by Steven Norris
Last week, I suggested five statements that you should probably avoid when you find yourself in receiving line at the funeral home. I want to follow up with additional sayings to avoid that stem from bad theology — ideas about God and the spiritual life that may be found in popular culture but have little to no basis in scripture or are derived from scripture taken out of context.
“She is an angel now.” Nowhere in scripture does it say that humans become angels when they die. According to the revelation of scripture and the actual teaching of the church, angels are a unique and separate part of creation.
“God needed him in heaven.” God does not need anything. God is full and complete in God’s nature and character. To suggest this is to paint a picture of God that is selfish and narcissistic — putting God’s supposed “needs” above the devastating grief of humans.
“It’s not right to question God.” The biblical story is full of characters that question God. The very name “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.” Read the psalter (Psalm 10 or Psalm 74 are particularly poignant). If anything, the Christian Bible is one that does not flinch at the reality of doubt and struggle standing side-by-side with heroic faith.
“Everything happens for a reason. God is sovereign.” While it is true that God is sovereign and it may turn out to that there is a reason for the things that happen, the truth is that we are limited in our knowledge. The kinder, more pastoral response is not to speculate regarding the mind of God.
“Give thanks in all things.” Once again, this is biblically accurate, yet pastorally insensitive. If a person lands here on his or her own, that is fine, but a funeral is certainly not the place to emphasize this teaching.
“God is refining you.” There are a number of passages that speak of God’s “refining fire.” The biblical writers often reframed the experience of suffering and persecution as a means of entering into Christ’s suffering so that we might be shaped into Christ’s image. While it may contain an element of truth, Christlike love and compassion will keep us from bringing this up at a funeral.
“God uses all things for good.” While Romans 8 certainly echoes this truth, those blinded by grief are generally unprepared to deconstruct their present circumstance in order to look for this good. To come this realization requires perspective that only time and healing can bring. Don’t try to rush the work of the Spirit by covering over real grief with simplistic platitudes.
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” This statement is patently false. You will not find it anywhere in the Bible. God allows us to go through numerous things that are more than we can handle…on your own. Grace is revealed as God is present with us — a God whose “power is made perfect in our weakness.”
The solution in these moments is thoughtful, care-filled, authentic words of genuine connection and concern. It’s not enough to just say something. More on that next week.