A family friend, a man I’ve known for 50 years, died last night. He was one of my favorite people, a magnanimous, loving, and passionate soul.
Death has been on my mind lately, probably because people I care about have been dying. They told me this would happen as I grew older, but it feels recently like the “okay, people can start dying switch” got flipped.
Something I have noticed this is not new; I’ve seen it for decades, many Christians feel the need to talk about the joy they feel at the passing. But I seldom, if ever, feel joy when someone dies. It is almost always sadness, apathy, or anger for me. When my dad died, I certainly didn’t feel joy, and months later, joy still hasn’t appeared. It just feels to me that in the Evangelical culture, we aren’t allowed to be pissed, and stay pissed, and never feel joy after the death of a loved one.
Why do we have to feel joy?
I think I know how you’re going to answer that question. You want to remind me that the Bible says, “where o death is your victory, where o death is your sting?” Yeah, I know. We read this text and assume it is telling us how to feel when someone dies, but is that what it is doing?
This text is in 1 Corinthians 15:55. Paul is quoting Hosea 13:14. I’ve heard it declared at funerals, and I’ve probably said it at funerals too.
But I feel the sting when my loved one dies. So the verse seems irreconcilable to me. It seems to be saying we won’t feel a sting, so when we feel it, we feel like we’re being a bad Christian and either try to fake it or convince ourselves that the sting can’t touch us by telling everyone how joyful we are.
I probably stated that too strongly. It will usually sound like this, “I’m so sad, but we know he’s in heaven, so we rejoice!” This is like saying, I just got stung by a bee, and it hurts like hell, ouch!!! But it’s ok, (ouch ouch ouch ouch) one day the sting will fade, and I won’t hurt anymore.” Can we just admit that the sting hurts? Can we just sit in the present moment?
“No,” you say, “because the text says death doesn’t sting!”
Rereading the text in 1 Corinthians this morning, I noticed something. In this section of the chapter, Paul is looking to the future. He’s talking about how we will be raised at the last trumpet, and in vs. 54, he says, “then, the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”
The word “then” is “tote” in Greek, it simply means at that time, then, thereupon,” and it connotes a time in the future. So, the grammar and the context point to a time in the future, after the last trumpet has sounded, when we will be able to finally say, “Death’s sting is gone!”
But we aren’t there yet. Death still stings, it hurts like hell. There is a ripping apart of intertwined hearts, a separation of mingled souls, a grief that knows no bounds.
“So how are you doing?” we ask the widow at the funeral, “shitty,” she says. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?
I, for one, wish we could just say what we are feeling without feeling the need to mitigate it with a misquoting of 1 Cor. 15:55.
I’m going to do this. I’m going to give myself the freedom to truly feel sadness, grief, anger, peace, even apathy… whatever it is I am actually feeling. I’m going to catch myself when the “mitigating words” start to sneak out of my mouth and just pause and sit in the pain. No spiritual bypassing, no pretending, no spiritualization, just real feelings, real words.