Posted on May 18, 2015
Posted on May 18, 2015
Just over a week ago a close friend of ours died far too suddenly. We cried out in prayer, and were sure God joined us in our desire for his life to be prolonged, but yet, he died.
Honestly victorious phrases like “Death where is your sting, grave where is your victory”1 seem like callous belittling of the very real pain experienced in the loss of life. Is my reaction to those phrases a worrying litmus test for the extent of my ‘eternal perspective’? I’ve wondered.
Phrases more like ‘struck with grief’ and ‘stung by unexpected loss’, seem like more honest reflections on the experience of losing a friend so soon and unexpectedly.
I do believe, I should affirm, that our dear friend has now, finally, known the deep and loving embrace of the One his heart always longed for. But for those of us left behind there is an acute sense that the unique way in which our friend mediated the presence of God to us is lost for now. We are resigned to bitter-sweet memories of his joy, his rootedness, his loving embrace.
I’m sure in the midst of this, there is a strain that has plagued all of humanity over time, the making of good things into ultimate things. People, who mediate God’s presence to us in their own unique way, in their God-image, are not in themselves God of course. But God was revealed to us in human form, in Jesus, not in some mysterious spiritual cloud. And so, the Christian faith does release us to know the divine in the flesh, of primarily Christ himself, but also through those who are now included in His new humanity, other believers like our friend.
So, I feel the sting, and I’m increasingly inclined to think that is not a bad thing, or as I had feared, a litmus test for my ‘heavenly mindededness’. My wife, who embodies far more emotional fluency than I, has felt the Lord assure her that the pain we feel is the ‘not-rightness’ of death. We know we were never made to feel such pain, experience such loss, that in fact to be together, to be known and to know, in the presence of God is what we are made for.
In fact, death has lost its sting but only because of the resurrection, only because we can in some way recognise that we are not the only ones to recognise the abhorrence of death and pain. God has led the way in calling these things enemies of his intended life and flourishing for us. He has moved towards us in Jesus, with his ‘love as strong as death’ 2, naming death as, in fact, the problem.
Strange that He shouldn’t have said, ‘life stronger than death’, but ‘love’. Death is an absence of love, an absence of the life-affirming, worth-giving substance which holds this fragile universe of ours together. And the loss of love is the sting we feel today. Our friend’s loss helps us experience the pang of a creation not yet consummated by its creator, our unhappy life within this ‘middle time’, the ‘space in between’, the ‘now and the not yet’, we are longing for the return of the King.
I don’t want to present this time as somehow a place where we just hold on to some future-hope of God coming one day, with our role as just to hold on and hope. Eternal life, that is life in the fullness of God, does begin now, our connection to the life, community and overflow of love which is the trinity does begin now. But there is a day to come, one which we are pulling into the present in all our kingdom abiding, activity and longing, which is still not fully here, and on days like today it stings.
The ‘Why?’ question regarding pain, suffering and loss does not seem to be one God is offering an answer for in this time. Maybe because it would release us to rely blithely on a principle rather than a person, God Himself. The most consoling thing though, is that God’s story is one that doesn’t belittle death. He doesn’t try to belittle its magnitude and name it as so many of our culturally numb phrases; ‘slipped away’, or ‘moved on’. No, God calls it his primary enemy, the most significant foe of humanity, and at the end of our canon of scripture, our heart aches, not finding vocalisation in the normal sense but groans along with God Himself crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus”.3