Reflections on an Untimely Death
Death is never pleasant. A premature death is especially hard to
bear. But when the person who has died is your close friend and you are invited to perform
the funeral ceremony, it powerfully concentrates the mind. What can one say to comfort the
bereaved? What can one say which is appropriate to the situation?
Importantly, what does God say about death
and its meaning? Is it the end? Is the person still suffering somewhere else? Will we see
When you observe the family going through their trauma, and then coming to terms with
their pain and grief, there are more searching questions which need to be answered. Why
did the person die? And why now? When a life is prematurely cut short, the compelling
question is why him or her - and why now?
As a minister, I have been called upon to conduct many funerals over the years. I have
attended many more of people whom I have known. Some have been especially challenging -
the elderly father of a member of the British Government comes to mind. Others have been
totally tragic - like the teenager whose life was cut short as he was knocked off his bike
by a careless motorist; or the young lady who was the victim of a parasailing accident on
a Mediterranean holiday, where the operator simply got careless at the end of a long day;
or the newborn baby who lost a fragile hold on life after struggling for a few weeks
against a crippling birth defect. The one thing I know is that there are rarely any
totally satisfactory answers.
One of the great lessons we ought to learn from death is that life is fragile. Life is
uncertain and capricious. It takes sudden and unexpected twists and turns. Accidents can
happen. "Time and chance" (Ecclesiastes 9:11) can run their course - even for
those who have committed their lives to God. Someone quipped that - "life is a
sexually-transmitted terminal disease - no one gets out of it alive". Think about it
- it's true. Some lives are cut short, causing sickening grief for those left behind.
Others live to a ripe and full old age. We never know when our turn will come - but it
will come. We all die.
David wrote in the Psalms: "Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure
of my days, that I may know how frail I am" (Psalm 39:4). Death is very humbling. It
teaches us who remain that we only have a measure of control over our lives. That ought to
change the way we go about our daily living. The Apostle James wrote "Come now, you
who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there,
buy and sell, and make a profit"; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow.
For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes
away. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or
that" (James 4:13-15).
Those who are called by God to follow "the Way" (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23), which
today we call Christianity, have been purchased by the living Jesus Christ, and have
dedicated their lives to the service of God (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). We
should (but don't always) seek His will for our lives. We should ask daily for His
guidance, leadership and direction whereby we might accomplish His will. The principle of
that way of life is love and humility before God and our fellow man (Matthew 22:37-38;
James 4: 6-7; 1 Peter 5: 5-6). Whoever we are, whether minister or member of the Church,
in whatever walk of life and whatever age, death teaches us to walk in humility and love
before God. Why? For the simple reason that He is the author of life and death - and there
is none other. Only God truly holds the gift of life in His hands, and only He has the
gift of eternal life to impart.
A close friend and ministerial colleague was recently struck down by a terminal
disease. He was well known and much loved by many, and had faithfully and unselfishly
served for many years. The outpouring of hundreds of encouraging letters and cards bore
loving testimony to a life well lived. His illness and eventual death has been reported
elsewhere on this web-site.
His death came very quickly at what seemed an inopportune time and far too fast for him
to take adequate evasive action. I personally did not expect him to die, despite his
desperate plight. I did not want him to die. I expected and believed God would heal him.
Thousands of people around the world, and many of you reading this, shared the same faith
and were exercising prayerful support. Such a death leaves one numb. It is a great
disappointment. Why didn't God heal? Did we in some way lack faith or obedience which
limited God's hand? Or was it simply God's will?
I don't think we can ever really know the answers - not till the next life at least,
when we might well enquire of our heavenly Father. What we can know is that sometimes
people who live by faith also die in faith, not having been healed in this life. If a
person is going to die we would all want it to be firm in faith right to the end. Such, I
am convinced, was the case with my friend and colleague. Upon the authority of the Holy
Scriptures we can take great comfort that such an outstanding life was not in vain, and
that we shall see him again (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:52-54). He is no
longer suffering, and is now "asleep" awaiting that promised return to life.
How hard it is to accept God's will when we want something different. How hard it is to
let go of something we may want with all our heart and every fibre of our being when God
shows us a different path. Yet accept it we must, and determine to continue our own
Christian lives strong in the faith. With God's help, we must deal with the inevitable
feelings--which might well include feeling angry with God, and learn to cope with the pain
and seeming injustice we may feel. We must remember that: "... all things work
together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His
purpose" (Romans 8:28).
One day we will fully understand. But for now, we can seek God's encouragement and
direction, not only for our own lives, but also for others we may know directly affected
by tragedy. We can be secure in the knowledge that the God of perfect love will see to it
that, in the fullness of time, we will see our loved ones again. In that, we may rest in