Reader's Comment

Condolences In Difficult Death Situations

by Mary Stephens
April 2017

Question: "[Have you] ever written anything on condolences for people who lost loved ones and believe they are in heaven without a doubt, however lifestyle may suggest otherwise. However I know I can't judge anyone's heart...
Or when people say God needed that person in heave and so that is why they died...what can you say to these people? Something comforting, not judgmental."

Some details in true stories may have been changed to protect the identity of the people involved.

I have not written on this before, so this may be a good time to do so. We'll start with the what is perhaps the easier one, which is the idea that "God needed them in heaven."

We do know that the Bible says that the death of God's children is precious in His sight. Psalms 116:15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.

We also know that for the believer to die is to be with Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:8 We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. Also Philippians 1:21-24, For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.

So, in one sense, it is true that God wants His children in heaven with Him. But, there are also some other aspects to consider.

First of all, it would probably be more accurate to say that their work here was done. Because the Lord does like to have His children with Him in heaven, it's obvious that He leaves us here for a reason. As long as He needs us here, He will keep us alive so that He can do His will through us. Lamentations 3:32-33 But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men. Oftentimes, this life does give us grief and affliction, and this is not something that the Lord especially likes to subject us to, but it is often necessary so that we can do the work He has ordained us to do. So, He keeps us on this earth as long as He wants us to keep on in that work.

This does bring up an interesting difficulty, though. Sometimes when a Christian is living in sin and not doing the work that God intended him or her to do, the Lord will take that person to heaven early in order to remove them from the problem they are creating. Certain verses in the New Testament explain this.

In speaking to the Corinthian church about how they were taking the Lord's supper, the apostle Paul wrote, Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. 1 Corinthians 11:27-30

Eating and drinking the bread and cup of the Lord's supper unworthily was causing people to be sick and even die in the church at Corinth. We know that this church had some very serious problems and sins in general, so this isn't particularly surprising.

The damnation that is being spoken of here cannot be the eternal damnation of hell when it is applied to Christians. We know from other verses and passages that God does not throw His children away once He has saved them by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. According to Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, the word "damnation" can mean either "exclusion from divine mercy" or "Condemnation." Something or someone can be condemned without being damned to hell. In this case we see they are condemned to be sick or even to die, but the Holy Spirit did not inspire Paul to say anything about eternal damnation in this context.

Years ago I knew a young man who struggled with alcohol terribly. He had done things from time to time that indicated that he was actually saved. Also, the Lord chastened him on more than one occasion. But in the end, he killed himself when he had an accident while driving drunk. His family, and his pastor, believed that this was a tragic end to his life, not because he was not saved, but because he was and he was not living the life that the Lord intended him to live. So, God took him to heaven where he could stay out of trouble, much like a parent who makes a naughty child stand right beside her or him because the child can't be trusted to behave properly.

Someone might object, saying that going to heaven is a reward, so why would God reward someone like that? The problem is that we have a misconstrued idea of what heaven is. Heaven is not our reward for living for God. Our rewards for living for Him are the crowns that we can earn through following His word (a subject for another study). A home in heaven was purchased for us by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We don't earn it. It is our home because it is His home and He gave us that as part of the free gift of salvation. No, that young man entered heaven that night under very dubious circumstances. I do not know what the Lord says to a wayward child who arrives in heaven early, as it were, because they were behaving so badly they had to be removed from earth. But, I do know that at the judgment of our works before Christ, those people will many of them "suffer loss" and be saved "yet as by fire."

1 Corinthians 3:13-15 Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.

If you are willfully living in sin and not seeking the deliverance through Jesus Christ, this is something you should consider very soberly.

Then there are the Christians who end their life early through their own very bad choices. This may include suicide, reckless living of various sorts, thrill seeking, and so forth. My Gramma told me a story once about a Christian young man, we'll call him "Joe," who was determined to help a very troubled man. Other Christians who knew this man knew that he was capable of great evil and that he was using Joe for his own advantage. Joe had convinced himself that he was going to lead the man to Christ, and he continued to help the man despite repeated warnings as to the danger he was in. I don't remember the exact details, but as I recall at some point Joe had some things in his possession that were of considerable value. That man whom he had been helping murdered him and stole the stuff. My Gramma felt that Joe had been very foolish and that he had died before his time because of his bad choices.

So, not everyone who shows up in heaven is there on God's intended schedule. But what can we say?

First, I think that situations may vary. For example, in the case of the young man who died in a drunken accident, who is the speaker? If it's a distraught wife or parent or child, probably the best thing is to say little and just show compassion. It isn't that important to set them straight at a time like that.

But, is it someone who is following the same path? Is the speaker someone who is playing fast and loose with the mercy of God also? If so, it may be time to say something that will be difficult for them to hear. A question of a direct nature might help them think about what they are saying. "I believe that ___________ was truly saved and is in heaven, but do you really believe that it was God's will for him to arrive in heaven because he was driving drunk, because he was living sinfully?" Said in a spirit of humility and compassion, this question could be just what someone needs to think about their own life. The element of fatalism in our culture may keep some people from seeing this, as they may tend to think that regardless of where he was he would have died at that time. That makes it easier for them to avoid personal responsibility. But, sometimes we need to say the bold and apparently intrusive thing to point people to Jesus Christ.

Now on to the other (first) question.

The more difficult one to deal with is the person who didn't live like a Christian at all and yet the family member or friend is convinced he or she is in heaven. This is really awkward, I know. Generally speaking, it will often be better not to say anything to indicate what you think about the eternal destiny of their loved one, especially if it is close to the time the loved one died. If they don't understand the Gospel well enough themselves to realize the person probably wasn't saved, or if they they are too grief-stricken to deal with, they probably aren't going to be helped by us trying to point it out to them no matter how kindly or for what good motives. Later, however, this may be a different story. There may come a point when we should or could say something that might help them realize the truth for themselves.

I had a very sad but awkward situation once where a little boy in a class I was teaching had lost his father. His mother, who I knew had not believed her husband was saved, had told him and his siblings that their father was in heaven and they would see him again someday. The father had professed to be a Christian, but he had never lived as one - something his wife had acknowledged at one time. That was really hard. I made some comment which I have forgotten, in an effort to placate without agreeing, but the little boy was pretty sharp and insisted that his father was in heaven. I had to just steer the conversation in another direction as best I could because I couldn't tell a child the horrible truth, especially when his own mother was lying to him. Sometimes "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15) is not even possible in a specific situation and it is better to say nothing than to wound someone carelessly.

I don't have an exact enough answer for situations like this. We might express our sorrow at the person's loss and grief without touching on the issue of where the departed actually is at the moment. This might seem harsh to some people, but to show compassion without agreeing with a probable lie is never going to be neat and tidy or fully satisfy the person who is deluded or in denial. If someone insists upon our agreeing with them on one of these points, it may be better to say something like, "You are not in a good position to hear what I believe is the truth about this, so let's talk about it another time when you are past this present grief." If they push or try to become irate, it is time to disengage and go somewhere else. Some people will bring things up on purpose because they suspect you don't agree and they actually want to get their feeling hurt at you.

Truthfully, we have to wait on the Lord to give us discernment how to answer when these situations arise. It often times isn't possible to know in advance exactly what we should say in a certain situation, and even when we think we know, it often turns out that we say something entirely different or nothing at all. Two things can be of real help in such situations, though. One is having a good knowledge of scripture so that the Holy Spirit can help you recall things that are appropriate to the situation. The other is to read true life stories of other Christians and to engage in conversations with your fellow saints about their experiences. Often, things that have happened to others can apply to our own lives in helpful ways. We can't learn everything from personal experience, and sometimes it's good to have some other people's experiences in our memory for when we face some similar situation.

Another thing to remember is that the things the Lord Jesus said to people in grief or pain were not always the things that made the most sense to the everyone standing around, or even to the person to whom He was speaking. Sometimes, if we are following the leading of the Spirit of God, we may say something that doesn't really make sense to the grieving. Sometimes it may not make sense to us at the time either. Even when we feel a bit awkward about the situation, we need to leave it in the Lord's hands and trust that He will use it for His glory.

And keep on good speaking terms with the Lord. If you're in the habit of talking to Him and listening for His leading on a regular basis, then when some trying situation like this comes up, it is easier to remember to ask Him what to say, and to know what He is saying to you. When we fail to communicate with Him like we ought to, we shouldn't be surprised when we don't get an answer in our moment of need, or if we totally forget to ask Him, which is more likely. This has happened to me more times than I care to even think about!

All that can be compacted into this short answer - know your Bible, ask the Lord for wisdom in your interaction with people in general, learn from the experiences of others, and then let the morrow take thought for itself. If we want the wise and compassionate things of Christ to come out of us, then we need to fill ourselves with the wise and compassionate things of Christ.

Philippians 3:12 Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.

Colossians 4:6 Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.

Proverbs 22:17-21 Bow down thine ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply thine heart unto my knowledge. For it is a pleasant thing if thou keep them within thee; they shall withal be fitted in thy lips. That thy trust may be in the LORD, I have made known to thee this day, even to thee. Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge, That I might make thee know the certainty of the words of truth; that thou mightest answer the words of truth to them that send unto thee?


graphics and photos by Mary Stephens
vintage graphic unknown
painting - August Toulmouche