Grieving for the Church
Jack M. LaneThose of us who have gone through a change in church doctrine or affiliation over the past few years have undergone an actual grieving process, much as if we have lost a loved one. In effect, we have. In this article, as we briefly examine the different stages of grieving, we will also observe some startling parallels in our own recent religious experience.
The Five Stages Of Dying
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a world-renowned psychiatrist and authority on death and dying, has written a number of books designed to help people cope with being seriously ill. There are definite stages of grief terminally ill patients go through, and Dr. Kübler-Ross postulates that every grieving person needs to go through all the stages to be fully prepared for death.
Many people have been through a similar grieving process in recent years. The church corporation they looked to as being "the one true Church" made some substantial modifications in its doctrines and approach. Many people were torn between staying with the religious body that would (supposedly) get them into the Kingdom, or staying with the doctrines they had always felt to be true doctrines, so they would be saved because of their obedience to those doctrines.
When oneís religion is on the line, it tends to strike at his or her very core, often resulting in the same emotions experienced when death -- either oneís own or that of a loved one -- approaches. Many church members can recall the feelings of confusion, depression, and sadness we had to work through. Some are still working through their emotions to this day.
This article is not intended to reflect on who may be right or wrong, or the correctness of anyoneís decisions. The reader may or may not have experienced some of the feelings we will be discussing. It is the intention of this article to show that the whole experience of a church in upheaval, over a period of some years, has been traumatic, emotional, and frightening, and has caused many people to experience feelings of insecurity, uncertainty, anxiety, and indecision. The result is grief.
Letís briefly examine the steps in the grieving process, and correlate them to our experiences with the Church. We may find areas which we have repressed, and still need to deal with in our lives. If so, we can take these unresolved conflicts to God in prayer and ask Him to help us heal, so that we can continue to grow up before Him into children in whom He is well-pleased. We might also learn more about others among our brethren who made a different choice than we did, and have a better understanding of what their thought processes might have been. Perhaps we could be more tolerant and accepting of each other as a result.
Phase 1: DENIAL
According to Kübler-Ross, when a person is first given the news that he or she is suffering from a terminal illness, the first reaction is often, "Nope. Not me." It sometimes takes a little time for the person to allow himself or herself to register what the doctor has said. Our own mortality is basically unthinkable when it is first presented to us. The easiest way for the human spirit to react at first is to deny it!
This stage, of "being in denial," is so well-known that the phrase has found its way into our everyday vocabulary. "Heís in denial" has become almost a joke because of its use in a wide variety of applications in business, in sports, in marriage, even in relations with oneís own Church.
In our church experience, we may recall reading and hearing such phrases as, "Changes? What changes? I havenít seen any changes." "Why, these arenít doctrinal changes. These are merely clarifications." "We arenít changing anything. Weíre just explaining it differently."
This mythological concept swept through the Church, and many people believed it at first when they were assured (by top men at headquarters, no less!) that there were no changes planned. Even when change after change began to unfold -- sometimes in the form of major modifications in doctrine or by abandoning long-held beliefs -- it was difficult for some people to admit to themselves that change was indeed taking place!
Some who recognized that there were changes taking place saw it as a move away from strict legalism to a more love-centered approach. Since that time, many people have reconsidered this view. Others still believe nothing has happened.
There are those who feel that some people are still in denial because, while these people now can admit that change has taken place, they deny that it can have any serious consequences. As their Church dwindles around them in size and financial clout, as their services begin to resemble the church services of other Christ-professing religions, they deny that anything serious has taken place.
There have been some members who have chosen to stay with the original Church organization, although they do not agree with the doctrinal modifications. These people try to cling to their original faith in the midst of what they acknowledge to be heresy, all the while denying that they are in any danger in this spiritual battle they are waging! They have seen others leave in order to follow their beliefs, but these people stay, believing that they can hold on to their faith until Christ comes! It is a dangerous deception and a denial of the facts.
Phase 2: ANGER
When realization dawns in the mind of a patient, and he or she recognizes that a serious health problem really does exist, and allows himself or herself the knowledge that death is coming, the patient may become angry. "Why me?" is an often-heard question asked at this point. Some angry patients have been known to shake their fist at God, as if He was immediately responsible for their disease.
"How can they do that?" was a frequently-asked question when Church headquarters began modifying its doctrines and approach. One irate lady, normally quiet and reserved, lashed out in frustration, "Theyíve stolen my church!"
It grew increasingly evident after awhile who was angry and who was not, judging by the conversations church members were having. One person might have been listing a growing number of things "being shoved down our throats," while the other person, possibly still in denial, might not have been quite so sure these things were actually taking place, or knew about the changes but agreed with them! Many were so angry and frustrated they stopped attending church services. Some went to other church organizations looking for the old, familiar way of doing things, angrily clinging to the doctrines to which they were accustomed, and stubbornly refusing to search the scriptures to see whether these things were so (Acts 17:11)! Others were so angry they turned their backs on God and went back into the world, or off into other strange religious beliefs.
Many regrettable mistakes can be made when we are angry, if we speak or act in haste, out of an emotional state. It should be a time of exercising caution rather than making impulsive decisions. But when one is working through the stages of grief, emotions very often take precedence.
Phase 3: BARGAINING
The patient going through the stages of grief may next enter a phase of attempting to negotiate with God. He or she might pray, "God, if Youíll just heal me of this, and let me live, Iíll ...", and then they will offer a proposal of what they would do in return. What they are offering to do might even be a very good thing, often very noble and unselfish. They hope God will like their idea.
How many people spoke to their ministers during the religious upheaval, saying something along the lines of, "If you want me to stay in this Church, then such-and-such had better happen," or words to that effect? Or how many, still in denial and eager to please, said to the minister, "Iíll come to every church service and Bible study if youíll help me try to understand these new concepts." Others cried out to God, "I want to stay where You put me, but I need You to show me where that is!" Then they might have added, "If You show me what to do about this mess, Iíll ...."
Many, realizing God does not just whisper the answers to us, turned to their Bibles and searched there for the answers, studying with a vigor they had not seen in themselves since they were first called to a knowledge of the truth. "Most assuredly," they felt, "if I study more into Godís Word, He will open my mind to understand what He wants me to understand!"
Itís interesting to note that this, too, was a form of trying to bargain with God. But many church members actually found what they were looking for, the answers to their questions, right in the pages of their Bibles. Thatís where God talks to us!
But even at that, both the terminal patient and the frustrated church member need to learn that God will perform His will in His good time, in His own way, and that He does not bend to every proposition we might try to make with Him. We can always ask God, in faith and humility, to grant our petitions, but we must realize that He is always working out His will on earth, in order to make us better, stronger children who will follow Him regardless of the state of our health or the state of our Church! God may not always answer our prayers the way we would like. Sometimes, the answer is no. (See Mark 14:35-36)
Phase 4: HOPELESSNESS
After the terminal patient has admitted to himself or herself that the inevitable will take place, after working through feelings of anger, after trying to "buy off" God, the next phase frequently experienced is a feeling of great despair and depression, of "Whatís the use?". At this point, some patients just give up the fight. This is the most despairing of the steps of grief. In the terminal patient, it is a manifestation of self-pity. "Why me?" takes on a different tone.
Many in the Church felt hopeless at one point or another over the past several years. For those who chose to leave the parent organization, there was a period of searching, looking, hoping to find the "right" organization or man, only to become woefully confused by the "cafeteria Christianity" they saw. With no one to turn to, many simply gave up. Some returned to the world. Some felt so hopeless they committed suicide.
As noted before, there were large numbers of people who chose to stay with the Church organization and go along with the changes. Some felt the new approach was an improvement. Others felt that they could not leave "Godís Church" no matter what was being taught, although they disagreed with much of the new doctrinal teachings.
But out of a sense of hopelessness can come a turning to God, a returning to the faith that God is on His throne, that He is working out His plan in each of us, that He has begun a good work in us and will see it all the way through (Philippians 1:6).
In desperation, a number of people turned away from the confusion of human religious government entirely, choosing instead to rely solely on God, looking only to Christ as their Chief Shepherd.
In their hopelessness, people will look to various sources of hope, whether it is God, a religious leader, a church corporation, or something else. Those who find no hope are in danger of giving up their religion altogether and returning to the world. Unfortunately, many have.
Phase 5: ACCEPTANCE
Finally, the terminal patient accepts the inevitable, resigns himself or herself to what must be, and is at peace. The dying patient has worked through the phases of grief, and is prepared to go to sleep one last time. Itís now up to the survivors to go through the stages of grief on their own.
It is also the final phase of many church members, who by this time have settled down into their new pattern of religious observance. Some have decided to remain with the parent Church organization, while others have switched their affiliation to another Church corporation. Some meet in small groups on Sabbaths, while others travel freely among several Sabbath-keeping groups, building new friendships but not "putting down roots," while enjoying a wide variety of experiences on the Sabbath. By this time, most of the outward turmoil seems to have died down, frayed nerves have seemingly been soothed to one extent or another, and people tend to settle into their new environment and get comfortable again.
There are still church members who admit to a sense of feeling "numb," with lingering uncertainties, but who donít know which way to turn or what else to do other than what they are now doing.
There are still a great many people who are not at peace, even after all this time. We should all be reaching out to these battered warriors and victims, assuring them that, no matter what, God still loves them and has not abandoned them! Rather than criticizing or condemning, we should be understanding of the pain and needs of each member of the body of Christ, and search for ways to heal each other.
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What about spiritual acceptance? Does it come just before spiritual death? Or does the analogy break down at this point, and we all live happily ever after? This is an area that needs to be examined!
In terms of church affiliation or doctrinally "coming to rest," acceptance could be a big mistake! We should never again be totally content with where we are and how we are. We should always keep our guard up, and not be afraid to ask hard questions of our leaders!
Many people have fought the battle of doctrinal change for the past several years, and are now too tired to go on. Whether they have remained with the parent Church corporation or have gone to another Church organization, many people have given up and have accepted spiritual sleep! They have grown content with the church group with whom they attend, and they are satisfied and comfortable with the level of their spiritual maturity, forgetting that God requires continual growth (2 Peter 3:18)!
Unfortunately, while this is one of the stages of grieving, in this case acceptance actually brings on spiritual sleep, and spiritual death, to the church members in this condition!
How God Views Sleep and Death
Many were content in years past to let someone else do their religious thinking for them. Indeed, they were trained to do that very thing! The upset in the Church caused people to have to think for themselves -- a task for which many had not been prepared. Now great numbers of church members, whether they stayed or moved to another church group, are settling back into the same old comfortable routine, week after week, being led by a religious leader and fed by a religious feeder, being assured that all is well -- and they are being lulled back to sleep!
Whatís wrong with that? After all, didnít Jesus tell the story of the ten virgins, and all of them fell asleep (Matthew 25:5)? Yes, all of them were asleep, implying all the church would be asleep when Christ comes. But is that what He wants? This was a prophecy, not a command! Christ Himself wondered aloud if He would find the faith alive when He returned (Luke 18:8)!
The disciples themselves may have prefigured this event during the night Jesus was betrayed. While He went up the hill to pray fervently, the disciples, heavy with Passover dinner and wine, were lulled to sleep by the fresh evening air, and Jesus found them all fast asleep -- three times (Mark 14:32-42)!
Was Jesus happy when He found them that way? "When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. ĎWhy are you sleeping?í he asked them. ĎGet up and pray so that you will not fall into temptationí" (Luke 22:45-46, NIV).
On another occasion, Jesus made an interesting comparison between sleep and death. "After he had said this, he went on to tell them, ĎOur friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.í His disciples replied, ĎLord, if he sleeps, he will get better.í Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, ĎLazarus is deadí" (John 11:11-14, NIV).
Another time, when He was called on to heal a sick girl, Jesus arrived at her house after she had died. To the professional mourners and others who had gathered, Jesus commanded, "ĎGo away. The girl is not dead but asleep.í But they laughed at him. After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up" (Matthew 9:24-25, NIV).
What have we seen so far? The disciples were asleep while Jesus prayed. The ten virgins were prophesied to be asleep when the Bridegroom comes. Lazarus, however, was actually dead when Christ said he was only asleep. And although Christ said the little girl He was about to heal was only asleep, she had actually died.
Can we learn a lesson from this? It is plain from comparing these scriptures that, to Christ, physical death is only a form of sleep, while spiritual sleep is actually a form of death! If someone were to die, it would be a simple matter for Christ to bring them back to life and present them whole to their families, even after several days! The challenge Christ has had to fight, throughout all the ages of the church, is when His people go to sleep spiritually! Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Creator of the universe, our High Priest in heaven, actually has more trouble awakening a sleeping mind and spirit than waking the dead out of their graves!
Death is frequently referred to in the Bible as sleep. Note: "That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 11:30). "Then he [Stephen] fell on his knees and cried out, ĎLord, do not hold this sin against them.í When he had said this, he fell asleep" (Acts 7:60). "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51).
We accept it as an element of our faith that the dead will be raised at Christís return. "We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him" (1 Thessalonians 4:14, NIV).
Time to Wake Up!
Yet, there are several commands to Godís people to awaken out of spiritual slumber, to rouse themselves from sleep! Obviously, it is not the sleep of death, but a lethargy of the spirit that lulls them into a spiritual trance! And waking after such a sleep is like a resurrection, and a newness after death!
"Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is. ... Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming -- in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning -- lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!" (Mark 13:33-37)
"And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed" (Romans 13:11, NIV)! The NKJV renders this passage, "... now it is high time to awake out of sleep..."!
Is Paul speaking to the unconverted, or to new converts? No, heís writing to the church: "...our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed"!
Isaiah wrote this of death and resurrection: "In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: ... Your dead shall live; Together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; For your dew is like the dew of herbs, And the earth shall cast out the dead" (Isaiah 26:1, 19). Paul referenced this verse loosely when writing to the Ephesian church: "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light ... proving what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. ... But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light. Therefore He says: ĎAwake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you lightí" (Ephesians 5:8-14).
Isaiah was writing about a physical resurrection to life at the end of this age. Is Paul writing about physical death and resurrection in the passage quoted from Ephesians? It seems evident he is writing about a spiritual awakening, to walking in a new life in Christ. Here is another example of how the Bible uses the physical and spiritual applications of life and death to teach a valuable lesson.
J.B. Phillips renders Ephesians 5:13 this way: "For light is capable of showing up everything for what it really is. It is even possible for light to turn the thing it shines upon into light also."
Remember how Mosesí face shone brightly after he had been with the LORD in the mountain. God, the eternal Light and Life, had so illuminated Moses that he also became a light! It is the same with us today. Once we have been enlightened to Godís Way, and filled with His Spirit, we should be lights and examples to others around us.
As Paul wrote, "We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:13-18, NIV).
The Lesson of the Transfiguration
We can see a glimmer of this light shining in the account of the transfiguration. In Lukeís version, "Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his [Jesusí] glory and [that of] the two men standing with him" (Luke 9:32, NIV). Was it important for Luke to note that the disciples were drowsy? Yes, every word in the Bible is important! Letís be sure we donít miss this lesson!
The disciples were not yet converted, did not yet have the Holy Spirit, and were spiritually lethargic, dozing off both physically and mentally while God was displaying for them a fantastic and important vision!
As Jesus prayed, "the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. ... Moses and Elijah ... [also] appeared in glory. ... But Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory" (verses 29-32).
Will we learn the lesson of this passage? The heavenly host could be standing next to someone who is sleepy, slumbering, spiritually napping, and that person will not be able to see the glory of God! The disciples did not see Christís glory until they were fully awake!
We will not see Christís glory unless we WAKE UP out of sleep!
Did Jesus, in this vision, wait patiently while the disciples took a nice, long nap? Or did He startle them into wakefulness suddenly? Itís difficult to say from the description; either one is possible. So it is with us. There are times when Christ has had to stand by patiently while we sleep away our days, spiritually unable to see Him in our lives. Sometimes He will wait patiently for us to wake up. Other times He may rattle us awake. But in either case, we will not see Christ in His glory until we are fully awake!
The same holds true regarding the resurrection. "Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. ... For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we [who are not sleeping in death] shall be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). "...we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).
Once the dead in Christ are resurrected to life, they shall see Christ in His glory. In a figurative sense, on the spiritual plane, once those who are spiritually asleep in this life awaken from the death of spiritual sleep, they will be able to see their Savior standing next to them -- where He has always been! And they will be able to offer, as Peter offered, to build Him a tabernacle (Luke 9:33). That is, the newly awakened Christian will want to ask Christ to come into his life, and be a part of his or her developing Christian life.
But when Peter offered to build the tabernacles, he spoke, "not knowing what he said." Godís response was swift and sure: "This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!" (verse 35)
It doesnít matter if we have the finest body or mind to offer Christ as a dwelling place. Godís instructions are plain: "I love My Son. Listen to Him!" We can best demonstrate our love for Christ by hearing Him, doing what He tells us to do, correcting faults that need to be corrected -- even waking up, if thatís what He commands! But we wonít be able to see Him, spiritually, until we become fully awake as Christians, as empowered children of the light, showing that we have had the Light shine on us until we also become lights.
Should we grieve for those who have died in the faith? Certainly not. Their future is sure. Of course we miss them when theyíre gone; thatís only natural. But we should rejoice in the death of a child of God, for their next waking moment will be eternal life in Godís glorious Kingdom!
But for those who are alive physically, but sound asleep spiritually, we should weep and mourn, and fast and pray, for their salvation is at risk!
Christ commands all of us to wake up, shake the spiritual slumber from our eyes, and do the works of God!
"ĎWhy are you sleeping?í he asked them. ĎGet up and pray so that you will not fall into temptationí" (Luke 22:46, NIV).
"But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him" (1 Thessalonians 5:4-10).
God has called us to the most fantastic future imaginable. Letís not lose out. In the end, if we endure and have faith, our grief will be turned to joy, for us and our Father. Letís be there! Letís not give God anything to grieve about!