Knowing what to say to someone in grief is invariably a tricky endeavor. We want to express sympathy without sounding cliché, and certainly without saying something insensitive.
That challenge rises to another level when it comes to extending comfort to someone who is perhaps religious but not a professed Christian, nor was the one who died. It would be disingenuous for us to give any assurance that person has been received into the arms of Christ. What consolation can we extend that is honest and meaningful?
Certainly, there is comfort to be had for the one whose faith rests in Jesus Christ. Paul does not want those who mourn for such to be uniformed, that they “may not grieve as others who have no hope” (1 Th. 4:13). On what basis is such hope grounded? Paul explains of the “brothers,” those who do have a hope: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” (1 Th. 5:9–10).
Those in Christ find comfort in the precious promises of God bound up in Christ, and know the blessings of the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3). Believers can answer the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism with full conviction for this life and that to come:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my heavenly Father; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life, and makes me whole-heartedly willing and ready, from now on to live unto him.
But what about the one who, as far as we know, is outside of Christ? What sort of comfort can we in good conscience give? Is there a “common grace” comfort we can extend to those in grief? I believe there is.
We can extend the comfort of our caring presence, in a shared humanity that weeps as Jesus did at death (Jn. 11:35). We can weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). We can allow them to grieve, giving them a listening ear and loving arms. We can pray with them and for them, entrusting them to the care of a compassionate God.
Perhaps God will even give us apt words that reach to comfort and cheer, as these proverbs suggest.
“To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Pr. 15:23)
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Pr. 25:11).
Ultimately, in God’s grace and timing, He may allow us to extend to them the words of life. But for that, we wait on the Spirit, praying for ears to hear and a heart to receive.
We can never presume to know a person’s heart, and pontificate with absolute certainty on his or her eternal state. Sometimes, for those who demand assurance of us, the best answer is to point them to that on which our own confidence rests: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day” (Jn. 6:39).