Tomorrow, the 22nd of August, it will have been an entire year since my sister died. It is both strange and sad to think it’s been a whole year since I was in ICU, waiting around to be told whether she’d ever wake up again – or what quality of life she may have if she did. It is hard to think that those days of seeing her lying prostrate are my last memories of her: unresponsive, cold, and lifeless. Hearing is the last thing to go, they said, and so I would read to her. I knew it was fundamentally profitless, but that didn’t mean I was any less compelled to read to her. How irrational. Yet, her death was entirely irrational: unexpected and unexplained. No-one to blame and no bitterness to harbour, so perhaps that was for the best. Difficult to first accept, but not difficult to live with.
Kindness from so many places, from so many people, made things easier at first and I owe a great debt to those who were so supportive – especially around the time of the funeral. Not everything was easy, though. One of the hardest things I found in the subsequent weeks to follow were the shallow words, full of disturbing ideas meant to comfort. Anyone guilty of such sentiments did not mean it, I am sure. Nevertheless, when my sister died, she did not become ‘another star in the sky’ and nor did she become ‘an angel in heaven’. To use such lines of reasoning leads to erroneous views of the world, even if you think they are comforting to believe. No, rather, we must seek comfort in the truth. As Spurgeon notes “There maybe be, and there are, other sources of consolation, but they will not at all times serve your turn; but in Him there dwelleth such a fullness of comfort, that whether it be in summer or in winter the streams of comfort are always flowing.”
The truth that we need to rest in can be concisely stated: God is sovereign. It is not enough to say that He knows our sufferings or even that He loves us. Whilst these statements are true, of course, and need to be cherished and held tightly, it is that God is in charge, sovereign over all, that is a necessary part of the matter. In the words of the psalmist, “Our God is in the Heavens, He does all that He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). A god who loved us, but was not sovereign, would be far from the God of Scripture: he would be well-intentioned, perhaps, but impotent. Perhaps this god would give us a warm fuzzy feeling, but he could not work things out according to the good counsel of his will, as the God of Scripture does.
This is ultimately the God of the only Gospel worth preaching; the sovereign King who rules on His throne. He rules and He reigns. He is all conquering; His enemies but the footstool of Christ – including Satan. His purposes and His actions are for His glory, and we far too often fail to remember it. Our prosperity is for His glory and our good fortune is for His glory as much as our suffering is for His glory and our trials are for His glory. Life itself is a gift and we show by every daily rebellious act that we don’t deserve it and God has every right to take away that gift from us. If He doesn’t, it is an act of pure mercy. Job did not sin when he said “Naked I come from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21 ff., cf. 9:12 ) and neither do we. These verses are hard to swallow but there they stand, and may they be like honey on our lips, for “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does. In Heaven and in Earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” (Psalm 135:6). This is the greatest comfort one could hope for! For God is infinitely wise and whom best to entrust the entirety of creation and all eternity?
I bow to the King of kings and to none other. I rejoice in His ways and my comfort is found in nothing else. The lack of my understanding of His glorious sovereign decrees does not by one iota diminish their majesty. Even if I am afflicted with great sorrow, I rejoice and my heart is glad because my King reigns with justice and authority. He has been sovereign when I have been happy just as equally as He is sovereign now, in grief. He deserves praise for His goodness and mercy as much now as He ever has; for He is unchanging in His perfect ways.
The fact that my sister knew these truths is an unspeakably great comfort and a source of excitement; celebration, even. Those who believe and trust in Christ, we are promised, are assured of their position with Him in eternity (Revelation 3:5, Romans 8:37-39, 10:9 etc.). The sure knowledge of a glorified life in the presence of her saviour, free from both pain and sin, is something to be excited for. I would never have wished her to go so young, at 17, and perhaps this is selfish, but the most important thing is the assurance of her salvation. Understanding that her salvation has been won, bought for by the blood of the Lamb, who was slain before the foundations of the world, and not reliant of her own life’s efforts. Ultimately, nothing else really matters and so the solace of being sure of her place at the throne of grace will quickly dwarf any temporal sorrow and grief.
The final consoling truth is that it must be recognised that adversity serves to send us running, walking, or crawling to God. Whilst prosperity is a mercy of God, hardship is a far greater one if it brings us closer to Christ. Good health is a wonderful gift, but if in illness we are driven to Him, then it is a greater gift still. Indeed, in the words of John Newton:
‘Lord why is this?’ I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?’
‘Tis in this way ,’ the Lord replied,
‘I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou may’st seek thy all in me.