Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them. (Psalm 139:16)
This time of year is so often fraught with the agony of mourning even in the midst of celebrating our Saviour’s birth. There are many for whom Christmas will be inextricably tied to the memory of the death of a loved one, some expected due to illness and others unexpected due to sudden or accidental circumstances. Earlier, I read with great sadness of the exceptionally high death toll on our roads – exceptional because it outstrips historical statistics alarmingly – and feel a burden, today, to bring a devotional of comfort and encouragement. Whatever the circumstances, as believers, we have the assurance of knowing that every life is written in God’s eternal book of life.
In times of grief, God’s comfort is supernatural and eternal, even though we don’t understand the reasons why things happen.
To many, today’s verse seems to feed the fatalistic side of us which emerges as a ‘what’s the point?’ response, a sense that we are pawns to God’s sovereignty and no amount of prayer will ever make any difference. Resentment against God is particularly easy and strong when faced with the death of an unsaved loved one, and we often use this voice as an excuse to lash out at God instead of drawing from it the comfort it actually gives.
Grief is a debilitating and powerful human emotion which smothers our ability to reason or understand. It is consuming, and we inevitably look for someone to blame. It’s easy to blame God, to paint Him as an unfeeling, uncaring dictator set on snatching away our loved ones and making us all suffer. I am familiar with all of this, having lost my beloved husband to cancer, and lost many others very close to me through accident, murder, and disease. Through it all God, has taught me that Psalm 139, and this verse in particular, is the foundation of enduring comfort. It doesn’t diminish the grief, but it does provide a supernatural assurance that strengthens and empowers healing if we will only let it do it’s work.
Our verse tells us unequivocally that our days are all written in His book, long before they happened. I’m jumping straight into the sticky bit, because this is where we so often become stuck. We presume this means simply that God randomly assigns an allotted lifespan, willy nilly. Some get the full package, others don’t. It’s unfair and even cruel, especially when the ‘good ones’ seem to be taken early and the ‘bad ones’ seem to live long and happy lives.
Yes, it is entirely true that God alone is the giver of life and thus the only one who has the power to take life. We need to be absolutely honest and certain about that. Our lives are not our own. They never have been and never will be. They are a gift, intended for His glory. Yet God exercises this sovereignty within the context of our free will which is also a gift, and also intended for His glory. Today’s verse does not mean that our lives are allotted and plotted by God and we have no say in it. He has graciously given us a say through our free will, even though He owns us entirely as Creator, and Conqueror, and as Redeemer.
What today’s verse is saying is that God has foreknowledge of how our lives will work out. He knew at the foundation of the world who we would be, what we would be, how we would live, and every single choice, mistake, right decision, and even emotion or attitude we will experience. God does not dictate our lives, even though He could. He records what He knows will happen. There is a great difference, and it’s one that is foundational to our faith in Him in all things. Fashioned does not imply ‘foreordained,’ it implies given – the life He gives us, and the grace to live it by free will.
Of course, this doesn’t directly answer many of the whys. Too often, we look at a senseless accident or act and cannot understand why or how it could happen. We also cannot understand why an all-powerful God did not step in to prevent it. or to protect us. ‘He could have but He didn’t’ becomes a common refrain. We lose sight of the essential truth that if He was there at the giving of a life, He is always there at the taking of it. This is God’s prerogative alone. Nothing in this universe, not even the sparrow or the simple flowers of the field, die without the eternal presence of God being there in that moment.
Life is an incredibly intricate network of actions and reactions, and of interactions within our material world and between our world and the supernatural one. It is impossible for us human beings with our limited capabilities to fully see or understand all of it. Our lives are determined by choices, by attitudes, and by responses. They are affected by things that happen in a world currently ruled by prince of darkness.
The Bible never promises that we will be exempt from the things of the world, but it does promise that we will be enable and empowered to live supernaturally. The life in Christ has nothing at all to do with our physical existence. It is entirely a life of spirit, because the body is simply a vessel and the spirit is the actual life. Real life is not measured by our physical existence. The life here is temporary and fleeting, but the spirit life which is the life imparted by God is eternal. That is the life that He guards so jealously, which He protects so fiercely, and He will never ever allow a life that is given freely to Him to be snatched out of His hand.
But what of those who die without salvation? This is a place of great anguish for many of us, and needs to be mentioned as we consider death and grieving. The greatest comfort comes from the assurance that God knew from the foundation of the world who would come to Him and who would not. What this means is that no one will ever die without having that choice. The hardest thing is to accept that everyone has the right to choose. It’s a God-given right, and even He will respect it. But we should always remember that God alone knows the state of another’s soul. He knows the moment of their death, and He knows the moment of their conversion.
I personally believe that we will be surprised in eternity when we see who is actually there. There will be some we never believed would ever enter heaven, and there will be some we were sure would be there who are not. Remember that Jesus said there will be those who did miracles in His name, but who He will not acknowledge at the end. This works both ways. There will be those who come face to face with Christ at the point of death who make the right choice. The thief on the cross is the obvious example of a point of death conversion.
There have been three instances in my life where I am convinced God worked in the spiritual to effect salvation. I thought to share these as a source of comfort for those who may be struggling with the double grief of the death of ‘unsaved’ loved ones.
The first was my father, who resisted the Gospel until he literally stared death in the face after a sudden illness. As I prayed in the Spirit with my home group, we were led to pray not for healing but for salvation. A visit by a local believer brought him to Christ a day before he died.
The second was my mother, from whom I was estranged at the time. After she suffered a stroke and death seemed inevitable, I was again led to pray for salvation rather than healing. At the time, this was really difficult because I desperately wanted a real mother, something I never really had for complex reasons not of her own making. What I wanted was more time. What I got was an instruction from God not to go to her bedside and simply to intercede for salvation. It was only many years later that I discovered a family member had been led to her by God to pray with her in the moments before her death.
The last was my eldest sister who have lived virulently opposed to the real message of the Gospel. In the days just prior to her being rushed to hospital, I was led to pray fervently and in great anguish for salvation. Early in the morning of her very sudden death, I was led to the story of the Gadarene demoniac, particularly the revelation that Jesus sought Him out in his place of darkness. It was a humbling and peaceful revelation of God, the giver and taker of life. It reminded me that we may well imagine that there are those ‘beyond’ the grace of God by their own choices and responses, but that God alone knows the condition of their soul.
I have absolute peace that Jesus met with my sister at the end. I have absolute certainty that He went to find her. I have no doubt that, at the 11th hour, 59th minute, she responded to His call. Do I know for certain? No, I don’t, at least not according to the conventional logic and reasoning of this world. I have no black and white proof. But I do know that God never commands or speaks in vain, and that He blesses obedience and hears our prayers. If we are praying for those we love, we can have faith that all their days are in His book, whether we believe them unsaved or not.
This is the peace, comfort and encouragement encapsulated in today’s verse. God is there at the beginning and He is there at the end. He knew everything that would happen from the very beginning of time, and so He is never caught unawares. We see the spiritual realm rather like we see an iceberg – just the tip. But God sees all, knows all, and is prepared for all. Our task is love, witness to, and pray for those we love. But God has everything else. While we may never know the whys and wherefores in this life, we do know that God has us all in His book, and that it is His will that none should perish. Whatever befalls us in this world, beneath us are the everlasting arms.
Father God, I pray today for those enduring grief over the death of loved ones. I ask that You reach out and enfold them, that You comfort them with the grace and love of Your precious Holy Spirit working in their lives. Help us all, Lord, to see beyond the here and now and to take hold of the certainty that nothing is random or by chance, and that You are present at our coming in and our going out.