This past Sunday, July 12, 2015 my Grandma Elizabeth passed away. This brings memories of when my mom’s dad passed away in 2011 and when my dad’s mom passed away in 2008. Talking with my sister Julia, who is currently in Asia as part of an 11 month missions trip especially brings back when I was in China when my Grandma passed away. The wrestling of whether to try to come back, investing in my family, being there for my dad, finding closure, etc.
At that time, I couldn’t make it back, so I took part through writing instead. Here are my reflections from that time. (It is a long post as it was written to collect my thoughts, not as a blog post.)
Grandma’s final week
This past Friday, April 25, 2008 my Grandma Goll passed away at the age of 88. Last summer she was still doing quite well and even driving. I remember when she had come up from Florida, before her car arrived, she was getting antsy about not being able to get around. She liked to be out and active. It is amazing how quickly life changes. About a month ago we heard that she was starting to have more serious problems and now she is gone. One of the big reasons Elyse and I had decided to go to Ohio this summer was to visit her again, but it turns out this summer is a few months too late. During her last few days we heard about her sons (she had 6 of them) and their wives staying with her at all times. On the last day, those who were there at the time went to have a meal together and she slipped away while they were gone. The nurse said that is very common, people often wait until they have a moment alone to let go.
My previous encounters with death
Her husband, my grandpa, died before I was born, so I didn’t experience his death. My mom’s mom died when I was two years old. I don’t remember her death, but I do have one memory of playing catch with her with a beach ball in the front yard. Apparently, after she died I thought my grandpa, whom I was very close with, was hiding her and wouldn’t let me see her, so I wouldn’t talk with him for a while. Now I feel bad about it; he lost his wife and at the same time his grandson wouldn’t talk with him, but apparently he understood. Other than these experiences (which I remember very vaguely at best), this is the first time I have really experienced the death of a relative or anyone I am close with (a guy on my hall died in college as did a friend of my sisters around the same time and more recently one of our foreign friends in China, but I wasn’t personally close with any of them). When I heard she would pass away in the next few days I wondered how I would react. Now I know the answer to that question… Joy. Yes, it is a joy mixed with sadness, but joy would definitely be the dominate reaction.
“Joy”, an expected emotion
“Joy” may seem a strange feeling to have at someone’s death. Would it be “joy” to know they are finally done suffering? Not really, that would be more like “relief”, not “joy”. Would it be “joy” to know they lived a long, full life. There may be a content feeling or the feeling of loss may not be so strong knowing they lived a full life and that it was time for them to go. There may be a peace that wouldn’t be present at the death of a child, but I still don’t think “joy” would be the correct word, and though I loved my grandma and she did have a large impact on my life, I know that my joy was not from the past, not from the life she had lived. The past brings happy memories of times together visiting, talking and laughing, but not “joy” in her death. It seems that “joy” at one’s death can only come from what lies ahead. I know this is true in my “joy” at my grandma’s death. It is not from her past or her death that I am joyful, it is for her future. I am joyful for her.
Death, an occasion to mourn
Before looking more at the ability to have joy at a loved one’s death, I want to look at the ability to mourn.
There is a lot of mourning at my grandma’s death. I have heard that some of my uncles (her sons) are taking it very hard. My parents are mourning, though they seem to be doing okay since they have the same hope we will discuss below. Before the funeral, my parents only mentioned her death to a few friends because they did not want others to feel obligated to come. However, through word of mouth alone many heard about the funeral and a large number of my parents’ friends came to support them in this difficult time. Did they come to join in their joy? No, they came to support them in their time of loss and mourning. My parents did feel very encouraged by this show of love, but death is still a time to mourn.
In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul refers to death as being “away from the body”. No matter what happens to the one who has died, having a loved one be “away from the body” is very difficult for those who are left behind. Death separates the living from the dead. Every time I leave America it is hard saying good-bye to my family. Even though I can talk to them on the phone and will likely see them the next year, it is still hard. Even when my wife and I go to work and are apart for a few hours, it is hard. Separation is hard. Death brings the most final of all separations, and so it is hard for those who are left behind. It is good to mourn. It is good to cry. Death is hard. Death is, well,…death.
In John 11 we read about Jesus reaction to his friend, Lazarus’, death. It is put very plainly, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus wept. Jesus mourned. Jesus was grieved at Lazarus’ death. We can gain deeper insight into Jesus’ grief over death by looking a short time earlier. Earlier that day (perhaps a bit longer than a day), Jesus had told his followers “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep [referring to his death], but I go to awaken him” (John 11:11). Before Jesus was at Lazarus’ tomb, before he wept, Jesus knew he was going to raise him from the dead. Jesus knew that Lazarus wasn’t going to be dead for more than four days and yet he wept. Jesus did in fact raise Lazarus from the dead, and there must have been much rejoicing, but the fact still remains. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept. Jesus hates death. It is okay to weep. It is okay to mourn. Death is not a reason for joy, it is a reason for deep grief.
As I think about the appropriateness of mourning, I wonder why I am not mourning more at my grandma’s death. I am not sure if it will hit more strongly when I am home this summer, but for now I am doing okay. I know it is harder for my parents, but even they are doing okay. I think it is encouraging for all of us knowing she said she was ready to go and that she was looking forward to being with Jesus. While in one sense she was sad to go, she herself was excited for the time to be away from the body and be with Christ.
Mourn, but not as one without hope
That being said, I will now explain why “Joy” is the dominate reaction to my grandma’s death. Paul, in discussing death, which he refers to as “sleep”, states, “we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). It is important to note that Paul does not say not to grieve. He says, not to grieve “like the rest of men, who have no hope”. Death brings grief, but those who have hope need not grieve in the same way as those who have no hope.
In looking at this it is interesting to see my parents’ reaction. As mentioned above, it is hard, and they are mourning, but it is not the intense mourning of those who did not know Christ. They are sad, but they have hope.
What is hope?
“Hope” can mean many things. We can hope that the person isn’t really dead, but that we will soon wake from a bad dream. We can hope that if we wish or pray hard enough they will come back to life. Hope can mean many things, but true hope must be based in truth. Paul doesn’t leave “hope” as a vague idea to encourage us without reason. Immediately after telling us not to mourn because we have hope, he tells us exactly what our hope is and why it is true. His encouragement is as follows:
- Jesus died and rose from the dead (He bases his encouragement on the historical fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus.)
Those who have died will be with Jesus and in fact will return with Jesus for those who are still alive when Jesus returns.
This is stated in more detail elsewhere:
Jesus states, “whoever believes in him [Jesus] may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned…” (John 3:15-18).
Jesus states, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:24-26).
Jesus states, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes [in Jesus] has eternal life” (John 6:47).
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:20).
It is clear that to those who believe in Jesus, God gives eternal life.
It is important to note that “eternal life” does not mean that our bodies will not die. In fact we are told “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). All of us will die. Rather “eternal life” refers to what happens after our body dies. In the verse just mentioned, we are told that after we die “comes judgment”. We will stand before God and will be judged. My grandma has been there and that is where my joy for her begins. My joy is not in her death, her absence from the body, but in what happened after that time. She stood before God. I can picture here in some way departing from the body and going before God. I picture this as a fearful time, but also a wonderful time. I picture my grandma standing before God.
Jesus declared that those who rejected him “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). So then the important question becomes “Was my grandma considered righteous or not?” The answer to that question is very important, for it determines if she was sent to “eternal punishment” or “eternal life”. Either way, she, and all who die, will exist forever. It is a matter of if they will exist forever in life or in punishment.
(Note: It is also important to note that “eternal life” along with not meaning the body will not die, also does not mean we will forever be in this world (which would be more like eternal suffering than eternal “life”). Jesus says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3). Jesus refers to his Father’s house as being somewhere else. When we die, or when Jesus returns, he will take us to live in the house of God. Elsewhere Jesus tells a story which explains the “house” of God, only this time he refers to it as a “kingdom”, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). Later this kingdom is described in this way, “the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son” (Revelation 21:3-7). Those who are given eternal life will have a life of joy, with no more pain or crying or mourning or death.)
Was my grandma righteous?
This question is easy to answer, “no”. My grandma was not righteous, none of us are. As it is written, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
This may seem a bit harsh, after all my grandma was a wonderful woman. I can still remember times hanging out at grandma’s house when I was young. I can picture her excitement to be at Elyse’s and my wedding. Elyse only met my grandma a few times, but she still remembers how she, though getting weaker with age, still gave her a very firm hug. As well as being very warm in welcoming Elyse into our family, she was also very supportive of my being in China. She was faithful in praying for me (as well as Elyse after we got married) and expressing her excitement to hear about my life here. When I was a teenager, and still to this day, I was into Christian music. In some ways that music helped me through some difficult times. I hadn’t thought about it in a while, but looking back it was my grandma who helped develop that interest. It was grandma who bought me my first Christian music tape. I hadn’t asked for it, and I am pretty sure it wasn’t my birthday or anything, but she showed up and gave me Petra “Back to the Street”. Now it makes me laugh to think that my grandma bought me my first rock n’ roll album. She wanted her grandson to grow in Christ, and though I assume she wouldn’t have enjoyed that particular album herself, she thought I would. And she was correct.
As much as my grandma was a “good person” that doesn’t mean that she was righteous. The standard for “righteousness” is perfection, and that she was not, none of us are. The standard is “the glory of God”, as it is written, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:20). To “sin” doesn’t mean we killed someone or broke a human law (though many times human laws are based on God’s law so breaking a human law often means breaking God’s law as well), it means we are not perfect. We have rejected God, and rejected God’s ways. We have done, said or even thought, something other than what God desires. God is perfect and to have anything against him or his ways makes us less than perfect. No, my grandma was not righteous.
So why “Joy” if there is no hope?
If my grandma was not righteous, then she is in “eternal punishment”. So where is “hope” and why is there “joy”.
Paul again answers this question. In talking about his own sin, his own imperfection, he writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). Paul was not perfect. Paul was not righteous. He was like my grandma. However, he says that he, and my grandma, can be delivered (rescued) from death (eternal punishment) by Jesus! This is exciting news!
He then continues, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 7:24-8:4).
There is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. So the question now changes from “Was my grandma righteous (perfect) on her own?” to “Was my grandma in Christ Jesus?”.
Was my grandma “in Christ Jesus”?
This question isn’t as easy to answer. I know she wasn’t righteous, none of us are. But some are “in Christ Jesus” and some are not, so that answer isn’t as clear. Ultimately, only God is the judge of that question, however we can have our own, imperfect judgment, and by my imperfect judgment I would say “Yes, my grandma was in Christ Jesus”. Before I give my reasons that I believe she was “in Christ Jesus” let me give a few items that are not reasons I believe she was in Christ Jesus.
- she went to church – Anyone can go to church. Those who believe in Jesus may desire to meet with others who believe, but others may have other reasons to go. Simply going to church doesn’t mean anything.
she read her Bible – Again, anyone can read their Bible. Some may read for cultural reasons, others for literary, others out of curiosity. Simply reading the Bible doesn’t mean anything.
she prayed – Anyone can pray. Even assuming we mean praying to Jesus, there are those who pray out of cultural habit, to make themselves feel better, etc. Simply praying doesn’t mean anything.
These three items do give evidence of being “in Christ Jesus” but they are not enough. I know many who do these things and do not love Jesus and in my imperfect judgment are not “in Christ Jesus”. Many who do these things may very well be in Christ, and they should be considered as evidences, but they alone do not mean that someone is “in Christ Jesus”.
Rather than looking only at those things, I would like to see if my grandma meets the criteria that God has set for being “in Christ Jesus”.
Belief in Jesus – John 3:15 states, “whoever believes in him [Jesus] may have eternal life”
Let it be known that Jesus is Lord – “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord…you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
Believe that God raised Jesus from the dead – “if you…believe in your heart that God raised him [Jesus] from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
Call on Jesus to save – “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).
I believe that my grandma meets each of these criteria. Her belief in Jesus and recognizing him as her Lord, may have shown through her desire to meet with others who believe in Jesus (church), reading his letter to her (Bible) and talking with Jesus (prayer), but Jesus saved her not through what she did, but by his power working through faith. She did not simply believe God exists, she desired for him to be Lord of her life. As James wrote, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe— and shudder!” (James 2:19). True belief in God will show itself by following Jesus, not simply believing an idea. I believe my grandma did try to follow Jesus. She did not do so perfectly, but she desired to follow him. Though she was not perfect, as we already saw in Paul’s writing about his own sin “Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord”. Jesus, not her own goodness, saved her from her sin.
After her death my parents asked if there was anything of hers that I would like that had special meaning to me. There was only one thing I desired and I feel it reflected my view of my grandma. In her old house, after coming in the front door, there was a built in bookshelf to your right. On about the third shelf up there was a wooden plaque with the word “JESUS” on it. I always thought it was interesting because if you looked at it the normal way it just looked like pieces of wood, however if you moved further away or squinted your eyes you could read it clearly. Of all the things she owned, I remember that plaque most clearly, I also believe she had a reason for having that plaque. She wanted to be reminded who was her Lord. She wanted others to know who was her Lord. This plaque wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t necessarily a great decoration, but it was a good, simple reminder. My grandma loved Jesus and she wanted him to be her Lord.
How does someone who is not righteous have eternal life?
We already saw that my grandma needed to be “righteous” to have “eternal life” and that she was not righteous. So how does it work that she has “eternal life”? Paul again answers this question when he says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him [Jesus] who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5) and continuing, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin” (Romans 4:7-8). Jesus then “justifies the ungodly” and forgives and covers their sin so that their faith is “counted as righteousness”. My grandma was not righteous on her own, but Jesus considered her faith to be righteousness because he forgave her and covered her sin. So then the final question comes, what does it mean that Jesus “covered her sin”? What did he cover it with?
What can cover sin?
1 Corinthians 15:3-4 seem to discuss this question. “Christ died for our sins…, he was buried, he was raised on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
In 1 John 1:7 we read “the blood of Jesus… cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
And again in Revelation 1:5 we read, “To him [Jesus] who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. (Revelation 1:5-6).
What can cover sin? Jesus’ blood. Do we literally bathe in his blood and it rinses sin away? No, but it was his dying in our place (blood) that covered our sin. The punishment for our sin (death) was put on Jesus and he died in our place. But that is not the end. He then rose again and conquered death, so that those who believe in him and have him as their Lord can have eternal life. This is a description of my grandma. She was not perfect, but Jesus was her God and her Lord and she now has eternal life together with him.
Honestly, just as my grandma was looking forward to seeing Jesus, I too am looking forward to that time. I am grateful for the time that I have in this life or “in the body”, and I plan to enjoy and make the most of it, but I am very much looking forward to when I get to follow in my grandma’s path and be with Jesus. What a wonderful day that will be! I will see Jesus. I will see my grandma. We will have eternity together where there is no pain, no mourning, no death. This is truly exciting. I can picture my grandma right now standing in Jesus presence, enjoying this eternal situation. (For that matter, while I don’t know about all of my relatives and loved ones, I have heard that several of my other deceased relatives believed in Jesus and will also be there celebrating eternal joy. It is my prayer that all of my relatives and loved ones and everyone would trust in Jesus and spend forever with him, but we know that not everyone will trust in Jesus and have that joyous experience.) As I think of it I even get a bit jealous. I am joyful for my grandma. It is sad, I won’t see her this summer (though that hasn’t fully sank in yet), but eternity together in heaven with Jesus and my grandma and all those who believed in Jesus! Oh, I am so excited I can’t express! These next few years (9 or 90 are basically the same compared to eternity), are nothing compared to eternity, and eternity is coming! Joyous!
In closing I would like to quote a statement of Victory and Joy. It is in this statement that I have joy in my grandma’s death. Death has not won! My grandma is with Jesus!
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 15:55-57)