This week's question comes from a member of my congregation at the First Presbyterian Church of Yates Center, Kansas. He asked, "Why does God take those we need so badly?" The question stems from the death of the wife of an old friend.
For years I have wondered at the theology that is touted so often and so harshly that God somehow "takes" people in death. It seems most of us don't want to acknowledge death as a part of our life. Though it is true that death seems so final, I've a feeling that after nine months in the womb (the only life and reality an infant knows) that birth seems an awfully lot like death must be to us. But on this side of birth we know the act as a beginning, albeit a new beginning. And so death. We fear it; it seems unnatural; it's an end to be avoided at all costs (and we spend an inordinate amount of money to medically avoid it).
But the truth is, biblical and otherwise, death will come one day to each of us. According to scripture our average age is between 70 and 80 (Psalm 90.10) and then each of us experience the same end: "No one has power to restrain the wind, nor power over the day of death" (Ecclesiastes 8.8).
So why does God get blamed for killing our parents, spouses, and friends (if the word "kill" seems a bit strong, remember, it denotes the euphemism "take" in reference to God "taking" someone)? The answer lies in the ancient Israelite understanding of life.
Early in Israelite history all phenomenon, natural and otherwise, was attributed to the work of God. If one became ill, it was because God was punishing them (Psalms 6, 22, 30, 88, 118). If one got well, it was God who raised them up (Psalm 116). God caused or withheld rain, depending on the spiritual health of the nation (1 Kings 8.33-40). God even caused people to be stubborn, obstinate, and foolish (Exodus 11.10; Deuteronomy 2.30; John 12.40). Thus, even an individual's death was ascribed to (blamed on) God.
However, there is one verse, obscure and hidden away, that speaks to this very issue. One verse that clears God of being the Grim Reaper as opposed to the Good Shepherd. In 2nd Samuel 14.14 we read, "Like water spilled on the ground which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, the Lord devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from God" (NIV).
Though death is a part of life, the loss of a parent, child, spouse, or friend is still difficult. For some it causes great burdens and difficulties; for others it means a period of loneliness and despair. But God is a God of love, understanding, and comfort. Christ promised God's peace in even the darkest of circumstances (John 14.27) and we should remember that even God's son was not spared from death.
So why did God "take" the spouse of our friend? God didn't "take" anyone. Instead, she was born from this life into another, not because God desired her presence in heaven, nor because God was seeking to punish anyone. Instead, she died because that's what happens to all of us. Those of us who are left behind, we who await our earthly end, have the opportunity to draw once again upon the grace, the strength, and the promises of God, for God is ever near: "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28.20).