In 1999, I kept a deathwatch at the bedside of two remarkable women—my mother and my brother's wife. The experience was life altering and profoundly saddening. Afterwards, I felt older in a way that had nothing to do with the passing of years. I acquired a personal understanding of Ecclesiastes 7:2-3, which says, "Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better."
My mother had been ill for many years and had suffered a great deal. At the last, she was spending more time in the hospital than at home. She began to resist the almost weekly trips that had become torturous for her.
The family prayed for God's guidance. We knew that her life was His alone.
Perhaps we could have held on a little longer with more hospitals, needles and machines—all the things that had become so unbearable to her. We began to feel selfish, hanging on at her expense. She seemed to require our permission to stop fighting a fight she no longer held a hope of winning.
God guided us to an arduous decision that no one wanted to make. She died at home, under the care of hospice, with family in attendance. God's presence throughout those last days was almost palpable, dramatizing for me Psalm 48:14. "For this is God, our God forever and ever; He will be our guide even to death."
A Second Encounter With the Enemy
My sister-in-law's death stunned everyone. She collapsed at home, and within 48 hours was on life support. We prayed for a miracle. For reasons only He knows, God did not grant one. She died within hours, leaving my brother with four school-age children.
Both women were strong and tenacious, possessing a determined resolve to beat death. If it were possible to do so, I know they would have. My sister-in-law was renowned for her devotion to her children. Only 24 hours before she died, she insisted resolutely, "Don't worry. I intend to see my girls walk down the aisle." But she was wrong.
The Bible tells us that the last enemy that will be destroyed is death. Death certainly was the enemy to us. Yet as I watched these strong women in agony, their bodies failing them, I found myself begging God for it, knowing they could no longer ask it for themselves. I had learned that there are indeed worse things than death, like ceaseless suffering, heart-wrenching indignities and the ravaging of the human spirit.
My emotions were turbulent like a maelstrom. To adequately describe them is impossible. I felt the visceral anguish of impending loss; guilt, real and imagined; sorrowful regret for missed opportunities; and pain like a lava ocean-deep and hot. Capping it all was intense empathy for their suffering. Life was teaching me that sometimes, loving best is letting go.
Learning to Recognize the Pain
There was a haunting familiarity in my pain that I couldn't examine until some time had passed. With God's wisdom and patience, I have since come to recognize it.
God first called me in the early '80s, when I learned about the Kingdom of God, Christ's return and His ruling kingship. I read verses about the kingdoms of this world becoming the kingdom of our Lord, and that He will reign forever and ever! I began to understand the thrilling promise of Revelation 21:4-5 concerning the new heaven and the new earth.
It was wonderfully exciting news, this Kingdom of God. There was just one problem. If all things were to be made new, life as I had known it would have to go. No more life in the fast lane, with 1.5 kids, two cars and a mortgage. We were talking about culture shock on a major scale.
So I spent a lot of time feeling guilty, experiencing shameful unease whenever I heard an earnestly expressed desire for Christ's return. I did want Him to come back. I just didn't want Him to come yet. I asked myself if I could really be the only one not looking forward to seeing everything I was familiar with—my lifestyle, my country, my culture-destroyed, even for so wonderful an event?
Clinging to the Familiar
According to psychologists, we cling to the familiar, even when it is to our detriment. This is a major reason we return to abusive situations, drugs, alcohol and other destructive lifestyles. We find comfort in the known, and are usually quite resistant to change. My world was far from perfect, but it was the only one I had ever known. Even the promise of Utopia—God's Kingdom—didn't completely quiet my unease.
The early Israelites themselves certainly fell victim to this very human trait. God worked unparalleled miracles on their behalf, both to release them from slavery in Egypt, and to sustain them afterwards. He promised to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey. The life He offered must have sounded almost as perfect to them as God's peaceful Kingdom does to us today.
Yet they often complained, desiring to return to the familiarity of the life they had left behind. "We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic," they grumbled in Numbers 11:5. Would I really react any differently?
So, I took my concerns to God, telling Him that I wanted to look forward to Christ's return with my whole heart and soul. I did not want to be like Lot's wife, looking back at the crucial moment.
Time has passed. The world continues the relentless pursuit of sin and depravity that has occupied it for roughly 6,000 years. The end is surely coming, with each day bringing us closer than the one before.
Empathy and Grief
Watching pain in others is something I find extraordinarily hard to do. Yet, thanks to the nightly news and other technological wonders of the age, I have had an open window to the world. And the world is in pain and suffering.
I cried for its abused and murdered children, for its evil regimes, genocide, war crimes and other atrocities. Meanwhile, I began to be aware of a feeling I couldn't name, a strange mixture of sorrowful sadness and empathy. At first it was intermittent, but soon it was nearly always there, underlying everything. I became accustomed to it, like a leaky faucet you never get around to fixing. Still, I couldn't name it. Now I know that it was because I had no frame of reference for it.
What I was feeling was grief—anticipatory grief for a dying world. I was keeping a death vigil, watching helplessly as the disease process ran its course towards a certain end. Sin is a terminal disease-a cancer for which there is no cure except the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. It is often a silent killer, showing itself in all its ugliness only when the end is near, after it has conquered and consumed virtually all that is healthy and good.
Our world today works sin and suffering. The wage it earns is death. God, because He is merciful, will not allow it to remain in its sin forever. The time is rapidly approaching when, like my mother and sister-in-law, the pain of holding on will be greater than that of letting go.
Death, albeit the enemy, won't be the victor because God's gift to us is eternal life. As 1 Corinthians 15:57 says, He "gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." Isaiah 26:19 describes that victory:
"But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead" (NIV).
God is infinitely patient, answering prayers in the fullness of His time. He knows that suffering is necessary for our growth, and that we grow by putting faith and trust in Him.
In the final chapter of Revelation, John says, "He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming quickly'" (22:20). It has been a long process, but I can now kneel and pray with fervent sincerity, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus!"