1 THESS 4:13-18; JOHN 11:33-35
John 11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
1 Thessalonians 4
13 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. 14 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. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. NIV® Copyright 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®
In times of death and traumatic events we are often at a loss for the right words to say to offer comfort to family and friends. People often say something like “you must be strong”. I am not sure exactly what they mean with these words. I suspect what they mean is that you must show strength. For many, this means you must look calm, composed and in control of your emotions.
I accept that we often do not think when we speak and just as often merely repeat what we have heard others say. We are also aware that our words can have unintended consequences and in fact may not comfort those who have suffered a loss.
The words, “you must be strong”, can be very selfish words – why do we want the other person to be strong? It is possible that we want that person to be strong to protect ourselves against emotions. Because we do not know how to deal with our own emotions, or those of the person we are speaking to.
In many cultures, to be strong means that you should not cry much. Well, the number of tears we shed is no indication of the depth of our pain. Some people are just more emotional than others, or they find it easier to cry in public. Unfortunately, there is also a dominant aspect of our culture that includes the expectation or requirement that men and boys should not cry.
In John 11:33 we read that, on the death of his friend Lazarus, Jesus saw Mary and others weeping. Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled”. In verse 35 we read: “Jesus wept”.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul accepted that the Christians in Thessalonica would grieve, but he challenges them not to grieve like people without hope.
Perhaps this explains what people mean when they encourage someone to show strength! Because we see tears and grief as a sign of “hopelessness”?
Christian hope is much deeper than all the emotions we have. Often, hope is something we discover along the way, something that grows within. On some days we may have more hope than on other days. What it is, is an ability to see further ahead.
But our tears do not necessarily mean that we have no hope. My invitation is, especially to the men in our gathering, to be in touch with your emotions and to show your emotions. This may help all of us to become more humane and caring persons. Please do not discourage your young boys to cry, or to show the pain they feel.
As a society, we want less violence and more caring. This starts with our ability to be in touch with our emotions. Emotionally healthy people show greater strength of character and have better capabilities to deal with the suffering of life. Jesus cried – but He also endured the cross on our behalf.
Emotionally healthy people are also able to see beyond the hardship and suffering of the moment. That is the hope that Paul speaks of (1 Thess 4:14-17). The ability to look beyond the moment, and to look forward, towards the future. A future together with God.
Here we must make a distinction between “Christian hope” and an apocalyptic hope.
“Apocalyptic visions also help us make sense of an often seemingly senseless world. In the face of confusion and annihilation we need restitution and reassurance. We want to feel that no matter how chaotic, oppressive or evil the world is, all will be made right in the end. The apocalypse as history’s end is made acceptable with the belief that there will be a new beginning.”
Apocalyptic thinking makes it impossible to sit alongside the painful reality of the moment and find strength in a different future, at an undetermined time. What apocalyptic thinking wants is immediate change – and it must be perfect. Apocalyptic hope can contribute to chaos – expectations are unrealistically high and impatient. It is an everything or nothing type of hope, and nothing in between is acceptable.
What we unfortunately see in the Fees Must Fall Movement are signs of apocalyptic thinking. We also find it in some religious movements and in the preaching of some churches. There exists no tolerance of delays and imperfect results.
With Christian hope, expectations are also high, but Christian hope includes the ability to learn to live life to its fullest, even in imperfect circumstances. This is an inner strength that goes beyond external emotions and external circumstances. This kind of strength grows out of the belief that we are, in a mystical way, included in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Rom 6).
In summary, it is important that we allow our grieving families the space to show their emotions. Some will be more emotional than others. External signs of emotion are not an accurate measure of how deep anyone’s pain is. A quiet person who shows little emotion may be experiencing a very deep level of pain.
Strength is also not something that can be measured in terms of emotions. The most devastated person today may, in the months to come, show the greatest inner strength.
From a Christian point of view, we encourage people to show their emotions and we should create ample space for people to grieve – each in their own way, and without any fear that others will judge them. If we do that, then we are true to the gospel of compassion.
My belief is that, in time, most of us will grow the Christian hope in our hearts. It is a hope that deals with the suffering of the present while keeping in mind the future Second Coming of the Lord. This hope can keep in mind both the present reality as well as future expectations. It is not a destructive force, but an encouragement in times of suffering. That is true strength.
Frederik B O Nel
(2 November 2016)