Death-from God's Perspective
By John T. Schwiebert, ThM
“Precious in the sight of GOD is the death of his saints.” --Psalm 116:15
Somewhere in the midst of that deep pain we feel when a loved one dies, perhaps someday after we have begun to get used to the harsh reality of our loss, we may want to remember and repeat the above words from the book of Psalms. For even after the writer tells about his great personal suffering (“the snares of death encompassed me” and “I suffered distress and anguish” and “I am greatly afflicted”) he is able to see death from God’s perspective and thus to say, “Precious in the sight of GOD is the death of his saints.”
But how can anyone speak of the death of anyone as “precious”? And how could I possibly think of the death of my spouse, or my child, or my best friend, as something anyone could treasure?
I can only answer out of my own experience: I have found it possible to appreciate the death of a person I care about because I have learned to think of her/his death like the punctuation mark that completes a sentence. Although I may have wished that the loved one could remain with me longer, I nevertheless find joy in the fact that her/his life has come to completion and I can see and appreciate it now as a finished creation.
Perhaps some of you have had the same experience I have had, when, at a memorial service, there is a presentation of a complete summary of a deceased person’s life in photos projected on a screen, with their favorite music sounding in the background. When viewing such a presentation were your tears only tears of sadness? Or were they also tears of joy? Was it not then possible to give thanks for all that the person had offered of themselves to you and to others, as captured in the photo presentation? And is there anything else that needs to be said except “Amen,” or ‘Praise God for this person’s life!”?
When my spouse recently faced the first anniversary of her mother’s death, what did she do? She replayed the DVD that she had prepared for her mother’s memorial service. I expect she will do the same on the next anniversary and perhaps annually for some time to come. And each year she will come to treasure even more the life, and yes, even the death of her mother, in ways that she could not when her mother was still living.
At this point some who read this may be thinking, “but the psalmist says that it is the death of GOD’s saints that is precious. And my husband (or wife, or child, or friend) who died recently was no saint! (In fact ‘saint’ was never a word that I, or my wife, would have used to describe my mother-in-law!)
But perhaps we should wonder what kind of person the psalmist considered a “saint.” I submit that the psalmist was not referring to those exemplary persons that a Christian church body, after a complex process of discernment, have set apart from others and honored with the title “Saint,” because this verse was written long before there was any Christian church!
In the Bible “saint” is a word that simply means “holy one,” or “one beloved by God.” I suspect that the number of persons whom God regards as saints or beloved ones is much greater than most of us can imagine. They are described in the Bible as “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne of God, robed in white . . .” (Revelation 7:9).
To get a more accurate sense of who might be included in the definition of “saint” be sure to see the movie St. Vincent starring Bill Murray, currently playing in theaters. Vincent, the lead character, is, by the usual standards of good conduct, far from perfect. As one film critic describes him, he's “in a ton of debt while seemingly owing everyone around him money. He's one of the best customers for a pregnant Russian ‘lady of the night’. . . . He loves drinking, gambling, and smoking more than eating and breathing, and his dry-witted, sarcastic, and sour demeanor keeps just about everyone a safe distance away from him.” Out of necessity (his need for money, and a single mom’s urgent need for child care while she tackles a new job) he becomes the unlikely babysitter for the 10-year-old boy who has just moved in next door. Although Vincent’s baby sitting skills leave much to be desired, he becomes the boy’s faithful friend and mentor, and, in the eyes of the child, a “saint.” Hence the movie’s title: “St. Vincent.”
The message of this movie is that saints are not necessarily persons who have attained moral perfection, but rather persons who, in their ordinary lives have acted faithfully, doing the best they could when called upon to do so in the difficult situations they faced. In fact some versions of the Bible translate the above verse from Psalm 116 as follows: “Precious in the sight of God is the death of God’s faithful ones!”
The death of every child of God is “precious” because, in the words of a well-worn expression “God doesn’t make junk!” And even if people make a mess of their lives and communities they are still precious to God—every one—because until the very end they are targets of God’s relentless unconditional love and examples of God persistent efforts to make us whole in this life. However they turn out in the end they are testimonies to God’s devotion, precious in God’s sight.
And the best response in the face of their death is “Thank you, God!”