The Loved Ones Left Behindcomment (0)
May 22, 2014
By Bob Terry
Once each year our nation pauses to reflect and give thanks for those who have died. Officially Memorial Day is a time to remember those who died in military service to the nation. All who enjoy the blessings of the United States of America are indebted to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to the country.
The day pays tribute to those who died, but it does little to deal with the pain and suffering of the loved ones left behind. Whether death comes from military combat, some dreaded disease or an unexplainable accident, the physical, emotional and mental pain of loved ones left behind is real and overwhelming. Some have even said it is easier to die than it is to survive the death of a loved one.
In the shock of grief one often protests “I don’t deserve this” or asks, “Why me?” But who deserves to die from whatever cause? Yes some people live better moral lives than others, make more civic contributions than others, live more lovingly than others. But do those qualities entitle one to live while another dies?
After my late wife Eleanor died I was talking with a friend whose wife had died just two weeks earlier. This wise friend said the only answer to the “why” questions was “why not.” What was there about Eleanor and me or him and his wife, or about anyone for that matter, that was supposed to keep them from harm or even death?
Sometimes Christians act like they have made a contract with God. Christians will worship God and in return, God will safeguard them from all the bad things that happen in the world. Unfortunately that is not what the Bible says.
God is with us
In Psalm 23 God promises to be with the believer even “in the valley of the shadow of death.” He never promises to keep the believer out of that valley. Jesus’ last words to the disciples according to Matthew’s Gospel ended with the promise to be with them “even until the end of the age.”
The apostle Paul wrote, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39).
Pain, suffering and death are part of life’s experiences. And in the midst of it all the believer is never alone. God is with us.
The mystery of God’s presence in the midst of suffering has produced a number of explanations. Each contains truth but the whole truth still remains beyond the grasp of humanity. An explanation that has been helpful to me rests on the doctrine of free will. As the Baptist Faith and Message says, mankind “was endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice.” Just as man freely chose to sin against God and brought sin into the world, mankind continues to misuse that freedom. The consequences of man’s choices are no more God’s fault than sin coming into the world can be laid at God’s feet.
Man is responsible for his choices and those choices sometimes impact others, even the innocent. The only way to prevent that is to remove free will.
A second explanation points to the spiritual growth that can result from suffering. The writer of the Book of James begins his letter with that premise. In James 1:2–3, the author writes, “Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
The apostle Paul developed that theme in Romans 5:3–4 when he wrote, “But we also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
At the end of World War II, Corrie ten Boom, whose family helped save many Dutch Jews from Nazi concentration camps, uttered the often-quoted phrase, “You may never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” There is no denying that suffering can help grow one’s relationship with God. Who has not walked through hard times only to look back and realize how much one learned during the struggle?
Some Christians find their explanation of God’s presence in the midst of suffering by focusing on the will of God. This explanation focuses less on free will and more on divine purpose. The apostle Paul shares in 2 Corinthians 12:7 that he pleaded with God to take away his “thorn in the flesh” or end his suffering.
The answer the Spirit gave was, “My grace is sufficient for you for My power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 10). As with Job of the Old Testament, God had a higher purpose for Paul’s pain than Paul could understand. And God has a purpose for events in human life that may never be understood this side of heaven.
Carrying out burdens
A fourth explanation avoids the “why” question altogether. Instead of trying to answer the question about why bad things happen to good people, this path emphasizes God’s presence in the believer’s life no matter what happens. The Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus in John 14, will not leave us comfortless (v. 18) but will be with us forever (v. 16).
Just as Jesus wept over the death of His friend Lazarus, so Jesus weeps for the suffering experienced by any of His children. He helps us carry our burdens through the presence of His Holy Spirit. His strength enables the believer to focus on God’s grace rather than on one’s problems.
Again all of the explanations are true. One’s decisions can have rippling effects that touch countless others. Suffering does change us. God is ultimately in control and God is always with His people. Yet none of the explanations are totally satisfying and the mystery of suffering and death remain.
Because now we do “see through a glass darkly” it is important to emphasize what we do know. One thing we know is the nature of God is not determined by human circumstances. God is always good. At all times and in all circumstances, God is always good. God is just as good when the doctor’s report breaks our hearts as He is when the results bring us joy. In the midst of loss and in the midst of suffering God is still good. That was made clear when Jesus paid the price for our sin and made it possible for all who believe in Him to be reconciled to God. The God that demonstrated His love for us in Jesus Christ is the same God who will not let us go. That is something to hold onto in the midst of the trauma of losing a loved one.