The Inopportune & yet Gracious Nature of Death

The calendar date escapes me but the memory replays vividly in my mind. As April and I headed to Charlottesville for her last chemotherapy appointment, my dear bride once more laid out her hopes for the future. She knew death lurked just around the corner. But she was not ready. She desperately longed to see our church mount the summit of self-sustaining health, to see me complete my doctorate, and to see our children come to faith. She was willing to relinquish the dream of shepherding her children into adulthood, but the rest remained nonnegotiable for her. Perhaps in a few more years, she would be ready to entrust her soul to eternity. But not now.

I openly doubted her conviction. She was such a planner and possessed such a love for others, I could not foresee her ever wanting to leave us. Even if she saw our three kiddos embrace Jesus and graduate high school, I know her heart would have longed to see them married and then establishing godly families of their own. She would have wanted to see our church accomplish this goal or that and watch me complete the next task God placed before me. Even at 45 or 50, she still would have had many a reason to keep on living. As the apostle Paul, she knew that to, “live is Christ (Phil 2:21).”

And so I slowly turned toward her, laid out my thinking, and then gently said, “I don’t think, you’ll ever be ready to leave us.” She smiled shyly and said, “I suppose you right.”

Can there ever be a good time to die?

The Inopportune Nature of Death

In one sense, the answer is no. No matter our age or season of life, death proves unnatural…an interruption of all that is good and right. While officiating the funeral of a dear man who passed in his 80s, I watched as one of his children stood up and tearfully noted that he had left too soon. She longed for a future that would still contain his funny stories and loving antics…things that had enriched his children and grandchildren’s lives for decades. As that day made clear, the human heart remains perpetually at odds with the idea of death.

Where God to come down from heaven in a whirlwind and ask us to name the time and location of our loved one’s death, I suspect none of us would be able to pick a point on the eternal timeline. We know only this world and that knowledge is woefully fragmented and incomplete. We do not see the eternal threads of consequence that make sense of all God’s actions and that make statements like “God works all things together for the good of those who love him,” true (Rom 8:28). Had April lived to be 49, 69, or even 89, I still would not have wanted to wake up in a world without her any more than I do today. As I tearfully told her that day in the car, “We are going to be miss so…so…very much. There is no good time to die.” In one sense, it truly is the greatest of evils.

The Gracious Nature of Death

Thankfully, the knowledge of eternity that we lack God possesses. Though we might be tempted to charge God with taking our loved one to soon whether that be the 1 day mark or the 100 year mark, God’s timing proves perfect. As Psalm 116:15 reminds us, the death of the righteous is precious to the Lord. God takes our loved one home at just the right moment. As Joseph Caryl wisely noted,

Whenever the godly die, it is harvest time with him; though in a natural capacity he be cut down while he is green, and cropped in the bid or blossom; yet in his spiritual capacity he never dies before he is ripe.

God never makes a mistake. He brings us home when he does because he loves both our loved one and us. Jesus delayed going to see Lazarus not only because he loved his friend but because he loved Mary and Martha as well (John 11:5). All things work together for good for both those in heaven and those on earth. No saint above will fault God for having brought them to heaven too soon. As Paul notes, “To dies is gain (Phil 1:21,23).

Why Christians Die

As much as I grieve the loss of my wife, I know she did not grieve her entrance into heaven. The end, the telos, of our existence is not a lifetime of free Starbucks, a winning lottery ticket, nor a fulfilling marriage. As C.S. Lewis noted in his essay the “Weight of Glory,” the very fact that men and women desire a utopia, a heaven, reveals that mankind was made for that eternal destination. To remain forever in the sorrows of earth lacking full access to God and surrounded by brokenness would prove a cruelty and not a mercy. I know a dear man decades my senior who has buried many a friend and family member. Though thankful for his long life, his face grows heavier with each passing year as his sorrows tied to pain and death continue to accumulate.

Where this life never to end, I suspect our sorrows would become insurmountable, and our salvation would remain incomplete R.C. Sproul helpfully noted,

Jesus bore all our sins on the cross. Yet none of us is free from sin in this life…The healing that is in the cross is real…But the fullness of healing from both sin and disease takes place in heaven. We still must die at our appointed times…There is no route to heaven except through this valley.

There is a reason God kicked Adam and Eve from the garden and barred them from the tree of life. An eternity marred by fallenness proves to be the very antithesis of the hope of the gospel. As our hunger for something better reveals, this world does not need to be preserved but remade. For the Christian, death becomes the means by which God ushers us into his presence and thereby satisfies our hunger for eternal goodness. The apostle Paul beautifully writes,

For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5:4).

Just as Christ went from death to glory so to do all his children the moment their heart stops. To quote the apostle Paul again, “Death is swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting (1 Cor 15:54-55)?” Death ends in glory.

Good & Bad

So, can there ever be a good time to die? In one sense, no. I wish my April here with me today and forever. We were supposed to grow old together and have those rocking chairs on the front porch that she always talked of. We were supposed to raise a family together. But in the truest of senses, yes there is a good time to die…that perfect moment when God’s ushers our loved ones to their true end…their true purpose. And for my April, that day was June 25, 2022.

Why Did Jesus Stop Doing Miracles?

The story of how Jesus brought Jairus’s dead twelve-year-old daughter back to life resonates with our souls (Matt 9:18-23). The deep sorrow of associated with burying a child has few equals. It is a special kind of anguish that brutalizes the heart. What parent would not run to Jesus as Jairus did, longing to hear his child laugh again?

The story also presents us with a problem of eternal proportions: Where is Jesus now? What about today’s children who are wasting away in hospitals? Why does Jesus not come to our homes?

Since no Christian can see into the secret mind of God, we should not speculate about the intent of God’s secret will. We do not know it. We do not know why some live to 80 and others die at 8 weeks.

Why Jesus Left

But we do know why Jesus left earth. He could have set up a permanent health clinic in Judea and healed the sick without end. People today could still be talking of that time when Jesus spoke over Fred and his cancer disappeared. But they don’t because Jesus understood that such healings were temporary. Everyone whom Jesus healed in the New Testament has long since died. Had Jesus hung up a shingle and gone into the professional healing business, his ministry would have never ended. Such a healing ministry would have addressed the symptoms of humanity’s problem (though not in a universal since as Jesus was bound by the limits of time and space) without addressing the root cause of our problems: the curse of sin and death. In other words, Jesus goes and dies on the cross so that humanity can spend eternity in a world with no sin, death, and misery. The empty tomb addressed the root cause of all our problems. In short what is even greater than an extended life on earth is an eternity in heaven.

In 1929, the famous preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones reflect upon a similar dilemma when he had exchanged the doctor’s stethoscope for the pastor’s pulpit in 1925. People would have easily understood and celebrated Lloyd-Jones had he given up being a bookie to preach. But giving up medicine…surely the healing of the sick was a noble profession. Lloyd-Jones responded:

I want to heal souls. If a man has a diseased body and his soul is all right, he is all right to then end; but a man with a healthy body and a diseased soul is all right for sixty years or so and then he has to face an eternity of hell…We have sometimes to give up those things which are good for that which is best of all – the joy of salvation.

Jesus no longer walks among us because he wanted to free us from the whole tragedy of death and dying once and for all. Because he died, we get to live forever without sickness. As Jesus tells us in John 14:3: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Jesus left to conquer sin and death for us.

Does God Still Heal?

Though Jesus ascended into heaven, Christians should continue to take their health concerns to Jesus. When their children feel the weight of illness, mom and dad should ask Jesus to heal their precious child for he instructed his followers to ask him to “Give us this day our daily bread.” No one can doubt that health proves to be one of our must urgent daily needs. God still dispenses the gifts of healing sometimes supernaturally and sometimes through normal medical means. Jesus still heals.  

What About My Loss?

But when he does not heal, we should not despair for as Jesus told Jairus and later those who mourned the death of Lazarus, death proves not to be the permanent end of human existence but rather to be a type of sleep, a transition to eternity (Matt 9: John 11. In other words, the goodness of God reigns even during and after death. The puritan, pastor John Flavel beautifully encapsulated Jesus’s sentiment when he wrote:

Look not upon the dead as a lost generation; think not that death has annihilated and utterly destroyed them. On no, they are not dead, but only asleep; and if asleep, they shall awake again. You do not…make outcries and lamentations for your children, and friends, when you find them asleep upon their beds. Why, death is but a longer sleep out of which they shall as surely awake as ever they did in the morning in this world.

The dead in Christ are not lost. The end goal of Jesus’s ministry was not an eternal life of misery here on earth but rather an eternal life of glory in the new heavens and the new earth. Those who trust in Jesus though they die reside with him forever.

As for those of us left behind, we too need not despair. The Jesus who responded kindly to the simple and slightly misinformed faith of a woman with the flow of blood who touched his clothes invites us to bring our problems to him. Even those who struggle with fear, anger, and fractured theology will find deliverance and life if they will but make Jesus the object of their faith. As the Puritan Richard Sibbs helpfully reminds us, “God can pick out sense out of the confused prayer (50).” No problem is too great for God and no amount of faith is too small. If we will but go to Jesus as Jairus did, he will come to our home and deliver us from our griefs and sorrows. Jesus reigns.  

Final Thoughts

Do not begrudge, Jesus for going back to heaven and removing the miracle shingle. In doing so, he did something far greater than extending our loved one’s life for a few years. He made it so we could all spend eternity with him in a world forever free from sin and death. God is Good. May God help us all trust him more.