Finally, saying “goodbye” well requires a healthy theology of God’s sovereignty and goodness. This will be reflected in the questions we ask. I believe an accurate theology of God’s goodness and sovereignty will lead us to ask the right four questions.
“Why so long?” not “Why so short?”
The first question we tend to ask is “Why didn’t God heal him and allow him to live longer?” The proper question is, “Why did God give us the good years we had?”
We are rarely satisfied. We all want more of a good thing. As children, after we have a great ride at an amusement park, we rarely pause before looking for more excitement—“Let’s ride it again!” We have this same reaction for the rest of our lives. We tend not to stop and reflect on the good things God provides, and thank him for them. We just enjoy these gifts while they last, and as soon as things change we ask, “Why can’t we have more?”
For instance, my dad was a heavy smoker (two packs of cigarettes a day) until he was 45. Statistically speaking, he should have died of lung cancer. However, he lived another 46 years after kicking the habit! By God’s grace, his lungs recovered, and smoking was not a cause of his death. God, in his grace and sovereignty, allowed him to live long into old age!
Nevertheless, when he died it was hard for me to stop and thank God for this. It was easy to ask, “Why couldn’t God heal him and give us more time together?” But the right question to ask was, “Why was God so gracious to give us so many good years with him?” This is grace. Asking the proper question allowed us to recognize this and say goodbye well.
“Why is there so much life?” not “Why is there so much death?”
When we experience the death of a loved one, death is all we can see. It colors all else. It leads us to believe evil and death are the all-encompassing norms. We begin to dread the coming of our own death and lose gratitude to God and remembrance of his grace, the wonderful purposes of the mourning process. It becomes all about us and not about the Lord of Life. What we should really ask is, “Why is death so rare, and life so prevalent?” Have you ever stopped to think why there is not more death than there is? In history, during the rare instances when there is “too much” death such as the periods of Black Death, the horrific battles of World War I, or the wicked Holocaust, observers suffered enormous stress that crippled their minds for the rest of their lives. But graciously, God more often sets limits to the frequency of death as a mercy of his common grace.
The fact that death so captures our attention is a sign that indeed God is in control of death by limiting its scope. For instance, suppose I take a black marker and begin putting dots on a whiteboard until the whiteboard is almost entirely filled with black dots. If I then put yet another dot on the whiteboard, and ask you if you see it, you would not. Black dots are so prevalent that one more makes little difference, and it is hard even to notice.
On the other hand, suppose I put a few black dots on a whiteboard, then make another one, and ask you if you notice it. It would stand out and immediately draw your attention. Why? Because it is such an anomaly against the pervasive “whiteness” of the board that it stands out and you are immediately drawn to this anomaly.
This is the case of evil, death, and suffering. If death were so common that it filled our experience every moment of every day, we would hardly even notice another such case. In fact, we would become desensitized to death–a misanthropic sentiment that could signal mental illness. However, this is not our experience. Daily we experience an abundance of life. As a result, death, when it occurs, sticks out like one of the few black dots on the whiteboard.
So we must ask ourselves, “Why is this the case?” Why do we experience so much that is good and life giving, that death stands out in relief as such a novel and shocking experience? The answer is because God is good, and in his sovereignty limits evil and death to such a great extent that when they do occur, they rivet our attention the relatively few times we experience it. Recognizing God’s goodness in this helps us ask the right question, and thank God for the grace and goodness He allows us to experience each day.
“How can I see God’s sovereignty in this?” not “Is God really sovereign?”
When we experience death, we tend to question God’s sovereignty. We wonder why God didn’t intervene to save someone. However, this is the wrong question, driven by a false understanding of God’s sovereignty.
Our view of God’s sovereignty often assumes He will always take action to “fix” everything (or almost everything, or the “really” important things—the things we think he ought to fix.) But this is not how God (usually) operates. In general, God allows the natural process of cause and effect to ensue, and only occasionally intervenes. These interventions are what we call “miracles.”
For instance, God almost always allows the laws of chemistry and physics to proceed from cause to effect. As a case study, nearly every time he allows a heavy object to sink in water. The cause of gravity leads to the effect of the object sinking. Of course, he can and occasionally does intervene (for instance, when Jesus walked on water and invited Peter to join him—Matthew 14:22-33). But this is not the normal order of things, and so we call it a miracle.
Thus, sovereignty does not mean God directly causes everything that occurs. Sovereignty also includes allowing, in his perfect will, the natural laws of cause and effect to take their course. In fact, this is the basis of science—the ability to identify laws of cause and effect by repeatable experiments that yield consistent results. It is the reason science developed in places where the Christian worldview was prevalent. (See here for more on this.)
This principle also applies to our bodies. There are laws of chemistry and physics at play in our bodies that obey these God-ordained laws of cause and effect. Bodies age. Injured bodies may not be repairable. Of course, God may choose to intervene (miraculous healing). But he usually does not. His choice not to intervene should not cast doubt on His sovereignty. It is merely an indication that the material realm is operating as He created it to operate—in accord with the laws of chemistry and physics He prescribed.
The point can also be made negatively, by a type of argument known as a reductio ad absurdum. One way to show a view is false is to play it out to its logical conclusion. If this ends in an irrational conclusion, the view is most probably false.
In this case, is it reasonable to believe that God’s sovereignty means that he intervenes in every case to avoid death? Clearly, this is absurd. This would remove all cause-and-effect from the universe, and obfuscate any free will. Every natural law and every choice we make leading to death would be cases where God would need to intervene if this is what sovereignty means.
Clearly, this is a too extreme view of sovereignty. Therefore, it is more reasonable to believe God usually allows the normal progression of cause and effect to run its course while maintaining that God may, if he so chooses, intervene.
Note this is different from Deism, the view that God is nothing more than a grand “watchmaker” that made the world, “wound it up,” and now lets it run on its own without any intervention whatsoever. Rather, this allows that He may, if He wishes, intervene and do something miraculous. Yet is also acknowledged that He generally doesn’t, such that miracles are the exception, rather than the norm. He usually allows death in the normal course of life, and asking the right question will enable us to accept this and say goodbye well.
“How can I see God’s goodness in this?” not “Is God really good?”
This leads to the fourth set of questions, one right and one wrong. Knowing that God can intervene (that He can and sometimes does do the miraculous), we are tempted to ask why, in this case, he didn’t. Unfortunately, asking this question precludes us asking the right question, and finding peace in saying goodbye. If instead we stop and ask how we can see God’s goodness in our loved one’s death, we may notice what we would otherwise easily miss. We may see that by God allowing our loved one to pass “from the land of the dying into the land of the living,” He was being gracious to our loved one, and perhaps to us as well.
For instance, my dad was always very active. He was a minor league shortstop. He built houses. He never stopped. Until the night before his stroke, he was working on projects. God allowed him to be energetic and involved in life until the very end when his body finally gave out. This was a great blessing to him. He would have hated being bed-ridden for months or even years. God knew this. So God did not intervene. His body had served him well but was worn out. God graciously allowed it to “go the way of all flesh” and not miraculously intervene. We thank God for this, and it made saying goodbye much easier.
Asking the proper question also allows those of us left behind to see God’s goodness in our own lives. It reminds us that we are all finite, even “tough old Marines” like my dad. It reminds us that we, too, will one day leave this body. It reminds us that each day is a gift, and “to make the most of the days” (Ephesians 5:16). It causes us to appreciate even more those who are still in our lives. In short, asking the right question can help shape our souls in ways that lead to our flourishing.
Granted, these questions and the answers they lead to are not completely satisfying. Even this itself is a blessing. Not having the answer forces us to acknowledge that we are not all knowing, and will never understand everything. We will never be able to answer all of the “why” and “what if” questions. Our inadequate understanding forces us to realize God is God and we are not and this gives us the opportunity to trust God more and ourselves less.
Yet more must be said. This series on saying goodbye well assumes we must say goodbye in the first place. But why is there death and pain at all? Why does evil exist in the first place? These are questions we often ask, especially when we must say goodbye.
Over the next several weeks I’ll share some thoughts on the age-old and very important question I just mentioned, known as “the problem of evil.” Until next week, grace and peace.
(My thanks to Dr. Liam Atchison for helpful comments on a prior draft of this post.)