Making Nice With Death

Tomorrow I’ll attend the funeral of a dear Christian friend who died last week.

He wasn’t merely an acquaintance. He was among a close inner circle of friends that graced my life the past few years. As I write, I feel numb over his death.

I don’t say he passed on, or went from this life to the next, or is no longer with us, etc. Rather, I say that he died. My choice of words is quite intentional.

Why do I use such supposedly harsh terminology? Isn’t it insensitive, morbid or unloving?

Several years ago I preached a sermon from the book of Isaiah chapter 40:6-8

All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.

It was shortly after the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. As I was preaching, I noted that we should be angry that they died. And not necessarily because of who they were as pop cultural icons, but because we weren’t created to die, designed with planned obsolescence like the latest technological gadget. Rather, we were made to live forever with the God who made us. But too often, we treat death as normal, making friends with it. We even resign ourselves to it, lumping it in with such inevitabilities as taxes.

After the sermon, several congregants approached me and remarked they thought it strange, even inappropriate, that I expressed indignation over Jackson’s and Farrah’s deaths. They missed the point. I wasn’t angry that they, i.e. beautiful and famous talented people, were dead, or even prematurely dead. Instead, I was angry because the very fact that we experience death at all is because of the Fall. Our dying is a barometer of our ruinous rebellion to the God who made us for himself. We simply weren’t made to die.

Don’t get me wrong. Because of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, and my friend’s faith in the resurrected Christ, my friend is also assured of his own resurrection unto eternal life. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live (John 11:25). For this gloriously beautiful truth I will heartily rejoice.

But the funeral will be accompanied by an undercurrent of low-ebb anger mixed with sadness, a knot in my stomach with a bad taste in my mouth. Why?

Death is always a separation; often it’s a painful ripping and tearing.

When Lazarus died, Jesus did not sing a praise chorus. Jesus wept. He grieved. When our Lord turned to face his own death, he acted not with stoic calm and quiet resignation, but with struggle, revulsion, and prayers for reprieve. Jesus Christ hated death like sin.

—Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Beyond Doubt: Faith-Building Devotions on Questions Christians Ask (p. 314; 318-319)

So don’t make death your bedfellow. It’s not only strange; it’s simply wrong. Instead, call death what it is: death. Don’t dress it up and beautify it.

It doesn’t deserve such glory.

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