“Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the Dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9, ESV).
In looking over my calendar of upcoming special dates, I noted that the list included the date of death for five individuals. These are the children of parents we have come to know for one reason only—like us, they have experienced the death of a child. Since the death of our son, Andrew, in 2008, I have made it my practice to write parents who have buried a child on the anniversary of that child’s death; a most painful day for all of these moms and dads. It is my sincere desire to comfort them, give them hope, and help them suffer well without offering some form of pious religiosity or heartless triumphalism. I often close my note with the words of Jesus in John 11:25-26—“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this’”. Trusting in the sovereignty of God and the promise of the resurrection is what enables us to make our way along the road of affliction. If we know Christ at the time of our physical death, we will be more alive than ever before. Andrew is more alive than he ever was when he was among us.
The miracle in John 11 has to do with death. It is a reminder to us that Jesus has the power over death. This is the last of the miracles of Jesus recorded in John’s gospel. It happens one week prior to Jesus’ death. It is like a preview of Jesus’ death, burial, & resurrection. In telling the story, John employs some forty verses so as to give us incredible detail. This miracle angered and frustrated the religious leaders so much that it became the last nail putting Jesus on the cross. Jesus had done something that they could do nothing about—He had raised someone from the grave. Someone that everyone was acquainted with and knew for certain of his death. He had been in the grave for 4 days and yet was now walking among them. It was a miracle which they could not refute. The story ends at the tomb in Bethany where Lazarus had been laid in death. The penetrating question which Jesus poses at the end of verse 26—“Do you believe?”—cuts to the heart of what it takes to suffer well, or, in the words of Nicholas Wolterstorff in “Lament for a Son”, to own our grief redemptively.
During the six years of Andrew’s battle with cancer, and in the six years following his death, it has been increasingly clear to Barb and me that God has designed the Christian life to be a life of faith. Scripture is filled with reminders—“The just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17), “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). God does support our faith through His Word—“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). God provides His support, though it does not always come in the form that we would like.
A pastor, whose 24 year old son died in a motor vehicle accident, wrote about the story of Noah and the Ark after the cessation of rain and the appearance of the sun. Remember how Noah sent out a raven and a dove and both came back to him as there was no visible ground upon which they could land? Seven days later he sent out the dove again. This time the dove returned with an olive leaf (Genesis 8:11). Noah then knew that the waters were abating from the earth. The leaf brought assurance that land was out there somewhere.
I daily think of heaven, where Andrew dwells, and wonder what he is doing in glory. And I often want God to send me the equivalent of a leaf just to let me know that Andrew is safe there. When I turn to my Bible I am reminded of John 14:1-3—“Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God; also believe in Me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may also be”.
I do not need a leaf from heaven, or even a dream about Andrew. I have God’s certain word of promise. In the darkest hour of the discipleship experience, Jesus called His followers to faith—“Also believe in Me!” All I have when buffeted by the flood waters of this journey is His most excellent Word. One of my favorite giants of the faith, Richard Baxter, says it this way in a hymn he penned: “My knowledge of that life is small, the eye of faith is dim, but ‘tis enough that Christ knows all, and I shall be with Him.” God’s Word is authoritative, trustworthy, and all-sufficient. His Word is all we need. If we will not believe His Word we will not believe any other witness. I am reminded from Scripture how the apostle Peter down-played his one glimpse of the glory of Christ at the Transfiguration. He declared that the Word of God was of greater importance and trustworthiness (2 Peter 1:12-21). Peter knew the truth of the Christian message. God’s promise is steadfast and true, not an imaginary tale or a cleverly devised yarn. And he is diligent to remind us of the certainty of His Word. For us in the 21st century, God’s prophetical promise in His infallible Word is certain—we can count on it. We do not have to see Christ transfigured; we see Christ in His Word. We do not need dreams or visions; we have the sure word of prophecy.
In this dark world, God has provided us with a lamp—His holy Scriptures. We walk safely when we pay attention to them. We are engulfed in darkness when we neglect them.
The Word of God reminds me that I already have received the news of eternal victory no matter what the circumstances of my present life might be. His Word has opened the future glory to all believers. We are already counted as citizens of heaven. We already share in Christ’s inheritance (Ephesians 2:6). In the darkness of affliction and temptation we are clothed in His righteousness. And in the darkness of anxiety we share His peace. In the darkness of sorrow and depression we share His joy.
Many of my friends know how much I cling to the book of Job. You know the story—in a rapid series of devastating events, Job lost all earthly possessions except for his wife. He responded to his loss with boundless sorrow, but he did not allow his grief to resign itself to the agony of fate. Rather, he worshipped God. In his prayer in Job 1:20-21 (“the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”), he humbly submitted to God’s will, even though he could not understand it. One commentator says, “We are to submit to trials, not because we see reasons for them, nor yet as though they were matters of chance, but because God wills them, and has a right to send them, and has His own good reasons for sending them.”
What about my son’s death? I am often asked if his death was God’s will or to explain how God is glorified in our only child’s death. The answer to the latter lies in the courts of heaven, inaccessible to we mortals; it is part of the “not yet” dimension of our Christian experience. From my perspective Andrew’s death was not good and I am convinced from Scripture that God agrees. He refers to death, through the apostle Paul, as the final enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). None of the evils of this world is right, including the disease which took my son’s life. But God is preparing us for a world where all wrong is made right. His preparatory work is often incomprehensible to us. He is the Potter, we are the clay; He has the sovereign right to do with us whatever it takes to conform us into the image of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. When a loved one is taken away, and we cannot explain it, we cannot, we must not assume that God has no explanation and is limited in His ability to work good out of evil.
Job has taught me to see life as a gift from the good hand of God. As God’s wisdom in offering the gift is inscrutable, His right to take away the gift is unquestionable. I was comforted by a dear friend at a time in the recent past when I was struggling deeply with my pain and grief over Andrew’s death. I called this friend, a man acquainted with grief and affliction, and one whose wisdom and friendship I treasure. He reminded me that life is a pure, sheer gift, and we must relate to it accordingly. We must receive it humbly and participate in it joyfully, but we must handle it with the open hands of gratitude. This perspective does not make grief easy, but it helps to make it bearable. He reminded me that God is good. Andrew was a gift to Barb and to me. He was a gift we neither earned nor deserved. The appropriate response to a gift, even when it is taken away, is gratitude. We thank God that He gave Andrew to us in the first place. And rather than dwell on the fact that Andrew was taken away, I must focus on the wonder that he was given to us at all. I must be grateful that we shared life, even for a short 21 years. And I realize that Andrew is experiencing the best in life—He is with Christ in glory.
In our bereavement, our link with heaven is made stronger. Heaven is more real to us now than ever before. Death is now the bridge that leads home. But it also stirs our desire to make the most of the few years of life that God has given us to serve Him on this earth. Praying that these words will strengthen and comfort those who are suffering.