By Glenn Pease
There are two subjects that men have tended to be shy about all through history. These two subjects have been considered off limits as topics of public conversation. It was taboo to speak of them openly. The two subjects are, sex and death.
The paradox of this is, there are no two more universal topics. Life begins with sex and ends with death, and between the two they play a major role in life. Nobody can escape either one. If you are awake at all you are aware that we are in the midst of a sexual revolution where few things are openly discussed more often then sex. Death is a long way behind in popularity, but it is nevertheless no longer an obscure subject. Courses on death and dying are being taught in schools and hospitals all over our country.
All of this radical change is just getting us back to what life was like in Bible times. The Bible is neither shy nor silent on sex or death. The sexual nature of man is dealt with frankly and openly in the Scriptures. And so also is the finite nature of man dealt with openly, which means that he will die.
By rough estimate I counted 750 references to death and dying in my concordance of the Bible. If we are to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, then no Christian can be honest with God's word and ignore the subject of death. It is a major subject of God's revelation, and not to study it is to be disobedient. Death has many faces, and you cannot look at all of them at the same time, and so to really take a study of death seriously, you have to deliberately search the Word and categorize the various faces.
Psalm 116 reveals death as a enemy that has been conquered. It is a success story of one who encountered the enemy on the battlefield of life and came away victorious. This is a true story, and the kind of story that we all like, for we prefer happy endings to stories of trial, for they give us encouragement that we too can fight and win. It is true and a valuable aspect of life, but the fact is, it is not the whole of life. Not to be prepared for seeing death from another point of view, such as a victorious enemy rather than a defeated enemy, is to be unprepared to face the world as it really is.
The three friends of Daniel who were thrown into the fiery furnace were ready for facing death defeated, or death victorious, and, therefore, were prepared for whatever would come. This is true realism, and true surrender to the will of God. In Daniel 3:17-18 they state their profound convictions-"If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O King. But if not, be it known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up."
They were ready for deliverance or death, but either way they would be loyal to God. All too often Christians are not ready for unanswered prayer, and when death comes, they are disillusioned, and their faith is shaken. One of the values of studying all the faces of death is that it prepares you to be aware that not all stories have happy endings in time, as is the case of Job or the Psalmist here in Psalm 116.
Vance Havner, the great evangelist and author of many books, prayed so earnestly for the miraculous healing of his wife Sara. He already had a sermon prepared for the dramatic testimony they would share with the world. But it was not to be. In spite of the best care known to man they lost the battle. The disease so disfigured her fair face they did not have an open casket at the funeral. Vance was in intensely disappointed in God, but sober thinking on the matter changed his mind. The dramatic healing would have been sensational, but the facts of life are that such experiences are rare, and the masses who listened to him or read his books would have said, "Most of us do not have such miracles. Our loved ones die, our hopes fade, and we need a word for those who walk the valley with no happy ending to the story."
Havner, as he reflected on life and saw that most saints are not delivered by miracles, he concluded-"I can see now that God denied me what I sought that I might bring a message to a multitude like myself when prayers were not answered as hoped."This story of an unhappy ending is a great comfort to many, for they do not feel alone in their defeat. If we are going to apply the Biblical principle of weeping with those who weep as well as rejoicing with those who rejoice, then we need to share the records of defeat and unanswered prayer as well as the success stories. Failure to do this hurts a lot of people and is inconsistent with the Biblical pattern of balance. Some of the Psalms do not have happy endings, but are cries of misery. This is so both sides of reality are presented. This is not only honest, but it is very helpful in dealing with those who suffer.
Peg Woodson was a teen girl dying of Cystic Fibrosis. She convinced her mother to take her to a healing service for she knew it was the only hope for her to live. It was a hard experience, for she had such a high level of hope, but nothing happened. They returned home in silence, and then the mother finally spoke and said, "Did it bother you Peg that the minister acted like everybody would be healed ?" "Well, it was when he was telling all the stories about the people who got healed in his other meetings that I really got my hopes up. I think to be fair he should have told stories about some people who didn't get healed too." Here was wisdom from a child. She saw the need to share unhappy endings also, for they are just as real, and they need to be known as well as the happy ones so that people do not feel left out, as if they are the only ones not healed.
Recognizing this need, Miriam Morgan got twenty Christians to write about their experience with death. They include some of the best known names in the Christian world, and some unknown names. Her book is called, Death: Jesus Made It All Different, is excellent because of it's balance. One chapter is called, A Christian Fights Suicide. The author has been chronically ill since childhood. She suffers intense pain which cannot be alleviated. There is never ending weariness, and on top of that there has never been normal family love. Although she is an earnest Christian, she has fought the temptation of suicide into her forties. Listen to her testimony-
"I was passed forty before I once mentioned this problem to
anybody, and then it was to my Christian physician. It seems
that even Christian ministers are horrified to think that a
fellow-believer could be tempted in such a way. I have fought
my most desolate battles alone, and I give all the glory to God
for keeping me from this grievous sin. But O, if the troubled
spirit could but pour out its anguish it another believing
soul, could but grasp the hand of fellowship and faith rather
than shrink from censorious recoil, how much easier could be
the road to victory."
Here is a case which combines both defeat and victory. The battle goes on, but the victory does too, and so it is neither a happy nor an unhappy ending, for the story does not end. The Psalmist in Psalm116 had a battle that ended, and a clear answer to prayer, and a deliverance. The point I have been stressing is this: It is not the only kind of experience that God's people have. They also have more complex experiences, and they also endure unanswered prayer.
It is superficial to pretend there is always a happy ending in time, but thank God it is often the case. There is nothing superficial about the joy of the author of this Psalm. He was in the grip of death, and verse 8 makes it clear that he shed many tears of anguish, and that his hope was mighty low. The value of his coming so close to death was-
IT GAVE HIM A GREATER APPRECIATION OF LIFE.
He loved God with a greater intensity, and was determined to be a greater man of prayer. His spiritual life was improved by his encounter with death. In verse 16 he surrenders his life to be God's servant, and over and over he declares he wants to pay his vows in the presence of God's people. He is just so happy to be in the land of the living that he wants his spared life to really count for the glory of God.
The value of death is in the greater quality it can add to our life when we encounter it. You tend to take things for granted until there loss is threatened. Life can be taken for granted until you become aware that it can be lost, and then it becomes more precious than ever. Scarcity confers value, and when death forces you to consider how scarce the time of your life may be, you suddenly realize just how precious life is, and you are motivated to use it more wisely. The reality of death can lead you to appreciate more fully the value of life.
It is really tragic to go through life never being aware of life. The neglect of death is a waste of life. Those who do not consider their end do not live for values that last. That is why Moses in Psalm 90 prayed in verse 12, "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom." The context makes clear that he is saying, Lord help us to be aware of death that we may make our life count. The lack of thought about death is the cause of so much folly and waste of life.
Death has the power to make us focus on the real values of life. Secular values dominate our culture because we are in a death denying culture. Spiritual values become more real when people are made to face up to the reality of death. We do not know how faithful the Psalmist was before his encounter with death, but we can see that after it he was determined to be more spiritual.
He Is Not Gone, is the title of a book by Pastor Bernard Brunsting. It is a story of how he and his wife fought the battle with Leukemia in their three year old son, Donny. They did not know yet of the nature of his problem, but the doctor had scared them and made an appointment for hospital tests. On Saturday he took his oldest son Al, and a church friend of his, Bob Honig, to the Biggest Auto Show On Earth. He shared with his friend Bob about his concern for little Donny, and how it changed his whole outlook on life. Let me share a paragraph of his testimony:
"The other remark I made to Bob was about the relative value
of things in life at the show we saw a Rolls Royce, a Lincoln
Continental, and other expensive autos. But at that moment
the health of one little boy was of more value to me than all
the cars in the world. How ridiculously unimportant the
externals of life become when the heart is torn into. How
trivial are the luxuries of the world when the soul is
disquieted within. Our scale of values is altered when the
larger burdens of life come."
Facing the death of his son changed his whole value system and how he looked at life. They fought the battle with Leukemia for about a year, and the enemy was held back by the use of three different drugs, but death finally broke through the defenses. It is a story of five major unanswered prayers. None of the five things they and the other church members prayed for were answered. This book would mean so much to parents going through the same battle. Psalm 116 would leave them cold, for it deals with victory over death in time. People need to see that even when there is no happy ending in time, there is always a happy ending in eternity, for Christ has conquered death and promised eternal life to all who trust in Him. But they need to see that in time we do not always get a happy ending, and there are many who do not, and they are never alone.