Welcome back to the podcast. As you know, if you’ve been listening for a while, we get heartbreaking emails regularly. And that includes this one, from an anonymous woman: “Pastor John, I’m a new widow, a mother of two young boys in my mid-thirties. My husband passed away suddenly and unexpectedly from what we did not know at the time was bacterial pneumonia, which quickly became septic shock. He also had an underlying heart condition. He died one week before his 34th birthday. He was normal one day and home with the Lord three days later.
“My question relates to the issue of blame and God’s timing in his death. We had thought his ailments were a flu bug or COVID and didn’t realize the severity of what was truly going on. We had responded by following telephone guidance from a Christian homeopathic provider who had also assumed COVID, someone we trusted but perhaps should not have. As I grieve, I can’t seem to stop blaming myself. I desperately want reassurance to know that I didn’t hurt my husband, let him down, or by our actions shorten his life span. I tried to care for him and protect him as best as I could, based on the knowledge I had at the time. We didn’t know we were wrong. Once we were in the ER and discovered he was facing septic shock, I prayed fervently for the Lord to rescue and heal him.
“I guess I’m left wondering if I should continue to feel responsible. I need help to trust God, if he was responsible, and if so, that he is still good despite taking my soul mate and my best friend home at such a young age, and difficult-to-understand time. I would greatly appreciate any help you can offer.”
The reference to COVID makes me realize how recent and raw this loss is. This didn’t happen five years ago. So I want to be so careful. I think the fact that she is reaching out to us in this fairly public way is a good sign that she hasn’t despaired of discovering new things in God’s word that might ease the pain. I think she’s right in that, that there are new things I’m sure she hasn’t yet seen that God wants her to see for her own help and comfort and hope. I think there will be new, fresh things, in fact, for her to see for the next fifty years.
She will see things in God’s word fifty years from now that will shed light on this heart-wrenching loss in such a way, even at that distance, to make the love of Christ and the memory of her husband even more precious. I am seeing things at age 76 that are shedding light on sorrows that I experienced 60 years ago. I still am getting new light on the meaning of those years. So, I expect that for her.
I think the way I would like to come at this is to raise this question, and it may sound surprising: What would you do, how would you think, if you knew that it was your fault that your husband died? Now, I’m not suggesting that it was at all. Clearly, it was not your fault. But I’m asking you to make an experiment in your mind.
What if you had failed to put the emergency brake on the car and it had rolled over him and killed him while he was working on it? What if you were helping him clean one of his hunting guns and it accidentally went off and killed him? What if you fell asleep at the wheel and crashed and only he died in the wreck? What if you mixed up one of his medications?
Or maybe, instead, just ask how would you counsel somebody in that situation. Because there are thousands of people in that very situation. They don’t just wonder if they could have done more to save their loved one. They know they caused the death, accidentally.
Now, I suppose I could join the chorus of everyone around you and say what is obvious — namely, you did all you could. Nobody is doubting your love and your care for your husband. Everybody knows you are not responsible for his death, and I do join that chorus. But I don’t think you wrote to us just for me to say the obvious that everybody else is saying: “It’s not your fault.”
Mercy for the Guilty
So what I want to say is that, if the Bible has an answer for how you would press on in life with freedom and hope and usefulness, and even eventually joy, even if you had caused his death, then how much more can you be assured that God will help you press on in life with freedom and hope and usefulness, and eventually joy, when you did not cause the death and were helpless to stop it?
Most of the time, we turn to Genesis 50:20 to remind ourselves that all the bad things that happened to Joseph turned out for good by God’s design. Remember, he said, “As for you” — you brothers, you rascal brothers who caused all this trouble — “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” So we usually focus on Joseph and all the bad things that happened to him. But very rarely do we ponder what that verse means for Joseph’s brothers, who really were guilty of multiple sins that caused Joseph’s misery.
Here’s what Joseph says in the next verse to those brothers: “‘So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:21). Wow. This does not mean they are not guilty. They are guilty. But it does mean that God has a future and a purpose for them, even though they were guilty. They were the guilty ones, and they caused all that misery for seventeen years of Joseph’s life. Through one of them, amazingly — Judah — God would even bring a Savior into the world.
“There is a future and a hope. No suffering of God’s loved ones is in vain.”
Now, Paul handled his own guilt as a murderer the same way. He saw that God had a merciful purpose in it for other guilty people. He said in 1 Timothy 1:16, “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [of sinners], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” In other words, somehow Paul was able to transpose the horrible-sounding guilt of persecution and killing at his own hands into the beautiful music of mercy through him to other guilty sinners to whom God would show amazing patience.
Mercy for the Innocent
Then change the focus just slightly from situations where someone really was guilty, but God made a future for them, to the man born blind in John 9. Now here, the apostles assume that someone must have sinned. They just must have sinned for this calamity to come upon this blind man — like you perhaps from time to time are tempted to think, “Did we do something wrong? Can there be a catastrophic loss like this without someone having done something sinful?”
So they asked Jesus, “‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (John 9:2–3). Now that is an amazing answer. And surely it applies to your situation. “Who sinned? Who was neglectful? Who put their trust in the wrong place? Who reacted too slowly? Who failed to see the symptoms? Who’s guilty here? Where’s the sin? There’s got to be sin here.”
To which Jesus answers, “It was not that you or your homeopathic advisor or your doctors or your husband sinned or were neglectful or put your trust in the wrong place or reacted too slowly or failed to see the symptoms. Rather, it was that the works of God might be displayed in him.” To which you ask, “What works?” Well, for starters, your persevering faith in the reality and power and wisdom and goodness of God. That is a miraculous work of God.
Ten Thousand Ripples
But it might be helpful for you to think on this: When your husband died, God set in motion ten thousand effects that you can’t see. Some of them will become manifest in a year or two, and some of them in fifty years. Your husband’s death did not take God off guard, nor was it meaningless or absurd or without profound purpose — a holy purpose, a sacred, precious purpose. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). “Your eyes saw my [husband’s] unformed substance [while he was being knit together in his mother’s womb]; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for [him], when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16).
“When your husband died, God set in motion ten thousand effects that you can’t see.”
His days were written down with divine wisdom, and the ten thousand ripple effects that flow out from his life and his death will not be in vain. Some of them you will know in this life. Most of them you won’t. You are being tested, but God has promised not to test you beyond your strength. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be [tested] beyond your ability, but with the [test] he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Christ’s Own Peace
Jesus promised his disciples that they would have trouble in the world, and he also promised peace in the midst of it. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
So that’s what I want to leave you with — the promise of peace, Christ’s own peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). There is a future and a hope. No suffering of God’s loved ones is in vain.