Last weekend a young man died in a car accident, leaving his friends heartbroken and confused. I was asked to write to one of those friends to offer whatever encouragement I could. I was glad to do it, and as I did so I thought about how often I have done that. Years ago I struggled with what to say in a situation of sudden death. Looking back, I think I felt the burden of trying to explain what happened so that the faith of those left behind would not be shattered. But that burden is far too heavy for me. I don’t know why things happen the way they do. I suppose the difference now is that I don’t feel embarrassed saying that I don’t know. And I’ve found it doesn’t bother people when I tell the truth about my inability to explain the great mysteries of life and death. A few months ago a dear friend died in circumstances that were hard to accept. I’ve thought his death a lot since then, and I still don’t understand it. When we moved to Tupelo in October, it was deer-hunting season. A man in his forties came by to say that he would be hunting on my brother’s property. He was pleasant, friendly, handsome, and he exuded a casual self-confidence that made you feel at ease in his presence. Later he shot a deer on our property and gave us some of the meat. Once or twice more he came around and we chatted briefly. A few weeks ago his teenage son and a friend were driving late at night on one of the many country roads near Tupelo. The driver lost control of the car. They were going over one hundred miles per hour when the car hit the tree, killing both young men instantly. Just yesterday I heard about a friend I hadn’t seen in many years who died unexpectedly a day or so after surgery.
Few things in life are more difficult than the sudden death of a friend. And when it happens in some sort of accident, the mind wrestles with so many unanswerable questions, chief among them why. Why did things happen they way they did, and when they did? And why should a young man just starting out have his life so quickly cut short?
I have learned that where you start makes all the difference in thinking about sickness, suffering and death. If you start with the accident or with the sickness or with death itself, you will never come to the right answer. I know many people whose faith has been badly shaken and even destroyed by the tragedies of life. I know that feeling myself. But I have learned that if you start at the tragedy and try to reason your way back to God, you won’t make it. You’ll fall off the ladder somewhere. None of us is smart enough to reason from a tragedy back to God. The only hope is to start at the other end, with what we know to be true about God. If you start with God, if you remember who he is and why he sent his Son to the earth, and his wisdom, power, goodness and love, if you start there, you can slowly make your way back to the tragedy itself. I have walked that road myself many times. This is not some sort of magic trick that will make the pain go away (it won’t) or answer all your questions (it won’t do that either), but starting with God provides the only possible framework for answering the questions we all have.
We need a God so big, so great, so powerful, so wise, so vast, so eternal, that he can encompass the sudden death of one of his children. Some people talk as if the tragedies of life are accidents in the universe. As if God turned his head away and something bad happened while God wasn’t looking. As if God tried to stop it but couldn’t. A God like that is no God at all. I cannot worship an impotent, puny, manmade God who abdicates the throne of the universe and leaves us alone in our despair. That is not the God of the Bible.
Here are two Scriptures to meditate on. The first comes from Isaiah 53:10 in the New American Standard Bible: “But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief.” Isaiah is speaking of the Father’s decision to put his Son to death on the cross for the sins of the world. Think about what that says. Not just that the Father sent his Son to die or that he allowed his Son to die. It is much stronger than that. In ways that we cannot fathom, it pleased the Lord to allow his Son to suffer and die. How can any father be pleased to crush his own son? I cannot imagine it. Parents do all they can to protect their children. But our Father was pleased (for the sake of our salvation) to crush his own Son. That tells us that God’s ways and our ways are not the same, and we cannot judge him by human standards. The second verse is Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (NIV). This means that God does what he wants and no one can stop him. Here we come up against the bedrock of God himself. He is great and powerful beyond our imagining. All that he does is right, even those things we do not understand.
In the end we are left with God. It comes down to who God is and what we believe about him. We need an almighty God and we have one. We need a God of multiplied grace and we have one. It’s all about God. It’s not about us. Finally we turn to God because we have nowhere else to go. We cling desperately to God’s sovereignty and to his grace, and we say to ourselves through our tears, We won’t stop now. We won’t give up. We will keep believing. We’ve come too far to turn back now.