I live in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. Sadly, Philadelphia doesn’t have a great reputation for loving others. Our sports fans don’t always give us a great name, but I think our homicide rate does enough convincing.
So far in 2014, the Philadelphia Police Department has reported 179 homicides; that’s 179 murders in 265 calendar days. We’re actually celebrating that number, because it’s a significant drop from previous years. In 2012, we had 254 murders by this time, and in 2007, we had seen 299. Lord come quickly!
Whenever I read the news of another murder, I try to think of the people affected by this tragedy. Whether or not the victim was involved in illegal activity or an innocent bystander, someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, friend, or neighbor had their life come to an abrupt end.
What’s even more tragic is that Philadelphia is just a single city, and murder is just a small percentage of fatal activity. How many other families are impacted daily by a different cause of death, and how many other cities exist in the world? Death is constant, and death is everywhere.
Death and The Gospel
Just because you believe in Jesus doesn’t exempt you from death. One day, every Christian will experience the joy of eternal life, but beforehand, every Christian must experience the grief of physical death. You will personally die, and you’ll most likely experience the death of several close friends and beloved family members. On top of that, some of those experiences will be tragically painful; death in a fallen world is rarely peaceful.
So how should Christians handle death? Here are four principles, derived from the Bible, that have helped me think about this painful experience.
1. You Can’t Prepare For Death
In many cases, death takes you completely by surprise. So many lives are tragically ended with no warning or preparation. All you need to do is watch the news and count how many young people have been hit by a stray bullet or a drunk driver.
In some cases, you know death is around the corner. My mother was dying on her hospital bed, and as we surrounded her in those final few days, we knew what was eventually going to happen. But when she breathed her last, I wasn’t prepared emotionally. The woman who had raised me was gone, and even though my brain could comprehend the science, my soul wasn’t ready for the pain.
Don’t feel embarrassed or guilty about grieving, no matter what the cause or how far you knew in advance. The Bible says “a person's days are determined; [God] has decreed the number of his months and has set limits he cannot exceed” (Job 14:5, NIV). But that means it’s God’s role to choose life and death, not yours. Only God is truly prepared for death; it’s okay to grieve and mourn.
2. Death Was Not The Plan
Death was not part of God’s original idea for human existence. The reason death seems so wrong and unnatural is because it is wrong and unnatural! Life was only meant to give way to life all the way into eternity.
It’s not okay that people die. It’s not okay that cancer and old age claim thousands of lives a day. It’s not okay that mothers have miscarriages and that babies are born still. We’ve become accustomed to death, but it was never God’s created intent.
It’s right for you to grieve death, and as you grieve, let it flow beyond the specific death of that loved one. Your soul should cry out for the complete restoration of what life was designed to be in the beginning, and what it will be in eternity. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
3. You Are Not Alone In Death
I think there’s no other human experience that makes you feel more alone than death. It’s true that no one has really gone through the exact same thing you’re going through. There are so many unique elements of your relationship to that deceased person that can’t be replicated.
That being said, death is a universal experience. Whenever I’m at a funeral, it amazes me to think that almost every person has been to at least one funeral before. So in times of grief, reach out to the body of Christ for comfort and counsel. Even if they haven’t experienced the same type of tragic loss, they know their Bible and can speak gospel truth to your soul.
But even more significantly, Jesus has taken the name Immanuel, which means “God with us.” In the darkness and aloneness of your grief, you have a powerful Brother and Friend who not only stands beside you and dwells within you, but who knows exactly what you’re facing.
4. Evil Always Meets Good
Death is a horrible and unnatural and unpredictable thing, but the Bible tells us that the brightest of good things can be found in the midst of evil’s darkest moments. The Cross is the best example of that – the best thing that could ever happen was a result of the worst thing that ever happened.
Peter said that “Jesus … [was] crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23) We should be outraged by the illegal execution of the only good person who ever lived, but Peter goes on to say that this moment was ordained by God for his glory and our good.
In the same way, death and tragic loss can be for God’s glory and our good. It might seem impossible to see at the moment, but God can bring wonderful things out of this dark moment. (See also Genesis 50:20 – “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”)
If you're struggling with grief and loss, you can listen to my five-part radio series on Grief, available for free. You can also purchase my DVD curriculum, When Suffering Enters Your Door.