Gospel-centered Grief Ministry

Today, I have the privilege to officiate the funeral service of a man in our church who became a friend over the past half-dozen years. When he cautiously first came to a Thanksgiving dinner at our church he did not know what to expect. His wife had told him of the Christian love she was experiencing, but was careful not to push him. His first visit was followed by a long absence, but then Mike started coming periodically, then regularly, and eventually openly confessed faith in Christ and became a member of our church. As this quiet man became more involved, particularly in a small men’s group, his faith began to grow and others in the church noticed. This well-loved man is now in Glory, worshipping the Savior. We will miss him, but it would be utterly selfish to expect him to come back.

As I’ve made preparations for the funeral, my mind has been directed back to some thoughts I penned in the Introduction to the book on grief ministry that I wrote in 2008, Comfort Those Who Grieve. I include this lengthy quotation as a reminder to us all that lasting comfort is only found in Jesus Christ. Therefore, when we comfort one another, let us remind ourselves of the love of God that shed His Son’s blood on the cross in order that His love may be shed abroad in our hearts (Rom. 5:5).

Death is painfully real. It is not foreign territory upon which ministers of grace walk. We would have to be cold, callous, or uninvolved in people’s lives not to be affected by death. And we would lack compassion if we did not possess a desire to reach out with the Christ-centered comfort of God to those who grieve. This priority has been freshly implanted in my mind in the year of writing this book, as God has brought the members of my congregation face to face with death on numerous occasions.

What many refer to as the gospel portion of the book of Isaiah begins with these words: “‘Comfort, O comfort My people,’ says your God” (Isa. 40:1). Isaiah has earned the nickname “the evangelical prophet” because of his emphasis on the good news of the coming Messiah—the hope and strong comfort of Israel. With reference to this verse, Warren Wiersbe explains, “The English word ‘comfort’ comes from two Latin words that together mean ‘with strength.’ When Isaiah says to us, ‘Be comforted!’ it is not a word of pity but of power. God’s comfort does not weaken us; it strengthens us. God is not indulging us but empowering us.” Overwhelmed by their failure, and by the sin which brought about severe chastisement, the people of God were in desperate need of hope—the hope of God’s pardon. Verse 2 continues, “Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed, that she has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

The hope that Isaiah gives is rooted in God’s relationship to Israel as His people: “‘Comfort My people,’ says your God.” Though His people’s sin was indeed worthy of a double portion of divine discipline, God was not about to turn His back on them. He would fulfill the covenant that He had made. Later, through the mouth of Jeremiah, God again dispenses hope in the midst of Israel’s pain: “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope’” (Jer. 29:11). By turning their focus away from their past, as well as from their present, toward the future hope of the promised kingdom, both prophets provided Messiah-centered comfort.

Since we live after the cross of Calvary, we might call it “Christ-centered comfort.” But the principle is very much the same. The strength of God’s comfort does not come from His ability to change our present circumstances (which He can do if He chooses), but rather from the promise that He has made to us in Christ: He will finish the transformational work that He started in us, and the glory that we will one day share with Him far outweighs our present suffering (Phil. 1:6; Rom. 8:18). In other words, gospel-centered comfort is the only true comfort there is. Any comfort we give to people outside the hope of the gospel is temporary at best and deceptive at worst. If we merely dispense earthly comfort to those who are suffering and fall short of pointing them to the only true source of comfort, Jesus Christ, we have potentially deceived them into thinking that God is on their side when in fact He may not be. If they are unbelievers, then they are still God’s enemies, and we have offered them no lasting comfort at all unless we have pointed them to the “man of sorrows” who is “acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).

This gospel-centered hope faces the reality of death head-on by holding forth the gift of eternal life that Jesus purchased with His own blood. If we fail to gently speak the truth of the gospel at a time like this, we have not made death our servant as we ought. Instead, we must correctly seize each divinely ordained ministry opportunity by utilizing earthly pain to redirect the bereaved to focus on eternal matters. Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes write in their book When God Weeps, “Earth’s pain keeps crushing our hopes, reminding us this world can never satisfy; only heaven can. And every time we begin to nestle too comfortably on this planet, God cracks open the locks of the dam to allow an ice-cold splash of suffering to wake us from our spiritual slumber.” Let us not waste these precious and painful occasions that are given to us for the demonstration of mercy and the advantage of the gospel.

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