How does a Christian doctrine of suffering affect counselling of the bereaved?

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In June 2005, my Great Aunt was mugged and knocked unconscious.  She died in hospital two days later.  As a family we went through the full range of emotions; shock and sadness at the tragic loss, anger at those who did it, guilt at our failure to visit “Auntie” more often.  Whilst each bereavement is different, such emotions of guilt, anger and sadness are common to most.[1]  Such feelings revolve around the questions “Why did they have to suffer?” and “Why am I suffering loss now?”  Therefore, it is to the question of suffering that we turn as we seek to offer a Christian answer to bereavement.

The Christian Doctrine of Suffering

The Christian doctrine of suffering seeks to answer C.S Lewis’ conundrum:

If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness or power or both.[2]

Instinctively, we recoil from both options.  Each seems to deny something about God’s character.  Indeed, either way, we lose.  Either God has caused our suffering because he is our enemy, or he has failed to stop it because he is impotent. We are left alone in the face of a God who is either malign or absent.  We have no basis upon which to face up to suffering.  It is “an evil untempered by any good purpose.”[3]  

It is the Bible which provides us with an answer that reconciles both God’s goodness and his sovereignty.  There, we find the good God who proclaims his creation to be “very good.”[4]  Suffering is not part of this creation.  Rather, it is the consequence of sin.  Even still, it is God who imposes struggle, pain and death as his just punishment on human rebellion.[5]  The same God who imposes this punishment provides the solution to suffering.  In the person of Jesus, he enters the world, identifies with our suffering and takes upon himself the just punishment of death.[6]  Through his death, resurrection and new creation are made possible so that we have the hope of a future world where suffering and death are no more.[7]  Because God is sovereign, he uses suffering for his purpose now in order to discipline us so that we learn not to sin and to depend upon him[8] and so that through our suffering we can be a witness to those who have not yet responded to the Gospel.[9]

This understanding of suffering provides us with three principles for helping those who have recently lost loved ones.  First, we help them by placing their loss in the context of a fallen world.  Second, we offer them hope through Christ’s resurrection.  Third, we help them to find purpose in their loss.  Let’s look at each of these in turn to see how they can help someone who is grieving.

Helping the Bereaved

The first way that we help the bereaved is by placing their loss in the context of The Fall.   This helps in two important ways. First of all, it gives them permission to grieve fully.  The bereaved may be struggling with a cultural taboo against expressing emotion.[10] We can reassure them that it is o.k. to be sad and angry. [11]   Christians reject the notion that “death is nothing.”[12]  There is a very real and painful separation[13]  which we were not intended to experience within God’s perfect creation.[14]  Indeed, this means that “in times of death, Christians should be sadder than anyone else”[15] because our sadness isn’t simply for the one we have lost but also at what sin and death do.  We acknowledge that life should not be like this.[16]

Secondly, it provides a helpful control when anger turns to blame and guilt.  Anger may be directed at others, whether the deceased has left them alone or those who failed to prevent death.[17] It may be turned inwardly in the form of guilt at the bereaved themselves because of their own failings.[18] Our first principle should help them to avoid false blame. It was not their fault or the deceased’s.  Death is part and parcel of living in a fallen world.[19]

They may direct their anger at God.  Why did he not intervene?  The counsellor will want to gently but firmly challenge this.  God did not fail, he is not powerless; he is sovereign over death.  God was not wrong to take their loved one.  Death is part of his just punishment on all humanity.[20]

The second way that we help the bereaved is by offering them the hope of resurrection.  What does this mean for the bereaved? Well, first of all, it means that there is real hope, not simply the type of hope offered by secular counselling of new opportunities, relationships and freedom, [21] as worthy as these may be, but of future, physical resurrection both for the deceased and for them.

This does not mean that we will offer false hope to those whose relatives died without evidence of saving faith.[22]  Obviously, we will want to be gentle.  Now will not be the time for outright contradiction but we will want to focus them on the truth of the gospel and the justice and goodness of God so that he will do what is right.[23]  Our aim in this situation is to bring them to the place where they have assurance of their own resurrection.

Resurrection hope goes hand in hand with the hope of vindication.  This was Job’s hope through his suffering.[24]  Earlier we talked about false blame and guilt, but what about genuine guilt, either because the death was related to their own failings or because of unresolved arguments with the deceased?  Here we can point them to the fact that on the day of resurrection, justice will be done through Jesus Christ.  This means forgiveness for them and for others who are to blame, if they have repented.  It means God’s justice and punishment for those who refuse to repent.  This gives them a basis for dealing with their sense of guilt and blame now.  If God will deal with the blame then they can forgive themselves and others.[25]

The third way that we help the bereaved is by helping them to see God’s purpose in their suffering.  It might be helpful to point them to the story of Joseph.  He experienced great suffering, rejected by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused, imprisoned, forgotten.  Yet his conclusion on all these things is that “God meant it for good.”[26]  That means that whilst we do not proactively seek out suffering,[27] we recognise that “if tribulation is a necessary element in redemption, we must anticipate that it will never cease till God sees the world to be either redeemed or not further redeemable.”[28]

We might want to highlight three ways that God can use bereavement for their good and the good of others.  First, God uses suffering as a witness to others.[29]  As they see how the Christian responds to loss, so that even as they mourn, it is not without hope, it might cause them to ask questions about life and death and resurrection.

Secondly, God can use bereavement for our own good. The Bible does talk about God disciplining his children, although we probably want to tread carefully in our use of language here.  We are not saying that the death was a form of direct punishment.[30]  What we are saying is that God can use our experience to help us grow as Christians.  It can act as a wake up call:[31] life is short, it is time to repent.[32] It encourages us to depend more on God and less on circumstances; where human relationships finish, God promises that he will never leave us or forsake us.[33]

Thirdly, when the Christian suffers bereavement, it should encourage them to identify with their brothers and sisters.[34]  Bereavement counsellors talk about a phase in the process where the bereaved begins to accept the reality of the death but can become detached and isolated from others.[35]  We would want to encourage them that they are not alone.  There are others around them who have experienced suffering and loss.[36]  Not only that, but, with time, God will help them use their experience to encourage others.[37]


A Biblical understanding of suffering must be central to our bereavement counselling.  Instead of quick solutions that enable the bereaved to escape the symptoms of grief, the doctrine of suffering teaches them to look beyond themselves to the God who uses their circumstances for his purpose.  This means that, even in grief, they can grow as Christians, find the strength to forgive and demonstrate the hope that is the answer to death, the hope of resurrection through Jesus Christ.

[1] Some commentators have attempted to identify a bereavement process.  See Bob Spall and Stephen Callis Loss, Bereavement and Grief, A guide to Effective Caring, (Cheltenham:Stanley Thomes, 1997), 70.  Spall and Callis identify the stages as 1. Shock. 2. Anger. 3. Disengagement. 4. Gradual Hope.  However, there are question marks about the validity of setting out a linear process and the authors note that real life may be “messier” than this.  Spall and Callis, Loss Bereavement and Grief, 75.

[2] C.S Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940, Repr. London:  Fount Paprbacks, 1977), 21.

[3] Dan G McCartney, Why does it have to hurt? (Phillipsburg, NJ.: Presbytarian and Reformed Publishing, 1998), 30.

[4] Genesis 1

[5] Cf. Dan G McCartney, Why does it have to hurt?, 11.

[6] Isaiah 53:5.  See also McCartney, Why does it have to hurt?, 11.

[7] Revelation 21:4.  Cf.  McCartney, Why does it have to hurt? 46.  McCartney also refers us to future vindication citing Job 13:15. McCartney, Why does it have to hurt?, 48.

[8]Hebrews 12:5-12.  See  McCartney, Why does it have to hurt?, 80.

[9] 2 Corinthians 4:10.  See McCartney, Why does it have to hurt?, 74.

[10] Spall and Callis, Loss Bereavement and Grief, 72.

[11] Paul David Tripp, Grief Finding Hope Again, Winston-Salem, NC.: Punch Press, 2004), 4.

[12] Geoff Walters, Why do Christians find it hard to grieve? Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997), 185.

[13] Walters, Why do Christians find it hard to grieve? 182.

[14] Cf. Tripp, Grief Finding Hope Again, 7.

[15] Tripp, Grief Finding Hope Again, 7.

[16] Tripp, Grief Finding Hope Again, 7.

[17] Spall and Callis Loss Bereavement and Grief, 72.

[18] Spall and Callis, Loss Bereavement and Grief, 17.

[19] McCartney, Why does it have to hurt, 13.

[20]Tripp,Grief Finding Hope Again, 11.

[21] Cf. Spall and Callis, Loss Bereavement and Grief, 72.

[22] Contra Alan Billings , Dying and Grieving –A guide to Pastoral Ministry (London: SPCK, 2002), 32.

[23] Based on comment from Wesley Aiken, Pastor of Rochester Baptist Church, in private correspondence via email, 25/09/2007.

[24] Job 13:15, cited in McCartney, Why does it have to hurt?, 48.

[25] Although not to my recollection expressly stated in any of the works consulted, this is, however, a well acknowledged Christian principle rather than a novel idea to this essay.   

[26] Genesis 50:20, cited in McCartney, Why does it have to hurt?, 33.

[27] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 88.

[28] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 91.

[29] Cf. 2 Cor 4:10-12. McCartney, Why does it have to hurt?, 74.

[30] See Walters, Why does it have to hurt?, 88-89. Noting that sometimes there is a direct causal link, for example, Walters cites 1 Peter 2:20. Walters, Why does it have to hurt?, 80. Also 1 Corinthians 11, cited on page 81.

[31] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 74.

[32] Cf. Luke 13.  See also Walters, Why does it have to hurt?, 85.

[33] Cf. CS Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), 57.

[34] Cf. 1 Cor 12:26, Walters, Why does it have to hurt?, 77. 

[35] Spall and Callis, Loss Bereavement and Grief, 72.

[36] Tripp, Grief Finding Hope Again, 4.

[37] Tripp, Grief Finding Hope Again, 14.

*As with yesterday’s post this is an old Oak Hill essay from 2007

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