The past few years I have been to several funerals. Most of them were for older persons who had passed away after having lived a comparatively long life. Just a few weeks ago, however, was the first time I attended a funeral for someone younger than me. We had grown up together in Brazil and I have nothing but the most cherished memories of a good childhood friend.
Though the occasion was sad, there was a sense of celebration because she was such a deeply committed Christian. Of course we cried and felt a profound sense of loss because for a little while we have been separated from her. Jesus cried too at the loss of his dear friend Lazarus (John 11:35). And so, even if by faith we know we shall see her again, there is still much sorrow at the loss of a loved one.
When I was twelve, my father passed away and it completely shook my faith back then. How could a good God allow such evil? Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? My father suffered tremendously. He was wheelchair bound for seven years after a car accident and I watched him gradually waste away physically. Nevertheless, I loved him so much that his death was a complete shock. The surprising thing is, even after all these years, I still don’t have a good answer to that question. For many, not having an answer to the problem of evil–and death is the ultimate evil–is a hindrance to faith in the goodness of God.
I can totally understand that.
Nevertheless, I have come to faith. Faith in a good and loving God in spite of the terrible pain and suffering all around us. Perhaps it is a bit of a paradox. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps we simply do not have enough information yet. Perhaps as we begin the faith journey, God demonstrates his love for us in tangible ways that make it clear to us that God is love.
In Spite Of.
C. S. Lewis wrote two books that could not be more different from each other when tackling the issue of evil. The Problem of Pain is not my favorite Lewis read. It’s highly technical and logical, making for a cold and detached approach. Not that this is bad. For one, from a purely objective standpoint, at the very least it demonstrates that there is no incompatibility between the two propositions: “God is good” and “there is evil in the world.” This is sometimes necessary. But it doesn’t really help anyone suffering the loss of a loved one. No amount of cool, detached, logical observation can comfort a person at the loss of a loved one. Something which Lewis experienced when his beloved wife, Joy Gresham, passed away. Originally, A Grief Observed wasn’t intended for publication. Then Lewis considered publishing anonymously. But he finally allowed this somewhat ‘heretical’ book to be published under his name. In it is the anguished cries of pain, anger, and accusation against God for inflicting such terrible suffering in the world.
If you ask me, it is biblical.
You hear it in the anguished cries of the psalmists, it echoes throughout the book of Job, and gushes out in Jeremiah’s Lamentations. You are permitted to grieve. You can even lash out in your pain at God.
But aside from the Bible, the one place I turn to for consolation is not the cool, detached, philosophical observations of great men and women, but the poetry of John Donne. We’re all probably familiar with his poem from which I derive the title of this blog, but did you know Donne was a clergy man? Did you know he was dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral? And this during the Great Plague of London that killed about 20% of the population? That’s 100,000 people! Think of the amount of funerals this pastor had to conduct every day.
Donne was intimately familiar with death. His father died when he was still a small boy. Several of his siblings passed away. His wife passed away. Several children passed away. As intimate as death was to him, it was no friend. Death was a familiar enemy. But a defeated one. His famous poem, Death Be Not Proud, is actually a defiant shaking of the fist at the mortal enemy. Death does not have the last word.
Because of the resurrection. Donne’s hope was the Christian hope. Christ has vanquished death once and for all at the cross by raising from the dead on the 3rd day. This was the same hope we shared at my friend’s funeral.
One day I too shall die. I do not welcome it. Death is no friend of mine. And I make no qualms about it. The prospect of death is terrifying to me. I don’t think I shall ever go gently into that good night. I shall rage, rage against the dying of the light. But as difficult as the prospect of my own impending mortality is, I too now share in the Christian hope. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).
Are you familiar with Hemingway’s book, For Whom the Bell Tolls? Did you know it was actually taken from a John Donne sermon? Meditation XVII: “PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him.” One of my favorite extended metaphors comes from this meditation on death. And, as is typical of the preacher John Donne, though intimately acquainted with death, it is tainted with hope. Listen to his words:
all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.