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The Ark

Is there any comfort for a bereaved unbeliever?

Mon October 1st, 2018

One thing that is exclusive about the Christian faith is that we believe there is no other way to God except Jesus. What is incredibly inclusive is that you don’t have to pay, you don’t have to be clever and you don’t have to be born into the right family, or even nation. Salvation is a free gift and God wants everyone to have it, but not everyone accepts his free offer. 

  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9 NIV

Whereas we are in no position to judge whether or not there is a last minute change of heart in a particular person, the reality is that there are obviously many going to a Christless eternity. Whereas our message is good news – eternal life for all who repent, peace with God and the excitement of walking through life with Jesus – it does also imply that for those who reject God there is nothing to look forward to except a journey: 
into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth  Matt 25:30 NIV 

God forbid that we become morbid or heartless Christians who go around telling people they are going to hell – except of course it is true! Jesus told us to go around telling the good news – not the bad news! We are called to be bearers of good news not miserable prophets of doom. And yet there is a balance to find because unless people realise that there is a heaven to win AND a hell to lose, then they may not consider there is any downside to not accepting Christ. 

What does the Bible have to say about comfort? 
Noah is a name that conjures up brilliantly coloured caricatures of boats and pairs of animals, but the name Noah is the Jewish word for comfort. Noah’s dad (Lamech) looked to Noah for comfort.  
“He will comfort us in the labour and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.” Gen 5:29 NIV 
Lamech died 5 years before the flood and his father Methusaleh died the year of the flood. The comfort that Noah brought was a way through the greatest most destructive storm of all time. It doesn’t sound like comfort, it didn’t feel like comfort, but it was. It didn’t comfort Lamech – he was already dead. It didn’t comfort Methusaleh – after he died the dart hit the target (a play on the meaning of Methusaleh’s name). Noah comforted the whole world! But it didn’t feel like comfort at the time! Clearly there is a comfort that overrides personal discomfort and we have an incarnated Jesus, God in flesh who knows what everything feels like and so is able to comfort us even if it is really bad! 
Now that we know what we have — Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God — let's not let it slip through our fingers. 15 We don't have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He's been through weakness and testing, experienced it all — all but the sin. 16 So let's walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.  Heb 4:14-16 THE MESSAGE 
To an early church where many were losing their lives for their faith, and many families were mourning, the apostles declared this comfort to them: 
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. 1 Thess 4:16-18  NIV 
In a good news message that talks about Jesus, there must always be room for his second coming and the comfort we can pass on from 1 Thessalonians is a vital part of that message. Basically, God is all about comfort. He is a relational God who wants to be close to us and share genuine comfort with us, so that we can share it with others. 
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. 2 Cor 1:3-7 NIV 
We should live in comfort – not in a huge arm chair with someone pealing grapes and feeding them to us – but in the comfort of knowing that God is with us! 

What about those who don’t believe?

So what happens when we have an unbelieving friend who loses their husband, wife, child or close relative – what comfort can we give them? If God is the God of all comfort then we should be people of comfort too! Firstly show them you care! Being there for people when they need us is a critical part of communicating the good news. If God is there for us and they won’t allow God to be there for them then maybe they will allow us to be there for them! You may not be experienced in dealing with death or bereavement, but I have no doubt that you are experienced in caring for people. A bruised toe, a broken toe, a broken foot, a paralysed leg, an amputated leg, a dead relative – it is just a progression. You might say that I don’t want to deal with that – but where is the love of God then? As a nation we sanitise death to the degree that we don’t know how to deal with it. I read an article about a 17 year old girl who fell to pieces at her relative’s funeral, because her mum had not allowed her to go to her brother’s funeral or her father’s funeral, and now she was 17 she fell apart at an aunt’s funeral. We should sensitively introduce our children to the reality of death. It isn’t easy, but making up stories to tell our kids is not solution either. 

In a post-modern, post-Christian society that doesn’t teach children about heaven and hell, children are now taught that their loved ones become stars or angels, things which are clearly untrue. In an age that rejects the story of God as a 'myth' we replace the truth of what happens when we die with a crazy mythology that we make up on the spot. They might be told that their loved ones are in heaven, but there is no discussion or even mention of the possibility of hell. Do we think that we will scare our children by telling them such things or is it that we think they aren’t intellectually capable of processing the truth? Are we doing another “Father Christmas” on our children? Or is the real truth that unbelievers haven’t got it worked out for themselves and so don’t know how to tell their children? What do we tell our friends? The only important thing here is not to talk rubbish or share platitudes. Don’t say things that you have read in a book or you think you heard someone else say once. Speak from your heart OR be quiet – and there is nothing wrong with being quiet. A hug, a squeezed hand, someone to sit with who will embrace the quiet with them or just listen to them has greater value than a preacher. If the opportunity presents itself, ask if you can pray with them and encourage them to reach out to God. 
The death of a loved one is a great opportunity to connect with the God of all comfort. I think that the issue behind this question probably came from another question – when the unbeliever asks you where their loved one is now. This is when we have to talk about the love of God and that God has prepared a place for those who accept his free gift of life in Jesus. We can also say how that we do not know what happened in the last days or moments before death, but that all who call on the name of the Lord will be with Jesus in heaven. 
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:1-3 NIV 
A talk about how much God wants to be in relationship with them now and how he wants to walk with them through their time of loss, is probably the subject to aim for.  I recall how at the moment my son died I cried out “God! My son, my only son” and he responded in an audible voice “That’s OK, I know that feeling” – which was all I needed to hear. God knows our pain, the depth of our feelings and wants to draw close to us – believer or unbeliever! Potentially your conversation may go all the way to a new believer’s prayer. Whether it does or does not, is not the issue, what matters is are you being a friend, a good neighbour to this grieving person right now? Were you a good listener or a good preacher? I think the listener is what matters, the preacher is not what is necessary at such a time. We shouldn’t look at the bereaved as easy targets, not looking through the “deaths” column in the local newspaper and going knocking on their door – preying on them instead of praying with them! If we are not careful we become the Bible salesman from 'Paper Moon'.

The Place of Comfort

We want everyone in their time of need to receive comfort from God. We also want to be a channel for that comfort to them. The truth is that we should not be comfortable talking to them. If we are then how hard has our heart become? No one relishes these opportunities! No one is an expert! We may be confident in our God, but if we aren’t moved to tears by their pain and loss, then I am not sure we are any use to them. Making ourselves uncomfortable to help our neighbour is what it is all about - being a good listener, an honest friend and a faithful follower of Jesus all rolled into one. Don’t be afraid of comforting someone in a time of loss. Remember that you might need that friend someday,. But never forget the comfort you have received from God and always be ready to share it, because it might change someone else’s life today.