Being a pastor is a privilege. I am afforded the opportunity to step into the front door of people’s lives and experience with them their innermost feelings, fears, joy, and grief. Many times, when walking with a fellow brother or sister through the valley of death, the privilege is a difficult one to accept.
Such has been the case this week. A precious and beloved gentleman in our congregation has been fighting cancer, and unless our good Lord steps in, the fight is almost over. This is a devoted husband and a loving father of four precious children. For the last few nights I have spent time talking on the phone to one of these children in particular. The conversations have been incredibly blessed and we have addressed topics from glorified bodies to the whearabouts of Christ during the three days He was in the tomb. Looking back over the content of these conversations, one recurring tendency is noticable; the shift back and forth from understanding death to be a great gift and understanding it to be life’s greatest enemy.
As the conversations progressed, these two themes would naturally come about. It was never forced or coerced. It was never strained or manipulated. This teenager would find herself comforted by death for a moment, followed by a feeling of complete horror at its looming probability. This leads me to discuss two points:
First, my experience in these conversations has reminded me once again of the Bible’s perfect description of humans. It is rather natural, and at times crucial, for us to be moved by our circumstances from one heartfelt position to another. Sometimes these positions are contradictory. Other times, as in the case of my teenager friend, they are complimentary. Yet, for all of us at some time or another, we must cope by moving side to side across the wide spectrum of feeling.
Consider with me the the first and second chapters of Job, in particular Job’s wife. After Job experiences the first round of testing from God, presumably Job’s wife was supportive and in agreement with his proclamation to bless the Lord even in distress. Scripture does not suggest otherwise. Yet, after the second round of testing, Job’s wife makes a radical change of position and exorts Job to “curse God and die.” This seems like radical behavior from a woman who is perhaps not fully aware of her actions. Yet, the fact remains that Job’s wife is a beautiful picture of our own human tendacies to quickly move from love to hate, from feelings of safety to feelings of danger, from trust to uncertainty. If you want to understand the human heart and mind, consult Scripture. There never has and never will be a more precise case study.
Second, my experience in these conversations has reminded me that like so many things, death exists in a theological balance. My teenager friend is perfectly consistent as she moves back and forth between welcoming death and fearing it. The Bible does the exact same thing. Let’s first consider why humans fear death. The Bible makes very clear that death is, in fact, our enemy. I have heard many a good-intended person try to over-emphasize the gift of death by under-emphasizing the pain of death. As a result, folks wrestling with the possibility of death are left frustrated as to why they are still concerned and still upset about the prospect of dying or losing a loved one. Such a unbalanced presentation is harmful. Paul clearly and emphaticlly writes that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Use of the words “enemy” and “destroyed” convey the importance of why Christ will ultimately triumph; He will conquer death, our worst enemy. Christ Himself was moved by death on more than one occasion and angered by sin that has caused the need for death. Thus, it is unreasonable and unbiblical to suggest that good Christian folks should be singing a happy tune about death. In and of itself, death is a harsh enemy that will come under the most brutal judgment by God.
And yet, we can find comfort in what death provides for us and we can learn to share the heart of God in the way he views the death of His children. Psalm 116:15 says that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” The very pronouncement of death by God upon Adam and Eve was certainly a judgement and the beginning of the enemy’s grip on humanity, yet it must also be seen as a merciful act that provides a gracious release from a sin-cursed body. It is the embracing of this move to something better, to something greater than allows some to be “at peace” with death. Certainly not at peace with the reality of death, but at peace with what death will bring.
This is why death will always be the greatest enemy to those who do not believe. It can never be viewed as mercy or grace because nothing is understood to be gained by death. Even those who are suffering from immense pain do not gain anything by death. They simply lose something. Most people who deny the reality of God or who stick their head in the sand to ignore Him will also quickly move on to another subject whenever death rears its ugly head. For them, there is plenty to fear from death. It is the end of everything. Forever.
So, like so many other areas of Christian life, death hangs in the balance. And wherever our good people are when they are dealing with death, that is exactly where they should be. Our job is not to move them to another way of thinking. Our job is to love them. And when possible, remind them that the peace of God can and will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. All for the glory of God.