Columnists > Soul Food

'I miss him'

We grieve, but the gospel gives comfort

Issue: "Top 100 Books 1999," Dec. 4, 1999

When golfer Payne Stewart's jet crashed in a field in South Dakota, people everywhere asked, "Why does God allow the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer?" The deaths of Payne Stewart and those traveling with him demand an answer to that question. The poignancy of death was brought home to me at the memorial service for one of those travelers, Robert Fraley, a noted sports agent. Pitcher Orel Hershiser eulogized his friend: "Sometimes, Robert and I would go for weeks without speaking to one another. Now, he has been gone just three days, and I miss him." The poignancy was brought home to me in the tear-stained, pain-knotted faces of widows trying to make sense of their personal human tragedy. It will be brought home to me again and again when, in my capacity as pastor, I attempt to guide people through the turbulence of this biting sorrow. These friends' untimely deaths represent an enormous human tragedy. Yet a far greater tragedy occurred millennia ago when a single act of disobedience plunged all mankind into a condition of misery and sorrow. It is easy to forget this basic fact in a country so blessed with political freedom, economic prosperity, and comfort-making technologies. These blessings numb us to the harsh reality that life in this world, while containing much that is beautiful, is lived under a curse. It is wracked by the ravages of the Fall, which God is patiently and relentlessly laboring to overcome. The most arresting words in the Bible are found in Genesis 5:5: "Altogether, Adam lived 930 years, and then he died." He died. He was not meant for that and neither are we. We are meant for life. Yet we all die. And all of the deaths that have been experienced in the history of the world flow from Adam's single act of disobedience and that first death. Christians are not spared the effects of the Fall. It is true that we do not grieve as those who have no hope (2 Thessalonians 4:13). It is also true that God's good purposes are not frustrated by the circumstances of the death of a Christian. Nor are those purposes thwarted by death itself (Job 42:2; Isaiah 46:8-11). It is true-and profoundly comforting to know-that the eternal God is both sovereign and good. (If He were not sovereign, He would be no help. If He were not good, He would be terrifying.) Furthermore, it is true that God overrules in every tragic circumstance in the life of every Christian, ordaining and effecting good that is a real and true good. In the midst of this human tragedy that flows from the Fall, these three widows, their families, and their friends may take comfort in knowing that this, too, works "for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). Yet these truths should not be allowed to eclipse the incalculable human tragedy caused by the first human tragedy, the sin of Adam. Christians are summoned to "weep with those who weep" precisely because there are things that warrant tears. Lots of tears, deeply felt. Jesus convulsed at the grave of His friend Lazarus. He certainly wept over the unbelief that mocked His life-giving powers. But He also wept because the ravages of the Fall robbed Him of a friend, and robbed sisters of their brother. The hope of the gospel is a great hope and its comfort a life-sustaining comfort precisely because it answers the immensity of the human tragedy. Payne Stewart and Robert Fraley and their friend Van Ardan, who also died in the crash, are (not were) Christians. They have entered their rest. Their widows, families, and friends will find comfort in knowing this. Their comfort will be bittersweet. Bitter because death cannot be anything else; sweet because the gospel is real, not a will o' the wisp, not a romantic fancy, not an optimism without content. All of us may take comfort, and not only in the knowledge that the good purpose of a good God is not frustrated by these deaths. We may take comfort in knowing that Death will be swallowed up, consumed, devoured, by the victory of Jesus Christ; what is perishable will put on the imperishable; what is mortal will put on the immortal. And when that happens, their song will echo the resounding song of every Christian from every age: O, Death, where is your sting? O, Grave, where is your victory? Death will have no sting. The Grave will have no victory. For the Christian, they will be no more.

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