We feel hopeless and powerless in the face of tragedy. There can be few if any more painful trials in life than to lose one’s own child. It is considered that such a loss is worse than the loss of parents and even one’s spouse. Nobody expects their children to pre-decease them in the normal outworking of life. And yet there are many who have had to pass through such a vale of tears, and God’s own sons and daughters are not excluded.

As we read the Scriptures we confront the sudden, unexpected deaths of Abel; of the sons of the widow of Zarephath, and the Shunammite; of all Job’s children, crushed by a collapsing house; of Amnon and Absalom the sons of illustrious king David; while in the days of our Lord we read of the death of Jairus’ precious daughter; of the “only son” of the widow of Nain and of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. In the case of the last three there was relief at hand, the Lord, “the light of life” was there, grief was not inconsolate, words of power and command issued from his mouth, God was glorified and the dead raised.

Death is no respecter of persons, the small and the great are accommodated in the grave. The sentence of death passed on Adam, and his descendants know no exceptions. The law has no favourites, it is inexorable and will claim all of Adam’s sons. There are the pictures of grief, unrelieved in the case of Jacob, who was led to believe that his favourite son, Joseph, had been slain by “an evil beast”; of David, when Absalom was slain and of Lazarus’ sisters, when the Lord’s coming was delayed.

We must not think that our Father in heaven is unaware of such feelings too. We read that He spared not His Son whom He loved, that Heaven frowned when Jesus was subject to such contradiction of sinners, such shame and suffering. Do we not read that an eerie darkness was over all the land from the sixth to the ninth hour, for three hours; and that the earth beneath trembled and was rent? The Father knows, He comprehends but allows tragedy to happen in accordance with His inscrutable will, His broader perspective of what is best.

“God is love”

John tells us this (1 John 4:8), and that this love for us is so great that He gave His only Son that men might not perish (John 3:16); David was constrained to extol Him as “A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows” (Psa 68:4–5); and Paul, despite his manifold sufferings, calls Him “the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort” (2 Cor 1:3). These are all wonderful aspects of our God and do not contradict the sorrows and grief that sometimes we meet on our pathway to the Kingdom. In the face of unimaginable grief Job could say, “What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10); and, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). In his acute pain he refrained from “charging God foolishly” (v22).

And neither should we when smitten by grief and tragedy: through the mists and darkness, with the elapse of time, purpose can be discerned, not perhaps immediately recognizable, but ultimately and with the advantage of hindsight, in the day of the Lord’s Kingdom and glory, we shall be caused to exclaim that “He hath done all things well.”

“All things work together for good”

This subheading is taken from Romans 8:28. Every word in this verse is significant, particularly as it was penned by the Apostle Paul who suffered so much for Christ’s name: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Notice it says “all things”, both the good as well as the evil. And he is speaking specifically of the called, the saints for whom the Father has a special destiny. God does not operate within narrow time frames. He has an eternal purpose which has many and varied phases:

“He with earthly cares entwineth

Hope and comfort from above.”

Sometimes we are mystified; we cannot understand why He allows to happen what He with His unbounded power could easily prevent. It is because our perspectives are different: ours are temporal but His are eternal: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Romans 8:29–30). That is also why He appointed that His beloved Son should die such a cruel and ignominious death …

We do not will trial to come our way. In fact we, in the knowledge of our human frailty and weakness, pray otherwise, as we have been taught, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt 6:13). But the Father, Who knows best, sometimes wills otherwise; “For the creation was subjected [by God] to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope” (Rom 8:20 nkjv). We know that the experience of evil makes us long for deliverance, makes us look with earnest hope to the only One Who is able to save: “we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (v23). It is in the midst of fiery trials that trust is put to the test and hope is made to grow, and we come to learn that “in all … things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” Paul was persuaded that “neither death, nor life … nor things present, nor things to come … shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v37–39).

What Jeremiah could say

When he was called to his post, God told Jeremiah his life would not be easy: he was to proclaim to Judah their sins and be brutalized as a consequence. His consolation lay in the fact that Yahweh would be with him. He would make him “a defenced city” so that though his people would fight against him, they would not prevail and he would be delivered (1:17–19). It was a frightening, scary prospect. He, with help from above, was equal to it and the deliverance promised fulfilled. As a spectator, he beheld the city he loved levelled to the dust; its people, his people, slaughtered and led into captivity. This is what his book, Lamentations, is all about. What could he say in the face of such devastating calamity and suffering? His words are simply staggering: behind it all he could still discern the mercies, the hand and the purpose of the Almighty. He could say: “It is of Yahweh’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. Yahweh is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. Yahweh is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Yahweh … For the Lord will not cast off forever: But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies” (Lam 3:22–32).

Jeremiah did not despair: he understood why disaster overtook his city, his people, and he knew that ultimately the goodness of God, His purpose with His people, would be fulfilled.

When tragedy comes upon God’s chosen, it is not without His knowledge or purpose. He is not indifferent but very aware. Like Jeremiah we are caused to trust in His mercies, renewed every morning, and His unfailing compassion.

Trial purges, purifies

Our lives, particularly in these last perilous days, are often devoted to trivia and things of no moment. It is easy to get caught up with matters of no consequence. We can place undue emphasis on the things that are “seen”, and too little importance on the things “not seen”. Sometimes we need a jolt to bring us back to reality. And the sudden, unexpected death of one we know and love can do just that. That is why Solomon says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart” (Ecc 7:2). At the graveside we are made to reassess our values. We think about the one being laid to rest, whether or not there was dedication and service, whether the priorities were what they should have been; and also we may indulge in some meaningful self-analysis: how am I travelling? am I ready? what if it had been me? These thoughts linger. They are not, perhaps cannot be dismissed, because “the living will lay it to his heart.” The reality is that we think better when sobered by life’s realities. We are frail, mortal creatures of the dust, here today and gone tomorrow. Our life is like a tale that is told (Psa 90:9), soon over. And of what value?

The truth is that without Christ we are nothing, however rich, mighty, wise or famous: “without me [Christ] ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:5–6). I remember the sudden death of two young brethren in a highway tragedy. It was devastating, sobering and sad; their account terminated in the springtime of life, in the bud of early youth. Looking back there was a discernible purpose served. In the wake of their deaths there was a wave of baptisms from amongst their peers.

May the recent sudden and unexpected passing of another young brother bring forth fruit in a similar way.

“I am the resurrection, and the life”

Those were the words spoken by Jesus to Martha in the house of mourning. She knew that had Jesus been with them her brother, Lazarus, would not have died. Jesus affirmed that her brother would rise again. Placing a limited application on his words she said she knew he would rise again at the last day. Reaffirming her convictions and stimulating her hopes Jesus proclaimed, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” This elicited from Martha her profound understanding of who he was: “Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world” (John 11:21–27).

Jesus deliberately delayed his departure for Bethany, a delay that saw Lazarus die and provide the scope for the display of the glory of God in His beloved Son. Amidst the weeping and tears and protesting against opening the tomb, Jesus affirmed to Martha, “Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?” Bystanders heard Jesus’ prayer and his loud voice calling Lazarus to come forth. Instantaneously Lazarus responded, God’s glory was revealed and sorrow was turned into joy. Such was the Son of God’s power over death and his love for those who believe in him.

So though death, man’s greatest enemy, can cause sorrow, its power has been broken by the sinless Son of God. The grave could not hold him and we know that “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him” (1 Thess 4:14). He himself assures us that he that comes to him he “will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37); that he knows his sheep and that they shall “never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of (his) hand” (John 10:27, 28).

The abolition of death

Triumphantly our risen Lord proclaimed to his aged, beloved disciple John, “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell [the grave] and of death” (Rev 1:18). For that day of glad release we all long: “He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces” (Isa 25:8); “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa 35:10). “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”

The great question demanding an answer of each of us who remain is, Am I ready?

“God is love: His mercy brightens

All the path in which we rove;

Though the darkness sometimes frightens,

God is wisdom, God is love.

E’en the hour that darkest seemeth

Will His changeless goodness prove;

From the mist His brightness streameth –

God is wisdom, God is love.” (Hymn 141)