I was recently asked to pray about the death of a woman’s sister. I had not known the person who died, but because the tragic circumstances of this family’s loss are all too common, I feel compelled to write on the subject of death. Out of respect for their privacy, I will not identify them. But their situation is universal, and my message is for everyone.
The woman was in declining health. By the time her sister got there, she had passed away. There was no time left to say good-bye; no time left to say I love you, I forgive you … will you forgive me? When life ends, we no longer have such opportunities. Life is dynamic and full of conflicts. And it is while we still live that we are able to resolve them.
There is no pain harder to bear than when we are hurt by a loved one. Perhaps it is the deep pain that makes us want to never see that person again. I remember as a small child being so angry that my mother had sent me to my room as punishment that I cried out, “I hope I die! Then you’ll be sorry!” Thinking about it now, it’s laughable, but at that time, in my childish emotion, I was willing to forever end any relationship with my mother.
It’s that kind of anger we feel when we’re hurt by family or friends. When we’re young, we get over it faster. Normally, emotions like anger are short-lived. We forget and forgive. Eventually, we learn to function in society by being polite, respectful and using self-control. But even as adults, we remain vulnerable to our loved ones. They are supposed to love and respect us, and we them. But if they are careless, they can hurt us (or we them) deeper than the meanest stranger.
When that happens, it is not uncommon for one (or both) to disown the other. “I never want to see you again” becomes, in effect, a mantra of death. There is no resolution, no healing — just permanent separation. Perhaps, if we are willing to admit it, there is a small part of us that thinks someday the other person will come to us and apologize. Then we’ll forgive them, but not until then. That, of course, is the child within us, refusing to let our emotions decrease over time.
Unfortunately, as adults, our pride will not often let us back down, once we’ve already said something we regret. So we put it out of our minds, and before we realize it, the years have come and gone. Eventually, we reach the day when the physical death of a loved one is only a cruel echo of the death of the relationship that ended long ago. And though we may feel guilt, expiation seems impossible. We are torn, wanting to be forgiven by the dead.
There is a reason for this. In Matthew 5:22, Jesus warned, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother* will be liable to judgment…” (ESV). The asterisk indicates a note that says some manuscripts have the added phrase, “without cause”. But as most of us insist there is just cause for our anger, this does little to clarify the meaning. Defining anger is of critical importance, because if nothing more than a passing emotion is a sin equal to murder, then we are all no better than murderers.
In my opinion, The Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) nails the meaning of this verse. It says, “But I tell you that anyone who nurses anger against his brother will be subject to judgement…”, clearly pointing out this kind of anger is not a passing emotion, but a sustained attitude, similar to hatred. I can be angry with my wife for a short while, but in the long run, because I love her I don’t nurse my anger. I let it go. The Bible gives us instruction in this.
Psalm 4:5(4) (CJB) reads, “You can be angry, but do not sin! Think about this as you lie in bed, and calm down.” Again, this translation nails it because it admits that the emotion of anger is a normal thing that we can learn to deal with by thinking about it and calming down. We do not need to feel guilty for experiencing moments of anger. But we are held accountable for hurtful actions our sustained anger can motivate. And beyond being accountable to those we hurt, we are even more accountable to God.
This brings me to the heart of my message. The death of a loved one has left someone in despair. They feel a sense of guilt that can’t be forgiven. I am utterly amazed at how in times of their greatest need, many so-called believers resign themselves to the spiritual paralysis of depression or regret, not believing they can find resolution and healing — afraid to seek out the very one who could help them. To them I am saying you still — always — can turn to God.
Turn to God. It was not God who let you down. Chances are, though, it may have been religion that made you go your own way — a church, a pastor, someone who stirred up division. But he loves you just as much as always. He knows you and wants to comfort you. He isn’t malevolent, just looking for the chance to knock you down. There is a reason they say as long as there is life, there is hope. It ain’t over ’til it’s over. God patiently waits. When death strikes near us, we need to reach out to God. We need to take his hand because he is bigger, stronger and greater than death. We need to turn to God.
Because of Christ’s death on the cross, believers are not condemned for their sins. But when we do sin, we need to make a clean breast of it (1 John 1:9). We all make mistakes. God just wants us to acknowledge our sin, and then turn away from it. He doesn’t want us to continue living in sinful patterns, but to learn to live righteously. That’s called growing in grace. That’s the opposite of a life characterized by sinfulness.
Galatians 5:19-26 compares acts of the sinful nature to living in the Spirit, saying in verse 21, “…those who live like this [sinners] will not inherit the kingdom of God.” This means selling out to their sin, continuing to practice it, rather than turning it over to God. 1 John:3:9 (NIV) says it this way: “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.” If you feel that twinge of guilt, turn to God. He won’t condemn you.
In the midst of death and sorrow
God provides a new tomorrow.
Be not burdened down with sin,
Find new life and joy with him.