More about hard issues

Coping With Untimely Death

Let us imagine for a moment that life is a game.

I can easily imagine that God would allow players who have already won the game to remain within it because their moves will help others win as well; likewise, I can imagine that God would allow players that have already lost to remain in the game if their actions can somehow prevent other players from making fatal moves. So this would explain why evil people as well as saintly people would remain in this life beyond the point where they have fixed their eternal destiny.

Because I know that God is merciful and loving, I am confident that God would not permit a loser to play beyond the point where he lost if that would cause unnecessary misery or suffering, and I am certain that God would remove anyone out of the game who is about to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory, if such a thing is possible. So this would explain why saints and sinners alike seem to die untimely or meaningless deaths. Their life ended early because of God’s mercy; we cannot see that because we cannot peek onto the scorecard.

You may say that I’ve gone beyond scriptural knowledge and penetrated theology and gone out the other end into gray theory! Nevertheless, even as an intellectual exercise these thoughts have value, because they help us to reconcile ourselves to God’s will and to see God’s hand in things we cannot otherwise understand. This is also not some idle theory I dreamed up on a Sunday afternoon. I first came to these conclusions after a decade of contemplating the death of a friend who was murdered in his own house. Two guys whacked him with a hammer and chopped up his face with an ax. His mother lived with me during the police investigation, and I was spared none of the messy details. My thoughts on this subject are now being tested and reinforced as I care for a friend in the final stages of terminal disease.

Just because fruit is picked only when it is ripe does not mean that it is picked at the instant it reaches ripeness. In the same way, my faith tells me that if God is sovereign, then no one can die before they are ready. However, that does not mean that the instant they are ready, they die! Surely there are people who live many years after they are ready, otherwise we would be in much worse shape: sometimes more mature children are sent to baby-sit the younger ones.

By “ready” I simply mean that as far as salvation is concerned that person has played out all their options and their final disposition is set. In chess and Monopoly and in many other games the outcome can become certain long before all the moves have been made. In the case of chess, the player who realizes that he has no chance to win customarily resigns in order to save everybody the time of playing out the inevitable, and in Monopoly there are variations that end the game before it turns into senseless slaughter, which is no fun for anyone. In the same way, we may cross a point of no return in our life, when by our own decisions we constrain the disposition of our souls. At that point we are ready. God may in His grace decide to call the game, or He may decide to let us continue making moves because our impact may benefit others.

If I can witness a game of chess which seems to end prematurely and abruptly with the resignation of one of the players, and if I can be made to understand that the players have a superior knowledge of the game to mine, and that the outcome was certain; then certainly I can trust God to “call” a person’s life early. I do not understand and cannot account for all the newborn babies who die in their cribs, or the crotchety saints who die in their crotchetiness or in some last-minute sin; if I cannot comprehend a chess game, how can I expect to understand my own life? If I cannot understand my own life, how can I presume that I understand another person’s life? Even if I cannot understand these things myself, I can have faith in the referee who decides the matter.

In the final analysis, we are not dealing with a body of legislation. We do not have to figure out under which clauses and subparagraphs our lives fall. We don’t have to worry that someone will go to heaven or to hell on a technicality. We worship a living and loving God, not an impersonal book of legislation. If we have faith in God to do what is right, if we surrender our own pride in always wanting to retrace God’s footsteps in other people’s lives, if we trust God enough not to require Him to justify His every action in detail; if we truly love and trust Him, then we can only conclude that whatever appearances may be, He did what is best, and that He took all the facts into consideration, even the ones into which we have no insight.

We may be distressed by what we see. We may be wracked in pain as we pray for insight to understand. God may grant us that wisdom. But how much better it is to have faith from the very beginning, to be confident in things we cannot see! We must recognize that God’s grace and justice are not absent because we cannot see it.

Faith does not end our distress, nor does it abolish our prayers for wisdom and understanding; but it places a firm foundation under our knees as we pray those prayers. It gives us shelter while we pray for the rain to stop. It gives us strength in our times of weakness, comfort in times of distress, and hope for joy in times of great sadness.