When I was a teenager in high school I had an unofficial spiritual mentor named Al. Although I had grown up in the church, I was a baby Christian at the time, and Al was a fount of biblical wisdom that I quickly latched on to. Al even spent some of his time in an informal discipleship group with myself and a few other teenage boys, talking about science, God, the Bible, and anything else we wanted to talk about. Al was a retired biology teacher at Henry Sibley High School, so the conversations of the group often turned to matters of science and faith, particularly within Al's discipline of biology.
Once, during a discussion on biology, Al said something that has stuck with me ever since. We were talking about the human body and its ability to heal itself and be healed by medicine, but then Al said, "Death is the ultimate form of healing." To be honest, this statement perplexed me initially, as the notion that the physical process of death could be considered a form of healing was completely foreign to me at the time. When I thought of healing, I thought of a person getting better, or recovering from an illness or injury through time and medicine. And when I thought of death I thought of disease or injury so severe that it caused the body to cease its functions, and that medicine had failed. To me, death seemed like the exact opposite of healing.
But as I've considered Al's words over the years and have continued to study the Bible, it has become apparent to me that Al's words can only be understood and appreciated from a Christian worldview. The Bible teaches that Jesus has defeated death, and that Christians who are trusting in Jesus will inherit eternal life at the time of their physical death. In heaven there is no pain, no disease, no injury, and no death. Those things exist on earth, but not in heaven. On earth we are plagued by illness and disease, injuries and weak bodies that are susceptible to germs and bacteria. In heaven, none of those things exist. When a believer goes to heaven, all of those earthly afflictions that plague our bodies are instantly healed through physical death.
There are many biological and medical conditions that can plague our bodies on earth, for which there is no cure. Speaking personally, I have a skin condition that I've been told will linger on for the duration of my natural life. There is no cure. But some day, when I die, I will be healed of this condition, and the means by which I will be healed will be my death. My death will result in my ultimate healing. Similarly, my dad has lived with the effects of polio since he was seven years old. At his death he will be healed of his affliction. He doesn't want to die, necessarily, but I know that he is looking forward to this healing.
Just this last week, a 98 year old saint and member of Riverview passed on to be with God in heaven. For years she had been struggling with the effects of living in a 90+ year old body, and she was tired and ready to go to heaven, so she had been praying for that to happen. A couple weeks ago, however, she fell and broke her pelvis, and was put in hospice care, suffering from severe pain every day. She continued to pray that God would heal her - by allowing her to die. And God did. God healed her of her pain by taking her to be with him, where there is no such thing as old age and the complications that come with it, and there is no such injury as a broken pelvis.
In Psalm 40 David describes himself as having fallen into the "pit of destruction" and a "miry bog." (Psalm 40.2) He's not speaking literally here, but rather that the circumstances of his life are like living neck-deep in a slimy swamp. He asks God to help him, and as he awaits God's deliverance, he considers truth about God's mercy, love, and faithfulness. He says, "As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me!" (Psalm 40.11)
When we think of our physical healing, I think it's safe to say that we don't often think of being healed through death. We tend to think that God's unrestrained mercy and steadfast love and faithfulness will manifest itself in our lives through the restoration of our physical bodies. We think of God using doctors and medicine to restore our bodies to their original health before we became ill, and indeed, this is often the case. It seems evident that David expected God to deliver him from his physical circumstances and restore his body and condition to the way it was before he suffered this affliction that tossed him into the "pit of destruction." And if and when we are restored to a healthy physical disposition, then we declare that God's mercy has indeed been unrestrained, and that his steadfast love and faithfulness have preserved us.
The error we make in this thinking, however, is that God would be any less merciful or loving or faithful if he healed us of our afflictions through death. In fact, as my mentor Al implied, God's mercy, love, and faithfulness are most fully realized in death, when a believer is removed from this life and is joined with Jesus in paradise. God does indeed use the process of physical death to heal us of our afflictions, and healing through death is a good thing.
But then, why seek physical healing? If death is such a wondrous release, why not just speed along the process and take my own life? Just a couple of years ago, Brittany Maynard gained widespread attention for her assertion that she would end her own life if and when the circumstances surrounding her cancer became too difficult to live with. She fulfilled her plans, and took her own life as a means of ending the pain and suffering she was experiencing. The act of taking one's life, however, is not a result of a Christian or biblical worldview. We do not have power over life and death and healing. Only God does. Only God gets to make those kinds of decisions. Even when we suffer, we trust that God knows what is best in matters of healing, life, and death. We have no authority to take our own lives. Only God has the power and authority to give life, and only God has the authority to take it away. We must not presume to be God and take life.
This way of thinking should help us to reframe the way we think about death, especially when a Christian dies who has been suffering from an illness or unpleasant circumstances. In the example of my 98 year-old friend who passed away this week, her death brings sadness, but also much relief and joy that she has been healed of her pain. When we find ourselves in the "pit of destruction," we remember that God's mercy toward us will be unrestrained, and that his steadfast love and faithfulness will ever preserve us. And we pray that God will restore our bodies to a good physical condition in the here and now. But if he does not, we await and long for his unrestrained mercy to us at the time of our death, trusting that God will give us the exact kind of healing that we need.
Just a couple of years after I left high school, my mentor Al was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away shortly thereafter, forever healed of the cancer that afflicted his body. He was pulled up out of the pit of destruction once and for all. In his death, the Lord's mercy was fully unrestrained, and his steadfast love and faithfulness was proved in its most full way.