A busy breeze roves over the open country outside my window. The tentative green fuzz of April has thickened to lushness while we weren't looking. Birds chirp hopefully, grass ripples with an excited whisper, and I've just received word that a woman I know is dying. Not really a friend, but a highly regarded acquaintance and friend of friends, whom I've kept in prayer for months. Of all the people this shouldn't happen to, she would come near the top of the list: a young mother with three children under the age of 6, she was diagnosed with cancer almost a year ago. Because she was pregnant at the time, they delayed radical treatment until the baby could be safely delivered (make that four children under 6). After some early positive results the therapy failed and her condition deteriorated rapidly.
What does one say? We understand, theologically, what death is and why it exists-the wages of sin explains a lot. We understand that God is fully able to heal but is in no way obligated to do so. Whether or not He produced the cancer that is eating up this woman's body, He nonetheless permits what a single word from the Lord of heaven and earth could stop. The regenerate mind can grasp it, and even accept it, but the heart still cries out.
When death strikes untimely it seems outrageous-unnatural, in spite of the bland assurances of secular counselors that "death is a part of life," and beautiful in its way. At some gut level, we know better than that. In every age but our own, death was as common as dung, and as ugly: Young mothers, little children, and strong men were mowed down routinely, sometimes several in the same household. There was no vanilla-flavored pap about death being part of life then; our ancestors took it, but they didn't have to like it. Though tougher than we, their cries of protest ring down the ages, all the way from Job: Why now? Why this? Why me? Why?
Many ask, and hear only silence. But we do have one direct, recorded response: God's famous reply to Job, in chapters 38-41. It's not exactly comforting. Instead of an answer to the question, God gave Himself. The passage is a geyser, a tsunami, an avalanche of God, as displayed in His works. A challenge runs all the way through it, both implicit and explicit: Who are you to question me? Job gets the point; in comparison with the divine nature he is dust and ashes, with no inalienable rights at all, and no reason to assume that he was unfairly treated. Between God and man is a great gulf fixed. "He is not a man like me that I might answer Him, that we might confront each other in court. If only there were someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand upon us both" (Job 9:32-33).
Whether he knew it or not, Job had put his finger on the problem-our fall opened a chasm that God could not breech without compromising His own holiness. What to do? That was the real question, and most men were not even asking it. The response, when it came, was totally unexpected, though it shouldn't have been. It was so like Him.
For once again, the answer was Himself. He who had no sin became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), taking the penalty, throwing His righteousness across the gap. It's enough to strike one speechless.
Easy for me to say: I sit at my desk in a pleasant room with a fresh breeze sifting through the window. My body appears to be sound and free of pain and my family is intact. Yet in me are the seeds of death, sown from forbidden fruit. All my worldly ambitions are dross; all my temporal relationships are doomed. Sooner or later, the wages of sin will cut me down, perhaps in a way that seems untimely. In the wake of disaster, both public and private, it's only human nature to ask how a loving God could strike a seacoast, level a city, deprive little children of their mother. Because He can, because He wills-those answers fail to satisfy those who are dropped into a despair so deep it looks like a pit. There's no denying His hand is heavy, even upon His own people. His hand is heavy, even when dealing with a son or daughter. His hand is heavy, but look: All the way through it runs the mark of a nail.