Flavel’s remedies for excessive sorrow over a loved one’s death

John Flavel (1627-1691) wrote the book we know as Biblical Mourning to encourage friends who had recently lost a young child. Flavel himself had lost his wife and his only son within a single year sometime prior to this writing which makes his counsel more than theoretical. The following are his seven rules (in italics) for dealing with “sinful excesses of sorrow” with a few editorial comments added on:

Rule 1. If you do not want to mourn excessively for the loss of human comforts, then take care that you do not excessively and inordinately set your delight and love on them while you enjoy them. Or, don’t allow your loved one to become an idol.

Rule 2. If you do not want to be overwhelmed with grief by the loss of your loved ones, be exact and careful in carrying out your duties to them while you have them. Don’t leave room for regrets. A clean conscience may not alleviate our sorrow, but a troubled conscience makes the burden heavier.

Rule 3. If you do not want to be overwhelmed with distress at the loss of dear relationships, turn to God under your troubles and pour out your sorrows by prayer into his open arms. See Psalm 34:17-18.

Rule 4. If you want to bear the loss of your dear relatives with moderation, then view God in the whole process of the affliction more, and secondary causes and circumstances of the matter less. This is particularly good counsel for those who carried the burden of decision-making in an emergency or end of life care. Our second-guessing may betray our confession that God has ordained the number of our days (Job 14:5; Psalm 139:16). Our time is in his hands and we can neither add nor take away from the time he has allotted us.

Rule 5. If you want to bear your affliction with moderation, compare it with the afflictions of other men, and that will greatly quiet your spirit. This counsel is cold comfort and certainly not our first recourse in dealing with grief, but perhaps we should remember that our sorrow seldom (if ever) runs as deep as it might.

Rule 6. Carefully shun and avoid whatever might renew your sorrow or cause you to stop persevering. Grief is inevitable but it shouldn’t be indulged.

Rule 7. In the day of your discontent for the death of your friends, seriously consider both that your own death is approaching and that you and your dead friend are separated by a small interval and point of time: I shall go to him (2 Samuel 12:23). Ironic, that even as we walk in the shadow of death we continue to think and act as if death is far from us (Psalm 144:3-4). We will not be separated for long.

Crossing the river in Pilgrim’s Progress

Among the songs our church sang on Easter Sunday was “Because He Lives.” The third verse reads:

And then one day, I’ll cross that river
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain
And then as death gives way to victory
I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He reigns

The line about crossing the river reminds me of a late scene in Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian & Hopeful must cross the river of death to reach the Celestial City. Bunyan’s depiction of the weakness of our flesh and our wavering faith in the face of death is arresting and somehow comforting. Until the day that it is destroyed, death remains an enemy that threatens us with fear and tempts us to despair (1Cor 15:26). We need not fear death when it comes (Heb 2:14-15), but who can say how we will fare in the heat of our last battle? On the heels of Easter Sunday I’m thankful that God’s promise of eternal life is certain even when I am not.

Now between them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep. At the sight of this river the pilgrims were stunned. Then the men who went with them said, “You must go through the river or you cannot enter the City at the gate.”

The pilgrims then began to inquire if there was no other way to the gate, to which they answered, “Yes, but there have been only two, Enoch and Elijah, permitted to tread that path since the foundation of the world. And no one else will be permitted to go that way until the last trumpet shall sound. “

Then the pilgrims, especially Christian, began to despair in their minds. They looked this way and that, but no way could be found to escape the river.

Then they asked the men if the waters were deep everywhere all the time. They told them that sometimes the water was shallow, but that they could not guide them in that matter since the waters were deep or shallow depending upon their faith in the King of the place.

Then they waded into the water, and upon entering, Christian began to sink. He cried out to his good friend Hopeful, saying, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows are going over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.

Then Hopeful said, “Be of good cheer, my brother. I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

Then Christian cried out, “Ah, my friend! The sorrows of death have compassed me about. I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey.”

With that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see ahead.

It was then that Christian lost his senses, and his memory failed him, and he could not talk in an orderly fashion of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage.

All the words that he spoke were filled with horror, and he feared that he should die in that river and never obtain entrance at the gate. He was greatly troubled by thoughts of his past sins, committed before and during his pilgrimage. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, which he continually spoke about.

It was everything that Hopeful could do to keep his brother’s head above water. Sometimes Christian, despite all Hopeful’s help, would slip down into the waters and rise up again half-dead.

Hopeful continually tried to comfort him, saying, “Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us.”

But Christian would answer, “It is you, it is you they wait for. You have been Hopeful ever since I knew you.”

And so have you,” Hopeful said to Christian.

Christian answered, “If things were right with me, He would now come to help me, but because of my sin he has brought me to this snare, and He will leave me here.

Then said Hopeful, “My brother, you have forgotten the text where it is said of the wicked, ‘There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men’ (Psa. 73:4, 5). These troubles and distresses you are going through in these waters are not a sign that God has forsaken you; but are sent to try you, to see if you will call to mind all the goodness that you have received from Him. You are being tested to see if you will rely on Him in your distress.”

Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was in a bewildered stupor for a while. Hopeful spoke to Christian, encouraging him to “Be of good cheer,” reminding him that Jesus Christ would make him whole.

With that Christian shouted out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see him again; and he tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you’ (Isa. 43:2).”

Then they both took courage and crossed the river, and the enemy was as still as a stone. Christian soon found solid ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So Christian and Hopeful crossed over the river and arrived on the other side. As soon as they came out of the river, they saw the two shining men again waiting for them. The men saluted the two pilgrims saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent here to minister to those shall be the heirs of salvation.” Then they all went along together toward the gate.

Now though the city stood upon a mighty hill with its foundations higher than the clouds, the pilgrims went up with ease, agility, and speed because the ministering spirits supported their arms as they led them. Also they had left their mortal garments behind them in the river, for though they had gone in with them, they had come out without them.

-John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (ed. C. J. Lovik)

Newton: A final farewell not only tolerable, but pleasant

Alterations and separations are graciously appointed of the Lord, to remind us that this is not our rest, and to prepare our thoughts for that approaching change which shall fix us forever in an unchangeable state. Oh, madam! what shall we poor worms render to him who has brought life and immortality to light by the gospel, taken away the sting of death, revealed a glorious prospect beyond the grave, and given us eyes to see it?

Now the reflection that we must ere long take a final farewell of what is most capable of pleasing us upon earth is not only tolerable, but pleasant. For we know we cannot fully possess our best friend, our chief treasure, till we have done with all below; nay, we cannot till then properly see each other. We are cased up in vehicles of clay, and converse together as if we were in different coaches, with the blinds close drawn round. We see the carriage, and the voice tells us we have a friend within; but we shall know each other better, when death shall open the coach doors, and hand out the company successively, and lead them into the glorious apartments which the Lord has appointed to be the common residence of them that love him. What an assembly will there be! What a constellation of glory, when each individual shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father! No sins, sorrows, temptations; no veils, clouds, or prejudices, shall interrupt us then. All names of idle distinction (the fruits of present remaining darkness, the channels of bigotry, and the stumbling-block of the world) will be at an end.

— John Newton, “Letter to Mrs. Place,” August 1775; Letters of John Newton, 235-6.

Newton’s words of comfort to an unexpected widow

“Mrs. Talbot was the wife of the Rev. W. Talbot, vicar of St. Giles’, Reading. In the midst of his devoted labors and in the prime of life this good man was suddenly cut off by a contagious fever caught in the discharge of his ministerial duties. . .”

Though every stream must fail, the fountain is still full and still flowing. All the comfort you ever received in your dear friend was from the Lord, who is abundantly able to comfort you still; and he is gone but a little before you. May your faith anticipate the joyful and glorious meeting you will shortly have in a better world. Then your worship and converse together will be to unspeakable advantage, without imperfection, interruption, abatement, or end. Then all tears shall be wiped away, and every cloud removed; and then you will see, that all your concernments here below (the late afflicting dispensation not excepted), were appointed and adjusted by infinite wisdom and infinite love.

The Lord, who knows our frame, does not expect or require that we should aim at a stoical indifference under his visitations. He allows that afflictions are at present not joyous, but grievous; yea, He was pleased when upon earth to weep with his mourning friends when Lazarus died. But he has graciously provided for the prevention of that anguish and bittereness of sorrow, which is, upon such occasions, the portion of such as live without God in the world; and has engaged that all shall work together for good, and yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness. May He bless you with a sweet serenity of spirit, and a cheerful hope of the glory that shall shortly be revealed. . . .

Will it be a consolation to you, madam, to know that you do not mourn alone? A character so exemplary as a friend, a counsellor, a Christian, and a minister, will be long and deeply regretted; and many will join me in praying, that you, who are most nearly interested, may be signally supported, and feel the propriety of Mrs. Rowe’s acknowledgment,

Thou dost but take the dying lamp away
To bless me with thine own unclouded day.

We join in most affectionate respects and condolence. May the Lord bless you and keep you, lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Letters of John Newton, “To Mrs. Talbot” (Letter 1)

Life under ‘the plague’

…they all make haste toward some trivial objective that seems of more immediate interest than God.

This semester I participated in a Worldviews in Literature course with our two oldest. Overall it’s been a good experience–lots of reading, insightful questions to answer, and generally good discussion.

For existentialism we read The Plague by Albert Camus which, in my opinion, turned out to be one of the better books in the course. At one point in the story one of the characters–Tarrou–compiles “a longish description of a day in the plague-stricken town.” Consider how the townspeople react when forced to confront their own mortality [emphasis added]:

“At the start of the great heat, for some unascertained reason, the evening found the streets almost empty. But now the least ripple of cooler air brings an easing of the strain, if not a flutter of hope. Then all stream out into the open, drug themselves with talking, start arguing or love-making, and in the last glow of sunset the town, freighted with lovers two by two and with loud voices, drifts like a helmless ship into the throbbing darkness. In vain a zealous evangelist with a felt hat and flowing tie threads his way through the crowd, crying without cease: ‘God is great and good. Come unto Him.’ On the contrary, they all make haste toward some trivial objective that seems of more immediate interest than God.

“In the early days, when they thought this epidemic was much like other epidemics, religion held its ground. But once these people realized their instant peril, they gave their thoughts to pleasure. And all the hideous fears that stamp their faces in the daytime are transformed in the fiery, dusty nightfall into a sort of hectic exaltation, an unkempt freedom fevering their blood.

“And I, too, I’m no different. But what matter? Death means nothing to men like me. It’s the event that proves them right.”

Camus wasn’t the first to depict religion and pleasure in competition for the human soul. Pascal had made this observation about three centuries earlier and he was more than a millennia behind Paul (1Cor 15:32) who was himself preceded by the OT wisdom authors (Prov 14:12-13; Eccl 2:1-11).

But in spite of wildly divergent worldviews these men all had one thing in common: they gave themselves to books.

What a bunch of dullards.

Death & distraction

We can’t escape death but that doesn’t mean we have to think about it.

As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away. Who understands the power of Your anger And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?  So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.{Psa 90:10-12, NAS}

For the longest time I’ve been struck by the melancholy wisdom in Psalm 90. Forget swimming against the current, this kind of thinking doesn’t even appear to be in the stream of our modern consciousness. Say what you will about today’s society but I doubt ‘wisdom’ and ‘sobriety’ are tags for our day.

But the truth of the matter is that human nature remains unchanged. At some point the stupefying sparkle of the iPhone and FaceTwit will be eclipsed by the lengthening shadow of our mortality. Distraction cannot drive away death.

What distraction can do, however, is offer a sort of palliative care for the soul. Absent an inoculation for finitude we choose to be anesthetized. At least this was Pascal’s contention in the 1600s. Reading this portion from Pensees it’s hard to decide if the man was an astute philosopher or a prophet for the technological age.

166 Diversion. Death is easier to bear without thinking of it, than is the thought of death without peril.

167 The miseries of human life have established all this: as men have seen this, they have taken up diversion.

168 Diversion. As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.

169 Despite these miseries, man wishes to be happy, and only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so. But how will he set about it? To be happy he would have to make himself immortal; but, not being able to do so, it has occurred to him to prevent himself from thinking of death.

170 Diversion.-If man were happy, he would be the more so, the less he was diverted, like the Saints and God.-Yes; but is it not to be happy to have a faculty of being amused by diversion?-No; for that comes from elsewhere and from without, and thus is dependent, and therefore subject to be disturbed by a thousand accidents, which bring inevitable griefs.

171 Misery.-The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this it the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves, and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously  to death.

On the bright side, there’s a market for this kind of biblical wisdom in late night comedy sketches. Use it well.


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