On Ministering to the Dying and Bereaved

Most of what I have learned about this topic I learned from other people, but I have tested it against Scripture, and have also put it to the test in ministry (16 funerals in almost 4 years), and I find it extremely helpful.

To the Bereaved:

1. While it is true to say that the dead Christian is in a better place, that is not the most helpful thing to say. I mean, it’s great for the dead person that he’s in another better place, but what about the people left behind mourning? In a very real sense, it is a physical bereavement. The bereaved miss the physical presence of the one who has died. They miss the touch, the personality, the talking, the eye contact. This is where it hurts most. Therefore, talking about the resurrection should have a focus not only on the new body that the dead believer will have, but also on the reunion with the bereaved that will occur. This reunion can also be a great gateway into the Gospel message: “How do you know you will see this person again? Only if you trust in Jesus and then have the hope of the same resurrection to eternal life.”

2. Going along with the first point: do not underestimate the power of touch in ministry at this point. Great care must be taken such that touching will always be appropriate. However, I have yet to have anyone misinterpret a hug at such a time. It is a great ease of the sharpness of physical bereavement to have physical contact.

3. Resurrection texts I find are the most appopriate for funerals, even at the funeral of an unbeliever. No other texts in the Bible show us so clearly that death is not the end. No other texts show us so clearly that death is a homegoing and that it is temporary. No other texts offer such hope in the midst of grief. Going right along with this is preaching that death is UNnatural, not natural. Death is an intruder into the created order. We lose sight of this sometimes, especially when we say that death are taxes are inevitable. Make a strong connection between death and sin, as the former is the full flower of the latter. Funerals are the best opportunities to share the Gospel. Nowhere else will people have the results of sin staring them right in the face. Nowhere else can we so legitimately face people with their own mortality and uttermost need of Jesus.

4. Do not advise people to seek to avoid grief. The only way to deal with grief is to go through it, pain and all, recognizing (and 1 Thessalonians 4 is essential here) that the grief of a believer mourning the death of a believer is of a fundamentally different sort than the grief of a non-believer. It is a grief laced with hope. That tempers grief, though it does not eliminate it. Encourage people to take their grief in all honesty to God. The Psalms are important here. We cannot escape grief. The problem with trying to avoid it is that we will bury it, and it will fester, quite possibly into bitterness. It is much better to deal with it immediately and thoroughly, for healing and a measure of peace will come much more quickly that way.

To the Dying:

5. People who are dying want to know about the afterlife. Tell them about where the soul goes, and where the body stays until the Resurrection. It is surprising how many people think that souls sleep after death.

6. People who are dying and know that they are going to heaven will want to know if they can still know things and recognize people. Point to Hebrews 12 in this regard and the passage in Revelation of the souls crying out to God “How long?”

7. People who are dying and do not know where they are going obviously need the Gospel, especially a Gospel of grace. Such people are usually worried about whether their lives have been good enough for God. This is an especially dangerous time for them. They need the full grace of justification by faith alone at this time more than anything else. Machen’s deathbed quotation about the active righteousness of Christ imputed is appropriate also.

8. Ask the dying person about their regrets. Tell them that their past misdeeds and lack of positive deeds can be forgiven in Christ.

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13 Comments

  1. August 25, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    [...] August 25, 2008 in pastoral ministry | Tags: death, dying, gospel, ministry, resurrection | Good stuff from Lane at GB [...]

  2. "Lee N. Field" said,

    August 25, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    And for heaven’s sake, get the resurrection right. Not a problem, I’m sure, in your funerals, but I’ve been in some where it’s been pretty muddled.

    I requested Isaiah 25 be read at my Mom’s funeral: “And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples,
    the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever”

  3. August 26, 2008 at 12:50 am

    Handled sensitively, a funeral is one of the best times to preach the gospel. For both believers and unbelievers who are present, it is important to stress that the believer who has died is in heaven (not just some vague “better place”). For the believer, this serves as comfort. For the unbeliever, this can serve as a warning that, unless they bow the knee to the Lord Jesus Christ, they will not see heaven – but hell.

  4. jonathan said,

    August 26, 2008 at 6:46 am

    This is a great list. With all due respect though, I think you forgot the most important thing for both the bereaved and the dying.

    Be with the person. There is no substitute for just sitting with those in pain. Sitting with a person, even if you don’t say anything, means more than you realize. All the words in the world will not comfort them. The physical presence of another person who cares, makes a huge difference. I know many pastors that will tell you that people who they ministered to in times of serious loss, the never ever have heard them say – “wow what you said really helped me.” Instead, it was always – I never forgot that you were there – you came to visit.

    Christ’s pain was not only suffering on the Cross, and being cast out of the city, and being shamed in the way he was killed. It was also – separation from the father. Even God is a communal entity (3 in one – never alone). Never doubt the power of community!

  5. August 26, 2008 at 7:22 am

    [...] Posted by donaldkim under Church, Spirituality   I read this one post the other day on ministering to the dying and bereaved. It was posted yesterday, and I have to say that it is making me think about some things I’ve [...]

  6. greenbaggins said,

    August 26, 2008 at 11:01 am

    I haven’t forgotten being with the person, Jonathan. It is implied in the first list, numbers 1,2, and 4.

  7. TJ said,

    August 27, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Thanks for posting this!

  8. Bobby Rhodes said,

    September 1, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    This is my first trip to this blog, and I doubt I will spend much more time here, but this post is interesting to me.

    This is when ministry is very difficult and yet crucial. So, I have a couple of questions.

    1. Am I missing a place in the Scriptures that assures me that I will see my saved grandparents in heaven (Hebrews 12 doesn’t seem to serve your suggestion)? I wonder if we will care about our relations in this world at all when we stand before our God. If we don’t have husbands and wives, do we have any other connection to our earthly life?

    2. I am from the South and we value touch a great deal. My mom is the queen of reassurance and support with a hand on the shoulder or arm, hugs when I see her, etc. What about ministry in a culture that does not value touch? Or, more to the point, what about our brothers and sisters in our communities who come from these cultures? There might not be a need for an answer here. It is just a concern.

    I appreciate your thoughts in #3 and 4 as well.

    Thanks, and God bless your ministry!

  9. greenbaggins said,

    September 1, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Bobby, welcome to my blog, even if you don’t plan to spend much time here!

    1. I would say the passages surrounding the resurrected body of Christ serve the purpose well. Christ’s body was recognizable as Christ’s body. In the new heavens and the new earth, I believe that we will see a renewed earth, and will actually live on earth with no veil between heaven and earth. And if Christ’s body is the firstfruits of the resurrection harvest (see 1 Cor 15), then our bodies will be like His, recognizable for who we are, and yet different as well. As to souls before the resurrection, since they are conscious, then they are also distinct one from another. That is the inference I draw from Hebrews 12.

    2. I think that everyone values touch. In a culture (such as mine, actually!) where people do not touch very much, touch means very much more, and is all the more powerful as a way of ministry.

  10. Bobby Rhodes said,

    September 4, 2008 at 12:34 am

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    In response:
    Christ’s body was recognizable. It also ate, drank and walked through walls. Additionally, it bore the wounds of his death. Will we bear ours as well? I don’t think John the baptizer is walking around holding his head in his hands. I agree about the new heavens and the new earth being a place where we live and work in perfect worship. Don’t see how that suggests we maintain our relations and memories from this world.
    Hebrews 12 uses athletic imagery and metaphor to illustrate a point about endurance. I don’t think its author was intending to speak about the condition of souls before the resurrection. If so, the souls in heaven are not enthralled in worship of our God and king, but spend their time watching us and cheering us on. Doesn’t make much sense to me.

    Not every culture values touch. That’s just the way it is. In some places, touch, even within the immediate family, is rarely deemed valuable. I spent 12 months ministering in China and met minority people who see physical contact apart from close relations as inappropriate. They even balked at the idea of shaking hands.

  11. Ed Eubanks said,

    September 6, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Thanks for this post; I’m very encouraged to see this here, and to learn from your rich experience in this field.

    In brief response to Bobby (#10): Christ’s wounds were resurrection wounds, and He bears them on His resurrected body because His death (and the wounds that accompanied it) was an eternal intercession for His elect. They are, in that sense, a portion of His perfected work on our behalf.

  12. Bobby Rhodes said,

    September 10, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Ed,
    Thanks for your thoughts.
    Does that mean he will permanently bear them, even in his ascended and glorified body?
    Doesn’t that idea call into question how much we can know about our own resurrected state by looking at that of Jesus since his resurrection is a bit different from ours?

    In short, my thought is that even we are still trying to come up with human ideas of comfort and not giving ourselves fully to God’s instruction. My comments about Jesus and Hebrews 12 illustrate my concern that we are implanting into the Bible things that we really want to be there as a way to self-soothe rather than relying on a peace that passes understanding.

    Thanks again for the discussion! If anything else comes to mind I will head this way again.

  13. Anna said,

    October 7, 2008 at 11:10 am

    Bobby, right on! This is my first time to this site and I so agree with you. So often, we make the bible all about ‘us’. But it is all about “Him”. He never promised that we would be free of suffering, but He did promise His peace. And we can receive His peace only by fully relying on Him, by inviting Him into our situation and allowing Him to comfort us in His way, not the way we think it should be done.


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