By His Grace, Bishop David of Sitka and Alaska
When we lose someone that is very near and dear to us, we are troubled by a solitary, perplexing question that we cannot answer, and it seems that no one else can give us a satisfactory response for it either. We all have the question, “WHY why did our loved one die?” It is a very natural question. Does it need to be this way? Does it need to be an unanswerable inquiry? I think not, and offer this reflection coming out of my own difficult experience facing the death of my Matushka ten years ago.
We all relate to God in three equivalent and identical ways. Some may call them by other names, but for the purpose this essay I will use the three that are the most logical to me. They are 1) the Wisdom of God, 2) the Love of God, and 3) the Mystery of God. Let us look at these three more deeply and see if it will be helpful in answering our “Why” question.
Before I continue, I understand that what I am saying does not bring back our loved one. It does not take away the pain of loss or the emptiness we feel because of it. I only write this because it helped me — and might help others—to understand what has happened and in some small way come to grips with the agony that comes with the loss of a loved one.
In a general way, we are always participating in these three modes of His being, even if we are unaware of it. They continue to exist and operate whether we acknowledge them or not. It is just that when we are talking about death, they are all the more acute, punctuated by the act of loss that has no equal in our world.
First, we are part of the Wisdom of God – not just knowledge, even if that is a principle part of Wisdom. By itself, knowledge is simply being able to remember certain natural laws, or forms of math, or historical memory; by themselves they are little more than a memory chip of the brain that we can call on when we need a given area to take action or respond to a situation. But Wisdom is much more than this. It is the collective use of all that knowledge to use in a beneficial way. Sometimes it is the result of our own years of experience in a given area, other times it is when we call upon others who we know to be wise and seek their guidance. You cannot find Wisdom on your iPhone. And Wisdom seeks to answer bigger questions about life rather than simply knowing a fact, like water boils at 212 degrees. Wisdom seeks to answer questions like, why do we exist in the first place? Deep in our being we begin with a longing for answers that we do not have. We have a yearning that says we are certain we can find the answers, but first we need to know how to go about looking for the answers, discovering where they are. And they are in God. Our relation to God sets us on the right path to discover and become more aware of our own existence and what it means to be in the world. Only by looking to the Wisdom of God can we find those authentic answers that fill our need to know about the life we are living. That is why it is the first stage in our relation to God, for we are always becoming what He intends us to be, the ones made in His Image and after His Likeness. How wonderful this is!
Secondly, this Wisdom leads us to the love of God, to appreciate what God has done for us and with us. It makes us want to love Him for the life he has given us that makes us even the envy of angels. “For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor.” [Psalm 8:5]. Not only this, but God became man and dwelt among us. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth” [John 1:14]. This occurred because God wanted to express His love for us and seek our response to love Him in return. “We love Him because He first loved us” [1 John 4:19]. This would not be possible without having Wisdom about God. But it also creates a problem for us. God is so Infinite, so all-encompassing, so full of mercy, grace and truth, we are scarcely able to understand His love or able to embrace it at all.
And this leads us to our third relation of being to God, His Divine Mystery. All things from God are shrouded in this Mystery. It is why we in Orthodoxy refer to the salvific acts of Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, Communion, Marriage, Priestly Orders and Holy Unction not as Sacraments, but as Mysteries. Indeed, our ability to comprehend them and how they function on and in us is very much a mystery to us, yet our Faith allows us to accept them and repeatedly use them as needed. We may understand their usefulness for us, and why they are important for our Salvation, but we are not God and therefore cannot comprehend the depths of their functions and abilities. The words of Saint Paul are appropriate here: “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory….” [1 Corinthians 2:7]. This “wisdom of God in a mystery” means exactly what it says—that we can talk of the wisdom of God, but only insofar as the mystery allows us to do so. We can see that these Mysteries of God were from the beginning and were specifically created for us and for our glory. This means a day will come when we will receive their meaning in glory in the mysteries of God when all things shall be revealed. Again, Saint Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” [Romans 8:18].
So far I have been talking in a general way about God’s wisdom, love and mystery in order to now answer our “Why” of death within the understanding of God’s design and His relation to us. That is, if we can have a right knowledge of the three modes of our relationship to God, then we can better understand the “Why” of death.
Wisdom – When a person falls asleep in the Lord, three things happen. First, their body stops working and doing the functions that allowed it to be animated in the first place; the heart, brain and nervous system all cease to function. Medicine can tell us this has happened and our knowledge of medical facts tells us this is so. Secondly, there is the separation of that which is directly connected to our being like God in the first place, our soul leaves the body. And thirdly, our spirit no longer animates us. No matter how much we may desire to remain in that body and with those we love, we cannot do it. Perhaps this is why some people pass away with a slight smile or a frown?
Love – I believe the single most important thing to remember about the love of God has much to do with death. People in anguish ask, “Why did God take him from me?” as if God wanted him or her to die. Others become troubled when some catastrophe occurs and ask a similar question, “Why did God let that happen?” In both cases it is as if to say our God is so cruel that He randomly takes people from us that we love without so much as a “I’m sorry I had to do that to you.” If you want proof that God does not work that way just look at Christ in the Gospels. The widow of Nain [Luke 7], the daughter of Jairus [Mark 5], and especially Lazarus, Jesus’ friend [John 11]. In fact, the account of the raising of Lazarus contains the most direct evidence for God’s reaction to our deaths; it contains the shortest verse in Scripture, verse 35, “Jesus wept.” Does that sound like a vicious God, eager to bring down punishment on we wretched sinners? I think not. In fact, I am willing to say that God did not intend for us to die. Period.
Mystery – Perhaps the most difficult duty of a Christian is to account for the Mystery of God where death is concerned. Calling death a mystery does not give God a free pass out of our dilemma. To say “we can’t understand it, so we must wait for the answer in the Kingdom of God” will not suffice when one is completely torn apart in their being due to the loss of a loved one.
Our experience of death is rooted in what I would call “The Adam Factor.” If we look at the beginning of creation, how God created the universe and everything in it, at each step of the formation of each part, He saw that it was good [Genesis 1:10,12,18, 21, 25, and 31, where He says, “it was very good”]. It was only when Adam and Eve disobeyed God that their life changed the course of humanity forever.
In Genesis 2, God sees that Adam and Eve now have knowledge of good and evil. He knows they will not be able to balance their life well with this knowledge and so He had to banish them from Paradise. The Church Fathers use this act to say that by allowing man to taste of death, he ceases to commit sin. It is an act of love and mercy as much as it seems to us as a punishment.
And what was their first experience with death? God had to kill animals to make skins to cover their bodies. And the second experience of death was even worse, as they saw the loss of one of their children at the hands of the other, when Cain murdered Abel. And the world has descended into one tragic deed after another ever since.
Thus, the Mystery of God contained in our understanding here is found in two important facts. It is in our inability to grasp the true purpose of death and our lack of comprehension of time and eternity. Saint Paul reminds us that we lack the ability to fully comprehend this mystery when he says in Corinthians, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him….” [I Corinthians 2:9]. This is to say that the source of our struggle with Mystery is our own limited understanding, not God’s commands or directives. Said another way, how can we expect a reasonable response to an unreasonable act? If God did not intend for us to die, if God created us to be in Communion with Him, if God gave us a way to avoid death in the first place and we did not heed it, if He then sent His only-begotten Son to die for us and give us a path to life, it seems to me He has done all He can for us in our current state. And He did all of this because He loves us despite our disobedience and our human frailties.
Thus we come to perhaps the most beautiful statement by an Apostle concerning our topic. Saint Paul wrote the Romans, “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” [Romans 8:38-39]. You see, with the relationship we now have with God thanks to His Son, there is nothing that can separate us from His love, and therefore nothing that can take away the love we have for our loved ones who are temporarily separated from us. Yes, our time now is temporary, painful but temporary, for the day comes when we can never, ever be separated from them again.
In conclusion, when I lost my Matushka to cancer ten years ago, I had the following verse inscribed on our tombstone from the Book of Revelation: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” [Revelation 21:4]. This world and all its suffering shall pass away and all life shall be renewed. This is the hope I keep for my future. I hope you can keep it for yourself as well.
May God comfort us and ease our pain and suffering through His love and mercy.