To me, he was an uncle. To others, he was brother, son, husband…but to me, Matthew Stephens was “just” my uncle. Since we lived almost 1000 miles apart, we saw each other about once a year. He sent cards on my birthdays and an occasional email or note. We loved the moments we spent together, but all things considered, they were only moments.
So why does his death leave such a hole in my heart? And how much bigger must that hole be for those who were closer to him, spent more time with me, loved him deeper than I ever could?
A simple slip of my tongue during my prayer time this morning caused me to pray for “Uncle Matt and Aunt Becky.” I realized immediately what I had said, remembered that I only needed to name my aunt now, and found myself unable to stop the tears. The vulnerability of my emotions, the grief at the loss of a godly, fun, loving uncle, the seeming unfairness in the whole situation of his illness and death, and the realization that my aunt and Grannie must be feeling all of this to a multiplied degree, were simply overwhelming. And in the midst of the tears and cries to God, a slow realization crept over me: death is wrong.
That statement may sound despairing, especially for someone who believes that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, so I want to explain, first of all, what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that God made a mistake, that Uncle Matt shouldn’t have died, or that death is always a punishment for a specific sin in a person’s life.
Uncle Matt knows Jesus Christ. I am certain that he is in Heaven today, because he put his faith, not in his own goodness or worthiness before God, but in Jesus’s death that took his punishment for sin and Jesus’s righteousness that was given to him by grace. His wife, his mom, his siblings, all of us who knew and loved Uncle Matt are comforted by that truth and would never wish him to be back here suffering as he did. Our own lives have been impacted and changed for the better because of his faithfulness to the Lord, and we can see how God is using his death for a greater good.
But none of those things negate the truth that death is wrong. We all feel it deep in our hearts, and we see it in the Bible.
God made us for life. In Genesis 2:7, God formed man with His own hand and breathed into him the “breath of life.” In John 14:6, Jesus stated that He is the Life, and in John 10:10, He said that He came to give life–abundant life–to His people. A few verses later, in 11:26, He says that those who believe in Him will “never die.”
What is life? It has to be more than a living, breathing body, because God is a spirit. He has no body, yet He is life. It has to be more than mere existence, because Adam existed many days after he died in his sin.
What is it that I’m grieving the loss of? I’m not grieving the loss of my uncle’s body; it was broken and hurting. I’m not grieving the loss of his existence; the fact that he is in Heaven now, joyful in the presence of his father, his brother, and his God are some of the most encouraging truths we cling to in our grief.
I’m grieving that I will never again, for the remainder of my time on earth, be with my uncle. I won’t see him smile or get another hug; I won’t hear his laugh, his singing, his sincere prayers. I won’t be able to watch him treat his wife and his mom with such sweetness, or roll my eyes as he impersonates the three stooges, or be impressed as he communicates with a waiter in Vietnamese. I am grieving the loss of his presence.
Death is separation. Death is separation, and life is connection, union, and fellowship.
God made us for life. He made us to be united with Him and with each other in a joyful, eternal bond. God made us for life, but when the first man disobeyed God’s law, in came death. Death is not just a divine punishment, it is a natural consequence of rebellion and selfishness: we can’t rebel against someone and unite with them at the same time.
God told Adam to eat the fruit from any tree except one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because in the day he ate from it, he would “surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Adam disobeyed, and just as God said, found himself suddenly separated from his Creator and fellow creatures; he hid from God and started blaming his wife for his failures. “And so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). We have all rebelled against God’s authority in our hearts, so we all must face same consequence: we are separated from God and from each other.
But that is not the end of the story. God made us for life, and His plans and purposes cannot be changed or stopped. He made a way for our union to be restored, and He promises full, eternal life to those who follow Him.