In the wee hours of the morning on January 4, 2021, our vibrant, apparently healthy 35-year-old son, Andrew, unexpectedly died in his sleep. He was a successful corporate attorney who exuded a vibrant spiritual life, was an elder in his church, and was passionate about personal evangelistic outreach. Even though I am a pastor and theologian, I find that the spiritual shock and crisis of faith that accompany such a tragedy are real and palpable. My son’s untimely death makes absolutely no sense to me. This manuscript is an expression of my grappling with this devastating event.—Author.
How does a father comprehend the idea that his son, who appeared to be the epitome of health and vigor, has been snatched from himself and his wife by death? Just a week before his passing, I was with him in his basement workshop helping him construct a new mantel to hang over his woodstove. How can this be? I entered that same workshop hours after his death to retrieve a screwdriver, and there sat the mantel, sanded and ready for stain, with the French cleat clamped in place for the glue to set, clamps still clamping, waiting for its maker to come finish its crafting. The unfinished mantel spoke to me about the unfinished life of my son.
My difficulty grasping his passing comes, in part, from living with the privileges of modern society. A century or more ago parents frequently buried their children, but advances in medicine and sanitary living conditions have wonderfully changed the odds; we now expect the norm to be that we outlive our children. So the loss of Andrew brings massive questions:
Will we ever know what caused his premature passing?
How can God permit such a spiritual, dedicated, ministry-minded young man to suddenly be plucked from our lives without warning?
It is so unfair! He did not deserve this!!!
Struggling to Find Answers
Some would answer that it was God’s will that Andrew pass away now. This semi-fatalistic view that “God willed it” seeks to insulate us from our fear of chaos and unpredictability. I have difficulty with this perspective, however. The God of the Bible whom I know does not perform evil that good may come. Even God’s own apostle Paul rejected the idea that doing evil to accomplish something good is a morally acceptable option (see Rom. 3:8).
Another temptation is to blame Satan for striking Andrew to thwart his service for God in this world. Andrew and I had drawn very close to each other in spiritual things. His passion to lead others to know the God he loved and served knit well with my own pastoral heart. I have lost my spiritual comrade and friend, whose walk with God strengthened me. Satan may be displeased, but he is not an alternate deity. The biblical book of Job declares that God sets limits on the evil that Satan can do in this world.
In trying to make similar sense of the seeming vanity and chaos of life, Solomon lamented: “I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl. 9:11, ESV; emphasis supplied).* Time and chance. I do not like chance. Why are we subject to chance?
In Eden, Adam and Eve rejected their God-created limits and position as creatures under divine sovereignty. As a redemptive move, God responded by significantly increasing their limitations to help them see that their life and existence depend on a God bigger and wiser than themselves. As a result, they would now live in a world in which random and unpredictable calamities impact all humans—good and bad—with all ultimately being subject to death. Even if I were the world’s richest man or the earth’s most powerful politician, I would still be powerless to save and restore my son from death. No one escapes facing death. As such, life in such a world is not fair, but then, why should one care about the fairness of this life if there is nothing beyond it but nonexistence? Our moral sensibilities demand some kind of eternal destiny in which the moral quality of one’s way of life actually matters.
God’s Sovereign Rule
While God does not do evil to accomplish good, he does work in those tragedies and disasters to bring about good for those who love him (see Rom. 8:28). Such heartbreaks and concerns for fairness become God’s instruments that confront you and me with our powerlessness and our need for a loving God bigger and more powerful than our finite selves. The good news is that this earthly bubble of chaos in which we presently live is bounded and surrounded by God’s sovereign rule. Andrew’s death is beyond our control, highlighting our helplessness and beckoning us to call out to his God in faith and dependence.
Years ago, as a flight instructor, I had a student practicing full-power stalls as part of training for emergencies. In this maneuver, the aircraft will easily enter a spin if your rudder is not right. To qualify as an instructor, I had learned to perform triple-rotation spins. Since my student was not seeing his need for instruction in this maneuver, I stayed quiet and let him put us into a hard-left spin, but I did not let the aircraft get outside my control. All I needed to do was say “my airplane,” take the controls, and recover the aircraft. It was a key instructional moment.
In like manner, Andrew, while sleeping in death, remains surrounded, not by coldness and despair, but by God’s loving sovereignty. While it is beyond our capacity to restore Andrew to life, he is not beyond the reach of God’s re-creative power. At present, our hearts and our world have entered into a spin of devastation and grief that are beyond our control. Someday very soon, however, God is going to say, “My airplane” and take the controls of our world and recover it. Then, as foretold in Daniel 2—a prophecy that Andrew loved—God’s kingdom will come without human assistance, wiping away all the chaotic kingdoms of the world. God will then wipe away our tears and build his own kingdom based on the principles of self-sacrificial love, as demonstrated in His gift of Christ. Like his mantel, then, Andrew and his unfinished life lie silently asleep in God’s basement workshop, awaiting the call of his Maker to everlasting life in newfound glory and completeness. Our pain and darkness call us to walk with God as Andrew did so we, too, may experience that final transformation from mortal to immortal at the last trumpet.
Awaiting Jesus’ Return
Until that great day, those who love Andrew sit in the darkness and black hole of grief and pain, in the valley of the shadow of death. In our darkness, the voice of God speaks through the prophet Micah: “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me” (Micah 7:8, ESV).
For now I, along with every member of Andrew’s family and his friends, sit in the deepest darkness. I will sorely miss our spiritual comradery. I will miss discussing his sermon preparations with him. I will miss the phone calls seeking help on how to use a certain tool or do a certain project. I will miss learning about his latest reading and research. I will greatly miss his visits to our home and his cheerful help with hard work around our house. I will miss his intellect and humor. I will cherish the precious gift of my daughter-in-law, whom he brought into our family. He was my beloved son, with whom I am very well pleased!
Oh, God, I sit in darkness. Be my light, right now. Oh God, we sit in darkness. Be our light, right now. Help us to find the same light that lit Andrew’s life with joy, meaning, and purpose. Amen.