April 26, 2010

Grave Lessons about Application

I was staring into the open grave of my son Christopher. It was an unspeakably painful moment. The nightmare all parents dread had become my life. Had I been physically able to muster more tears, I would have been weeping uncontrollably. As I watched four men struggle to lower a steel lid over the grave vault holding Christopher’s miniature white casket, I realized I would see his little smiling face no more, and run my fingers through his beautiful blond hair never again. We would never snuggle together or touch one another again. Our time together was over. As I stood there, looking into what felt like an abyss, I realized that I was in the most despairing, skeptical, and faithless state I had ever been in. I felt like cursing God for the rest of my life. I was on the edge of the dark, bottomless pit of hell.

The excruciating pain of my son’s death was a defining moment for me, profoundly shaping my view of God’s Word. Previous to that moment, while God’s Word had been central to my life, I thought its primary purpose was to give me guidance and doctrinal stability. While I knew His Word was about real human experiences (like suffering and death), it had seemed flat, two-dimensional, like a blueprint or a map. To me, it had been little more than a divinely inspired collection of information. I had experienced no great loss or defeat in life up to that point, and I even thought that 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (which deals with the death of loved ones) was about nothing more than the timing of Christ’s return. “Sure, a few Christians in Thessalonica died, but that was simply an occasion for Paul to teach about the end-times.”

Over the years, I had logged quite a bit of time studying 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, trying to understand it. I sought to comprehend the Apostle Paul’s teaching about the relationship between death and Christ’s coming for His church. I struggled to know the facts about Jesus’ raising the dead at the rapture of the church, and once I knew these facts, I even meditated upon them. In other words, I laid a basis of knowledge about this part of God’s Word. And part of my knowledge was the correct application of the passage: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (verse 18).

In a culture that is rapidly moving into emotivism, the above paragraph is terribly out of step. How dare I use words like “study,” “understand,” “comprehend,” “facts” and “knowledge” when talking about death?

I used these strong, cognitive words intentionally, because one of the purposes of the Word of God is to give us knowledge; we are instructed to learn about the things Scripture recounts. While this isn’t the ultimate end of God’s Word, it is certainly the essential beginning. The Bible has a very real cognitive dimension; knowledge of certain things is absolutely necessary for meaningful living on planet earth. Quite simply, we must know what biblical passages mean before we can apply their meaning to our lives.

As I pondered the fact that my son’s little body was being covered by a steel lid and several feet of dirt, I wondered how God could possibly resurrect his body through such obstacles. It was at this curious, yet horrifying moment that God graciously reminded me of my study of 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. I began to ponder with new tear-clouded eyes Paul’s graveside theology for the grieving Thessalonians:

13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words. (ESV)

While these verses contained rich truths about the end times, this passage suddenly seemed far more oriented toward families and friends grieving the death of loved ones. It was theology wrapped in real, gritty, painful, emotion-filled experience. It was shaped to address not an abstract and mechanical interest in the end-times, but the tear-stained eyes of believers who had lost their friends and family members, even their children. It was addressed, at that moment, to me. It was God’s Word to me, pulling me back from the abyss of despair and unbelief. It was God’s Word to me, giving me emotional comfort and a hope that could overcome unspeakable tragedy. It was God’s Word to me in my grief, so that I could grieve my heart out, yet “not grieve as others do who have no hope.” In that graveside realization, I learned to apply God’s Word in a very different way. Perhaps I began to apply it in the way God intended, with both my mind and heart, with both my intellect and my emotions. At that moment I learned how desperately I needed to apply God’s Word to my life.

Although it has been almost 22 years since my graveside pondering of 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, I continue to unpack the significance of this experience. It was pivotal in helping me wed the informing dimension of the Bible with its transforming one. My scales had been tipped toward the information/knowledge end and needed to be balanced with the corresponding transformational intention of the Scriptures. It is always a both/and. While my generation has emphasized the Bible’s informing dimension, younger generations are hungering for its transforming dimension. Perhaps my generation’s imbalanced emphasis on knowledge has fueled your generation’s imbalanced emphasis on experience. Neither is complete by itself. We must know the Bible’s information before we can experience the Bible’s transformation. I could never have been comforted by the remarkable truths of Christ’s uniting of loved ones at the “catching-up” of the church without first knowing those truths. More bluntly, I could never have experienced this timely application of God’s Word in the midst of the darkest moment of my life if I hadn’t first mastered the information about it. It was a grave lesson, but a life-changing one, about application.

Walt Russell is a New Testament professor at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and is author of Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (NavPress, 2000).

This post has earned 7 Comments so far.

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  • April 27, 2010 // 03:43 am //  # 
    Michael Lee's avatar Michael Lee

    Beautifully written. Great insight. Much TRUTH. Thank you. Thank you Lord for your Word.

  • April 27, 2010 // 04:09 am //  # 
    Dan Hite's avatar Dan Hite

    Good insight, painstaking as it was to read. As the Lord taught me, some people are moving from knowledge toward experience, others from experience toward knowledge. We are wired that way. We may start with one or the other, but both are necessary.  Truth and reality are the same thing. We cannot escape life and we must not escape truth. Thank God they both intersect in Jesus, the Living Word!

  • April 27, 2010 // 05:47 am //  # 
    Bemby Yocum's avatar Bemby Yocum

    Thank you for your insight. I also experienced the death of child, in fact two just 4 1/2 years apart. Like you it has beeon over 20 years for one and almost 20 for the other. I had knowledge of what the scriptures taught but to be able to experience the scriptures wrapped in truth is comforting and healing and has allowed me, I hope, to comfort others with the comfort that I have been comfoted with. Thank you for your insight and sharing your journey through a very tragic experience, there are a lot of us out there and I was greatly encouraged by this.

  • April 27, 2010 // 03:26 pm //  # 
    Kevin  Ross's avatar Kevin Ross

    Walt. I’m sorry to hear of your loss.  This week I buried my father. I also buried my son 20 years ago. The two events were very different.

    We do grieve, but I think what we believe shapes our experience of grief. Scriptures learned are like seeds that await the rain.  If those seeds are firmly planted, then faith and hope strengthen, and Christian grief can have the quality of an apology to those who observe it.

  • April 27, 2010 // 07:42 pm //  # 
    Bonnie McCaskell's avatar Bonnie McCaskell

    This story took my breath away.  How arrogant I have been to think I ‘knew’ anything without having to ‘apply’ it.  Here’s a quote that kind of fits:  Argument Starter:  This country - including you and most of the people related to you by birth or marriage or both - is populated by beings who have been so blessed for so long that they have become almost completely immune to any interests other than their own.  (And including me…)

  • May 02, 2010 // 07:47 pm //  # 
    Sarah's avatar Sarah

    Very meaningful: my grandma just died, and my parents and I had been talking about this passage. Thanks for posting this.

  • August 04, 2012 // 06:27 pm //  # 
    Ted Hall's avatar Ted Hall

    I preached on 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 at my wife’s grandfather’s funeral recently because there is so much hope in these words for believers. Your story is very touching. May we always remember to encourage one another with Paul’s words. There is hope beyond the grave.

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