Scripture is full of comfort for those whose loved ones die in faith, but how can we help counselees whose loved ones die, apparently cut off from Christ?
Walk in Humility
Help counselees humbly acknowledge that only God discerns the true state of anyone’s soul. No one knows exactly what happens between sinner and Savior in the last breaths of life. Perhaps that person who, like my father-in-law, was contemptuous toward Christians and Christianity, remembered a gospel conversation that he walked away from sneering. Maybe—while curled in a fetal position and seemingly unresponsive—he cried out to God in genuine repentance. If so, like the thief on the cross, he is with Christ in paradise. Death, especially the death of a presumed unbeliever, calls us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, casting all our anxieties on Him, because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:6-7).
Lament in Brokenness
Teach your counselee to lament. Lament lifts our heads from the mire and brings our fear, doubt, anger, and despair to God (Psalm 40:2). Encourage your counselee to read psalms of lament then write a lament. Psalms were written to be sung; singing kneads these psalms into the soul, softening the brittle clay of broken hearts. Ask your counselee to search the Internet for musical renditions of particular psalms of lament and sing them through tears. The psalmist whose tears were his food day and night (Psalm 42:3) sang, “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me” (Psalm 42:8).
Give Thanks in Grief
Guide counselees to thank God for evidence of common grace in the lives of their loved ones. Common grace—the overspilling kindness of God that pours out good gifts, even on those who rebel against Him—is both ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary, like the daily sunrise (Matthew 5:45) and the soup bubbling on the stove; extraordinary, because, like all grace, it is so undeserved. Because my father was happy when drunk (as opposed to my mother’s angry drunkenness), he was the sunshine of my childhood. When he died in an instant, presumably in his sin, I was stricken by my understanding of the just judgment he deserved. Thanking God for His common grace shining through my father’s sunny ways comforted me and reminded me of God’s tender mercies. If evidence of common grace seems hidden, mourners can thank God that His character is so different from that of the lost loved one. After meeting the other family members, the pastor who officiated the funeral of my friend’s father told him, “I thank God for His grace that made you such a triumph of God’s light in the midst of so much darkness.” Even in the most grievous circumstances, help your counselees find something for which to give thanks “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Deal with Guilt
Gently help your counselees discern guilt. If fear of man, for example, kept your counselees from sharing the gospel with deceased loved ones, guide them to confess that sin and rest in God’s cleansing mercy (1 John 1:9). Root them in the righteousness of Christ, imputed to them by faith (Philippians 3:9; Romans 4:5). Help them put on holy boldness in testifying of Christ to other unbelievers in their lives (2 Corinthians 3:12). If counselees wrestle with regret over things that are not sin, ground them in the sovereign providence of God. If a counselee cries, “If I had only realized sooner that she had cancer, she might still be alive,” point that sufferer to the good God whose immovable purposes are good (Isaiah 14:27; Psalm 119:68).
Cling to Christ
One of Jesus’ closest friends—Judas, “the son of perdition” (John 17:12)—died, cut off from saving grace. The Man of Sorrows understands the keening grief of an eternally lost loved one. Those who weep for the faithless dead do not weep alone.
Search for Comfort
Second Corinthians 1:3-4 assures the sorrowful that God is the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction.” Verse 5 adds that those who share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings also share abundantly in His comfort. The Christ who sorrowed over Judas comforts His children through His Word, for Scripture is sufficient even for this grief. As counselees become strengthened, through the comfort of God’s Word, encourage them to prayerfully seek opportunities to comfort others with the comfort they have received (2 Corinthians 1:4b).
Hope in Eternity
When loved ones die, and we are forced to bury our hopes for them, strong biblical hope abides. Hope may be narrower than we would like; it may not include the loved one. That channel of hope, however, runs deeper than the deepest grief. Grief over a loved one who may be suffering eternal judgment feels like a roiling sea in the midst of battle, but Christ is our forerunner: the prodromos of Hebrews 6:20. In ancient Greece, the prodromos was sent ahead of the army to prepare the way for victory. Christ has braved the raging sea, conquered our enemies, and planted our anchor in heaven’s sea of glass (Revelation 4:6).
“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 6:19-20.
Your counselee may be unable to imagine enjoying heaven without this loved one. God, however, “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us (Ephesians 3:20). In some wonderful way that is inconceivable now, those whose loved ones suffer eternal judgment will so fully experience “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and “all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19) that they will have fullness of joy forever. The source of that joy will be the presence of God. That presence even now abides with the sufferer who is walking through this valley of the shadow of death.