Sometimes I’m not sure which is harder: someone I love dying, or dealing with the expectation that I’m okay with it. I’m a pastor, which means people assume all kinds of things about me. One of those assumptions is centered around how I’m going to deal with death. I just found out recently that my grandpa is going to lose a fight with cancer. It’s a hard time. I’ve had a special bond with my grandpa my entire life. I’m going to miss him terribly.
But because I’m a spiritual leader, I’m expected to have enough “faith” to not only accept my grandpa’s death – but to somehow even celebrate it as a good thing.
The assumption is that my Christian hope is supposed to make me strong enough so that I don’t grieve, at least not really grieve. I’m supposed to have enough hope that I don’t get too upset about death. I can’t show too much emotion. I can’t get too gloomy. I can’t really hurt, at least not in front of other people. I’m supposed to celebrate that my grandpa is going to be released from his broken body and escape this world. My Christian hope supposedly turns death from a tragedy into a triumph.
All of this deeply troubles me. For one, this tells us that it’s not safe to grieve. It pressures us to be okay when we’re really not okay. It conditions us to put on a mask. We feel like we need to be strong, if not for ourselves than at least for the people around us. Beyond that, it also makes us deeply confused about what the Christian hope actually is. We’re trying to cling to a hope that’s really no hope at all. So I find myself in a predicament.
When I’m losing someone I can’t replace, I’m fighting to cling to the only true hope that any of us have. Only, others don’t seem to recognize it as hope.
When my grandpa dies, I’ll be expected to be happy that he’s now in heaven. Sure, people will understand if I’m somewhat upset, but my Christian faith is supposed to make me see that death isn’t really all that bad. That’s what most of us have been taught in the church. We’ve lost touch with what Christians have historically clung to as their hope. Many of us in the western church today are taught that death might be difficult to deal with, but it actually turns out to be a good thing. It ushers us into heaven where there’s no more suffering. We’ll have finally escaped this broken world and arrived at our final destination – heaven. Death is a doorway to a better place, so we’re told.
The problem is that this is an incomplete gospel. This isn’t the full picture of God’s plan to redeem us and this world.
I understand our desperate longing to find and offer comfort when we’re faced with the harsh reality of death. Believe me I do. I really do. I hurt like everyone else does. I can hurt in places I didn’t even know existed inside of me. I know that the reality of death is so heavy that we don’t know how to face it without needing something to cling to. I’m the same way. But I need real hope. I need an honest hope – one that acknowledges the tragedy of death, and yet also offers a solution. I need to know that this will somehow be fixed. The Bible tells us that this is indeed what Jesus offers us, although it might sound different than what we’re used to hearing.
When one of Jesus’ friends died, He reacts in a way that many of us today wouldn’t know how to process.
In John 11, we encounter one of the most personal and powerful stories of Jesus’ earthly life. Lazarus, one of Jesus' friends whom He had deep affection for (see John 11:3, 5, 11), became very sick. And he didn’t win the fight. He succumbed to death’s tyrannical grip. Jesus’ reaction is telling.
When Jesus saw Mary and the people around her weeping, He was affected. He was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (v. 33). If we look closely here, we see that Jesus was actually angry. The original words here are the very same words that Greek poets used to describe a war horse ready to enter battle. Like a stallion would rear its hind legs and flare its nostrils in anger as its ready to enter the fray of battle, Jesus was seething with anger as He sees the horrible effects of death. Then John tells us that Jesus wept (v. 35). He wasn’t calm. He wasn’t strong enough not to hurt. He cried. And if this wasn’t already enough, Jesus was “deeply moved again” (v. 38).
Jesus was not a passive responder to death, and He didn’t tell His grieving friends that they didn’t need to hurt. He grieved with them, and He was angry that death was wreaking this havoc.
Jesus’ reaction is all the more shocking when we realize that He knew this was all going to happen. Not only did He know that Lazarus’ life was going to be suddenly cut short, He also knew that He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. That’s what He was clearly on a mission to do – to demonstrate God’s power to give life so that people will believe in Him. So why is Jesus so upset about Lazarus’ death? What’s the big deal? There was something about death that deeply disturbed Jesus. He was angry at the destructiveness of death, at the ruining of life as it was meant to be.
Jesus’ reaction to death means everything to me. If it wasn’t for His hatred of death, my grief would be dismissed as mere pessimism or as some kind of pathological gloominess. Jesus’ anger at the destructiveness of death frees me from this kind of isolating stigma. Jesus was not okay with death. He didn’t celebrate it. He didn’t trivialize death that way. He mourned it as the tragedy that it is. Death pained Jesus so deeply that it made Him angry.
The good news is that Jesus not only hates death, but He also does something about it.
Jesus gives us real hope because He promises to fix the great problem of death. He has the power to undo death. This is what He has demonstrated by not only raising Lazarus from the dead, but even more importantly by getting up out of the grave Himself. His resurrection was a bursting forth of new life into the world. Nothing like it had ever happened before, nor has anything since. And it’s just a first glimpse. It’s a sign of more to come. Jesus’ resurrection is the promise of our future resurrection. We were never meant to die. We were made to live. The Christian hope is resurrection from the dead.
Death is not our friend. It is not okay. Death is our enemy – the last enemy that Christ is coming back to defeat.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:20-26)
I hate that my grandpa is dying, and Jesus does too.
Jesus hates it so much that He was willing to give His own life so that my grandpa wouldn’t stay dead. The hope that I’m desperately clinging to is that my grandpa’s broken body will one day be renewed. He will be raised up when Jesus returns, never to die again. He will get a new and glorious body, one that will never get sick or decay or grow old again. My hope is that death will not have the final word. Right now it does, but it won’t rule forever. One day Jesus will bring God’s kingdom into this world and finally defeat death. Heaven will come to earth, and all will be as it should be. I’m praying for that day to come. I’m waiting for that day. And while I wait, I’m crying out in anger that death is closing its grip around a man whom I dearly love.