Obviously, death is not an easy subject to discuss. But as my good friend, Jamison, pointed out: the one thing we tend to ignore and not talk about the most, is the very thing that is one of the most certain thing in our lives – death! When someone dies, most especially the people who are close to our hearts, discussions do happen and when they do, it is not unusual for them to be awkward. The conversations are tough and gut-wrenching and because of this, they must happen with the utmost respect and compassion. However, within our attempts to be compassionate, loving, tender and caring, I believe that there is a tendency to lose sight.
God – A Coping Mechanism?
A common argument against Christianity and/or God is that Christians believe in a god as a coping mechanism to shield themselves from the reality of death and the pain that ensues from it. Many non-believers would argue that Christians simply can’t cope with the laws of nature and non-existence beyond the grave and so a god must be raised up to calm anxieties and give meaning to death.
Often, when there is a sudden death of someone, especially a young person, people will say things like: it was her time to go, God has bigger plans for him, God’s ways are not our ways or it’s all a part of God’s plan. The times I have experienced death of someone relatively close to me, I am sure I uttered similar phrases, if not exactly the same, as the ones above. Those words are comforting – they comforted me when my grandfather died.
Or did they?
Lately, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with those phrases. They just seem cheap – like a little band aid on a massive, open wound. And if I am completely honest, they didn’t help me when I was suffering the loss of my grandfather and me saying them certainly didn’t help my grieving mother either. A few years back, a friend of mine was brutally murdered in broad daylight here in Lexington. Of course, all of his friends would hear (and even say) things like, “he’s in heaven singing with the angels now” and, like above, “it’s all apart of God’s plan.” But, those words never really added up. My friend’s brutal murder was God’s will?
I think of my grandmother who has spent the past week in the hospital. In her life, she has had two massive strokes and consistently has grand mal seizures (the reason she was in the hospital). As I sat next to her bed, I wondered is her mental and physical status really a part of “God’s plan”? And then I questioned, is any death a part of God’s plan or will for his people?
Then What Is God’s Plan?
While I can appreciate the heart behind the sympathetic and compassionate phrases, I think they are wrong. As I read scripture and get to know God more, I think death might be the total opposite of his will.
If we look back at the first few chapters of Genesis we see that death was not a part of God’s plan for humankind. The Apostle Paul would later say that “death [enters] through sin.” Now, take a hold of that! Paul is saying that death is a result of sin – not because it was that person’s “time to go” or because “God has bigger plans for them”! And we should know by now that sin is certainly not God’s will or plan for our lives.
God made us to experience life. God set up a whole plan of redemption so that his people could receive life. Let us not forget the famous bible verse – John 3:16! Take a second and read it once more. So, in light of just this one scripture, what is God’s plan and will?
Jesus’ good friend, Lazarus, was sick and his sisters, Mary and Martha, had told Jesus that he had better come to town so he could heal him or else he might die. A few days later, Jesus shows up and discovers that Lazarus had died before he could heal him. Upon seeing the heartache of Lazarus’ sisters and other mourners, Jesus wept. He cried. In fact, the texts states that not only did he weep, but he was also “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Perhaps one reason for such a troubled spirit was that Jesus had come face to face with his enemy – death. Maybe it reminded him of Eden. Is it possible that God, in flesh, was taken back many years ago to a scene where the Enemy tricked his beloved creation? And now God gets to experience, face to face and tear by tear, how death feels.
The original languages allude to an anger or indignation that Jesus had toward death in this moment. The same sentiment can be felt in Mark 1:41 when he encountered a man with leprosy. Jesus’ responses to sickness and death do not strike me to be reactions of resignation. I think it is clear that Jesus does not think of sickness as being “God’s will” and neither does he indicate that Lazarus died because it was “his time to go” or “God had bigger plans for him.” Jesus came face to face with the Enemy and he didn’t like what he saw.
Less Band Aids and More Healing
By deconstructing the typical responses we have to each other when death happens, I am not attempting to rid the terrible situation of comfort or compassion but rather help us to see that there is a deeper comfort beyond those phrases. Most, if not all, of the responses I have highlighted carry an immediacy to them. If it was someone’s “time to go” then, well…it was their time to go – no questioning God if it was in his time! And likewise, who are we to question God’s will and plan? Also, it is much more comforting and solidifying if parents can be assured that God needed their son or daughter in Heaven more than they needed him here on Earth! The son or daughter had other business to do and is now doing it. With this rationale, the individual’s death makes sense.
But, really? I ask again, do those phrases really comfort us or are they simply quick fixes to bigger problems? We need less band aids and more healing of our wounds. Band aids cover up the blood and pain but they don’t actually heal the wound. Time ultimately heals wounds and with time comes the necessity for patience and with patience comes the necessity to find peace in the uncertainty of the present situation. As Paul says in Romans 8, “if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” We wait for something better. We hope for something better.
We should not look to the certainty or uncertainty of the current moment – which leads to band aid phrases – instead, we should fix our eyes on Jesus, the first fruits of a new creation.
First Fruits of a New Creation
As Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus and as he was deeply moved, angry and indignant toward the work of the Enemy, I imagine that Jesus also had in sight what was to happen soon after.
Jesus, standing in the face of death, would again stand in the face of death to finally defeat it once and for all. When Jesus walked out of the tomb and left it empty, he declared that death would no longer have any power over his people. Oh yes! Paul explains this to the church in Corinth,
“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” 1 Corinthians 15:21-23
If we move into this reality – the realization that death is banished – then lacking words of encouragement can be trumped. By Jesus being the “first fruits,” we have a glimpse of what is to come – our resurrection! The truth is, through Jesus’ work on the cross, that though we might perish in our current bodies, we look toward a day (patiently!) when all of that is undone and we will live in the fullness of eternal life.
May we be deeply moved in spirit and find, even within ourselves, an indignation toward death and the work of the Enemy. Let us not, in our attempts to find solace and comfort in death, forget what our hope really is – the resurrection as seen first in Jesus, the first fruits of a new creation!