My theology tells me that it is not right to lie, even if my intended purpose is to bring about a good outcome. We are not to “do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8). Lying is a violation of God’s character and will. God is the God of truth. He cannot lie and He does not condone lying in the Scriptures (Titus 1:2).
Lying is never right, never loving, and never necessary. Followers of Christ are to be truth tellers. This does not mean we have the permission to be crass, unkind or uncaring in our speech. We are commanded to speak the truth in love but we are always commanded to speak the truth. This does not change whether we are talking about good news or bad news, joys or hardships, life or death.
One of the greatest and most challenging speaking invitations a pastor will ever receive is to speak at a funeral. A bereaved family will often request a pastor’s presence to speak words of comfort, hope and peace. Sometimes they will even call this speech the eulogy, which literally means good words. It brings a family great relief to hear a minster say:
“We are comforted that his suffering is finally over” or…
“She is in a better place now” or…
“I know that we will see him again”
But what if those words are not true because the person did not know Christ? Are they still “good words”?
And if these words are not true, are there any words of comfort we can share that are true?
This is not just a question that ministers face, but one that is common to every Christian seeking to offer words of consolation for those in mourning.
Thankfully, there are words of comfort and truth that we can share with those who grieve, even when we are uncertain about the eternal destiny of their loved one who died. We don’t have to abandon the truth of Scripture in order to offer consolation. Below are a few “good words” we can honestly share about those who have passed away, with a clear conscience.
1) God is a God of Hope and Mercy
If Scripture did not record his conversion, no one would have expected the thief on the cross to go to heaven. He spent his whole life in manifest rebellion towards God. Even while hanging on a cross, he hurled accusations against the perfect and holy Son of God (Matthew 27:39-44). Yet, we discover that his heart was changed in the last moments of his life; his sins were forgiven and he was promised paradise (Luke 23:40-42).
As that example illustrates, we cannot know for sure what the condition of the person’s heart might have been in the moments right before death. God’s mercy is rich, vast and incomprehensible, “for He says to Moses ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Romans 9:15-16). While we must be careful not to presume on God’s grace nor to offer false hope to grieving loved ones, we can say without fear of contradiction that “God is a merciful God and His mercy is available even up to the point of death.”
2) God is a God of Love and Grace
Second, we can express thankfulness to God for the common graces He allowed the person to experience in this life. The Scriptures speak of a common love and non-saving grace that has been provided to all mankind. In Matthew 5:44, Jesus issues a command to love our enemies, because our Father who is in heaven “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” God showers His love in general ways even on those who are His enemies (cf. Acts 14:17). Therefore, we can point to the common grace and goodness of God as we recall the undeserved blessings He graciously permitted the person to enjoy during his or her years on this earth.
3) God is a God of Justice and Righteousness
We can also provide comfort by reminding our hearers that God will always do what is right and just. In Genesis 18, Abraham questioned the justice of God when he learned about the impending doom of Sodom and Gomorrah. As we follow the narrative, we discover that God gave Sodom and Gomorrah every opportunity to repent. He was even willing to withhold His fury on an entire city, if He could find just ten righteous people who lived there! The Lord’s incredible grace and longsuffering is highlighted in this narrative. He is a God in whom there is no injustice, and He knows how to separate the righteous from the wicked. Comfort comes by reminding the grieving that they can trust the Lord to do what is right with respect to their loved one who died. There is no injustice with God, is there? “May it never be!” (Romans 9:14).
If we keep our comments anchored in the immutable character of God, we never have to fear offering “good words” that are not also true words. No matter who has died, we can boldly say that God is a God of compassion and faithfulness, of wisdom and power, of sovereignty and providence, and of righteousness and justice. Even if the person who died never responded in saving faith, their unbelief does not alter the perfect character of God in the least.
Finally, I would commend to you an additional “good word” that needs to be shared at any funeral or conversation about a loved one who has passed away.
4) God is a God of Salvation
We don’t have to know the eternal destiny of the dead person, to know with certainty what message they would want us to give to their family and friends. In Luke 16, Jesus shares the only message an unbeliever ever attempted to send back to earth: “Warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (Luke 16:28).
The “good word” that ultimately needs to be heard is the “good news” of salvation. The holy God who created all things and against whom all people have sinned, will forgive and provide eternal life to all who turn from sin and trust in His sinless Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin but rose in victory over death and offers His perfect righteousness as a gift to all who believe (2 Cor. 5:20-21).
Our words of comfort need to lead people to the God of all comfort, where souls that grieve can find solace in His truth. He is both the God of comfort and the God of truth.
God does not distort the truth to alleviate grief and neither should we. We don’t have to abandon the truth of Scripture in order to offer sincere consolation to those in mourning. Thankfully, there are words of comfort that we can honestly share with those who grieve, even if we are uncertain about the eternal destiny of the recently departed. We are not obligated to say anything about the person who died, but we are obligated to tell those still alive that only through the gospel can they truly rest in peace.
George Lawson graduated from The Master’s Seminary in 2010 and is the Pastor-Teacher of Baltimore Bible Church, a church plant in Baltimore, MD. He and his wife Jennifer have been married since 1998 and have the joy of raising three children.