What Is the Bible’s View?
How Far Should Christian Mourning Go?
THE death of beloved relatives or friends is one of the most upsetting experiences that we humans have to face. It is accompanied by a deep sense of loss, giving rise to grief. Weeping is but a natural expression of such great sorrow.
But does not the Bible discourage weeping? Were not people specifically told not to mourn? Let us examine just what the Bible does say on this matter, and why.
One case involved the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. These men violated God’s requirements for pure worship by offering “illegitimate fire,” probably while under the influence of alcohol. For this irreverent act they were executed by Jehovah God. (Lev. 10:1, 2, 8-11) On this occasion Aaron and his other sons were instructed not to engage in any outward display of mourning. By obeying this command, they demonstrated their full agreement with God’s judgment against their relatives. (Verses 6, 7) Accordingly, what Aaron and his surviving sons did should have no bearing on the way a Christian would normally react to the death of a loved one.
Centuries later the prophet Ezekiel was commanded not to weep over the death of his wife. The word of Jehovah to him was: “You should not beat your breast, neither should you weep nor should your tears come on. Sigh without words.” (Ezek. 24:15-17) Ezekiel’s refraining from any outward display of mourning had a purpose. It served as a prophetic sign to the Israelites in Babylonian exile, pointing out to them that Jehovah God would profane his temple, which was as precious to them as Ezekiel’s wife was to him. Contrary to their hopes, Jerusalem would be destroyed, and there in exile they would not be able to give full expression to their grief.—Ezek. 24:20-24.
On an earlier occasion, Jehovah declared through his prophet Jeremiah: “Do not weep for the dead one [Josiah], and do not sympathize with him, you people. Weep profusely for the one going away [alive into exile], for he will return no more and he will actually not see the land of his relatives. For this is what Jehovah has said concerning Shallum [Jehoahaz] the son of Josiah, the king of Judah who is reigning instead of Josiah his father, who has gone forth from this place, ‘He will return there no more. For in the place where they have taken him into exile he will die, and this land he will see no more.’”—Jer. 22:10-12.
Do these words mean that weeping over the death of good King Josiah was wrong, contrary to God’s purpose? No. The death of Josiah in battle was a terrible blow to the Israelites. It was a national calamity that rightly occasioned grief. Even Jeremiah joined in mourning the death of Josiah. The Bible reports: “All Judah and Jerusalem were mourning over Josiah. And Jeremiah began to chant over Josiah; and all the male singers and female singers keep talking about Josiah in their dirges down till today; and they have them set as a regulation over Israel, and there they are written among the dirges.”—2 Chron. 35:24, 25.
Clearly, then, Jehovah’s words through Jeremiah were not designed to discourage the Israelites from expressing grief. They simply emphasized that, by comparison, the plight of the living one, Josiah’s son Shallum, was even worse than that of his dead father. This was so because Shallum would die, not in his homeland as did his father Josiah, but as an exile in Egypt. So there was more reason to weep for the son of Josiah than for the dead king.
An examination of the Bible record makes it clear that God’s servants rightly shed tears over the loss of loved ones. When his beloved wife died, “Abraham,” says God’s Word, “came in to bewail Sarah and to weep over her.” (Gen. 23:2) Thinking that his dead son Joseph had been killed by a wild beast, Jacob “continued weeping for him.” (Gen. 37:35) In connection with the death of the first Christian martyr at the hands of an enraged mob, we read: “Reverent men carried Stephen to the burial, and they made a great lamentation over him.” (Acts 8:2) The death of Dorcas (Tabitha) at Joppa resulted in much weeping among Christian widows who had benefited greatly from her kindnesses.—Acts 9:39.
Such weeping should not be viewed as being merely an imperfect human reaction to saddening circumstances. Why not? Because even the perfect Son of God, Jesus Christ, wept with emotion in connection with the death of his friend Lazarus. Many who witnessed Jesus’ giving way to tears exclaimed: “See, what affection he used to have for him!”—John 11:35, 36.
It is also fitting to sympathize with others, joining in their expressions of sorrow. The Scriptures admonish: “Weep with people who weep.”—Rom. 12:15.
God’s servants should, however, shun mourning rites that are associated with false worship. The ancient Israelites were commanded: “You must not make cuts in your flesh for a deceased soul.” (Lev. 19:28) The writings of the ancient historian Herodotus give us some idea of what this involved. Concerning what the Scythians did upon the death of their king, he said: “They cut off part of their ear, shave off their hair, wound themselves on the arms, lacerate their forehead and nose, and drive arrows through their left hand.” (Book IV, sec. 71) The purpose of such actions may have been to appease the deities thought to preside over the dead. Such mourning rites certainly had no place among a people who had the hope of the resurrection.
Then, too, expressions of sorrow that go to the extreme are unfitting for Christians. The apostle Paul wrote to fellow believers: “We do not want you to be ignorant concerning those who are sleeping in death; that you may not sorrow just as the rest also do who have no hope.” (1 Thess. 4:13) A Christian may indeed be sad. But he should not become hysterical and act as though everything were lost. Others should be able to see that he has a marvelous hope, a hope that truly strengthens him. The grief of true Christians should be balanced, in fact, overshadowed by hope and God-given joy. They should endeavor to reflect the attitude of the apostle Paul, who said of himself and his associates that they were “as sorrowing but ever rejoicing.” (2 Cor. 6:10) This attitude aids one to avoid the weakening effects of sustained mourning.
The composite evidence of Scripture shows that mourning over dead loved ones is proper. But such mourning should not go to the point of calling into question, in the minds of others, a person’s faith in God’s promise to raise the dead. All extreme forms of mourning and idolatrous rites should be shunned. Also, weeping that reflects disagreement with God’s judgments or is contrary to his express commands would likewise be wrong.