Death at Work in Us

Grief in the Shadows

Recently, I visited my childhood home to attend the funeral of my dear aunt, a quiet and meek servant of Christ. She passed away at 53. You know the questions that come after such a parting, the ones that race in your mind without a checkered flag. Night and day, the soul is in anguish, longing for some relief, some answers, some comfort. The shadow cast by death veils the sun. Those shadows are more noticeable when death claims someone close.

By all appearances, the sun is not even there, but we who believe know better. The fixed attribute of shadows is that they shift. We are not to be deceived by that which is seen, but to trust what God has revealed to be true of the unseen. The comfort of God is that He does not shift like shadows (James 1:17). The light has not moved. He is constant, but the darkness of the shadows of death produce a grief that is real. The grief that accompanies death does not have to be sinful. To grieve is to acknowledge the reality of death, that the relationship lost was deep, and that humanity has a true enemy.

A Real Enemy

Suffering is a normal part of our post-Fall human condition, and chief among those sufferings is death. The skirmishes of human suffering are the drum beats of battle, and death is the enemy’s call to charge. Death invaded the garden paradise to stake claim and pronounce judgment for sin committed. But, this enemy stands opposite the armies of God and has lost the war ever since Christ arose victorious (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).

Death reveals our human frailty. Weakness is uncomfortable and is not an enviable state for our flesh. Emotional instability in the form of fear and worry are more pervasive when we are aware of our own mortality. Sadness makes a preemptive bid to take up residence so deep within that numbness seems preferable. Death is a reminder that we are still at war, and combat is always accompanied by agony. Yet, in the gruesome aches of war, we must know that the Lord is using suffering to work in us for our good and His glory.

Death is at work to…

Reveal the nearness of our Lord

Death is one of many contributors to a broken heart. Since death is our enemy, and death breeds brokenness, we falsely identify our despair as an enemy. A broken heart is not our enemy. God does not despise a broken heart (Psalm 51:17, Isaiah 66:2). Rather, He heals the brokenhearted, binding their wounds with the salve of His promises (Psalm 147:3). The Lord is near in death because death crushes. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). He has promised to be with us always, even unto the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). He demonstrated His willingness to walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death by being obedient to the point of death on the cross. Although death intends to crush our spirit, it works instead to produce a brokenness that beckons the nearness of our Great Shepherd. His nearness is our good, for in Him we find our refuge (Psalm 73:28).

Produce Patience

For me, to die is gain, because death has lost its sting. But when we lose a loved one, the loss still stings. We do not grieve like those who are without hope, but we still grieve. Through that pain, we are more vigilant to pray that the Lord come quickly and rid us of this life filled with pain and suffering. At those intense moments of pain, we cry out with urgency for Jesus to come and make all things new. There is nothing at all wrong with that prayer and desire, but we must wait patiently for the Lord, as the farmer waits for the harvest (James 5:7-8). There is difficulty in waiting, but suffering produces a patient endurance that builds a hope that will not lead us to shame. So we do not lose heart, but we wait with confident expectation for the coming of the Lord (Psalm 27:13-14). We know that in His coming, He will wipe away every tear and make all things broken whole again (Revelation 21:4-5). So death works in us a patient but eager longing for the return of Christ, the victor over our great enemy (1 Corinthians 15:25-26).

Recalibrate

Circumstances can be an enemy of faith or its primary builder. Our fallen human nature yearns to believe by sight. We are continually tempted to believe reality is made of only that which is seen because painful circumstances make a strong and convincing case for reality. When our senses are bound to seen things, we see but do not see, and hear but do not hear. Circumstances are like a puzzle box that is half full. When the pieces are put together, they help to form a picture, but because several key parts are missing, we cannot make sense of the whole.

Our minds tend to contemplate eternal things when death is near. Those temporary pursuits slide a few notches down on the priority list. Thoughts of death’s finality act as a probe searching the soul for any transitory hopes that cannot bear the eternal weight of glory. We lose heart when reminded that our outer man is decaying if our inner man is not being renewed. However, the inner man can only be renewed as we focus on the unseen to make sense of what is seen. Now death is at work to sturdy my heart upon a hope that will not disappoint. These blows to the soul fracture the fragile jars of clay that we are so that light will shine out from the darkness of our inner affliction. We are struck down, but not destroyed by the circumstance. So death is at work in us to make evident the light of Christ through our mortal life.

Death at Work in You

Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately? Or better yet, have you looked at an old photo of yourself from a decade ago? While home for my aunt’s funeral, I was reminded that this summer marks 20 years since I completed high school. The 20-year-old graduation photo on the wall of my parents’ home looked more like my eldest son than me. Our bodies really are decaying. For many of us, that thought is too morbid a territory for our sanitary minds. Since life’s allotment is but a vapor, we must consider the ways that death is at work in us.

There is no need to fear the facts revealed from our old photos. While death remains a consequence of our sin, Christ can bring beauty from the ashes of those who are His (Isaiah 61:3). He has made death His subject to work in us courage, strength, endurance, character, and a patient hope that is more sure than death itself. So we let death work in us to produce steadfastness, that we may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing, because our trust is firm in His promises. “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!”

T. Dale Johnson

T. Dale Johnson

Instructor of Biblical Counseling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Johnson is an Instructor of Biblical Counseling in the School of Church & Family Ministries. He is married to Summer and fathers six children - Easton, Titus, Will, Ellie, and twin girls (As of April 2015).
Twitter: @TDaleJohnson
T. Dale Johnson

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