Death is the last enemy to be destroyed. But until Christ executes it, death soaks this world through. When death ambushes a community, we who are called to minister can sometimes scramble for the right words. What comfort can we give to those who mourn? What can a minister say to a student who has lost her friend or to a parent who now weeps for his dead child? Usually, it’s best to say little at first. It’s been noted that the wisest thing Job’s friends ever did in the wake of his tragedies was to keep their mouths shut for a week. When words are many, tact is rare.
But because are verbal creatures (and because we hate uncomfortable silence), words will eventually come. What needs to be said to comfort the grief-stricken? What encouragement can we give as we weep with those who weep? Counseling books abound and the Bible is full of promises for the brokenhearted. Resources on counseling folks through loss are not hard to find. But it’s usually best to avoid one question as we attempt to encourage the hurting. Do not ask those who mourn if the deceased was a believer.
“Oh, do you know if he was a believer?” I’ve heard it in small groups, in conversations before church service, and in prayer meetings. When it’s asked in a private context, well out of earshot of those who knew the departed, the question can be harmless. But when it’s asked of a sobbing student the day after her friend passed away, the question feels cold and unhelpful.
Why? What’s the harm in asking? After all, a person’s eternal destination is the most important thing about them, right?
Let’s say that the deceased was a believer. What then? Yes, they have the hope of heaven and the sure certainty of resurrection. And that’s wonderful. But when the grave is still fresh, such truth is cold comfort to shattered hearts. It doesn’t take the edge off their pain. Their loss is real and it can stay raw for years. Orthodox theology about personal eschatology may help someone later down the road, but in the immediate aftermath of a death, what people need most from us is our comforting presence and lots of love.
And what if the person who died was not a believer? We show up to the house of mourning, ask, “Was he a believer?” and they shed new tears and picture their loved one in hell. By reaching for some glimmer of hope and comfort, we’ve only managed to pile on pain and even despair, perhaps triggering guilt-ridden thoughts of “what if?”, wondering what they could’ve done to better share the gospel with him or her. The death of an unbeliever is one of the saddest things and we ought not pry where it would be no benefit. That question gives no comfort.
If you’re called to minister (and every believer is), weep with those who weep. Encourage the fainthearted. Don’t sign songs to heavy hearts. And please don’t ask if they were a believer or not. Not yet, anyway. Let pain be felt and let the Lord bring healing in his own good time.