By Spencer D Gear
It is not unusual to hear of people who get angry with God over the sudden death of a loved one or of a younger person diagnosed with a terminal condition. We see it on www forums like this one, “How can I not be angry at God for taking my wife away?” The best answer to this question, chosen by voters on the forum was, “You have to know that God did not take your wife away from you”. Really?
Then there is a mother who gives another perspective:
I am 69, Mum of three, grandma to 11 and great grandma to 10, but nearly 11. I have had cancer five times. In my neck, breast, face, bowel and ovary. I have experienced Radio therapy, chemotherapy, and operations.
People have asked aren’t you angry with God. The answer is no, I’m not angry with God, He has brought me through it all, I am well and look after myself. I do my best and God does the rest.
Through it all I have learnt so much.
Anger with God over tragedy comes in this story:
I just heard another story of a family’s lives being turned upside down. Their son, who was preparing to graduate from college is now fighting for his life. His illness came from out of the blue, and it leaves this Christian family devastated. They want to know why this is happening and where the God who they’ve always believed in is. Why doesn’t our all powerful, sovereign God intercede? They are angry, confused, and hurt.
How should we respond to the news that a Christian man with a young family has been diagnosed with cancer, has been through chemotherapy, and the specialist has advised that he should get his house in order as he has only a few months to live?
(Cancer image Wikipedia)
Would the words of an old song say it the way it is or do we yearn for something other?
This world is not my home
I’m just a-passing through.
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue.
I have become aware of this situation in recent months. Here are some details (I have changed a few of the details to protect the innocent):
- Please pray for a miracle for the healing of this man (aged in his 30s with 4 young children) who is an evangelical Christian.
- This person has contacts around the world so there could be thousands praying for his healing. Please join these people and ask God to grant healing to this man who is in the prime of his life.
- His condition is deteriorating and he is losing weight quickly. He may have only a few months to live.
- Anger with God has been expressed over this illness.
- Prayer was asked for God to perform a miracle and confound the medical profession and the logic of human wisdom.
- May God be glorified!
How should we respond as evangelical Christian believers?
The natural human reaction is to become angry with God that a person in the ‘prime of life’ with children should die in this way. Is this a godly reaction? As those who have been born-again by the Spirit of God, what should be our response?
A well-known Scripture comes to mind: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). It is godly and not glib to say that with impending death of a loved one who loves Jesus, that God is working all things, including this possible death, “according to his purpose”. God would never ever do anything unjust or contrary to his perfect will. But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
There are some fundamentals that we need to understand to get death into perspective, whether death in the womb, as children and teens, middle aged or in older age. These are some of those fundamentals: (1) the sovereignty of God in life and death; (2) the need for compassion towards the needy, and (3) the Lord who still has the ability to heal if it is according to His will.
A. The sovereignty of God in life and death
When we look at deaths through cancer, HIV, accidents, disasters, and heart disease, some people find it difficult to believe in the God of sovereign control. When we turn on the TV news and see the floods, other disasters and crime around the world, how is it possible to even consider that a benevolent, perfect Lord God is in control of the universe?
Hitler Stalin Mao Pol Pot killing fields Cambodia Idi Amin
God always has authority over all nations. But wait a minute! How can this be possible in light of the genocides just mentioned, the slaughter in the Sudan, and the other evil in our world? For biblical perspectives on evil and suffering, see my article, “The ‘grotesque’ God, evil & suffering“. See also “Notes on the problem of evil” by Ron Rhodes and “The polemic shot in the foot” by Ravi Zacharias.
These are the core Christian beliefs regarding governments:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended” (Romans 13:1-3 NIV).
However, there is this qualifier: “Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!'” (Acts 5:29). This means that when the laws of governments clash with the laws of God, we must obey God rather than human governments.
What is meant by the sovereignty of God?
“By the sovereignty of God we mean that as Creator of all things visible and invisible, God is the owner of all; that He, therefore, has an absolute right to rule over all (Matt. 20:15; Rom. 9:20, 21); and that He actually exercises this authority in the universe (Eph. 1:11)” (Thiessen 1949:173).
This sovereign authority is not based on some impulsive, arbitrary, whimsical will, but on the wise and holy counsel of God Himself.
When it comes to understanding cancer, evil and disasters in our world, we need to consider another attribute of God. It is difficult for us to grasp the content of this verse from Psalm 139:16. It makes it clear that God is in charge of the times of a person’s beginning and end of life: “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be”.
This verse gives us just a glimpse of God’s attribute of omniscience. The omniscience of God means that “He knows Himself and all other things, whether they be actual or merely possible, whether they be past, present or future, and that He knows them perfectly and from all eternity. He knows things immediately, simultaneously, exhaustively and truly. He also knows the best way to attain His desired ends” (Thiessen 1949:124).
Therefore, God has knowledge of the possible and the actual. From our human perspective, we call God’s knowledge of the future, foreknowledge. But from God’s viewpoint, “He knows all things in one simultaneous intuition” (Thiessen 1949:125).
In Psalm 139:16, we see an example of the omniscience of God. From a human view, it is God’s foreknowledge and we find it difficult to get our mind around the fact that all the days of every human being from formation in the womb to the last breath drawn, are known to God. This applies to my friend who is dying of cancer before reaching an old age. It is clear that pre-natal forming by God is indicated by the use of the language of “my body”. A person’s life begins in the womb and continues after birth until physical death and beyond – into the intermediate state. God’s omniscience sees all those days and they are written in God’s “book”. What an amazing insight into God’s attribute and of human existence!
There are verses in the New Testament that cause us to think of God’s omniscience in relation to life and death. Matthew 10:28-31 states:
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
The one who determines what happens in life after death is the One Lord God Almighty. We are to fear Him with a godly fear.
Psalm 116:15 reminds us: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful servants”. God does not tell us that all will live to seventy or eighty years (see Psalm 90:10). But he does assure us: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). The New Living Translation gives a beautiful rendition of this verse: “For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better”. For dying of cancer at a young age to be seen as “even better” than living for Christ in the here and now, one must see life and death from God’s perspective. Too much of human misery is seen humanistically rather than theistically.
Corrie Ten Boom, a Nazi prison camp survivor and worldwide missionary, wrote in a letter in 1974:
Sometimes I get frightened as I read the Bible, and as I look in this world and see all of the tribulation and persecution promised by the Bible coming true. Now I can tell you, though, if you too are afraid, that I have just read the last pages. I can now come to shouting “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” for I have found where it is written that Jesus said, “He that overcometh shall inherit all things: and I will be His God, and he shall be My son.” This is the future and hope of this world. Not that the world will survive but that we shall be overcomers in the midst of a dying world.
Betsy and I, in the concentration camp, prayed that God would heal Betsy who was so weak and sick. “Yes, the Lord will heal me,”, Betsy said with confidence. She died the next day and I could not understand it. They laid her thin body on the concrete floor along with all the other corpses of the women who died that day.
It was hard for me to understand, to believe that God had a purpose for all that. Yet because of Betsy’s death, today I am traveling all over the world telling people about Jesus.
What a beautiful way to see the meaning of death and its continuing impact for the good of the relatives who remain! Until we have the mind of Christ, we will not grasp God’s perspective on life and death. Paul reminded the Corinthian church:
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:14-16 ESV).
If Christians are still thinking naturally and not according to the Spirit of God, they will not understand how death for the believer is “even better” than living in this wicked world. The growing Christian with “the mind of Christ” discerns God’s sovereign will and omniscience in death happening at any age.
The theology of life, death and life-after-death needs to be taught in our churches, otherwise people will be shocked by cancer or sudden death that happens in youth or mid-life, rather than old age. I recommend John Piper’s message, “The death of a Spirit-filled man” for a fuller understanding of death and what follows for the believer.
God is sovereign Lord of life and death and his omniscience knows all that will happen in the future. But there is a dimension to life on earth that needs Christian understanding. See the article, “Is it wrong to get angry with God?”
B. The need for compassion towards the suffering & needy
In August 2008, The World Bank estimated that “at a poverty line of $1.25 a day, the revised estimates find 1.4 billion people live at this poverty line or below”. How should Christians respond to such a desperate need?
In this article I am discussing a Christian man with a young family and wife and he has only months to live. How should local Christians respond? Ephesians 4:32 provides insight: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”.
“Compassionate” is also used by the NET and NAB Bibles. For “compassionate”, other translations use “tender-hearted” (KJV, NASB, NLT, ESV, NRSV). What is the meaning of the Greek, eusplagchnoi that is used here? It is a rare word that “indicates a very deep feeling, ‘a yearning with the deeply felt affection of Christ Jesus'”. A tender-hearted or compassionate person has “deep feelings of love and pity” (Hendriksen 1967:223).
We should not overlook the fact that Eph. 4:32 also exhorts Christians to “be kind”, which is a “Spirit-imparted goodness of heart, the very opposite of malice or badness mentioned in verse 31″ (Hendriksen 1967:223).
This deep love of Christ for the cancer sufferer must be expressed by believers through being alongside and caring for the sufferer. How can this be spoken to the sufferer? It involves being present, speaking and praying with the person who has cancer. This may involve practical actions to help the person and family at this point of need.
A parallel passage is Colossians 3:12-13:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you”.
Remember Matthew 25: 37-40 and the link of caring for the needy and the final judgment:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me'”.
The Golden Rule provides fundamental instruction: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:41). If you or I were in need of compassion or assistance in any way, would we appreciate those who were tender-hearted towards us? Of course! Therefore, the Christian’s obligation is to be that kind of person to others. The Christian is one who must care for the needy and suffering.
Alan Redpath wrote this of Nehemiah: “You never lighten the load unless first you have felt the pressure in your own soul. You are never used of God to bring blessing until God has opened your eyes and made you see things as they are” (in Swindoll 1998:110).
Yes, we need compassion for those who are suffering physically. But what’s the part of God in healing the sick?
C. I believe that it is possible for God to heal today.
Jesus healed the sick when he was on earth, but He has returned to the Father in glory. What role has God given to Christians after Jesus’ personal departure? I am of the view that miracles, including miracles of healing, are meant to continue and I have expounded on it in this article, “Are miracles valuable?” See also Jack Deere’s article, “Were miracles meant to be temporary?”
Here we have a few indications of the continuing ministry of miracles, including healing:
John 14:12 states, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father”. First Corinthians 12:9 confirms that God has given “to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit” (see also vv. 28, 30). James 5:13-16 places a healing ministry within the church:
“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”.
The church needs to be taught that one of the roles of elders is to anoint the sick person with oil and “prayer offered in faith” (by the elders) will raise the sick person up if sins are confessed. The initiative is with the sick person to call for the elders for anointing and prayer.
What does it mean to say that prayer for healing is “offered in faith”? It is not prayer plus oil that leads to healing. God does bring healing in answer to prayer as is seen by the example of Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:1-6. But what is the prayer “offered in faith”? It has to deal with the faith of the sick person who called for the elders and from the elders who prayed. It is prayer that depends on the sovereign Lord. The prayer’s answer is with the Lord who heals. His sovereign will is to be obeyed. James is very clear about actions that must be done in accordance with the Lord’s will: “You ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that'” (James 4:15).
However, we must never overlook this fact that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). This is the Christian tight rope: Prayer to the Lord by righteous people is effective in praying for the sick, but faith of both the sick and the elders are required. Also, God’s will, unknown to those who pray, is also involved in the outcome. Nevertheless, we are called to pray for the sick.
The teaching on the prayer of faith is not a verse to support a concept that “all who are anointed with oil, prayed for by elders, will be healed by God”. See my article in opposition to “blab it and grab it” theology as taught by some extreme charismatic leaders. Evangelical, charismatic theologian, Wayne Grudem, states:
“I do not think that God gives anyone warrant to promise or ‘guarantee’ healing in this age, for his written Word makes no such guarantee, and our subjective sense of his will is always subject to some degree of uncertainty and some measure of error in this life” (1994:1067 n35).
Also note that this praying for the sick is extended beyond the role of elders. James 5:16 states: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”. Individual Christians are authorised to confess their sins to one another and pray for each other that a person “may be healed”.
God can and does heal, but we cannot command him to do so when we want it to happen. He is sovereign Lord and answers prayers according to His will.
D. Can we change God’s mind through prayer?
Will the praying of thousands of people for my friend’s healing make more difference than if only only a handful are praying? Can God’s mind with regard to healing a person be changed through the prayers of one or a multitude of prayers?
God does listen to righteous people when they pray, but God does not do what the righteous demand. God does whatever His righteous will determines. God’s language with Sodom & Gomorrah came in the form of a question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25)
The Lord God Almighty will demonstrate His justice in the life and death of all who suffer and die. God’s perfect will must be done, but it is He who decides when the last breath is drawn, whether through a still birth, dying as a child, dying in middle age, or dying at a ripe old age. A Christian friend of mine died recently at the age of 103.
E. Catch a glimpse of heaven
The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). To the thief on the cross, Jesus gave this assurance, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Therefore, the Christian assurance is that at death he/she is ushered into the presence of the Lord which is “gain” or “even better” than life on earth (Phil. 1:21).
Therefore, why do Christians want to stay longer on the earth? It is a very human desire to remain with a spouse and children. But God has an “even better” location for the believer who dies physically, that is described as a place of “many rooms” (John 14:2).
What are the experiences of atheists, agnostics and Christian believers at death?
It is reported that Professor J.H. Huxley, the famous agnostic, as he lay dying suddenly looked up at some sight invisible to mortal eyes, and staring awhile, whispered at last, “So it is true.”
Sir Francis Newport, head of the English Infidel Club, said to those gathered around his death bed, “Do not tell me there is no God for I know there is one, and that I am in his angry presence! You need not tell me there is no hell, for I already feel my soul slipping into its fires! Wretches, cease your idle talk about there being hope for me! I know that I am lost forever.”
Dwight L. Moody, the famous Christian preacher, awakening from sleep shortly before he died had just the opposite to say: “Earth recedes. Heaven opens before me. If this is death, it is sweet! There is no valley here. God is calling me, and I must go.”
“No, no, Father,” said Moody’s son, “You are dreaming.” “I am not dreaming,” replied Moody. “I have been within the gates. I have seen the children’s faces.” His last words were, “This is my triumph; this is my coronation day! It is glorious!” (from “What if there is a heaven?“)
Shortly before he died, John Bunyan, said:
“Weep not for me, but for yourselves; I go to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will, through the mediation of His Blessed Son, receive me, though a sinner, where I hope we ere long shall meet to sing the new song and remain everlastingly happy, world without end” (in Lutzer 1997:141)
Far too much hope is placed on living in this wicked world. It is “far better” to be in the presence of the Lord at death.
God has provided means of healing in this present age through medical science (which is not covered here) and the ministry of the church. However, God does not guarantee healing in this life. He does guarantee his sovereign will for all true believers. See my article, “Should God heal all Christians who pray for healing?”
The vision before the believer at death is:
Life has been so good, I can’t complain
When I’m down, God gives me strength to rise again
I get weary from the struggle of it all,
That’s when I listen, how I listen for His call
Heaven’s sounding sweeter all the time
Seems like lately, it’s always on my mind
Someday I’ll leave this world behind,
Heaven’s sounding sweeter all the time
2. Oh, it’s hard to lose a loved one to the grave
but we have the blessed hope that Jesus gave
God’s gonna wipe all the tears from our eyes
When we meet Him in that land beyond the skies
Grudem W. 1994. Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Hendriksen, W. 1967. Ephesians, in New Testament Commentary: Expositions of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.
Lutzer, E. W. 1997. One minute after you die: A preview of your final destination. Chicago: Moody Press.
Swindoll, C. R. 1998. Swindoll’s ultimate book of illustrations & quotes. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Thiessen, H. C. 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are from The New International Version©2010, available from BibleGateway at: http://www.biblegateway.com/.
Copyright © 2011 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 15 October 2015.