 2:4b). Thus, when God sovereignly allows death to visit, let us confidently care for the grieving as those already equipped with comfort both in life and in death.
1 If we have a different hindrance like laziness or selfishness (which often exposes itself with the excuse of “I’m too busy”), then let us repent.
2 Ponder the Holy Spirit’s work as Comforter in John 14:16-18 and 16:7. The Comforter’s personal presence is comforting. As instruments of this Comforter, our presence is important.