Two years ago I had known the Bible identified death as the final enemy that will be defeated by the resurrection (1 Cor 15:26), but I did not know this truth experientially. I did not really know death as Enemy. I had not yet experienced its intrusion or disruption in such a deeply personal way. In fact, I fear I may still have viewed death as a “natural part of life”…until death so violently took my mother away without so much as the courtesy of letting me know ahead of time. I had just returned from a teaching trip in Ukraine less than 24 hours before so I was still sleeping off jet lag. My wife woke me mid-evening to inform me that my healthy, 83-year old mother had just been taken to the emergency room by ambulance, but we did not yet know the reason. I acknowledged what she said and, with her encouragement, went right back to sleep. Less than an hour later she woke me again with these words, “Paul, your sister-in-law just called again. We need to get to the hospital right away. It does not look good.” The one-hour drive felt much longer.
From the instant the aneurism burst in my dear mother’s brain to the moment I heard one of my older brothers say to me in the hospital entrance, “Paul, we lost her,” was less than three hours. Uncontrolled grief overwhelmed me like never before. It was deep grief. It was not crying. It was wailing—right there in the hospital hallway. Thankfully, I was too exhausted physically and mentally to even think of controlling my emotion for the sake of “maintaining an image,” or hiding my shock. Instead the tears of pain began to perform their God-given, cleansing purpose. I had begun “the grieving process.”
Not My First Experience with Death, but the Most Painful
Mom had not been the first of my loved-ones to die, but surely the first to prompt this plummet to such depths of emotion. My grandfather died when I was in high school. He was the only grandpa I knew. He took me fishing at Cowboy Lake and taught my brothers and me what it meant to troll on the Menomonee River. But we only saw him once a year. And since he had always been bald he always seemed old. One year later a dear uncle was brutally murdered. He had been beaten almost to death one year prior and we had helped Mom nurse him back to health with liquid meals during the months he lived with us while his wired-jaw healed. He looked close to death for quite a while. News of his murder was a great shock to all of us. Within an hour after Mom called me with the news of her brother’s death my newly-married sister happened upon me. Thus it fell upon me to tell her as much as I knew (Remember, there was a time when we did not have cell phones and news spread in different ways, more slowly). I was numb. It was one of those “this can’t really be happening” moments in our family’s history. One picture forever etched in my memory is that of my mother on her hands and knees washing her own brother’s blood out of his living room carpet as we prepared the trailer home to be sold. The weeks and months that followed were grievous times for all of us, but surely the most for Mom.
So, yes, I had experienced grief over the loss of a loved one before. Yet it was nothing like the grief that overtook me the night Mom died. Never before had there been such a mingling and raging of so many emotions within me all at the same time—the kind that makes you feel wobbly for a little while…stunned. I confess that the experience of such sudden grief left my mind foggy for some time. I was aware of the tears of grief, and became aware—though never quite prepared for—the moving of its waves upon the shore of my heart only to recede again…until they could catch me at another vulnerable time.
Sadness was obvious. The feeling of loss was deep. This is my mother we’re talking about! Fear and its Siamese twin, worry, were apparent. I said to my wife, “I’m so afraid I will forget her.” But the mixing of anger with my sorrow was not so obvious. I was not conscious of it though indeed it was there. My convulsions of pain were the mixture of sorrow and anger into something I had not experienced before. But was this right? Was it acceptable for me to be feeling angry while I was grieving?
Jesus was angry at death. In a previous post I drew your attention to B. B. Warfield’s comments concerning the deep movement of emotion in Jesus as He approached the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:33, 38), which was more than sadness. It was sorrow mixed with anger. “The spectacle of the distress of Mary and her companions enraged Jesus because it brought poignantly home to his consciousness the evil of death, its unnaturalness, its ‘violent tyranny’ as Calvin (on verse 38) phrases it. In Mary’s grief, he ‘contemplates’—still to adopt Calvin’s words (on verse 33), — ‘the general misery of the whole human race’ and burns with rage against the oppressor of men. Inextinguishable fury seizes upon him; his whole being is discomposed and perturbed; and his heart, if not his lips, cries out, — ‘For the innumerable dead is my soul disquieted.’ [Now, here’s the clincher] It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy.”
But is it right then for me to be angry at death? Since Jesus’s perfect example leaves us with the understanding that anger at death, in itself, is not sinful, perhaps the more accurate way to ask this question of ourselves is: How can I, as a sinner, be angry at death and not sin? or, What does it look like when I react to this kind of anger in a righteous manner? Let me try to at least begin answering these questions with both a negative and a positive.
When does anger at death become sinful?
- Anger at death becomes sinful when it is directed at God. Anger is always sinful when it is directed at God, the One who remains sovereign over death’s intrusive power. We have all probably heard a radio preacher, or two, say some blasphemous thing like, “If you are ticked off at God then tell Him so. He’s a big boy. He can handle it.” Let us never forget that God is God. We are not. The only acceptable response toward Him is humble, submissive worship that fuels the obedience of faith (Job 1:21-22). This does not mean; however, that we may not cry out to God honest laments of deep pain in our suffering (See many of the Psalms, for example. I often pray them back to God out loud). But there is a difference between complaining to God and complaining about God. Bob Kellemen explains the difference well: “Biblical complaint complains to God about the fallen world. Ungodly complaint complains about God and accuses him of lacking goodness, holiness, and wisdom” [God’s Healing for Life’s Losses]. Anger at God is an act of unbelief, which is always sin.
- Anger at death becomes sinful when reactions to this passionate emotion violate the law of love toward my neighbor. If anger at death, for taking from us a loved one, results in abiding, low-grade anger that produces irritability, stewing, or harshness toward others then it is sinful (Rom 13:10).
- Anger at death becomes sinful when the focus of my attention becomes my personal loss, rather than the living who remain and whom I am still called to serve. If anger at death, for taking from us a loved one, results in a crippling sorrow that shuts out the other people in our lives then we are loving self, esteeming ourselves above them, which is sin (Phil 2:3-5).
When is anger at death righteous?
- Anger at death is righteous when it produces a longing for the day when God will reverse the curse. Since the death of my mom and the deaths of a number of very close believers in Christ in the past few years, I find myself longing for the final consummation of all things more than I ever did before. My heart resonates with “the anxious longing of creation” as it “waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom 8:19-21).
- Anger at death is righteous when it produces a hatred for sin (my own, not just the sins of others) and a heart that praises God for the victory found only in Jesus. Death is a constant reminder of the reality of sin. In his honest confession of the battle against indwelling sin, it was “the body of death” from which the apostle longed to be released (Rom 7:24-25).
- Anger at death is righteous when it produces a heart of compassion for the lost, which results in my increased fervor to announce the Good News of the gospel. Am I like Jesus who, though at times angry at death and the devil, was filled with compassion for the spiritually destitute and dying—like sheep without a shepherd (Mk 6:34)? Does my grief produce the willingness to be separated from Christ if it could possibly mean the salvation of others (Rom 9:1-3)?
- Anger at death is righteous when it trains me to be a fellow “comforter-in-training.” May we never forget the chief reason God comforts us in our sorrow is so that we will then share that same comfort with others (2 Cor 1:3-4).
- Anger at death is righteous when it reminds me of the brevity of life. Life is short and unpredictable. If anger at death compels me to live for eternal values then it profits me (James 4:14; Matt 6:19-20).
Indeed, the mixture of sadness and anger in times of grieving is an area of practical theology that needs further, deeper, biblical thought and application. But, for now, perhaps these preliminary thoughts will help us counsel one another to be more effective comforters of one another in times of deep grief.