How do we comfort people in their loss? I recently read a dozen and a half or so letters that Martin Luther wrote to people who had just lost a spouse or child. Each letter was unique, but here are three themes that are woven throughout most of them:
1. He affirms the legitimacy of their sorrow. Hardly a letter passes where he does not give some kind of explicit affirmation of the appropriateness of their grief.
“I… yield to your sorrow. Greater and better men than we are have given way to grief and are not blamed for it” (Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 60).
“It is quite inconceivable that you should not be mourning. In fact, it would not be encouraging to learn that a father and mother are not grieved over the death of their son” (61).
“this feeling of sorrow is not displeasing to God” (62).
“It is right and natural that you should grieve… For God has not created us to be without feeling or to be like stones or sticks” (72).
2. He exhorts for sorrow to be limited. As many times as he encourages the suffering that their sorrow is pleasing to God, he helps them see that there is reason to sorrow in moderation.
“It is necessary to put a limit to one’s sorrow and grief” (62).
“Nevertheless, there ought to be a certain moderation in our grief” (67)
“However, our grief should be moderate” (72).
“but our sorrow should be temperate and not too severe” (79).
3. He piles on reasons for comfort. Such reasons are, in fact, the reason why our sorrow should be limited. There is reason to rejoice even in the midst of our suffering. He comforts by reminding them of God’s sovereign care, the Christian faith of the deceased, the sufferings of Christ, and many other blessings in Christ. Here are a few examples:
“She was his before he gave her; she was his after he had given her; and she is still his (as we all are) now that he has taken her away. Although it hurts us when he takes his own from us, his good will should be a greater comfort to us than all his gifts, for God is immeasurably better than all his gifts” (54).
“Let this be your comfort: Your sorrow is not the greatest experienced by the children of men… And even if all our sufferings on earth were heaped together, they sill would be as nothing when compared with those which the innocent Son of God suffered for us and for our salvation” (74).
“Consolation is not to be found in the flesh at such a time as this. One must find it in the spirit, in the realization that she has gone on before us to Him who has called us all and who in his good time will take us from the misery and wickedness of this world unto himself” (75).
All of this is what we can say when we take seriously Paul’s words, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” and “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (2 Cor. 6:10; 1 Thess. 4:13). We don’t err on either side. I’ve heard Christians say that suffering is not, in fact, bad, and that we should just rejoice. Sometimes we can feel guilty for our tears, as if we must not be trusting God enough if we need to take off a few days from work to grieve. Luther is an example to us here in his explicit encouragement to those who weep that this is ok, normal, and expected. “We aren’t stones.”
On the other hand, Christians are to weep differently. We don’t despair. Our hearts are to be weighed down and lifted at the same time. Sorrow mixed with joy. Both/and, not either/or.