Beware of Customs That Displease God
IN A small courtyard, a coffin lies open under the hot African sun. As mourners file past it to express their grief, an old man pauses. His eyes filled with sorrow, he leans close to the dead man’s face and begins speaking: “Why did you not tell me you were going? Why did you leave me like this? Now that you have returned, will you continue to help me?”
In another part of Africa, a baby is born. Nobody is allowed to see the child. Only after some time has passed is the baby brought out into public view and ceremonially given a name.
To some people, talking to a dead person or hiding a newborn child from the sight of others may seem to be strange behavior. However, in certain cultures and societies, the conduct and views of people toward death and birth are influenced by a very powerful belief that the dead are really not dead but are alive and conscious.
This belief is so strong that it is woven into the fabric of customs and rituals that involve almost all aspects of life. For instance, millions believe that important stages in one’s life—such as birth, puberty, marriage, childbearing, and death—are parts of a passage leading into the spirit realm of the ancestors. There, it is believed, the dead person continues to play an active role in the lives of those he left behind. And he can continue the cycle of life through rebirth.
To ensure a smooth transition between all stages of this cycle, numerous customs and rites are performed. These customs are influenced by the belief that something inside us survives death. True Christians avoid any customs associated with this belief. Why?
What Is the Condition of the Dead?
The Bible is clear when it describes the condition of the dead. It simply states: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all . . . Their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished . . . There is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [mankind’s common grave], the place to which you are going.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10) True worshipers of God have long embraced this basic Bible truth. They have understood that the soul, rather than being immortal, can die and be destroyed. (Ezekiel 18:4) They have also known that spirits of the dead do not exist. (Psalm 146:4) In ancient times, Jehovah strictly commanded his people to separate themselves completely from any custom or ritual that was associated with the belief that the dead are conscious and are able to influence the living.—Deuteronomy 14:1; 18:9-13; Isaiah 8:19, 20.
First-century Christians likewise avoided any traditional custom or rite that was associated with false religious teaching. (2 Corinthians 6:15-17) Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses, regardless of race, tribe, or background, shun traditions and customs that are connected with the false teaching that something in man survives death.
What can guide us as Christians in deciding whether to observe a certain custom or not? We must carefully think about its possible connection to any unscriptural teaching, such as the belief that spirits of the dead influence the lives of the living. Further, we need to consider if our sharing in such a custom or ceremony might stumble others who know what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe and teach. With those points in mind, let us examine two areas of concern—birth and death.
Birth and Child-Naming Ceremonies
Many customs associated with childbirth are appropriate. However, in places where birth is viewed as a passing over from the realm of the ancestor spirits to that of the human community, true Christians must exercise care. In some parts of Africa, for example, a newborn child is kept indoors and is not given a name until a period of time has passed. While the waiting period may vary according to locality, it ends with a child-naming ceremony, in which the child is brought outdoors and is formally presented to relatives and friends. At that time, the child’s name is officially announced to those present.
Explaining the significance of this custom, the book Ghana—Understanding the People and Their Culture states: “During the first seven days of its life, a baby is considered to be on a ‘visit’ and undergoing a transition from the world of spirits to earthly life. . . . The baby is normally kept indoors and people outside the family are not allowed to see it.”
Why is there a waiting period before the child is ceremonially named? The book Ghana in Retrospect explains: “Before the eighth day, the child is not supposed to be human. He is more or less associated with the other world from which he has come.” The book continues: “Since it is the name that, as it were, humanizes a child, when a couple fear that their child will die they will usually defer naming him until they are sure he will live. . . . Therefore this rite of passage, sometimes called outdooring of the child, is thought to be of tremendous consequences for the child and his parents. It is the ceremony that ushers the child into the company or world of human beings.”
A senior relative of the family usually officiates during such a child-naming ceremony. Aspects of the occasion vary from place to place, but the ceremony often includes the pouring of a libation, prayers offered to the ancestral spirits expressing appreciation for the child’s safe arrival, and other rituals.
The highlight of the ceremony comes when the name of the child is announced. Although the parents are responsible for the naming of their own child, other relatives often have a strong influence on the name chosen. Some names may carry a symbolic meaning in the local language, such as “gone and returned,” “Mother has come a second time,” or “Father has come again.” Other names contain meanings designed to discourage the ancestors from taking the newborn child back into the world of the dead.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with rejoicing over the birth of a child. Naming a child after someone else and giving a name that reflects the circumstances associated with its birth are acceptable customs, and deciding when to give a child its name is a personal decision. However, Christians who want to please God are careful to avoid any customs or ceremonies that give the impression that they are in agreement with the view that the newborn child is a “visitor” passing from the spirit world of the ancestors to the world of the living community.
In addition, while many in the community view the naming ceremony as an important rite of passage, Christians should be sensitive to the consciences of others and consider the impression that is given to unbelievers. What might some conclude, for example, if a Christian family kept their newborn child from the view of others until a naming ceremony was performed? What would be the impression if names that contradicted their claim to be teachers of Bible truth were used?
Hence, when deciding how and when to name their children, Christians strive to “do all things for God’s glory” so as not to become a cause for stumbling. (1 Corinthians 10:31-33) They do not ‘set aside the commandment of God in order to retain traditions’ that are ultimately designed to honor the dead. On the contrary, they give honor and glory to the living God, Jehovah.—Mark 7:9, 13.
Passing From Death to Life
Death, like birth, is considered by many to be a transition; one who dies moves from the visible world into the invisible realm of the spirits of the dead. Many believe that unless certain funeral customs and rites are performed at a person’s death, the ancestor spirits, who are believed to have the power to punish or reward the living, will be angered. This belief greatly influences the way funerals are arranged and conducted.
Funerals that are intended to appease the dead often involve a whole range of emotions—from frantic wailing and shouting in the presence of the corpse to joyous festivities after the burial. Unrestrained feasting, drunkenness, and dancing to loud music often characterize such funeral celebrations. So much importance is attached to funerals that even the poorest of families often make great effort to gather enough funds to provide “a fitting burial,” though it might bring hardship and debt.
Throughout the years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have thoroughly exposed unscriptural funeral customs.a Such customs include wakes, the pouring of libations, talking to and making requests of the dead, ceremonious observances of funeral anniversaries, and other customs based on the belief that something in a person survives death. Such God-dishonoring customs are “unclean,” an “empty deception” based on “the tradition of men” and not on God’s Word of truth.—Isaiah 52:11; Colossians 2:8.
Pressure to Conform
Avoiding traditional customs has proved to be a challenge for some, especially in lands where honoring the dead is considered extremely important. Because of not following such customs, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion or have been accused of being antisocial and disrespectful of the dead. Criticism and strong pressure have caused some, despite their correct understanding of Bible truth, to be afraid to stand out as different. (1 Peter 3:14) Others have felt that these customs are part of their culture and cannot be completely avoided. Still others have reasoned that refusing to follow custom may prejudice the community against God’s people.
We do not want to offend others needlessly. Still, the Bible warns us that taking a firm stand for truth will result in the disapproval of a world alienated from God. (John 15:18, 19; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 John 5:19) We willingly take such a stand, knowing that we must be different from those who are in spiritual darkness. (Malachi 3:18; Galatians 6:12) Just as Jesus resisted Satan’s temptation to do something that displeased God, so we resist the pressure to act in a way that displeases God. (Matthew 4:3-7) Rather than being influenced by fear of man, true Christians are primarily concerned with pleasing Jehovah God and honoring him as the God of truth. They do so by not compromising Bible standards of pure worship because of pressure from others.—Proverbs 29:25; Acts 5:29.
Respecting the Dead—Honoring Jehovah
It is normal to feel deep emotional pain and grief when someone we love dies. (John 11:33, 35) Cherishing the memory of a loved one and providing a respectful burial are fitting and appropriate expressions of our love. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses cope with the immense sadness of death without being drawn into any traditional practices that displease God. This is not easy for those who have been raised in cultures where there is strong fear of the dead. It can be a challenge to keep our balance when we are emotionally pained by the death of someone close to us. Nevertheless, faithful Christians are strengthened by Jehovah, “the God of all comfort,” and benefit from the loving support of fellow believers. (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4) Their strong faith that unconscious dead ones in God’s memory will one day live again gives true Christians every reason to separate themselves completely from unchristian funeral customs that deny the reality of the resurrection.
Are we not thrilled that Jehovah has called us “out of darkness into his wonderful light”? (1 Peter 2:9) As we experience the joy of birth and endure the sadness of death, may our strong desire to do what is right and our deep love for Jehovah God always move us to “go on walking as children of light.” May we never allow ourselves to be spiritually contaminated by unchristian customs that displease God.—Ephesians 5:8.
a Please see the brochures Spirits of the Dead—Can They Help You or Harm You? Do They Really Exist? and The Road to Everlasting Life—Have You Found It? published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.