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Friday, May 6, 2011

When the Righteous Fall

I spoke last time about the death of a wicked person, and how Christians are instructed not to rejoice overmuch about their deaths.  It is a victory where justice is concerned, but it is also a tragedy of a wasted life.  We should view it soberly, but our happiness over seeing justice served is not out of place, either.

So how should we receive it when a righteous person dies?  Are Christians allowed to mourn?

While so many were receiving the news of the sudden end of Osama bin Laden's life, a smaller community of believers were remembering the Reverend David Wilkerson, whose story was told in the movie and book, The Cross and the Switchblade.  He founded and led the most successful drug rehab program in the world, Teen Challenge Ministries, which combines therapy and help with a very clear Christian message.  Reverend Wilkerson died suddenly in a car accident on April 27th.  Here is a tribute to him that his ministry has released.

Now, his passing was very sudden and very jarring to the people who were keeping up with his ministry.  I can imagine it was far more shocking and upsetting for those close to him.  I am certain there was mourning, in fact, I am certain there is still mourning over Rev. Wilkerson, as there would be for any other Christian who has died.

I have heard some Christians mistakenly teach that it is wrong to show any signs of mourning or grief when a Christian dies.  I even heard that Rob Bell's parents taught him this.  I don't know if this is ignorance or some sort of cruelty, but I do know that I strongly believe it is a false teaching.

The Bible says, "Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him," (1 Thessalonians 4: 13-14 NIV 2011).  I have heard this passage used to support the teaching, "don't mourn," but what it really says is that we shouldn't mourn like those "who have no hope."  This hope is the Resurrection, which those who are apart from God can never understand.  Those without God mourn because they believe that at death, the person is gone forever.  They also fear their own death, and the destruction that follows it. I believe this is almost true; at death those apart from God are relegated to the destruction they have so foolishly and wastefully chosen, and their loss is a terrible one.  Christians, on the other hand, are aware of the fact that a Christian funeral is not how it all ends--we will see this person again, alive and rejoicing in the Lord who saved them!

I have always liked the way Paul described death in this passage, by saying "those who have fallen asleep in Him," as if those who have died are only napping.  Although it may be a "nap" of many years, we at least don't have to receive a believer's death as completely final.  This doesn't mean that we are not allowed to miss that person, or cry because of the separation and the absence of that person in our lives.  Jesus wept when Lazarus died, even though He knew He was about to raise him from the dead (John 11: 1-44), and Jesus withdrew from the public to privately mourn when He heard what had been done to his cousin, John the Baptist (Matthew 14: 1-14).  He felt the loss of these people intensely, as we do the loss of those close to us, and He expressed His sorrow as an example to others that it is permissible to mourn. 

So what is my conclusion?  I believe that Christians have simply been told that we ought not to think of death as the end, receiving it with hopelessness, depression, and fear, because we have the comfort of knowing death isn't the final word for those who believe.  Our grief comes from different sources.  We also are comforted to know that one day, when it is all over for everyone, God will remove even this grief that we now feel.  As it is written,
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.  The Lord has spoken.  In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us.  This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation."   --Isaiah 25: 7-9 NIV 2011

This is a prophecy for all believers in all the nations.  Let us take comfort in that!