“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O, death, where is your sting? O death, where is your victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55)
For years I sang songs in church about death and its ultimate defeat in Christ, having an abstract, generalized knowledge of death –we all will die one day. That one day for me was not today. Even the thought of it makes me cringe. Why? To be honest, I do not want to die! I don’t want anyone I love to die! I’d sing these victorious verses in church every Easter Sunday more like a christened platitude washing over me: “In Jesus, death is destroyed. In Him, we’ll live forever.” But then, I’d be just as greatly pleased to move on and enjoy my family and lunch plans, egg-hunts, and dessert parties. I made every intentional effort to keep death distant and impersonal.
This Easter, however, these words find me more vulnerable than ever. All of a sudden, the generalized thought of death became personal. Dying took on a face and a name: my sister. She has been battling stage 4 breast cancer for five months now. After many failed chemotherapies, she is today on hospice care at home. The doctors gave her a few weeks left to live. The reality of death has come into our family, uninvited and unwelcome. As I watch my sister fight for life, it does not feel as if death has been defeated. As I cry with a mother holding her dead newborn in her arms, death seems victorious. As I mourn with friends’ miscarrying their babies, death seems to win. As I attend my friends’ funerals, death has clearly not vanished.
Are these promises failing us? Is Paul confused, blinded, idealistic? How can I trust these verses in the light of my painful realities of death?
The greatest assault on life since the fall has been death, and that includes Satan’s spiritual commitment to separate us from God’s eternal covenant. Hear me say this, if Satan can’t convince us to denounce God in our living, he will try even harder in our dying. Satan doesn’t care about how hurt, devastated, or unprepared for death or suffering we are. Our vulnerability in our sufferings is his manipulative opportunity in his fight. He will go after our bodies, minds, and faith. He has no mercy on our ailing bodies, assaulted minds, or weakening faith. If in our dying and suffering Satan can get us isolated, defeated, and doubting God, then he has succeeded.
Here are three lies Satan roars for us to believe in our dying, suffering and temptations.
Satan wants us to believe that we are alone
If Satan can’t pull us away from God and the church in our living, he will try to convince us that God and the church abandoned us in our suffering and dying. He often uses either what seems to be unanswered prayers, or people’s seeming lack of empathy in our situation. You know what I mean! “God, I prayed daily for healing for my sister. She is not getting any better. In fact, she is getting worse. Where are you, God?” or, “God, I am suffering beyond belief and no one seems to care or notice. Where are people when I need them?” Most often, the truth is that people are there for us, but the evil one whispers, “But not enough.” In our deepest hurts, Satan works hard to turn us against everyone we love and hold dear. He’ll muster all his wicked schemes to separate us from others and keep us to ourselves. Alone. Deserted. Unloved. Can you see Satan for the deceiver he is yet?
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he experienced the worst abandonment imaginable. Perhaps worse than dying in that moment for Jesus was that he was forsaken by the Father. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the Savior cries in a choked voice, his blood running down that wooden cross (Matthew 27:46). Jesus decries his Father’s alienation. “We cannot begin to fathom all that this would mean between the Father and the Son”, John Piper writes on this passage. “To be forsaken by God is the cry of the damned, and [Jesus] was damned for us. So he used these words because there was real forsakeness.” In the midst of his dying, Jesus experienced the most devastating and cruel real separation from his Father. This is the only instance in the Bible (and in the whole world history) that God ever turns his face away from his own Son—and anyone in Jesus, for that matter.
You see, the real forsakeness,(to use Piper’s words), happened on the cross and Jesus took it fully and deeply. Whatever kind of loneliness we may feel, it doesn’t compare with that of Christ’s. It may feel real to us, but it’s not grounded in the gospel story any longer. On the cross, because of sin, Jesus was separated from God so in him we won’t have to ever be! Jesus experienced God’s scorn so we won’t have to. Jesus saw His Father turn His face away from Him so we won’t see him do it. Jesus tasted alienation from his Father so we can experience in full God’s presence in our lives.
You and I will never be alone in our suffering and dying. How do I know this? Because Jesus says so! His last words to his disciples, before his ascension into heaven, promised his constant presence in the life of every Christian: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). His unwavering declaration of companionship of always and to the end passed through the cruciform alienation from God once and for all, to be then raised unto eternal communion with God and his church. No matter the suffering or season in our lives, Jesus’ presence extends there, too. More than answered prayers and people’s involvement in our suffering, we have in us the assured presence of God. Never alone. Never deserted. Never unloved.
I am certain, though the Bible never addresses it, that Eve must have felt terribly broken and defeated when she first witnessed the death of her beloved children. When Cain murdered Abel, she must have stared helplessly at her son’s lifeless and stiff body, lifting her bloodshot eyes up to her Maker and sobbing shamefully yet again. The deadly stings of her historic sin pronged even the fruits of her womb. But here is the thing, in spite of it all, Eve knew she could always turn to her Maker. God made himself known, present, and available to both Adam and Eve even after their fall into sin. Her two statements (Gen 4:1, 25), after the birth of her first and last son, reveal her heart turned to her Lord. In spite of death present in her family, Eve’s heart was God-turned. She was helpless but not hopeless. Eve is a reminder that our covenant-God is ever so present in our dying as He is in our living. He stepped into our living, and He will certainly stay with us in our dying.
No matter how broken and undone we may feel, God’s presence with us is always and to the end. And Jesus guaranteed this with his life and words. Would you choose to turn your face towards God, and walk in his presence rather than give into Satan’s lie that you are alone?
Satan wants us to believe that we are defeated in our dying
Have you ever wondered what David means when he said, “My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts”? I believe he was feeling assailed and attacked by death itself (Psalm 57:4). In Psalm 18, David puts it directly: “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me’ the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.” David finds himself in an unusual season where he sees death all around himself. In fact, David feels so strongly assaulted by death that he personifies it. The images are rich and descriptive. The reality of death for David takes on a body, like an enemy in a war, with feet, arms, movements and war-fighting tactics. Death’s chords wrap around the assaulted body, overwhelming the insides like torrents of a furious destructive river. Death is ugly and merciless. It entangles the living tissues like a venomous spider its prey. Death is brutal and violent. The Bible describes death as a “king of terrors” (Job 18:14); “pale horse” (Revelation 6:8); “shadow of death” (Jeremiah 2:6); “a dust that shall return to the earth as it was” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The powerful imagery of death adds vivacity and trepidation to the descriptions of the assault.
Facing suffering and pain, assaulted by death on all sides, it would have been easier for David to shut down and feel defeated. Instead, David does what he knows best: he calls on his God. Psalm 18 records the amazing responses God has for death itself. God responds to David’s call with his own presence. And since God himself is coming down for war, the whole universe is accompanying and preparing his descend. God’s anger targeting death awakens a terror that is beyond imaginable. The descriptions burst in vivid imagery and fantastic magnitudes making this psalm look more like some scripts from the Lord of the Rings or a fictional manuscript from C.S.Lewis’ works. God is a rider on the thick clouds of heaven as the chariot, conducted by cherubims, supported by the powerful force of a storm. Armed with thunder-bolts, fiery hail, strong winds, lightning, rains, and devastating winds, the Lord makes a grandiose entrance. The smoke from his nostrils, the devouring fire from his mouth, the glowing flames of coal emanating from him, with a voice thundering hailstones and coals of fire—all of these describe God as a mighty warrior fighting for his servant, David.
No doubt this poetic passage doesn’t even do justice to God’s flaming anger against death. For me, it reinforces that God sees, knows, and feels right along with us when our bodies ache, our organs deteriorate, and our lives face death. God is not neutral towards death and suffering. His display of his anger and rebuke towards death is of cosmic proportions: God engages this ultimate enemy, having the universe and the saints as his witnesses. In other words, God cares when his children suffer! His anger of cosmic proportion reveals also his equally proportioned love for his suffering and assaulted children. Why else would the Creator of the entire Universe descend from heaven and rescue his people?
I read this psalm and I am convinced that at the sight of God descending, David’s heart is encouraged and death trembles. As brutal as death’s assault is on God’s saints, God’s response is even more astounding: he responds with his personal presence. In fact, he is so involved that instead of sending cohorts of angels, the Lord himself comes to our rescue. A presence that is just as real today for me and my sister as it was for David. When we were drowning in our own deadly, atrophying sins, God sends his only begotten Son to rescue us by taking death right on himself. Jesus confronts death and wins. His resurrection reminds us that his sacrifice makes us evermore powerful and undefeated. Christ’s victory by the cross guarantees our victory by faith in Jesus.
Will you choose to share in Jesus’ victory over death in the face of Satan’s bold lie that you are defeated?
Satan wants us to believe that God is not Sovereign in our dying
“There’s not one inch in our entire area of our human life about which Christ, who is Sovereign of all, does not cry out, “Mine!” (Abraham Kuyper). As I type these words, my sister’s health is rapidly declining. I see my sister’s weakened body, with insides eaten up by cancer. She is poured out like water. Her strength is drying up because she lies in the dust of death. I sit in silence and in pain. Like David, I flood my bed with tears and drench my couch with weeping.
Satan wants me to believe that God either made a mistake or that he lost control of our lives. He wants me to question not only God’s goodness but his very sovereignty in all of this heart-wrenching trial. Is God truly in my sister’s dying?
I read Psalm 139 and my heart fills with unshaken awe at the divine craftiness of my Lord who searches, knows, perceives, is acquainted with, hems, lays hands upon, holds, leads, forms, knits, sees my sister in all the days of her life. God carefully and mysteriously handcrafted her every cell and organ. His firm sovereignty and authorship of every human body, in fact, is undeniable. Just as certain from this psalm is God’s control over a person’s life. There is indescribable joy for the burst of life and the mystery of coming into this world in David’s words. There is also a tone of serenity in David’s language. Even when death is mentioned, the Davidic language here keeps its calm and peaceful countenance. In verse 16, David eloquently refers to the end of life by implicit reference: “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (italics mine). Death is personal and intimate to every individual. From the moment we are born, our days are numbered unto death (Psalm 139). God’s book records every day of our life, which means we are created to live first, and to glorify God in doing so.
I often wonder how should one read this majestic Psalm of an intimate Creator when the last bookend of life draws near, pressing itself boldly against the soul? How to face death in the light of God’s sovereignty over all of our days? Then I am struck that Psalm 139 is a testimony of God’s powerful hold on our lives not just while living, but unto death, and beyond. Death doesn’t terrify God because God’s glorious power extends beyond death and the grave. God’s sovereignty comforts David in the face of evil death because even death obeys him. As Randy Alcorn eloquently puts it, “God isn’t the author of evil, but he is the author of the story that includes evil. In the face of the worst wrongs, God intended to show his highest good—Jesus”. In Jesus, there is no spiritual end, but simply continuity into heaven. All the days on earth for every Christian are followed by all the days in heaven, in the presence of God. God’s sovereignty is exclusive, and not an inch of our days and nights are left uncovered by his powerful watch.
As I glance at my sister through the prism of Psalm 139, I quiet my soul unto trusting God to look at our souls and arteries, muscles and nervous systems, wombs and brains, and to cry out vehemently, “Mine!” His divine trademark is etched on every organ, and all organs obey its Creator’s voice at all times, through all seasons. There is no doubt in my heart that Psalm 139 is first about God, the author of life, and then about people, the authored creatures. Though life is a gift and death an evil curse, David is not afraid to speak of life between these two most famous bookends—birth and death—because he spends the whole Psalm talking about the One who holds all life through both bookends!
Would you choose to rest in God’s loving sovereignty over Satan’s lie that God is not sovereign?
When Paul speaks of death being swallowed up in victory, he is not blinded to the present reality of people still feeling the sting of death. Perhaps from his own testimony, Paul remembers that the greatest wars are fought not only in living but in dying also. Paul is not confused either. He must have anticipated the cries of every believer’s heart, mercilessly assaulted by the painful plagues of death. His words are God’s bold and unshaken declaration of deliverance from the snares of death (Isaiah 25:8). Paul responds to broken hearts dying not with cheap platitudes of deliverance simply when life is in danger, but with definitive and universal Christ-achieved victories over every plague, sting, destruction, grave, and hell (Hosea 13:14).
In the gospel, the dead are being brought back from the grave, hell is losing its prey, and the devil is no more (Revelation 21:4). Only when our living is fully in Christ and his promises will we see our dying to be victorious and divinely-purposed by our ever-so-present God.
[My post was first published on Prince on Preaching blog in April, 2018]