For as long as I can remember, the subject of death has always fascinated me. Growing up in a Christian home and attending a church that was heavy on holiness made me understand what happened after people died—the good guys would go to heaven, while the bad guys would go to hell. But why they died when they died still fascinated me. Why this year and not the previous? Or today and not tomorrow? I was interested in knowing who controlled death.
I lost my mother unexpectedly in April, 2001. She was in her early thirties. She left behind her husband and three little boys, the youngest being 7 months old at the time. Back then I did not understand what had happened. And I was too young to ask questions, or to fully understand the answers I would have been given. To me, my mother had gone on a long trip and was going to return after a few months. But she never did. I was in the middle of primary school when I finally realized she wasn’t going to return. And I wept.
At various points while growing up, I felt that losing my mother at such a young age was unfair. I never really knew my mother. I can’t tell you her favorite meal or color. I can’t tell you what her voice sounded like when she sang, or how she laughed when she was in a good mood. As a boy I heard preachers say that every death happened for a reason, but I couldn’t figure out the reason for my mum’s death. I eventually did. I was a teenager when I had the answer: she had died “untimely.” She had been a victim of negative spiritual forces at work.
To the average churchgoer in many Christian circles in Nigeria, untimely death occurs when a person dies before their God-appointed time. It’s when the plan of the devil (or a person’s enemies) prevails over God’s plan. When a person dies young. Or dies just before a major breakthrough. Or immediately after a major breakthrough. Anything short of a ripe, old age is untimely and isn’t God’s plan. It’s a work of Satan.
This concept became crystal clear to me when I was in a gathering of young Christian leaders some years back in the University. The speaker was an evangelist. He stood before us and asked those who had lost at least one parent to raise their hands. We did. And he said that those responsible for our losses would get God’s judgement. Simply put, we were going to pray for God’s judgement on the people who, through some diabolical means, took our loved ones away from us.
I believe this mocks God’s sovereignty. Scripture clearly teaches that God has appointed limits that man cannot pass, a close to his party here on earth, a time for every living person to take a bow and leave the stage of life (Job 14:5). To suggest that the devil sets those limits, or that he (or his minions) has the ability to end a person’s life before the time appointed by God, is to not believe God’s word on the matter of death. No man dies outside of God’s knowledge and control. There are no accidental, surprising deaths to God.
Also, it robs believers of much peace and joy. A friend once told me that she knew the person responsible for her mother’s death. She didn’t mean that this person was some kind of murderer or assassin, but that this person joined forces with malevolent spirits to end her mother’s life. To my friend, the war wasn’t over. She would go into the spiritual realm to fight. It is little wonder, then, that many Christians never know peace after the death of a loved one. The pain of losing someone is hard enough to bear. Adding to it the obsession with finding the spiritual cause of death—and fighting to get vengeance in the realm of the spirit—makes it unbearable.
But Christians ought to find comfort in God. While we may never be able to explain why some of the people we love die when we least expect them to, we can rest in the knowledge that God is in control of every single event that takes place in this world. Nobody dies outside God’s knowledge or control. Nothing takes Him by surprise. And He’s working through every loss, no matter how painful it may seem.
This truth also ought to spur us into action in our lives. No one has any real knowledge about when they will reach their limit on earth. God doesn’t promise his children long lives here on earth. What would matter when you die would be how you lived, not how long you lived. Today might be the last day you have. Use it wisely.
Where’s my mother now? I don’t know. I certainly hope she is with the Lord. But now I know her death was no mistake. Maybe I’ll get some concrete answers in heaven. But I’m content knowing that my loss was no accident. I’m comforted knowing that He does all things well, including those things that turn out to be painful.