One day when I was in middle school, my classmates and I were told one of our former teachers had just died tragically. That very same morning, we were told, as she was placing a wash load in her dryer at home, she was electrocuted. She was rushed to the nearest hospital, but to no avail. She passed away.
As is customary in some countries, that very same evening, relatives and friends gathered for her wake. With a dejected look, the shocked widower seemed to look to a distant, undefined point in space and nowhere at the same time. I was standing not far from him when I saw a local church elder approach him.
“Remember that God knows what He is doing,” I heard the well-meaning church elder tell the bereaved man. “One day, you’ll understand. After all, you know the end, don’t you?”
The mourning widower, also a believer, suddenly focused on the man addressing him, looking him intently in the eye.
“I don’t find that thought useful at the moment,” he drily replied.
Embarrassed, his eyes fixed on the floor, the church elder soon rushed away into the night.
* * * * *
Through the years, some occasions I’ve spent in mourning losses have prompted me to revisit that exchange. Which of the two believers — the church elder or the new widower — was right? Should one of them — or both of them — have expressed himself differently? What is the right thing to say in situations like this?
Lately, as many of our churches and neighborhoods seem increasingly surrounded by people in mourning, I find those questions have acquired a renewed meaning. They have driven me to think about what we, as Seventh-day Adventists, can bring — or abstain from bringing — to the proverbial table.
The Macro: The All-Encompassing Story
Amid increasing uncertainties and conflicting explanations in the world, Seventh-day Adventists often stand out for providing a cohesive, coherent explanation of most events that have happened or are currently happening in our world. The metanarrative of the cosmic struggle between good and evil — what we call the great controversy — is the overarching explanatory foundation of everything we say or do.
In simple terms, the great controversy plot goes more or less like this: God created our world perfect. An enemy called Satan interrupted that perfection. We are living through the consequences of that new, imperfect reality. God is making sure, however, that primeval perfection will ultimately be restored. It is the reason He sent Jesus to live, die, and ascend to heaven as our intercessor. Jesus has promised to come again to take us to heaven. Then everything will be as perfect as it was originally planned to be. Forever and ever.
The Micro: Our Individual Experience
The key question, of course, is whether a rational awareness of that metanarrative provides enough comfort to those facing the challenges resulting from it. Is the prospect of future consolation enough to console us today? How does the big picture correlate with a smaller, personal picture?
In simpler terms, does my tooth pain go away faster if I think that one day there will be no more tooth pain? Not necessarily, I’m afraid. And is a reminder of the great controversy theme the best we can do to comfort those in mourning, in every moment, under any circumstance?
From Macro to Micro, Jesus’ Way
As I see it, John 11 in the Bible provides a useful, balanced tip from the life of Jesus.
You might know the story. Jesus arrives at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus when the latter has been dead for days. To comfort Martha, Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again,” to which Martha answers, “I know that he will rise again at the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:23, 24, NKJV).
Martha understands the gist of the great controversy theme — the ultimate triumph of good over evil, sickness, and death. Still, she is struggling because she feels that Jesus, the Son of God, does not care at that moment.
But then Jesus does something wonderfully thoughtful for both Martha and Mary. He empathizes with their situation. John writes that “when Jesus saw [Mary] weeping … He groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (v. 33, NKJV). And then, John succinctly adds, “Jesus wept” (v. 35, NKJV). He wept in a way that people around Him said, “See how he loved [Lazarus]!” (v. 36, NKJV). Jesus, who believes in God’s ultimate triumph over evil, is crying! Jesus, who can conquer death because He created life, is shedding tears!
Not only Martha and Mary but also the rest of the people around Jesus find comfort and love. They do so not by reflecting on the ultimate victory of good over evil but by connecting to Jesus’ deeply personal, committed response to human suffering.
There are occasions to unapologetically point people to the closing chapters of our planet’s history under Satan’s interim dominion. The time to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15, NKJV), however, may not be one of them. In this regard, as in any other area in our lives, we’d do better to follow Jesus’ balanced example.
Often, sincere tears will open hearts to Jesus as no rational insight ever will.