When you’ve had to let your son die, it’s hard to maintain the illusion that you are in control. Death has a way of doing that. But I believe that, in having to let go of my son, I learned the most valuable spiritual lesson of my life: only when we let go of the illusion that we are in control can we truly know God and the comfort of belonging to Jesus Christ.
Two months ago, we were all going about life as normal. Then COVID-19 arrived, and many things changed. Even though 65,000+ people have died, I have been struck by the fact that our culture has resolutely refused to address the reality of death. I have not heard one politician, doctor, or news commentator ask: what does it mean to face death well? What does it mean to die well? Instead, we have become lost in endless debates about the data, the virus, and policies we do or don’t like. It’s almost as if we’ve taken a vow in our culture not to talk about death. We have to realize that this refusal to talk about death is, in fact, potentially deadly to our Christian faith.
The coronavirus hit right in the middle of Lent, a time that Christians have typically devoted to contemplating our own mortality. On Ash Wednesday, many Christians receive the sign of the cross on their forehead in ashes and hear the words, “Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.” In this way, Christians are people who are called to face the reality of their death head-on. That’s because Jesus faced death head-on, despite Satan tempting him to find another path to kingship than the cross. As Philippians 2:5-11 points out, Jesus did not try to exalt himself above God (like all other sinful humans do) but in fact showed us the path we should take, accepting obedience even to the point of death. He fully relinquished control to his Father, and this was seen nowhere more clearly than in his death on the cross.
Many of you know the story of our son Stephen. In 2007, Sarah went into pre-term labor about 21 weeks into the pregnancy. The doctors told us there was little chance that they could stop or slow down labor, but still we waited for a couple days in the hospital, hoping and praying that the medicine would stop labor. It didn’t. As it became apparent that Stephen was going to be born, the doctors came to talk with us. They told us we had a couple of options: first, they could try to get Stephen on machines that would help him live and breathe. The problem, though, was that he was too small for the machines. But, the doctors said, they could try it if it would make us feel better. Our other option was to keep Stephen with us and spend his short life together.
In contrast to the cross, our culture tries to hang on ever more tightly to control over own lives, all the while denying the reality of our death. This can be seen especially in our approach to sickness, and I’m not just talking about our approach to COVID-19. To understand our culture’s approach to medicine and death, and to see why Christians need to be aware of and resist it, we need to take a bit of a dive into history, philosophy, and theology.
Once upon a time evil and suffering were seen as a mystery, a part of life that we didn’t understand and couldn’t explain. This reflected the impact of Christianity and the Bible, which includes lament psalms, Job, and Jesus, none of which gives a philosophical answer to the question: why is there evil and suffering in our lives? Suffering is not good, but suffering somehow works in God’s mysterious providence to make us aware of our limits and to produce something in us that wouldn’t happen otherwise (see James 1:2-5). Suffering and evil are not something we can logically explain but something we experience that can open us to recognize the reality of God and the reality of our own creaturely limits.
In the modern world, though, this view of suffering and evil dramatically changed, in a two-step process. First, some Christians started to try to give a logical or philosophical answer to ‘the problem of evil,’: If God is fully good and all-powerful, why does evil and suffering exist? The ‘God’ explained in the problem of evil, however, is a God who is known by intellect, rationality, and philosophy, not through lament psalms, the mystery of Job’s encounter with God, or the cross of Jesus. Second, unconvinced by these philosophical arguments, many secular people believe that there is no God, but that it’s our job to do what God should do (that is, if there were a God): bring an end to evil and suffering. So the main goal of our modern secular world is to bring about human flourishing, in particular physical well-being and health.
When the doctors told us our options with Stephen, a big part of me wanted to fight this death. That was what you supposed to do, after all, wasn’t it? Isn’t death our enemy, the result of sin and rebellion against God? But it was clear to both Sarah and I in that moment that we had to accept the fact that our son was going to die. There are some things that all our technology and medicine simply can’t do, and the doctors were telling us that their weapons were powerless in this battle, though they were willing to wage a futile battle if it made us feel better. We had to let go. And only by letting go would we have a better understanding of who we really were, creatures of God who live only when we embrace both the joy and grief of our mortality. We are not God, and we never were, even when we thought we were. In letting Stephen go, we came to understand the comfort of belonging to Jesus in a way that we never would have had we tried to maintain the illusion that we were in control. If, in God’s mysterious providence, Jesus had to embrace death, why should we, his followers, be exempt from that destiny?
In our increasingly secular culture, the goal of human flourishing (understood mostly as physical well-being and the ability to be our best selves) is the ultimate goal. Commenting on our culture, theologian Stanley Hauerwas observes, “Sickness should not exist because we think of it as something in which we can intervene and which we can ultimately eliminate. Sickness challenges our most cherished presumption that we are or at least can be in control of our existence” (Hauerwas, God, Medicine, and Suffering, 62). So we wage wars against all kinds of sickness and are bent on at least maintaining the illusion that we are in control (or mostly in control) of our life. This is, ironically, why euthanasia is becoming popular and legal in many places: faced with the reality of suffering, euthanasia is our last-ditch effort to take complete control of our lives and our destiny. Those who suffer from chronic and painful illnesses are themselves a painful reminder to our culture that we do not, in fact, have complete control. And so we readily agree to let them end their lives, often aided by doctors and medicine, to help us all maintain the illusion that we are in charge of our own lives. Thus, the spirit of the age is directly opposed to the Spirit of the Heidelberg Catechism, which declares that my only comfort in life and death is “that I am not my own but belong—body and soul, both in life and death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” The comfort of belonging to Jesus Christ is available only to those who are willing to give up the apparent comfort of being in complete control of our lives.
Now, all of this is not to say that we should ignore sound medical advice or treat our health and the lives of others carelessly, particularly during this time. Far from it! We need to pay attention to medical professionals who know what they are talking about and who are doing their best to serve our society. We are called to be good stewards of our health and life and to love our neighbors as ourselves. But the key word there is ‘stewards.’ We are not our own. We are not ultimately in control. The goal is not to defeat death (that’s Jesus’ job) but to accept each day as a gift from the one who both gives and takes away.
So what does all this mean for us? One key step we can take is to talk about the reality of death. Even in the midst of a pandemic, our culture religiously avoids the reality of death. As we think about our co-workers, family, and friends who don’t know Jesus, it’s likely that they will be working harder than ever to maintain the illusion that we are in control. But we’ve all been exposed as not in control. It’s natural to try to take back as much control as possible. But it’s not good if we allow ourselves to dance around the question of our limits, and therefore our death.
I believe there’s an opening here for us to ask deep questions about the nature of life and death. When I was a kid, I remember good Baptist pastors often asking the question: “If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?” Now, I’ll acknowledge that sometimes this question was part of a heavy-handed attempt to get people to pray the sinner’s prayer in a way that I found troubling, and so I don’t often phrase the question this way. However, I think the goal behind the question is one that we desperately need in our world. The question of our death forces us to face the question of our life: what is life really about? What is the good life? Is there anything worth living for that goes beyond our own goals and well-being? Is there something more? As the theologian Robert Jenson said, death is God’s enemy, but it can also be God’s ally because it forces us to recognize that we are creatures in need of God and his saving power. If we want to join forces with what God is doing in the midst of the pandemic, we have to be willing to talk about why we have hope in the face of death.
So instead of getting into an argument about statistics or politicians’ policies, consider the following: talk to your friends, family, and even your fellow believers about why you can embrace death and about why fear of death doesn’t drive your actions. Hebrews 2:15 says that Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” That’s our culture! Talk about the hope we have in Jesus, who descended into death and Hades, only to emerge with the keys (Rev. 1:18). This should not be a morbid and sad fatalism (“We’re all going to die, just face it.”) but the hopeful refrain of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55: “Death has been swallowed up in victory! O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” This is the song of those who have let go of control in order to find the comfort that comes in knowing Jesus Christ.
Sarah and I somehow knew that we had to let go of Stephen. How is it possible to be at peace with the reality that your child is going to die? That you have to let go? “Are we doing the right thing?” we asked our pastor at the time, Pastor Bob Manuel. “Does God approve of this?” I remember Pastor Bob wrapping his arms around us and saying, “God is right here with you and he loves you so much.” He didn’t try to explain why we were suffering and he didn’t try to solve our unsolveable problem. But he was with us, and through him we absolutely felt God’s overwhelming presence with us. And that’s a comfort we could know only by letting go.