I don’t know how else to say it other than, “That was a tough week.” For those of you who may not know, my father passed away on April 15. That was a Thursday.
On Wednesday, we visited with dad in hospice. He was talkative and seemed comfortable. We planned to return on Saturday. On Thursday morning, we received a call that his time was very short. My sister and mom were able to be there with dad when he entered eternity. I expected to visit dad on Saturday. Instead I was attending to the details of his funeral.
There are few who are strangers to this kind of narrative. The details vary from family to family, but all of us have experienced the pain caused by death. If not, sooner or later we all will. It is painful and disorienting. It raises questions and can plant seeds of doubt - doubt about God, His purposes, His authority, His goodness.
So, then, where is our faith? Of what value is it if we continue to experience suffering just like everyone else?
Attempting to circumvent the pain of death is unhealthy emotionally and psychologically. Using faith to deny or avoid pain is spiritually unhealthy. To do so denies the truth that God created us emotive beings. It denies God an opportunity to continue to transform us. The psalmist said, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your Word” (Psa. 119:67). Now, let’s be careful to avoid the opposite extreme and seek to gain holiness by asceticism. If God is God, and He is, then each moment of our journey with Him has intention, value, and purpose. Sometimes pain in all its forms accompanies us in that journey. It is not a reflection on faith. It is not a reflection on God’s goodness. It is a consequence of living in a sin-corrupted world.
Over the last several days, I have had my faith strengthened in three distinct ways. These have helped contextualize - not deny or ignore - the emotion that accompanies death.
First is the comfort of community. It is one thing to receive empathy. It is quite another to be the object of passionate support and compassion. We live our faith in community. On those days when we can’t see God, we can see His people. When we can’t sense His presence, we know their presence. When He is silent, they can remind us of His words. This is what we have experienced. People didn’t try to “fix” it. They did, gently and lovingly, walk with us as a reminder of God’s faithfulness. Their words were not empty platitudes because they came from people with whom we had relationship, people who were in community with us. Because there was a pre-exisiting relationship of life and faith together, there was also great comfort.
I’ve also been encouraged by the character of God. As much as I love big theological terms and stretching my mind to try to understand and know God, in truth He is beyond my comprehension. Yet, He still makes Himself known in the beauty of His creation, in the person of Jesus Christ, and most tangibly, in His Word.
There are many texts in Scripture that can bring us hope and comfort in times of distress. The one that has resonated in my heart the most is Genesis 18:25. After learning God was going to destroy Soddom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleads for the salvation of the city. Despite his desperate negotiation, Abraham is unable to change God’s mind. He doesn’t understand; it doesn’t make sense. But this is Abraham’s confession: “Will not the Judge of the whole earth do what is right?” That is a powerful statement. I do not understand God’s purposes or timing. But I find comfort in His character; the Judge of the whole earth WILL do what is right.
Finally, there is the certainty that this is not all there is. The best IS yet to come! Paul makes a pretty good case for a bright future when he says the mortal (our current state) must be put off (death) so we can inherit the immortal (future life!). And that the things God has in store for us are beyond our wildest imaginations (1 Cor. 2:9).
Future life - entered through the portal of the valley of the shadow of death - will not be spent eating cream cheese, strumming a harp, floating on a cloud. As God’s image-bearers, we will continue to fulfill the purposes for which we were created: to represent the King in His Kingdom and to steward the resources of the Creator in His creation. We will live in and explore the wonders of a new heaven and earth. We will have uncorrupted relationships with God and one another. Our future life is not just about going to heaven when we die. It is about being prepared to live life as God originally intended it.
These are truths of our faith. The pain is real. It cannot be ignored or denied. To suffer pain is not a weakness or judgment from God. It is a reminder that our world is corrupted by sin. Yet within that corruption is God’s faithfulness to us despite what the pain may seem to be saying. God’s people, God’s character, and our future life all point us to a loving Father who will never leave us nor abandon us. Despite our experiences, especially the painful ones, God is faithful. And He is continuing to work the counsel of His will.
Pain - yes. Comfort - also yes. Because God is good and all He does is goodness.