Grieving with Hope

On Sunday night I watched a “60 Minutes” piece on a couple who had lost their daughter in one of the senseless mass shootings that has plagued our world.  Years later they still feel the pain, but they have channeled their grief into an effort to assist other families of mass shootings.  I admired their dedication and compassion.  There task is a difficult one.  No one is unphased when loss, especially unforeseen, untimely death enters our lives; but many people are less prepared than others.

As a pastor I have been privileged to be with many people at the lowest and highest parts of their lives.  I have often asked myself, “How would I handle this?” What understanding of life can prepare you and how should we think about such a tragedy?   I think it is a good thing to ask such questions before having to face your own tragedy.

Let’s start by talking about loss that is a shock and trauma–like a mass shooting.  This kind of grief often is accompanied with ongoing uncontrolled symptoms that we now call PTSD (Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder).  PTSD is a maladaptive attempt by your brain to protect you.  It doesn’t of course.  I gives you an additional problem.  But the neural pathway that develops is supposed to prepare you for a similar tragedy, which most likely won’t happen.  Can we be inoculated at all against PTSD?  I think so.

We need to have a very grounded and complete understanding of how the world is.  There is profound evil in our world. We should not be kept naïve about evil, how bad it can be, and what is possible.  On the flip side, we don’t want or need to live fearfully or be indifferent to pain.  In short, we need a theology about evil and death.  Kids need a theology about evil and death.  If we understand evil and death, they should not surprise us. The shock of the reality of evil in this world causes the involuntary reactions like PTSD.

Death is to be understood as a part of everybody’s life eventually.  The Bible attributes most evil to a corruption that is part of every human being.  It’s called sinful nature.  Ultimately, evil can be traced back to a source, Satan.  It is real and sometimes very ugly.

We also need hope.  In this context, I don’t mean wishfulness.  I mean confidence that God is greater than Satan and good is more powerful than evil.  Hope stands on a promise of eternal life through Jesus, and God is faithful.  When you have this hope, you can know that the evil and ugliness of this world is temporary; and you can have confidence that those who lose their lives but have Jesus are moving on to Heaven.  This kind of hope is key to getting past any type of mourning.

The final part is renewed purpose.  Death changes our lives.  We lose a part of us when we lose a role, whether that was as a parent, child, friend, co-worker or whatever.  Jesus said,

But everyone who hears these words of mine but does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain came down, and the streams rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a mighty crash.  (Matthew 7:26-27)

As much as we love people, our lives cannot depend on our relationship with them for purpose, happiness and meaning.  That is the “sand” in the passage above.  Those things must be founded on our relationship with God.  We will lose relationships, sometimes to death, but we will continue to have a God-given purpose that transcends those relationships.

We recently had some suicide deaths among the survivors of mass shootings in our country.  Survivor’s guilt and an unrelenting sense of loss can drive a person to try to escape the pain by any means.  We should grieve.  Love will eventually necessitate grief.  But if we understand our world, still have hope and have a purpose that is resting on the Word of God; we can grieve, honor the dead and rediscover how to be happy.

Suicide and Eternal Judgment

Loss of purpose, chronic pain, no hope, distorted thinking, escape, punishing somebody else, the list is lengthy.  They are the reasons why somebody can be willing to take their own life.  It happens far too much.

It is hard to truly say that you can empathize unless you have been there yourself.  The point of contemplating suicide is a lonely and desperate position.  Usually it is done with a focus on what is wrong with the world.  It doesn’t consider seriously enough what lies beyond death.

Why isn’t taking our own life our prerogative?  It is our pain.  It is our body.

Suicide leaves pain and guilt in its wake.  It is a sin against others.  As humans we are uniquely important to God and His work in the world.   Suicide does not trust God to work even through bad circumstances.  Suicide does not imagine the God-given purposes that will be left undone.  Suicide is therefore sin.

Is it an automatically damning sin?  Proponents of this view misunderstand the nature of grace.  When we are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism, the sins of our whole life are covered by the death of Jesus.  While we are commanded to confess our sins and offered ongoing forgiveness of sins, this doesn’t mean that grace is parceled out to us.  It is not necessary that the last thing we do is receive forgiveness.   Being sinners, it is highly likely that the last thing we do is sin, even if the sin is not suicide.  So suicide isn’t necessarily damning because it is the last thing you do.

Suicide may speak poorly of your connection to God.  A suicidal person may have rejected God, grace, or have fallen away, but we are not in position to judge that.  A saved person destined for Heaven could commit suicide, but at a cost.  Salvation depends on Jesus alone.  We are saved by grace.  God still does judge our deeds or the lack of them.  This is part of the Judgment Day experience.  Suicide will cost you at least part of your reward. 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 speaks of this:

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.  Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw–each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Is it ever worth escaping current miserable conditions if it means abandoning part of what God has prepared for us to do and passing on a part of an eternal reward?  We do well to understand what our lives mean to God.  What is our purpose.  If we are alive, we still have a purpose.  Ask God to help you to identify it, if you are unsure.  Painful situations are often ripe opportunities to do the work of God.  Others don’t have to love you.  God loves you.  The best advice is to become outward rather than inward focused.  Your value is assured by a connection to Jesus.  Make every moment of life worthy of your eternal calling.