Last time we discussed what might be the meaning and God’s purpose when He chooses to heal a person of disease in this life. We now discuss how we might come to accept His higher purposes when he chooses not to heal…
3. If God does not deliver an earthly miracle, how do I respond to Him? a. How am I supposed to feel? b. What am I supposed to think?
Consider again the case that a loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. We will pray for a miracle, but ultimately in this case, God chooses to take this person home rather than to deliver a healing on earth. What if this person was a faithful and true servant of God? What if, from the human perspective, we would say that this person died too early? We may mourn bitterly as we try to understand why God allowed this to happen. In some instances one may become angry with God, struggle against Him or even turn away from Him.
Mother Teresa was 87 when she died, and Billy Graham was 99. Truly these were two servants of God, and perhaps we could say that these two lives were both long because they were both rich in faith. But if we were to take that idea further and assume that level of faithfulness is the standard God always uses to determine the length of one’s earthly life, we run into a problem. If this were true, we could just as easily wonder why both these saints are not still living as a reward for their faith, because there are people who have lived longer who have not necessarily demonstrated such faith. All the while, other faithful people have died much younger.
Another question we might ask is from the opposite perspective: if death is the only true healing for a Christian, and since heaven is the perfect eternal reward, why does God let some of the faithful live so long in this sinful world? According to this logic it could seem fair in some way that the faithful would die young, to move away from sin and into God’s presence more quickly. But this would seem to diminish God’s plan to do His work through the faithful on earth. Also, He created in us an innate desire for survival and longevity. So the problem lies in trying to apply our earthly logic to God’s higher ways. Perhaps in contemplating this mystery, we can come closer to accepting our not being able to know or understand God’s ways, and accepting that our ways are imperfect in comparison.
So if my loved one dies too young, how do I respond to God? How am I supposed to feel? Is it acceptable to God for me to be angry with Him? Is it okay for me to ask why? Is it okay for me to doubt that He is working for my good? These are questions that I can’t answer, but I think God wants at least these four things: He wants us to feel free to mourn, He wants us to seek Him during our mourning, He wants us to be honest with Him about our struggles during our mourning, and He wants us to keep our focus on Him so that we allow Him to bring our time of mourning to an end. That doesn’t mean that we forget, nor that we can’t feel sadness anymore, it just means that in our earthly life, our time of mourning must end because other people need us, because God has work for us to do, and because we need to trust Him to enable us to adjust to life that will now be different.
When we struggle with our feelings about a death, we need to remember to give fair consideration to our knowledge of the eternal. Our feelings are real; they are necessary and can be constructive, protective, directive, and helpful in other ways. But our heart, or feelings, can also lead us astray if we don’t also use our minds to consciously remember the gifts God has given us and that He has plans for us (Jer. 29:11). In the movie Fireproof, Caleb’s friend Michael tells him that he can’t always follow his heart, that often he must lead his heart. His point is that God gave us a heart (feelings), but He also gave us a mind (knowledge and wisdom) that we must use to keep our heart from straying too far down a particular path as a result of one emotion or another. The reverse is also true; we can’t be like “Mr. Spock” and completely rely on intellect and logic alone, denying honest feelings. We must pray for a healthy balance. In dealing with the death of a loved one we should give ourselves the freedom to mourn, but also in due time make the conscious decision to give ourselves the freedom to then move forward faithfully and with the joy that only God can provide. If we allow our feelings to cause us to deny or neglect what we know about the eternal life of the believer, we may be in for a prolonged struggle with anger or bitterness. Think of your knowledge as the fireplace and your feelings as the fire. A fire in the fireplace warms the house. The fireplace keeps the fire contained and allows it to burn as it will, but only within its confines. But if the fire is allowed to escape the fireplace, it burns the house down. (This concept borrowed from Dr. Gary Price Todd, M.D., and adapted to this topic – I’m not smart enough to come up with this on my own but thought it fitting.)
My understanding of the need to differentiate what you feel from what you know came to me some years ago from a wise old pastor (named Bob) in what he taught me about salvation. I was saved as a boy, and several different conversations and teachings in my life thereafter caused me to doubt my salvation. On several occasions I was made to “feel” like I was not saved, and therefore feared that I was not. But Bob explained that the assurance of salvation lies in the decision to put faith in Christ, not in feeling some particular way. A decision is a conscious action; a feeling is a re-action over which we have little say-so. Confidence in the knowledge of that decision, leads to feeling the joy of salvation. This understanding helped me realize that my salvation was not dependent upon emotions that others tried to convince me that I must have had in order for my salvation to have been real. Similarly, feelings and conscious decisions each have a specific role in the process of coping with the untimely death of a loved one. Decisions like trusting God with your life and your hurts and your hopes.
As we mourn we may ask God, “Why did You take my loved one so soon?” Or, “Why did You allow him to die in this way?” or “Why did You not prevent his death?” We ask these questions with thoughts of how unfair it was for the victim. But consider the situation of the deceased believer: he has received that eternal healing. He no longer has any of the troubles of earth, and has the pure joy of being in the presence of God, and would not want to return to a world of sin and suffering. Aren’t the honest “why” questions really about ourselves? “God, why did you allow this to happen to me?” It’s a fair question, an honest question, and one that God probably doesn’t mind and fully expects. And I think God wants honesty from us (see Psalm 51:6, recommend CEV or NKJV), even if honesty feels like we’re asking Him something we think we shouldn’t.
If we can ask God the honest questions, earnestly seeking His comfort and help, He will restore our joy and we can begin looking forward to an eternal reunion, with fond memories of what has passed, but with less looking back to what might have been.
Stay tuned for the next installment, in which we will ask how we should pray when we are losing or have lost a dear loved one…