How do we manage our grief at losing a loved one? St. Paul based his consolation on the belief that as God raised the Lord Jesus from the dead, he will also raise us with Jesus (2 Cor.4:13ff.). We are encouraged to believe that as we physically decline we are actually being renewed spiritually if we are in Christ. We cannot see this of course. All we can see is the deterioration of the body. Yet he urges us to focus not on what we see but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal. We cannot see love, but it is no less real for being unseen. What is going on is a metamorphosis, a change in form from the physical to the spiritual, the earthly body to the heavenly body, the perishable to the imperishable, from what is weak, to what is powerful.
St. Paul uses construction terms. We exchange the earthly tent of our physical body for an eternal mansion in heaven, not built by human hands. As we age and our physical body begins to break down we are clothed with our heavenly dwelling. What is mortal in us is replaced by eternal life. God has made us this way for a purpose and given us a foretaste of it by the Holy Spirit who lives in us. The Holy Spirit is like an engagement ring that assures us of the wedding to come. The Holy Spirit guarantees what is to come. This guarantee can be relied on because it is backed by the promises of God himself.
Therefore we can be confident that when we leave the body we will be at home with the Lord, there to await those we love who will join us in their due time.
Benjamin Franklin expressed it in these words.
It is the will of God and Nature that these mortal bodies be laid aside, when the soul is to enter the real life; this world is rather an embryo state, a preparation for living; a man is not completely born until he be dead. Why then should we grieve that a new child is born among the immortals. A new member is added to their happy society.
We are spirits. That bodies should be lent us, while they can afford us pleasure, assist us in acquiring knowledge, or doing good to our fellow creatures, is a kind and benevolent act of God. When they become unfit for these purposes, and afford us pain instead of pleasure – instead of an aid, become an encumbrance and answer none of the intentions for which they were given, it is equally kind and benevolent that a way is provided by which we may get rid of them. Death is that way.
We ourselves prudently choose a partial death. In some cases a mangled painful limb, which cannot be restored, we willingly cut it off. He who plucks out a tooth, parts with it freely since the pain goes with it, and he who quits the whole body, parts at once with all its pains and possibilities of pains and diseases it was liable to, or capable of making him suffer.
Our friend and we are invited abroad on a party of pleasure – that is to last forever. His chair was first ready and he is gone before us. We could not all conveniently start together, and why should you and I be grieved at this, since we are soon to follow, and we know where to find him.
Dying is characterized as falling asleep in Jesus. It is a beautiful image of our passage from time to eternal life. We go to sleep in our faith in Jesus who died for us to win our salvation – to give us forgiveness, victory over death and resurrection to life eternal. We wake up to the new heavens and the new earth in the company of those who have gone before us. It is the closing of one chapter in the book of our life and the beginning of a new chapter.
C.S. Lewis, at the end of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, has Aslan, the Christ figure describing this new life.
The things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all stories, and we can truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.