When our son Jeremy (41) died in November from lymphoma, a longtime friend sent me notes he had written about death some years earlier. I found them extremely helpful, and asked, with his permission, to share them with my minister friends:
Many years ago, I heard someone talking about Jesus and his comment was that Jesus was the happiest man who has ever lived. I questioned that statement then, and now I do not believe it is true. I believe Jesus was the most emotionally and relationally sensitive person who has ever lived, and as a result his life was one of much weeping. Weeping over Jerusalem and at Lazarus’ tomb is mentioned, but there must have been much more as in Gethsemane and when he spent time alone with his Father. Why isn’t more recorded? Maybe the disciples were not sensitive to Jesus’ relational sensitivity.
When will the end of the world come and Jesus return? Maybe when heaven is tired of weeping over this rebellious and stubborn world? God must have wept as Eve and Adam ate of the forbidden fruit. In reading the prophets, one senses God agonizing and weeping over the stubbornness of Israel—they were responsible for their actions and brought the exile upon themselves.
Why are these thoughts on my mind? Because my sister Mary’s 19-month-old grandson is in the hospital as a result of a seizure and heart stoppage. Jakob and his twin sister were joyfully playing at a family party on Saturday, August 23, and eight days later he was in the hospital—and outwardly the signs are not good. Yesterday, Sept. 2, my sister wrote:
“Jakob is responding less today. He was taken off the sedation meds and is not at all responsive. They are going to take him down for a Cat scan to see the level of brain activity. So we are all crying constantly and praying. Maria [other grandmother] and I were praying and crying together while watching Madi [twin sister] and she came up to us knowing something is not right. She also keeps talking about Jakob and wants to bring things that belong to him to him.
Please keep all those wonderful prayers going for a miracle and wisdom. Mary”
It is a very difficult time for those who know and love Jakob, especially the pain and sorrow of his parents and close relatives. Watching a helpless child, wanting to do everything you can, but there is nothing you can do. So we weep and pray.
If we, who are sinful, have that kind of love for a child, much more is Our Heavenly Father’s love and grief over wayward and sinful children. We can only begin to imagine. God’s beloved children are praying for healing and restoration, but we are not necessarily seeing things from God’s perspective. Jesus healed on earth, but that wasn’t his primary mission—for he only did it for three, not thirty, years, and there still were many crippled and dying and leprous people in the region when Jesus was hanging on a tree. God is full of compassion and mercy—he is very rationally sensitive to our needs and our pain; but, at times his ways are mysterious. We don’t fully see.
Reflections on the death of a beloved child.
What do we know?
After I wrote our prayer letter and “God Wept,” which I did first thing after rising and when my mind is most alert, I went and had my devotions. In my scheduled reading program, the Old Testament reading was Isaiah 53-55 and the New Testament was Luke 23, both sections about the sorrow and death of Christ. In light of Jakob Vanden Bosch’s circumstances, it made me reflect.
- As Margaret (my wife who died of breast cancer in 1978, one week before the birth of Mindi, Jakob’s mother) and I faced death there were two things we resolutely believed about God—God is good and God is trustworthy. Margaret and I had almost four years to process those thoughts, but they were essential for us in facing death. The death of a child will test a person’s faith, and whatever may go through one’s mind, if one ceases to believe that God is good and trustworthy, one’s relationship with God will suffer. Good is good and God is trustworthy was, and I believe must be, a bedrock foundation of our relationship with God. Without believing God is good and trustworthy, you cannot deeply love God.
- We live in a broken and deteriorating world where evil and death occurs. God designed and created the world, declaring it was good. But after the fall, the world was affected and the creation was no longer always good. Why? Adam and Eve had rejected God and intended to live without Him, and if left living in a good creation they would never have been challenged to again relate to God. The brokenness we experience in the world is an opportunity for us to come closer to, or separate farther, from God. In our broken world, there are famines, earthquakes, tsunamis, malaria, wars led by greedy dictators, genocide to kill enemies, and the death of children. Such things occur as part of nature, and from the evil working of Satan and his demonic followers. At times one wonders why the world works so well, and so few children die—for human beings are wonderfully and complexly made.
- When personal tragedies occur, God is not specifically punishing someone for their sins. Jesus answered that in Luke 13:1-5. Sometimes people die as a result of their personal, reckless actions, but God didn’t cause them to do it.
- In answer to prayers for healing, sometimes God restores life and sometimes he doesn’t—and we don’t know why. Why did God not answer David’s request for the sparing of the life of his son, and yet he answered Hezekiah’s prayer for longer life (which proved to be relationally disastrous). God doesn’t answer all of our “why?” Isaiah 55:8-9 states:
neither are my ways your ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
- God understands my sorrow and pain—for he experienced the death of his sinless, beloved son. God grieves and weeps when we do. God often demonstrates his love and comfort and compassion to us through others in whom he dwells—another person’s hugs, words of encouragement, and sharing of tears of sorrow are really those of God! Jesus the perfect man wept, and we should not be embarrassed to weep freely in the face of tragedy!
- Sometimes later, and maybe never, will we understand why something happened. When God’s beloved son was disfigured and dying on a cross outside of Jerusalem, did anyone present really understand what was happening? No! Some thought a criminal was being punished, others saw Jesus’ death as the result of the hatred of religious leaders, and others saw it as a political ploy. Not until later was it understood that this was part of God’s reconciliation of himself with mankind. God’s ways were much higher!
- Beware of dwelling on “What if? What if?” too long. Good parents do the best they can, and they are not perfect. Jesus mentions that even evil parents are good toward their children (Matthew 7). Maybe we could have done something different, but it was never our intention to do evil to our children. If we failed in some way, God has open arms of forgiveness.
- God does not cause the premature death of children or adults! It occurs in an evil and deteriorating world by natural cause and effect, and is experienced by God’s children and those who don’t have a relationship with God. It affects good and evil people. It is my personal belief that God does not micro-manage all that occurs in the world—and I know that this flies into the face of Reformed theology. Personally, the more I read and study the Bible, and the less I read theology, the less Reformed I become—I believe I am more Biblical. As I see it, the overwhelming theme of Scripture is not about God’s control of everything, but much more about the loving relationship He desires with us and how our actions have a direct cause and effect upon that relationship. I believe God is good, trustworthy, loving, kind, compassionate and merciful, and He can change his mind—something lost in some Calvinistic theology.
On the Day of Judgment, God will not give us a theological examination. Rather, God will examine as to how Christ-like we were in our daily living, loving, compassion and comfort of others. God will look at the quality of the fruit of His Spirit in our lives.
- Wrestling with and facing death causes one to examine his theology. I remember listening with Margaret to a sermon on God’s Providence and afterwards sharing that we couldn’t believe this about God. We could not believe that Margaret’s cancer was caused by the hand of our loving and compassionate Father!
Lewis Smedes, in My God and I, wrote about how the death of his son changed his theology. I resonate with him:
“About four years into our Calvin decade, Doris gave birth to a beautiful baby boy who died before he had lived the whole of a day. God’s face has never looked the same to me since. Since my conversion to Calvinism, his face had the unmovable serenity of an absolute sovereign absolutely in control of absolutely everything. Every good thing, every bad thing, every triumph, every tragedy, from the fall of every sparrow to the ascent of every rocket, everything was under his silent, strange, and secretive control. But I could not believe that God was in control of our child’s dying.
“It was not as if I had found a forgotten Bible verse or saw a familiar one in a new light. … [Some]how I knew for sure that God did not micro-manage our baby’s death. I had been intellectually excited by John Calvin’s tough-minded belief that all things—and he really meant all of them, including the ghastly and the horrible—happen when and how and where they happen as precisely as God decreed them to happen. A ‘horrific decree’ Calvin conceded, but if it works out to God’s glory, who are we to complain? On the day that our baby boy died, I knew that I could never again believe that God had arranged for our tiny child to die before he had hardly begun to live, any more than I could believe that we would, one fine day when he would make it all plain, praise God that it had happened.
“I learned that I do not have the right stuff for such hard-boiled theology. I am no more able to believe that God micro-manages the death of little children than I am able to believe that God was micro-managing Hitler’s holocaust. With one morning’s wrenching intuition, I knew that my portrait of God would have to be repainted.” (pp. 120-121)
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