The Sting of Death and the Hope of the Gospel

Major League Baseball started last Wednesday night.  I was at the library at about 5:15 pm on April 4th trying to finish up an assignment due over a week later for my Program and Curriculum class because I would be gone at Together for the Gospel 2012.  I was working quickly because I wanted to be sure to have time to grab my roommate to get some Subway to eat for dinner in celebration of Opening Night so we could eat some good food while ringing in the new year of baseball watching the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins in their sparkly new stadium.

I left the library at about 5:30 and was making my way back to my dorm when I bumped into a good friend of mine.  We walked together back to Sammy talking about Greek and other classes when another friend rode by on his bike asking why there was an ambulance out front of Sammy.  I replied, “I’m not sure, someone probably just passed out or fainted or something — that’s what it usually is.”  My friend and I walked into the lobby of the dorm and I saw about 20 grown men sitting around with their faces in their hands.  Even though I could see some of their eyes it didn’t look like they could see me.  I stopped talking to my friend immediately in respect of the deafening silence of the lobby.  “Wow, a lot of guys saw this kid faint,” I thought.  I walked up to one guy, asked, “What’s going on?”  He shook his head and went back to looking like Muhammad Ali just blasted his stomach.  I stood there, in the middle of all of these men, looking around like a kid who just lost his mom in Target.  I looked up toward the front doors of the building and saw the residence life director scurrying around with a binder of some sort.  “Something is really wrong,” I said to myself, “Steve is never here.”  I quickly noticed a good friend of mine was working the front desk and made my way over.  I asked, “What’s going on?”  “Josh Larkin committed suicide,” he replied.  Immediately my jaw dropped.  I managed to mouth, “Ok” to my friend.  Without missing a beat, I walked down my hallway, went out into the courtyard outside Sammy, threw my arms up in the air and shouted, to myself, “You’ve GOT to be kidding me!  This isn’t happening, please Lord tell me this isn’t happening!”

We all know the rest now.  There was no suicide, the death has been ruled accidental.  Taylor lost a leader, students lost a friend, parents lost a son, God lost a servant.  The grieving process has been long and will certainly continue.  I was not in attendance at the memorial service on Tuesday night physically, but I watched it on my iPad in Louisville waiting for a session to start at T4G.  The service was refreshing and I’m sure a blessing to many who participated and who were in attendance.  I know that I was encouraged by it and I didn’t even know Josh very well.

I haven’t ever really dealt with a death like this before, and I think it’s safe to say I fall in the awkward position of being close enough that I felt it and I have people near me who I needed to counsel and comfort, but I was not close enough to shed tears and not distant enough to be altogether numb.

Because I was not grieving personally, I began processing this situation theologically immediately on Wednesday night before I went to bed.  I know this may sound cold, harsh, unnecessary, but after the initial shock I had that was primarily created by the proximity of the situation and how unreal reality was, my first thought was, “Ok, God’s using this, time to start looking for how.”  I ask you, if you’re reading this post and do not want to read about theology and Josh’s death, read no further.  I don’t want to hurt anyone who will not be comforted by looking at this situation theologically.  However, because I find peace in situations like this via theology, I am writing this and sharing it with others who may do so as well.  Also, please note, I’ve never experienced an unexpected death this close to me, and haven’t done a ton of theological thought or study on death, so the following information and thoughts may not be correct.  I’m just sharing my honest thoughts.  So there’s your disclaimer.  Please don’t read this and call me insensitive; I warned you.

Now, hear me.  God did not cause this; SIN caused this.  Now, that isn’t to say God didn’t let it happen.  Sin causes things to happen that God doesn’t like, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t sovereign.  John Piper says in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, “Satan is sometimes called in the Bible ‘the ruler of this world’ (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), or ‘the god of this world’ (2 Cor. 4:4), or ‘the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph. 2:2), or a ‘cosmic power over this present darkness’ (Eph. 6:12)” (22).  We also know that Satan has the power to take life.  Jesus said in John 8:44, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning.”  However, we also know that God is ruler over Satan.  However, we aren’t completely off the hook for our death — it is not only God or Satan that kills.

We know that because of our sin, we die.  Romans 6:23 tells us, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  This isn’t a joke, this isn’t figurative, this is REAL, this is LITERAL!  Our sin causes us to die physically and die spiritually.  I’m sorry if this makes you feel angry or bitter.  Our sin brings our death.  There is no one to blame but us for our death.  James 1:14-16 says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.  Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.”  We cannot avoid this verse, brothers and sisters.  This verse is real.  We cannot let sin become “fully grown.”  We are responsible for our death.  Josh is not innocent, I am not innocent, you are not innocent.  Christ alone is innocent and it is by him alone we are made innocent in the eyes of God in eternity.

Additionally, a verse I have heard a lot of recently, and any time at funerals or such is, “O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?”  It’s RIGHT HERE!  Here it is, right now.  If you read the context of that verse you’ll see Paul is talking about the future, the return of Christ.  The sting of death has not yet passed.

So what do we do?  Grieve, but find joy in Christ.  I beg you, brother or sister, maintain or gain an eternal perspective.  Grieve with the understanding that the gospel is where we find our rest and our hope.  But please, make much of Christ, not Josh.  Remember him, do not glorify him.  Give the glory to God, thank God for him.  We need to grieve our fallen friends and glorify our sovereign Savior.  Find hope and peace in the gospel, not memories.  Please, please don’t hear me saying that grieving isn’t necessary.  It certainly is.  But in the long run, our hope in the gospel will be what keeps us, not our memories.

Here is John Piper from a sermon in 1986:

“Paul refers in Colossians 1:23 to “the hope of the gospel.” And there is no sweeter message of hope in all the world than to hear God announce that when you get up in the morning miserable and depressed with a sense of guilt and estrangement before a holy God, you can go to bed that very night—this very night—with a quiet and peaceful heart knowing that every sin you have ever committed and ever will commit is forgiven and you are reconciled to the Almighty by the death of his Son. That’s the free offer of the gospel!”

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This week I spent three days worshiping with about 8,000 people (mainly men) at Together for the Gospel in Louisville, KY; the link to the conference is at the top of this post.  It was an amazing time that challenged my in my faith and encouraged me in my deepest soul.  Conferences like these are physically and intellectually draining, but every time they’re over, I can’t wait to go again.  The people were friendly.  The speakers were challenging.  The worship through song was electrifying.  The gospel was evident.  I heard a number of great sermons, but I must recommend one to you.  You may have heard of David Platt, author of Radical.  He delivered a breath-taking sermon on trusting in the gospel by pursuing death-defying world missions.  This was one of the most powerful sermons I have ever heard.  I have embedded the sermon for you so you can listen.  I cannot commend it with any higher regard.  It is amazing.

Additionally, I must share with you a video Southern Seminary President Al Mohler took of the worship.  Every worship session was incredible.  Oh, and by the way, we sang hymns.  Contrary to modern belief, one can experience the power of the Holy Spirit and love of God through music written long ago.

Worship Video

I hope this post has been encouraging to you in some way.  I pray you will consider the gospel as your source of hope, joy, and peace.

-Chris