How a misinterpreted verse can make us feel guilty when we grieve

How a misinterpreted verse can make us feel guilty when we grieve March 14, 2015

american-20913_640If there was one verse in the ESV that I would tweak the translation of it would be 1 Thess 4:13. In it we are told “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” It is unfortunate simply because the most natural interpretation of that phrase in English is “You are not allowed to grieve because you have hope.”

But that is not what Paul meant.

I think the NIV is closer with it’s “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” But even that can be misleading and open to the same mis-interpretation.

No, a better translation of this instruction would be simply “do not grieve in the same way as those who have no hope.”

The Greek word translated here translated “as” is Kathos and it really means “just as” you can see how that is the case when you see the following list of verses and realize you could add the word “just” before the word “as” or indeed substitute it for “in exactly the same way“. It basically means in the same manner.

  • The disciples went and did [just] as Jesus had directed them. (Matthew 21:6)
  • He is not here, for he has risen, [just] as he said (Matthew 28:6)
  • Be merciful, even [just] as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:36)
  • Therefore welcome one another [just] as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (Ro 15:7)

Paul is certainly not advocating a form of heartless stoicism that rejoices even in death.  Yes, we know that God works all things for good (Romans 8:28), but that does not mean that the things themselves are always good.  We live in a fallen world where everything is not as they should be, and where death is an unwelcome invader.

Indeed Paul himself elsewhere speaks of a potentially fatal sickness of a friend and says, “Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (Philippians 2:27).

So we see that Paul is not telling us to somehow suppress the natural emotions, but rather that there is a different way that the Christian goes about mourning because he knows he will see his loved one again.  As the ever pastoral scholar John Stott put it,

“We observe that Paul does not forbid us to grieve altogether. Mourning is natural, even for a while emotionally necessary. It would be very unnatural, indeed inhuman, not to mourn when we lose somebody near and dear to us. To be sure, it is appropriate at Christian funerals joyfully to celebrate Christ’s decisive victory over death, but we do so only through tears of personal sorrow. If Jesus wept at the graveside of his beloved friend Lazarus, his disciples are surely at liberty to do the same. What Paul prohibits is not grief but hopeless grief, not all mourning but mourning like the rest of men, who have no hope.”

John R. W. Stott, The Message of Thessalonians : The Gospel & the End of Time, The Bible speaks today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 94.

This was originally part of a longer article.  Read the whole post here: We grieve, but not in the same way as those who have no hope.

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  • Rollin Shultz

    1 Thessalonians 4:13 ISV
    (13) But we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about those who have died, “so that you may not grieve” like other people who have no hope.

    I think it is very clear in this translation that there is a big difference between how the lost grieve and how the saved grieve. The new man in Christ has a new direction and new spiritual tools to govern their lives. It is clear to me, that this is not any kind of a command, but an illustration of how we are different than those who are without Christ.

  • Roger

    “It is unfortunate simply because the most natural interpretation of that phrase in English is “You are not allowed to grieve because you have hope.””
    Interesting, I’ve never interpreted it this way, nor have I known anyone who does. I’ll have to keep alert for those who do.

    • Maybe it’s the stiff upper lip British stoicism coming thru….