God has ordained that this world is a temporary reality. It is not the ultimate reality, but a shadow of it. Because of this, everything in this life is a shadow of greater realities. Marriage is just such a shadow. The greatest significance of marriage does not come from the fact that it brings worldly companionship. The greatest significance of marriage comes from the fact that it is a shadow of a far better marriage - the one between Christ and his church.
Nothing brings this truth to light more than the unfortunate, though inevitable, death of a spouse. God has ordained a time for everyone to display the transient nature of this world. "You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (James 4:14). We don't know when our spouse is going to be snatched away from us. It can come quickly, and steal our breath away. Or it can come slowly, and almost feel like a relief. Whether death is unexpected or anticipated, it is a canvas on which the spouse left behind paints a picture for the world to see.
The question is, "What hues and emotions will the one left behind slap on the canvas?" Will the picture be one of bewilderment, an abstract of anger and upheaval? Or will the one left behind display the grieving joy of one who hopes in the sovereign grace of God? Will grief be a testimony to human rebellion and a love for this world? Or will grief be a testimony to faith in the God whose "steadfast love is better than life"? (See Psalm 63).
When a spouse dies, Christians are given a unique opportunity to share who there hope is in and why. It is an excellent opportunity to "make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:15). Unless that hope is a daily reality in the life of a married couple, unhealthy grief will threaten to cripple that opportunity. The kind of hope that sustains joy and sanity in the midst of losing a lifetime mate is difficult to drum up at the last minute. The kind of hope that sustains through the death of a spouse must be nurtured and protected through many lesser trials of life. Joyful hope in God comes through practice.
Lest you think it would be impossible to respond to the death of a spouse in such a Christ-centered way, I have seen it first hand. I have witnessed the lingering illness and death of an elder in our church whose Christ-centered perspective shined Heaven's light on all who spoke with him. People would come to visit him in his final months to support and comfort him. It never failed that he would end up comforting and edifying the visitors. I always left his presence more enraptured with Christ and the reality of Heaven than I was when I got there.
When this beloved brother passed into eternity, his wife was a bastion of grieving joy. Of course she mourned the loss of her companion of many decades. But it wasn't the unhealthy, worldly grief of those who have no hope. It was the grief of knowing that she would have to carry on without her worldly companion for awhile. This dear couple never looked at their life together as anything more than a temporary arrangement while they waited for their Lord to carry them to their real home. So, though death interrupted their worldly life, it didn't ruin their eternal plans. This dear sister continues to joyfully live her life for the glory of God. I pray that God would bless all of our marriages with such a Christ-centered hope.