I’ve never had to bury anyone who died young. I’ve never had to bury a child or a teenager or a young man, but as a minister I live with a sense of dread of what I might say in the face of such a tragedy. How does one say anything that makes sense or provides any comfort when life seems to have dealt such a cruel blow?
One of the verses that is the most helpful to me in this regard is Psalm 139:16, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
As Christians, we live with the conviction that life is from God and that it is good. God determines when our life begins, to whom we are born and what qualities make us who we are: our appearance, our gifts and weaknesses, everything. We affirm that he “…created our inmost being: he knit us together in our mother’s womb,” (139:13). We come from God and are made by God and are held by God every moment of our lives. Even our very breath is a gift from God.
We also take hope that God holds us after death for eternity. A lesser known truth is that he holds us before we are born, even before we are conceived. Jeremiah said of God, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” (1:5).
In other words, no one is born by accident, no one lives by accident and no one dies by accident. Our sovereign King governs our lives, indeed the whole of our existence.
When the Psalmist writes that “all the days ordained for me…,” I take it to mean that God has determined in advance the number of days we are given to live our lives on this earth, and that nothing can add to or take away even one of those days, even one of those moments. Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27). It’s a rhetorical question and the only answer is, “no one.”
Framed within this theological context an “untimely death” may be easier to understand. In God’s hands there is no such thing as an untimely death. No one dies prematurely; no one dies “before his time;” no one slips away unnoticed. Everyone lives a full life, even babies, even teenagers, and even young men whose wives are expecting a second child.
Our definition of a “full life” and God’s definition of a full life are very different. Why does one person die at seventy-five and another at eighty-five? At what point do we decide that the life of one person was cut short while the other’s was long and full? What’s the magic number: fifty-five, sixty-five, ninety-five? Is death ever fair in our sense of the word?
The only answer is that there is no answer. We don’t determine the length of our days, God does.
I knew a hospital chaplain who was daily faced with the question, “Why?” Why did my loved one die? Why did God “take” them?
His answer was quite simple and varied only by the manner of a person’s death. “He died because he had cancer. She died because she took too many pills. He died because his birth defect made it impossible to live on this earth.”
That same chaplain died suddenly, at middle age, with his father in a car accident. Why did he die? He would answer the question in the same way, “I died because I was hit by a car.”
The ways of God are inscrutable. God is wholly other. There are none who are like him and when we anthropomorphize God by thinking of him in terms that are too human we invariably run into trouble. That is, when we think about God in limited, human terms he can seem unfair, or capricious, or disinterested. And, when faced with an untimely death, these attitudes can all too easily lead to anger, bitterness, and rejection of the only one who can give to us the deep peace we so crave. God is not bound in any way to respond to our insistent demands for an explanation. We don’t ask “why” we live and it is not in our best interests to ask “why” we die. We live and die at and for God’s good pleasure.
There is no making death any easier. There is nothing that can take the pain away and nothing that can fill the gaping hole left by someone we love. It’s going to hurt and it’s going to keep hurting. “Getting on” with life afterwards does not involve “getting over” the pain as much as it involves learning to live with it. We will never have back the person who is gone and we will never not have the pain of their loss.
Those who remain will always live with a sense of grief whether it was a ninety-five year old granny or a five year old child. One may hurt more than the other and it may be easier to make sense of one than the other, but the loss of either one hurts.
But, in the providence of God, both lived “full lives.” Neither one was cheated, neither one lost nor gained a single hour of the days ordained for them. At the funeral and afterwards we do well to grieve with one another, to cry on one another’s shoulders, but also to give thanks to God and to remember the many, many blessings that came from the life of the one we knew and loved.
I hope these thoughts are helpful to you.