Today’s question comes to us from a listener named Scott. “Pastor John, based on a recent medical diagnosis and due to my life circumstances, the likelihood that I will reach middle age is slim.
“I’m in my late twenties. My brother died at 18. This prospect has caused me to go through battles of trusting God and fighting off depression. I understand God is sovereign, and I have no right to ask why he’s made me this way. I look forward to being made perfect, but until then how can I live out the rest of my life in a courageous manner that is honoring to him? How do I prevent the prospect of a premature death from turning me jaded toward our sovereign Lord?”
My response to Scott’s question is a kind of quiet reverence. What I mean is that whenever I am in the presence of someone — and as a pastor I’ve been in the presence of many — who have been told that their life may be cut short, I feel as though I’m on sacred ground. I feel as if eternity has penetrated that moment and that place.
So, Scott, please know that I want to respond to your questions with a great sense of the weightiness of the reality that you lost a brother at 18, and that your own life could well be cut short, not even to reach mid-life. I don’t take it lightly.
Why Like This?
However, one of the first things I want to do is gently push back on your statement that you don’t have the right to ask God why he made you this way. I realize that’s a direct quote from Romans 9:20–21. You are a Bible guy. I can tell that you’ve read this text. Here’s what it says:
Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” [That’s the quote Scott is referencing.] Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?
“Christ will be honored in an approaching death if we can see and savor Christ as more precious than life.”
So Scott is inferring, “Well, I better keep my mouth shut because Paul scolds people who ask, ‘Why have you made me like this?’”
However, I think what Paul is rejecting here is not a humble request for understanding accompanied by a willingness to accept God’s answer, but rather a question that is really an objection: “Why have you made me this way!” This comes along with a proud unwillingness to accept God’s answer.
My guess is that in these coming years, for Scott, God is going to give you some very precious answers to the why. It’s not wrong to humbly ask God for those answers and accompany that request with a willingness to say yes to his answers.
Honored in Death
Now, you expressed two beautiful longings in your question.
- You want to live the rest of your life in a way that honors the Lord.
- You don’t want to become jaded toward the Lord in his sovereignty in your life.
It is a wonderful thing that God’s word speaks directly to both of those longings that you expressed — the issue of honoring the Lord in the face of death and the issue of not being jaded in the face of death.
The first way God speaks to the honoring piece is in Philippians 1:20. I’m sure you know this, but let’s all just wonderfully be reminded of how Christ speaks concerning the honoring of Christ in Paul’s mouth here: “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Your longing was Paul’s exact longing in your exact situation.
Now how? How does he pursue that? He gives the answer in Philippians 1:21–23: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
So Paul says that Christ will be honored in his approaching death if he can see and savor Christ as more precious than life. It’s no accident that some of the greatest Christians, as they approached the end of their lives, shifted all their focus onto seeing and savoring the glories of Christ in his Scriptures. In fact, John Owen, when he knew he was dying, spent his last days writing on the glories of Christ.
Blessing, Not Cursing
Secondly, with regard to your longing that you not become jaded at the sovereignty of God, it is remarkable that the very opposite of becoming jaded toward the Lord is blessing the Lord, right? I think those are the opposite. I’m either becoming jaded or bitter toward the Lord, or I’m blessing the name of the Lord. That’s exactly how Job responded in the face of the death of all ten of his children.
“The life to come is not a postscript to true life; rather, this life is a prelude to real life.”
Their lives were cut short, right in front of his face. I think almost everyone listening to this would say they would rather die than have all their ten children die. Of course we would. So here’s Job’s reaction:
Then Job arose and tore his robe [this was not some small grief] and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be [not jaded be] the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:20–21)
Now just pause, and let that sink in — all of us. “Blessed, blessed be the name of the Lord.” He did not say, “Cursed be the name of the Lord” or “Jaded be the name of the Lord,” but he said blessed — praised, spoken well of, reverenced.
Don’t Lose Heart
How do we experience the Lord as blessed — the name of the Lord as blessed, well-spoken of, reverenced, praised — rather than being jaded in the face of decline and death, even if you’re cut short?
Paul put it like this in 2 Corinthians 4:16: “So we do not lose heart.” There’s another statement about the opposite of being jaded. “We do not lose heart.” He’s just speaking right into Scott’s situation.
Paul knows that you can lose heart: “I’ve just had enough of this. I’ve lost it. I can’t get my heart back anymore. I’m a hard, jaded person.” Paul says, “No, let’s not go there.” He says,
We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
Created for Eternity
Perhaps, Scott, a story may help as I end this. It may help focus our minds.
It’s a story about Marshall Shelley. I know Marshall Shelley personally from way back. I haven’t talked to him for a long time. He teaches at Denver Seminary. I think he’s about my age, or maybe one or two years older. He lost a child in 1991, and he wrote about it in an article published in Christianity Today way back then called “Two Minutes to Eternity.”
“It will take age upon age upon age upon age for God to show all his kindness to us, because it is immeasurable.”
Here’s what he said: “He [his son, he named him Toby] entered the world of light and air at 8:20 p.m., November 22, 1991. And he departed, the doctor said, at 8:22. . . . Why did God create a child to live two minutes?”
He didn’t. He didn’t create Toby to live two minutes or Mandy to live two years. He didn’t create me to live 40 years, or whatever number he may choose to extend my days in this world. God created Toby for eternity. He created each of us for eternity, where we may be surprised to find our true calling, which always seemed just out of reach here on earth.
Listen to the way Paul describes that life to come: “Storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19). In other words, the life to come is not a postscript to this true life; rather, this life is a prelude to real life.
That’s what he’s saying in that phrase truly life. Paul describes that in the coming ages, when God shows the immeasurable riches of his grace and kindness towards us in Christ Jesus, that’s when we will find true life (Ephesians 2:7). It will take age upon age upon age upon age for God to show all his kindness to us, because it is immeasurable.
This is the mindset of Christians. That’s what we’ve got to have — me, Scott, all of us. I’ve been so helped by stories like that and by people like the apostle Paul. I pray, Scott, you will feel the amazing, immeasurableness of the kindness that is about to be poured out on your forever.