I once heard a hospice nurse say that she sees a marked difference in the last moments of the life of Christians and those of people who are not. She observed that folks who know they are known by Jesus Christ, almost to a person, die peacefully, and even joyfully. The death is still, quiet, and confident. Those without faith, she noted, very often die in fear, the death agitated, frenetic, and anguished.
Could it be that religion is, indeed, “opium for the masses,” as Marx proclaimed? An “illusion or fulfillment of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind,” as Freud asserted? A necessary invention of man, as Voltaire countered, to pacify our fears of death? Is Christianity merely a crutch conjured simply to quench our longing for significance and comfort? Or is it exactly what those who believe it say it is?
A few weeks ago, I attended a celebration of life service for a wonderful man. At 80 years old, Don’s legacy as a pastor, father, and friend, was evident in the presence and testimonies of his family and friends. He was a Christian in every true sense of the word. And he was afflicted. He and his wife, Sandy, had lost both of their daughters, their only children, within a few years of each other. Though they grieved profoundly, though they wished mournfully that their daughters wouldn’t have died, their prevailing response to the crushing grief was praise for God and trust in Jesus Christ. They had questions, but not mistrust. They had grief, but not despair. They had pain, but drew comfort from the God who promised to give it to them. They missed their children, but had assurance that they will see them again. Sandy’s pain-laced, joy-filled smile at her husband’s celebration of life service seemed to have been lifted directly from the pages of 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Sandy has an authentic, reasoned belief in the sure hope of John 11:25-26: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Sandy surely does.
A little over a year ago, a local pastor and his family attended one of the many local fairs in Lancaster, PA. Soon after, their three-year-old daughter, Adellina, fell gravely ill, apparently from E. coli she had contracted at the fair. Close to death, her family used social media to plead for prayer. Pictures of the family, bleary-eyed and anxious, standing over their tiny daughter, barely visible beneath the tubes, wires, and machines, were captioned with Scriptures and reflections on the goodness of God. Organs failing, machines breathing for her, and unconscious, their tiny daughter clung to life. Yet they responded with praise, through anguish, and submission to the will of the God who they are sure loves them, and most importantly, loves Adellina. Each Facebook post gave glory to the God who allowed their tragedy to happen. Instead of running from their faith, they threw themselves on the mercy of it. A year later, after months of hospitalizations, a kidney transplant, and the prospect of their daughter needing more surgeries, their response remains one of gratitude and praise to the God from whom they draw comfort.
Near the end of the summer, David Brill’s life was profoundly disrupted when he fell from a roof, crushing his skull. His swollen brain has left him with damage, and it was initially unclear if he would live, let alone walk or talk again. Painful days of waiting eventually led to painful days of therapy at a rehab center, while David’s wife toggled between spending time with her husband and life with their sons, one of whom has profound disabilities that require round the clock care. The Brills reached out on social media for prayer and support. Their first post after the accident was Lamentations 3:22-23: “His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Every subsequent post has included praise and a prayer of gratitude to the God who ordained David’s brain injury.
These families are living out 2 Corinthians 4:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…
…For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
The witness in the eternal perspective of these families is profound. Affliction doesn’t destroy their faith. It galvanizes it. Their hope in suffering extends grace to those who are watching.
If religion, specifically Christianity, is opium, then I want it. I want as much of it as I can get. If it is a crutch, then I’ll gladly prop myself upon it, lest I go limping through life. I want the comfort and confidence in the midst of pain and trial. I want the love and assurance of a God who cares for me so deeply that he provides for my every need, even as I am suffering. I want a Savior who would condescend to the depths in order for me to ascend to his heights. I want the indwelling of a spirit who will teach me truth, and assure me that though I suffer, I am loved.
If this level of faith, this assurance in the midst of pain, is foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18), then count me among the fools. Jesus Christ is the surest shelter in a storm, the highest source of comfort in affliction, and the greatest and only provenance of truth.