A Letter about  Pain in Heaven over lost Loved Ones...   

A dear, burdened soul wrote in...


Dear Glenn


I saw in the letter about your daughter that you say the meeting of your reunion is certain, just the time  is unknown.


My parents are adherents of another (Eastern) world faith, and I am not sure how certain I can be of our reunion if they die. My relationship with them has healed after a long while and I cannot bear the thought of not seeing them in heaven, to the extent that that I think I should go to hell as heaven simply won't be heaven without my parents.


This issue is causing me so much grief and they have not died yet. Can you help?



Not sure I can help much, friend, but I will at least share my perspectives on this...Some of these thoughts and themes below will have NO relevance to your particular situation (I have included some of them since I have gotten other, more general questions about this topic), but some ideas may further conversations that you are undoubtedly already having with the God of grace and mercy and comfort.


The question (as I read it) seems to focus on a single issue: your current feelings (e.g., grief and no doubt discouragement), which arise from what you project to be your future feelings (in heaven) concerning the possibility of not having your parents in heaven with you. [Undoubtedly, you have other/unspoken concerns over their possible post-death experience, and so I will mention a point or two about this issue below as well.]




The first--and most important-- thing to remember is that the Loving Lord is very much aware of this (very common) situation, and of your particular pain and uncertainty, and of your parents' hearts and spiritual journey status. This is not something that He "overlooked" in His promises to you of "life everlasting, and full of joy" and "wiping away all tears"...SOMEHOW, He can be trusted with this difficulty, even if His teachings in the Scripture do not coach us on how to deal with the pain (other than by trust) now, but of course, THAT applies to MY situation as well...I trust Him on the future, but that doesn't remove all the pain now.


Part of this is to trust Him that (again, SOMEHOW) He can create within you in heaven a "kind of love" that can be supremely loving and compassionate, yet not be emotionally dependent on the actions/presence/choices of others for serenity. In other words, your future heart of love and compassion and goodness will not be hostage to the freedom and choices of others, irrespective of the magnitude of love we have for them.


We can have a good deal of confidence in this, that God will transform our love this way, because He promises to make us more like His own heart in that future. And HIS heart/love is somehow free like this.


Consider this somewhat theoretical, but extremely relevant for us, discussion in TH:HLD (excerpts from pages (108-110; emphases mine);


"But on the other hand, those who reject God and his kingdom cannot be just as happy or even happier than they would be if they chose to be a part of his kingdom. Even if the damned get what they want--as I shall argue later--and consequently experience some perverse sense of satisfaction, they still are not truly happy. So while God may accept and respect their choice, he must do so knowing they have forfeited what is best for them, for they cannot experience genuine fulfillment and happiness without accepting his love. Consequently, God cannot be perfectly good unless he wants all persons to accept his love and be members of his kingdom.


"Now the question is whether we can maintain this view without entailing that God's happiness depends upon the choices of his creatures. Could God's bliss be sufficiently resilient that it could be compatible with an element of suffering over his children who fail to receive happiness? I want to suggest that it could be.


"Let us consider this possibility by thinking again about Creel's position. Another way of stating my objection to his view is to say that God does not seem to have the right attitude toward his creatures if it is a matter of indifference to him whether or not they accept his kingdom. His attitude toward their loss of happiness does not seem appropriate to a perfectly good being. If he loves his human creatures, he should view their loss of happiness and fulfillment with something like a sense of regret'


"Perhaps the element of suffering which God experiences is an attitude of regret toward the loss of happiness by those who refuse his love. Conceived in this way, God's suffering is not a feeling which could dominate the divine consciousness. It is rather a moral attitude, a certain way of thinking about loved ones who have experienced great loss.


"The very fact that God's attitude of regret is a moral attitude is what makes it impossible that God should be vulnerable to emotional manipulation in the manner Creel depicts. If God could become an emotional hostage to creatures who reject his love, then evil could prevail over perfect goodness. It is because God maintains a perfect moral attitude that he could not allow this to occur.


"This means that God's perfect happiness, like his perfect goodness, does not depend in any way upon human choice. God views rejection with an attitude of regret because he wants human beings to be happy for their own sake. But he does not need them to be happy for his sake.


"It may be objected that surely God would be happier if he did not have to view anything with an attitude of regret. And if so, God cannot be perfectly happy unless all are saved. Perfect happiness must be such that God could not be happier.


In response to this, I would agree that God's perfect happiness must be such that he could not be happier. However, I would suggest that perfect happiness may not conform to our a priori expectations. It may be that we conceive as perfect a description of happiness which does not include any element of suffering. But such happiness may not be an option, even for God, and thus, may not be the measure of perfection. Perfect happiness may be a more complex matter.


"Maybe it is the case that God's only alternative to creating a world in which some are damned was to forgo creating any free creatures at all. Perhaps God would also have experienced regret if he had forgone creating a world of creatures who could respond to his love and enjoy a relationship with him. Perhaps God's regret in this case would have been greater than the regret he has over those who reject his kingdom.


"If so, God's perfect happiness may inevitably include an element of suffering, or at least regret. Since God's happiness is the greatest actual happiness, accounts of perfect happiness which exclude all suffering may be conceivable, but, strictly speaking, unrealizable.


"Incidentally, the view I have been sketching may also provide a solution to another problem closely related to the one we have been considering. The problem concerns the question of how those who are saved could be truly happy if they know that some of their fellow created persons are eternally damned. This problem, like the one we have been considering, has been a stock objection against traditional accounts of hell for some time.


"If the argument I have been advancing is correct, it may well be the case that there is nothing incoherent in the idea that perfect human bliss includes a "disturbing element.' Of course, the disturbing element could not be predominant and the term may, in fact, be too strong a description. But the blessed may share the moral attitude of regret toward their fellow persons who reject the joy of God's kingdom. In short, the blessed may share God's perspective and consequently share God's perfect happiness, a happiness which could be compatible with some element of suffering



How this might "look", emotionally, to us can be glimpsed in a couple of ways.


The first one is small fictional piece of literature by C.S. Lewis, called The Great Divorce. In this little booklet, Lewis paints a picture of several encounters of loved ones from heaven ("Spirits") with loved ones from Hell ("Ghosts"). The psychological insights and characterizations within these vignettes are incisive, and seem quite true-to-life. Something of the mix of joy yet regret, love yet separateness, compassion yet freedom show up in the dialogues between loved ones that chose different paths. This might illustrate one possible way these feelings might be reconciled, and I highly recommend this book to you.


The second comes from "down-here", in the world of family relationships. I have known several friends with absentee or "otherwise not there" same-sex parents. They struggle for long periods of time to gain acceptance from their dad or mom, and carry a burden of emotional dependence/slavery around for years/decades. Some of them actually get into counseling and therapy to deal with the emotional hostage situation they feel in all the time. In all of the cases with which I am familiar (and I don't have all the details, so I cannot completely verify their observations and/or conclusions), the parent has 'shut down' to a lower level of 'personhood' because of intense personal difficulties in their lives. I think of one man whose dad was absentee and emotionally avoidant, because he in turn had grown up with a similar father. I think of the lady whose mom was "shut down" inside, because of a physically abusive husband. I think of another younger man whose dad would not engage in any talk of feelings, relationships, real-life, because most of his life had been lived avoiding such "painful" talk, using substance abuse as an escape, and subsequently there were no skills or 'comfort levels' in beginning such heart-to-hearts with his now-older kid.


In many of these cases, the therapist would sometimes have the daughter/son write a mock letter to the parent (whether still alive or not), to include BOTH expressions of love, felt need, compassion, understanding of their difficulties; AND expressions of legitimate anger/hurt/resentment ("I feel X...I am angry about Y..."), confrontation over failure of past responsibility ("You should not have treated me, abandoned me, trivialized me so...it was WRONG"), and absolution of future responsibility (e.g., "making me feel important is no longer your job--YOU'RE fired..."). For some of them, this was so liberating.


I remember one tender-hearted man describing a subsequent  visit with his father. He said that for the first time in his life he was actually free to accept his father as he was--someone with needs and pains of his own, and someone who had "closed down" a lot (but not due to rejection of the son). He said he came away with a sense of relief and freedom, but without any loss of love for his father. He felt sorry for his dad's emotional situation, but knew that 'fixing him' was not within his power or responsibility. There were enough resources within his dad's arms reach, for him to 'come alive'--but it would take his dad to choose that.   He also knew that there was not "enough of his father left" to have a true father-son relationship with, so he would have as deep a relationship as possible with him as his new "friend".


It was not that the man "lowered his level of love" or even "lowered his level of sensitivity"--it's just that His heart could now love his father from freedom and from healing.


What this may indicate--and this is a very, very common experience in families of alcoholics and substance-abusers, by the way--is that compassion/love and regret/sorrow can co-exist in proportions that (a) are compatible with personal happiness and personal freedom of spirit; and (b) do not mutate into pathological proportions such as co-dependency-type emotional hostage situations--"I cannot be free/happy, until YOU are free/happy"; or emotional "disowning/discarding" attitudes--"It's your choice, bud, and I am through caring what happens to you--you have hurt me enough, and I am finished with love, sympathy, compassion for you...you can rot for all I care...etc."


The point of this second illustration has nothing to do with your parents (of course!), but rather to suggest that even on earth--with hearts as 'confused' and as "mixed-motived" as ours are--we are able to experience a mixture of love/regret and freedom/compassion in ways quite compatible with happiness, wholeness, moral wellness, responsibility, encouragement to others, and authenticity.


And, based on the example of God and on the promises of God, we have every reason to trust His warm-heart to guide us and transform us to even higher levels of this freedom in heaven--"when all things become new".



The second thing to remember (and keep reminding yourself) is that the outcome of their post-death encounter with the Living Jesus is completely unknown to us. After death, their fate is between them and Jesus...In light of the complexity of the issues surrounding "What About Those Who have Never Heard?" (www.Christianthinktank.com/hnohear.html)--especially in cases in which they might be responding to the "Jesus" manifested in/through you (instead of just their 'descendent' in you) while rejecting a False Jesus portrayed to them by their culture, friends, or off-center missionaries--one has to be even more 'agnostic' about their final conversation with Jesus after death. Somehow, how people respond to Christians (even their own kids) is taken into consideration by God at the judgment. This is not "earning salvation by works"(!), but something much more along the line of responding to what light they have. Consider a couple of the passages:


“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels are with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32All the nations will be assembled in front of him, and he will separate them from each other as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right but the goats on his left.34“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who have been blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. 36I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ 37“Then the righteous will say to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you something to eat, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40The king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, in that you did it for one of the least important of these my brothers, you did it for me.’ (Matt 25.31ff; Notice that these people HAD NO IDEA that they were responding to Jesus, in being kind to His followers/brethren)



For God is not so unjust as to forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have ministered to the saints and continue to minister to them. (Heb 6.10; notice the love is actually shown "to God" somehow, and that God will not 'forget' this)


He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. (Matt 10.40)


He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done. (Prov 19.17; this is even MORE general, in responding to the Image of God in the poor)


He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.  (Prov 14.31; ditto above, but somehow this is "honoring" God!)


On the other hand, we have those who proclaim the name of Christ, and engage in spectacular external works, but who WON'T MAKE the CUT:


“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’  23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Mat 7.21ff)


There are glimpses of God all around us--in warm acts of people, within pockets of religious traditions, in the beauty of nature, in moments of joy in family, etc...and these glimpses get clearer the more a person 'pays attention' to them, and notices them, and ponders them. But one of the main purposes (not the only one) of sharing the message of Jesus with others is to intensity the glimpse of God's heart. We can see newness/innovation in a baby's smile, and peace in the orderly motion of the heavens, and beauty in the flowers, and pathos in community response to a crisis, and depth in the counsel of a friend, and predictability in the regularity of the seasons and the crops, and elegance and freedom in music, but it is in the actions, words, character, and sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth that we come into blinding contact with Love. All the other glimpse's may suggest to us of God's love, but in the Cross, in the "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do", we have the clearest view of the depth of the Heart of God for us. And it is always to that self-disclosure of God--whether in the smile of a newborn baby, in an act of compassion shown by a Christian friend, or in the word and work of the Tender Lord--that we are called to respond, and ennobled in that disclosure to the point that our choices and responses are taken seriously and respected by that God...


My point here is not to somehow argue that your parents don't need to respond to Jesus--on the contrary, these passages indicate that they need Him anywhere/everywhere they can find the "real" Him--but rather to caution you about judging them already, or about presuming the outcome of their (or anyone else's, for that matter) post-mortem encounter with the Only Wise God.


As I have reflected on scripture over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that there is almost no certainty with which we can pronounce some specific individual as "going to hell". The two categories that generally could most plausibly be assumed to be exiled to hell (IMO) would be: (1) People that have a clear view of the real Jesus, His authority, and His love-heart, and yet still are hostile, angry, and belligerent towards Him as a manifestation of their time-sculpted and self-sculpted character (i.e., not "temper tantrums" at something God is doing in their life--those are fairly common, even among those who love Him and respect His wisdom) ; and (2) people who are arrogantly, divisively, conveniently, and exploitatively self-righteous (again, as a way of life and as a fully-formed character). But even here I avoid making any specific judgment about specific individuals that they fall into these categories--and that there are no "other considerations" before God. I don't take Pollyanna positions on their destination, believe me, but I don't presume to move beyond an agnostic stance on this--I always come back to "well, it's between them and Jesus now..."


But what I can be sure of is that those overtly (but non-ostentatiously) in love with the Savior, and whose lives evidence a character sculpted by His love and passion for otherward-good, ARE going to be with our Lord. Thus, "relative certainty" is asymmetrical: I cannot be sure about anyone's destination except those whose lives already demonstrate the reality of that Destination/Unseen Other World--the this-side effects of intimacy with the God of Freedom, the Lord of Commitment-to-Love, and the Spirit of Distinctiveness-through-character-excellence (a euphemism for "sanctification", obviously).



Third, make sure you have a biblical view of hell (https://www.Christianthinktank.com/gr5part2.html), unadorned and unembellished with imaginative scenarios. It is not this grotesque torture chamber many picture it as, but rather something in continuity with "basic only" levels of personal existence.



Fourth, at a practical level, even if loved ones ended up exiled in hell, they would NOT want anyone else to join them. The story in Luke 16.19ff probably has the "normal" level of Rabbinic-type hyperbole (for that day/culture) in it about the images, but verse 27 still seems to indicate that the Rich Man did NOT want his brothers to undergo what he was experiencing (although he didn't seem to even want to leave himself--he didn't even ask Abraham to allow him to come up there to be with him and Laz.).



Fifth, the worst-case scenarios look very similar to situations many of us face today--that of loved ones who choose destructive life-styles. [This point would likely have limited relevance to the specific situation you wrote about, but I include it here for completeness and perhaps for other readers and other situations.]


Loved ones of alcoholics, for example, have support groups of their own, to help them learn to "love, but be separate". It is very painful to watch an alcoholic spouse or parent or child or friend slowly destroy their life, relationships, and character (becoming almost "sub-human" in mannerisms, values, and affect), but in the final analysis--after we/others have helped them even beyond 'realistic' amounts--their life is still their own to destroy. We can weep, we can pray, we can grieve--but at some point we have to draw the line and take a stand "over against them". At some point we must realize that their actions contain enough self-choice, to be culpable, improvable, and eventually correctable (especially in cases where loving support and help has been, and continues to be, gently and generously offered). Most loved ones eventually (although for some it is a long road) understand that the abuser's life-style--and complications therefrom--is the abuser's responsibility and continued self-choice. Although the abuser generally develops elaborate justifications for, blame-shifting tactics for, and perpetuating manipulative methods to 'support' the behavior, honest and insightful outsiders learn to separate the wheat from the chaff...and often, there is a lot of chaff...


[Needless to say, the same applies to our own less-than-optimal choices/habits/lifestyles...and to our own webs-of-rationalization around them..."and beginning with the eldest, they put down their stones and..."]


In the situation of loved ones, acquaintances, and friends, the situation is not much different with their relationship to God. We can encourage, we can explain, we can urge, we can implore--but it will always be their choice...This, of course, is no different from our relationship to them in non-religious areas. We encourage them to apply themselves to school, we explain the values of participating in community benevolence events, we urge them to pay more attention to the legal authorities, we implore them to go to the doctor about that cough. But we have no right to accept responsibility for their failures (or their successes, by the way) should they decide against our counsel and our earnest pleas. [This is, of course, assuming that we have not been a majority failure in carrying out any specific legitimate responsibilities we had to them (e.g., providing transportation and resources!), and situations can be considerably more complex than that portrayed here. The counseling/therapy ministry is not there 'in vain', to be sure.]


Each is responsible to God for how they responded to the goodness of God in this life (as communicated through a variety of channels, with varying degrees of precision and comprehensiveness).


Even for the Christian parent who contemplates the spiritual journey of his/her children, this is soberly stated in the maxim: "God has no grandchildren." And this requires that love does all it can to influence and encourage and urge and implore (and patient waiting and anxious waiting and tortured waiting for vibrant growth, and awakening spiritual sensitivity, and signs of deepening life!)--but it must be accepted that God knows what He is doing, in making them responsible for how they respond to our influence, encouragement, urgings, and implorings...


In The Singer (by Calvin Miller), the Singer looks out over the despairing crowd of humanity, and the narrator describes His response: "He pitied them for their emptiness, but resented their contentment in it."


This is the same kind of attitude-blend that God has towards people: love, compassion, pity, anger over treachery and negligence toward one another, frustration at our failures to take advantage of His grace and generosity, sorrow over necessary judgment, and respect for our freedom in choices of values and morals...


[and, BTW,  we choose/reaffirm our moral system (by which we will be judged, incidentally--cf. Matt 7.2: For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. ) every time we complain about "how someone did us wrong"...For in describing some action against us as "wrong," we set up, for public view and usage(!), a self-chosen standard by which our actions can be, are, and will be judged...a la Romans 2.1]


And this is the same attitude-blend manifested by our Lord when He walked among us, and the same attitude-blend that His Spirit is developing inside our lives, as we grow in depth and authenticity and goodness...




That's all the considerations I can think off that might be relevant to your (and the more general)  question.


But I might make one more action-item suggestion for your consideration (in the case of the Eastern faith)...and that is to ask your parents about what pain they might feel now about the thought of being separated completely at death (in their system) from you and their other loved ones.


[In that system, as I understand it, the individual consciousness does NOT survive death (i.e., with memory of loved ones), so there could be no specific pain of loss in the next reincarnation...although, I just realized that it theoretically could be very, very much worse: becoming aware that there would have been hundreds/thousands of loved ones lost and now forgotten and no longer cherished or remembered (except theoretically by people who did not actually know them, experience them, or love them during their life)...for me that would be unbearable...I think of my own daughter, and think of 30 years from now, when she will only be a memory in the lives of a handful of people in her family...to think of her as completely forgotten in 200 years is oppressively heart-breaking as I write this...and feels like a violent crime against an innocent almost...But this idea is just a passing thought, that might not be relevant or accurate.]


There might be nothing wrong at all with you sharing your heart with them about this, and explaining to them that one of the reasons first-century people (with no "Christian" background, by definition) were open to the message of Jesus was that it held out to them--for the first time--a reality-grounded hope of life together after death...It was good news to those so accustomed to defeat in this area. There is no reason not to explain the beauties of God's message to them, and encourage them to take a fresh look at the Jesus of the Gospels and at His resurrection from death as the grounds for our hope.


When the first Jesus-messengers went out telling everybody about God's actions in sending Jesus, they didn't start with "Here's a propositional system of beliefs that is true, which should be accepted because truth is its own reward"--they started with "Here's a real, tangible, ground-into-history  answer to our most fundamental heart-needs and deepest pain-problems--and it's a living and loving Person who conquered death!"


They didn't suggest people believe a lie, so they could 'feel better' about the future---there were plenty of religious myths and rationalizations to choose from back then, if all that was needed was anesthesia. No, they claimed to have seen the Victor, and to have seen Him smiling, and to have seen Him recognize them, and to have seen the continuity between His exalted life and His past earthly life with them...a real basis for trusting this One and His claims...



You might pray and consider being vocal/open with them about this hope--it's certainly the way God seems to do it sometimes...revealing His heart through the Cross (2 Cor 5.18ff)...it might not be appropriate, though, given your situation, so I don't want to recommend it, other than for your prayer and consideration.




[I might briefly add that, for other readers of a more western, skeptical bent, and especially for those who have felt tricked and deceived by institutional religion--or in some cases simply misled by the overly-zealous (and equally overly-"without knowledge"--cf. Rom 10.2...smile), this last suggestion might seem  at first glance like encouraging 'blind faith' or 'wishful thinking' or 'self-delusional religion'. But I don't think it is, because the "motive for listening to the claim" (i.e., possible fulfillment of a hope for eternal life and reunion with loved ones) is not the same as the "motive for accepting the truthfulness of the claim" (i.e., "sure, I'd kill for that to be true, but how can I accept that story as true-enough-to-ground-the-hope with a good conscience and not feeling silly? I've been hoodwinked before, bud...I bought 40 acres just south of Key West, you know").


Certainly there ARE folks that accept beliefs (all sorts of beliefs, obviously!) because they WANT it to be true--the "Rocky Soil" believers in the Parable of the Sower might be referring to some like that (Mt 13.5ff). But even in cases where the person DOESN'T ask questions of "evidence", they may (and probably are, unless they are operating in "anesthesia mode"--which they will likely come out off at some later point and begin to ask the 'hard questions' about their position) be applying "credibility tests" in other ways. Some people judge the reality of a message by the credibility, experience, and sobriety of the messenger (e.g. senior business executives do this ALL THE TIME). Some people judge the reality of an 'answer' by its coherence, elegance, and 'fit' to the historical, social, and personal problem (e.g., early Jerusalem converts to the messianic faith may have used this method). Some people judge the reality of a message on the basis of how well it has 'worked' in the lives of others (but in the case of the resurrection, this could only be analogously tested by the evidence of 'new life' in followers of Jesus--lives of love and cross-ethnic acceptance and self-sacrifice and endurance of public abuse to keep the offer spreading). Many--especially from non-western backgrounds--judge Jesus on the authenticity of his character alone. And so on...


Some argue that even the longing for post-mortem existence, or fear of death are 'evidences' of the truthfulness of the claim--that the low-noise resonance between the answer and the problem bespeak a 'divine design'. For some people, this connection may be convincing, but for me, I find it easier to understand this longing to be 'data' that CAN BE interpreted plausibly in this way (but that other interpretations might be constructed as well). Some days I have superhuman cravings for specific high-cholesterol foods ["But for the sake of the elect, those days will be shortened..."--that's a future promise, sigh], but that doesn't lead me to believe that such foods were created for my cravings, or that's it a neat little system...I strongly desire sometimes to have a boat, but I can draw no legitimate implications from that...I generally desire to spend more time on the Tank, but...("there he goes again, complaining, complaining, complaining...it's a good thing you're not in the Wilderness right about now, bud...").


My main point here is simply this: for someone to long for the benefits of God's overtures of love to us does not preclude them from assessing the credibility of the offer, with methods they have used successfully in life so far. It is not wrong to want to experience freedom and life and love, and to have that as a 'reason' to investigate the message (in whatever ways have yielded success in the past for that individual) is an exceptionally 'reasonable' position.]



Anyway, burdened friend,  I hope some of the ideas and thoughts above will further you in your thinking in this area, and will help you find comfort in His wisdom and His example...


Warmly, and knowing it's not easy...


Glenn miller, Sept/2000

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