“Danny is going to die.”
My cousins said this as we sat at my grandmother’s table. Danny, my 10-year-old brother, was also sitting at the table. Feeling a strong urgency to defend him, I countered, with all the persuasive argumentation of an 8-year-old, “No, he’s not!”
Danny had a brain tumor. Once he was an energetic boy who enjoyed building Legos, playing tag, and creating skits with our older sister. Now his skin was pulled taut against his bones, his body slowly wasting away.
I suspect my cousins were merely repeating what they’d heard their parents say. And I doubt they realized how their words affected me and my brother. As it turned out, my convictions concerning my brother’s outlook were not enough to keep the cancer at bay. My aunts and uncles were right. My brother did not live out the year.
Death affects us in powerful ways. Even for believers who live with the hope of resurrection life and of being reunited with Christian loved ones, death tests us as it alters our experience in this world, forcing us to continue living without someone we love, to keep living despite loss.
Death forces us to continue living without someone we love, to keep living despite loss.
While death is the most extreme form of loss we experience, as COVID has painfully reminded us, we live with other kinds of losses in the course of time. COVID has also forced us to live with the loss of our normal social, liturgical, and vocational rhythms. We have lost connections that we long for—that we even need for human thriving.
Some people, of course, have not pushed ahead, finding it too difficult to face life in a disconnected world. Which highlights all the more the challenges of living with loss. How do we continue when loved ones die? How do we carry on when we can’t connect with friends or worship side by side with fellow believers?
One image that captures sustained loss is the Civil War veteran. During the American Civil War, doctors performed an estimated 60,000 amputations; in fact, three-quarters of all surgeries in the war were amputations. About 45,000 amputees survived the surgery, marking a generation with visual reminders of physical and personal loss. (See “Amputation in the Civil War: Physical and Social Dimensions,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 454.)
These wounded individuals had to learn how to live without a part of themselves in daily life—in some cases no longer able to walk, to write, to make a living, to touch a loved one’s face. Such losses inhibit normal life and raise questions about how, or whether, to continue. They rub against the grain of what we expect the life of God’s blessing to look like, against the prayers we offer to God.
In his commentary on the book of Job, Christopher Ash observes: “Perhaps for some of us there has been, or there will be, a time in life when everything goes wrong. A time perhaps of pain and failure, even of disaster and misery. And it may be that God in his compassion is bringing us low so that we will lean on him alone.”
It’s hard to imagine in the face of loss—the loss of a limb, the loss of a job, the loss of a brother—that God can be good. But as the Puritans were apt to say, God wants to wean us off the world, to turn our hearts from temporal things so that we learn to love him. So loss, in a sense and counterintuitively, can bring benefits. And I sometimes wonder if those benefits can be found in any other way. Yet when we reap the benefits of a loss, we often long to return to a time before that loss, before we had become what we are.
God wants to wean us off the world, to turn our hearts from temporal things so that we learn to love him.
When I think about my brother, I often wish he were still around. I wonder what he would be like today, if he might have children who’d play with my kids, how we might enjoy life together. I want to erase the loss. But what I rarely think about is that blotting out loss could create another loss—at least from my current vantage point in time.
In her novel The Return of the Thief, Megan Whalen Turner includes a conversation between a wise figure called the magus and a character named Eugenides, who (spoiler alert) lost his hand in an earlier book in the series. The magus asks Eugenides if he still wishes for his lost hand. Eugenides responds:
I miss it. I’m sure everyone has something about themselves they’d like to change—to dance better, sing better, be stronger or taller. . . . But if I hadn’t lost the hand, I’d be another person entirely by now. Wishing for the hand back would be like wishing the man I already am to be replaced by some stranger. It would be wishing my own self out of existence, and who would want that?
For the unbeliever, there is no guarantee that loss makes us better. But for the believer, God is working all things together for our good, for both our salvation and our sanctification. And to wish my loss away is to wish myself away—to wish away the person God is graciously shaping me into.
These themes echo an old question: How am I to make sense of the bad things happening to me when they clearly contradict the goodness and life that mark God’s kingdom first established in Eden and reestablished in Christ?
Certainly, we can’t underestimate the impact of the fall on our world. The losses I’m describing are not the way the world is supposed to be. And yet we must profess something more in a postfall world. God is not only Creator; he is also Redeemer. His way of working is to bring goodness out of the evil we’ve introduced into the created order, and he uses our loss to plant the seeds of life within our broken bodies and souls. He is shaping us for something greater beyond this world, and in a sense, we lose something good God has weaved into our story when we seek to roll back reality to a time before our loss.
That hope gives us something to hold on to as we walk through a world that guarantees damage and pain. Job’s story is a picture of restoration after unfathomable loss, and Jesus’s resurrection is the promise that such restoration will come to all who are in him. This is why Revelation ends not only with establishing a new heaven and new earth and with the guarantee of no more mourning, pain, or death (Rev. 21:1, 4), but also with the “healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). Somehow God is connecting all the pain and loss in this world and making us into something that we were not before—and that we could not be without loss.
To erase my loss is also, strangely, to erase my gain.
I unapologetically wish that my brother were still alive—though by alive I mean alive in full health, free of cancer. And perhaps that points to a flaw in my thinking. I fail to see what God was doing in my brother’s life. God brought Danny through physical suffering and death into a better state, free from sin and illness and death’s chains, because he is in Christ.
God has also used that loss to shape me; he is using it to redeem and sanctify me. And it would be misguided to wish that the work he has accomplished in me be erased. To erase my loss is also, strangely, to erase my gain. And so in the face of loss, I can choose to wallow in my weeping, or I can choose to walk—or limp and hobble—trusting in God’s goodness, accepting the ways he’s forming his people into new creatures, and clinging to the hope of a restored creation.