Last month, I attended a wedding of a friend, up in Scotland and a very happy occasion it was. This wedding though gave me much pause for reflection as five days later I attended a funeral of a lady at my church. The contrast between the celebration of something new and the sorrow of something gone was stark.
I remember reading a blog post by a Scottish Presbyterian about how he appreciated funerals more than weddings (and it would be a Scot who said this) because there could be no idolatry at a funeral, only reality. While understanding this point, I profoundly disagree.
Weddings are a celebration of beginnings, they are full of hope and beauty and potential, often so very joyful, full of laughter, dancing and champagne. Funerals are an end, always too soon, with no hope outside of Christ and the promise of heaven to those who believe. There can be no dancing at funerals, little laughter and despite what people say there can be no "celebration" either, not in death.
My thought from attending both so quickly was how they so perfectly encapsulate life – so much blessing; so much sorrow and there is sorrow within blessing and blessing within sorrow. Perhaps all of life is lived between weddings and funerals.
When I first though about writing this, the only contrast I intended to draw was between the wedding and the funeral. But a month later and I have heard that the groom has been diagnosed with a brain tumour and last Thursday had an emergency operation to remove it (initial news is that the operation was a success, but recovery will be slow). If I felt this news to be a shock and a sadness, how much more those involved? How little did any of us at the wedding know that those words “in sickness and health” would come to pass so quickly? A month into married life and reality crashes into this poor couple with a sickening thud.
Two Bible verses came to mind, the first was, appropriately enough, from Lamentations: “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” (3v38). The wedding and the brain tumour, good thing and calamity, both ultimately from God. We recognise this at weddings when the minister says: "Those whom God has brought together"; how much more do we have to recognise it in all of life!
This is a fearful truth, as in literally, it makes me afraid of the sovereign power of our God who sets the end from the beginning and orders all things to his purposes. This power is just so much beyond our comprehension. And even if we had it, how could we make the decision to send good or calamity to other people? Using the power is far beyond our wisdom.
The second verse that I thought of was: “For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 14v27) In particular, the second part of the verse: who can turn back the hand of God?
Both verses make me feel the God-ness of God and the man-ness of man. The collective power of the human race, all 7 billion of us, could do nothing to hold back the hand of God. The collective knowledge of the human race, could not match the sovereign knowledge of God. And our collective wisdom must appear as foolishness to the wisdom of God. The limited nature of man is so very limited. And the unlimited nature of God is so very unlimited. And what should be our response to this? I think there are only really two, diametrically opposed as they are.
The natural response is anger, an anger at a) our impotence and b) God's unchecked hand. We do not like the fact that we cannot control life and we like even less the fact that God does and so regularly contradicts our desires. I think we have all been here, angry with God, and if we haven't, we will be soon. Something goes wrong in life, maybe quite minor, likely a much bigger tragedy, and our anger at God is enough to shake our soul. How can our Heavenly Father do such a thing? How can God keep all his promises and yet bring such calamity? Surely, we have grounds to charge God with wrong-doing. And so our souls rage against the sovereign hand of God, the hand we cannot hold back or even understand.
There is no worse place to be than angry with God. There is no comfort to be found there, no peace, nothing but the restless striving of the creature against his Creator. Having been in this place of anger before, too many times, I can say that it is a terrible sin against God for it rejects both his character and his promises.
The second response is humility, a silence of the heart before the hand of God. It is the attitude described in Lamentations: “It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust - there may yet be hope.” (3v27-29) or typified by Job when he says, in response to God's description of his own sovereignty, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (42v6)
When God's hand is heavy on us, it is only in this place of humility that we can find comfort and peace. And humility only comes when we see the God-ness of God and the man-ness of ourselves. When we consider who God is, what he has promises for his people and what he has done for us then we find that we have no right to be angry and no grounds to charge him with wrong. We can and should pray for deliverance, we can and should take proactive steps to see answers, but our heart needs to be in the right place. As it says in 1 Peter: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (5v6)
It's like the promise in Psalm 23, that “surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life.” Well is it written in past tense for in the present, the goodness and mercy of God is so often obscured but looking back, how crystal clear it appears. A humble spirit helps us to rest on this promise and the many similar ones, trusting that our God is as good as he declares himself to be. Trusting that the gospel is still true, Christ is still risen and the steadfast love of the Lord has not ceased.