What Death Has Taught Me

By L.A. Stauffer

Adversity destroys. Adversity builds up. One man when affliction strikes turns to the bottlle, self-pity, self-indulgence – to elements that devastate his self-respect and subverts his worth to himself, society, and God. Another person under similar circumstances looks to God, the power of his word, and sustaining faith – to principles that strengthen the inner man and supply eternal values that reach beyond the groanings of the flesh. The difference between the two is love for the Lord. “And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28).

Adversity in this respect is much like marriage. A recent survey revealed that couples in successful marriages and unsuccessful marriages fight over the same things. The difference in the two is the way they handle these problems. So it is with trials. Suffering and affliction are no respecters of persons. They come to the righteous and unrighteous, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, old and young. When God cursed the earth because of sin, the effects were universal. Every man must begin by accepting that fact. This reality, though, is more palatable to the man of faith.

Adversity itself is not good. It, at the outset, was the win of the devil – not God. Satan is the one who lied to Adam and Eve, knowing that death would result. God willed that they live forever. Death came, however, from a righteous and just God who cursed sinful man and the earth where he dwelt. This condemnation left in its wake a sordid mass of suffering and affliction.

Adversity, though, can produce good in the lives of those who face it by faith in God. James tells brethren that temptations or trials prove Christians – show their genuiness. Faith under fire works steadfastness and moves disciples to perfection and maturity and wholeness in the Lord (Jas. 1:2-4). The strength amidst the weakness of affliction that the apostle Paul found to overcome pride is available to Christians today by the sufficiency of grace (2 Cor. 12:7-10).

My fife, contrary to many others, has been plagued with very little adversity. I was reared by godly parents, my needs were adequately supplied, and our family has enjoyed reasonably good health to this day. I married a dedicated Christian and by God’s grace and her help trained four children who are all faithful members of the church. We likewise were a healthy bunch until the spring of 1978. The day was April 5, my mother’s birthday. Shirley, my wife, had just returned from the doctor and came to the living room, where tears streamed down her face and she uttered that terrifying word – CANCER. She had a lump in her breast. Tremors raced as shock waves up and down every nerve fiber in my being. In stunned silence I held her in my arms.

Prayer was an immediate response to this news. Shirley’s next and ongoing reaction was reading the epistle of Philippians. Many mornings I found the Bible open to this letter of “joy in affliction,” where she had left it sometime in the middle of a sleepless night. I myself began reading the epistle quite often. That and prayer. I remember so well the day of her mastectomy – her birthday, April 8. There we sat together in the hospital parking lot hand-in-hand praying and bracing our hearts and souls for what lay ahead. Call it “denial,” “naivete,” “misinformation,” or “faith,” but after the surgery I dismissed completely the idea of death. Neither doctor nor friend gave me any reason to think otherwise. To me it was a lump in the breast that had been removed. Later, when other lumps appeared I believed chemotherapy would destroy them and any remnants elsewhere.

“Disbelief” and “panic” are the two words that come to mind when I remember the doctor’s call to me July 8, 1981. Two days before, Shirley had changed doctors, disillusioned by the way she felt and the lack of information she was receiving. For the first time I was told her real condition -and it was shattering. The doctor informed me that the cancer had spread throughout her body, that she would be rational for only an hour or two, and that she could live, maybe, another three days. Early on the fourth day at 6:00 o’clock, July 12, she passed through the dark corridor of death.

During those three days and the months that followed, my feelings scaled the full gamut of emotions – compassion, grief, fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, relief, and, of course, why. Not once did I doubt that these feelings must be met with faith, prayer, Bible study, meditation, and friends. These avenues provide answers, comfort, power, strength, hope, fulfillment, character, even the joy that James wrote about. Yes, out of trials good can come. The lessons learned are not necessarily new, but they come with an intensity the conscience can never quite escape.

Death is Real. One answer that came so vividly is the reality of death. How many times I had parroted Hebrews 9:27 at funerals – “it is appointed unto man once to die. ” But not once until 1981 do I remember taking that thought to heart. It never seriously occurred to me – “today I might die.” That has all changed. A day seldom passes and hardly a prayer is uttered without thanksgiving for the day and for life itself. I find no relief, even to this moment, from the constant reminder that my earthly journey could end immediately. And how unimportant this is to being ready when the Lord comes: to the reordering of priorities, the setting of proper goals, the stirring of passion for the Lord. Shirley had to die. I have to die. It is reality. By faith in God I accept it and understand why.

Death is Gain. It was comforting to stand by the bedside of a Christian. After watching her body writhe and twist in its fight against the relentless torture of a disease that ate away at every nerve, I kept remembering Philippians “to die is gain” (1:21). 1 have since regaled myself many times with escape from this world of suffering, the beauties of heaven, the thrill of seeing God and the Lord who died for me, the excitement of knowing intimately heroes of faith. After wrestling one you love for three days to keep from strapping her in bed, it is a relief, indeed, to give them over to the Lord and rejoice that death’s agonizing grip has been pried loose.

Anger toward Satan. Death may be gain, but it is still torment to watch a once vibrant, witty, fun-loving person slowly and painfully reduced to a cold, lifeless mass of flesh. It can turn a calm and peaceable man into an angry, hateful specimen who hardly recognizes himself. I am not by nature vindictive. The feelings I experienced were abnormal and scary. It was unlike me to clench my fist, glare at a hospital wall, and mentally drive my knuckles time after time into its surface. And it was not, I hasten to say, any bitterness toward God. I never once felt that. It was an intense hatred for Satan, the old devil and adversary himself – the one behind all this misery. I despised him with a passion. And I felt a depth of malice toward sin that I had not known: an angry rage that to this day I often try to recapture. I need this each day and often pray for it.

Compassion for Sufferers. Another feeling I seek to duplicate is the compassion I felt for Shirley. When you have suffered little in life, it’s difficult to “feel with” others who hurt. Jesus came in the flesh and endured what man experiences to become a “merciful” high priest who can be “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (see Heb. 2:17,18; 4:14-16). Mercy, as in the example of our Lord, is the ability to remember those who are in bonds as bound with them and those who are ill-treated as being in their body (Heb. 13:2).

Compassion arises naturally when it’s one’s wife, or husband, or parents, or children who suffer. Having been joined in spirit and so intimately attached to Shirley for nearly 25 years, I found myself emotionally coming unglued: literally aching and helplessly crying for her. I have tried since to hurt like this for others who suffer. Although that is not possible, the experience has enhanced my feelings and enriched my prayers on their behalf.

Drawing near to God. Nothing is quite as devastating in the death of a mate as loneliness. Ask any widow or widower what the greatest loss is and to a person they will likely say – companionship. Absence of cooking, cleaning, washing, even sex pale in comparison to an empty chair across the room that cannot respond to heartaches, joys, jokes, need for advice or a visit. An aching emptiness and void prevail where a part of the oneness the two shared has been torn away. Times comes when one has to get out of the house, take a long walk, visit friends, go get an ice cream cone – anything to flee from the “presence of absence.” The one thing, however, that must stay day after day is companionship with God. Meditation and prayer, for me, arose spontaneously, emerged more frequently, lasted longer, were more intense, and became more personal – an ever present help for a desolate spirit that yearned for a life that could not be recalled. And, more importantly, they entered the permanent life of this brother – who marvels that he survived spiritually when they were but distant friends. May God forgive me!

Draw near to Brethren. Two significant occasions are to this day etched in my memory. The first came two weeks after Shirley died. I was scheduled for a Gospel Meeting in Kentucky and was given an opportunity to cancel. I decided to go. I spent that week in the home of dear friends with whom I talked and talked and talked. We reminisced and shared stories the entire week about Shirley. The memories were sweet, entertaining, amusing, uplifting, fulfilling – companions to a lonely soul. A few months later this was repeated over dinner with a couple who had faced the death of their companions. Again, memories flooded my mind. The two listened and counseled. Others were patient to lend an ear when I needed to talk, recount the past, and resurrect in my spirit one who could no longer stand by my side. There were priceless experiences: times that win never let me forget the spiritual family into which I have been born a family that gave me help when I suffered and may, as did I, need help when they hurt.

Forget the Past. I have since Shirley’s death often counsel led those who have lost mates not to be too quick to forget. Memory is a wonderful quality, a remarkable healing balm that must be permitted to do its work on spirits wounded by the death of a mate. But life must go one (see Phil. 3:13). The time comes when one must forget the “memory of life” and face the “reality of life.” A man’s loneliness, his loss must be only temporary. Life can shine again with the brightness it once radiated.

Time is an excellent physician and gradually applies its healing skills to the injuries of the inward man. Even before remarriage was considered I began renewing old goals, making new plans, and concentrating again on how I might be useful in the Lord’s work. I finished a college degree, dabbled in cooking, traveled, spent more time with my kids, visited friends I hadn’t seen for years – much of which were fillers until I could fully concentrate again on serious Bible study, home studies, sermon preparation, reading, and writing. I slowly left the past and its pain behind.

More than a year had past before remarriage had become a serious option. Then suddenly it happened. Charlotte Leaver, a faithful Christian at Kirkwood, where I preach, had lost her husband shortly after Shirley died. Almost immediately when we began to date I was as infatuated as a teenager. Love blossomed, we committed ourselves to one another, and were married August 20, 1983. The following note I wrote her a little more than a year ago summarizes what my life has been since we two became one flesh. The note says something every widower learns vividly and every husband should tell his wife often – a worthy woman is a gift of God, a crown to her husband, and her price is far above rubies (Prov. 12:4; 19:14; 31:10,28,29).

“I am always a little concerned that I don’t tell you often enough what you mean to me and how much I need you in my life. I do, with few exceptions, remember to thank God daily for you.

“As I grow older, life becomes much more serious to me. I feel a greater need than I ever have to preach the gospel, to preach it plainly, to preach it fervently, and especially to try harder to reach the lost. And what is really exciting about it is that you share these interests. This is an encouragement I need.

“I sometimes find it beyond belief how much you meet every need I have. You are so patient when I’m moody, so encouraging when I’m struggling, so satisfying when I have physical needs – so perfect for me in every way. I prayed when I was single that God would help me not to do anything foolish. I am so glad I prayed that prayer – because as an answer he gave me you, and that, other than deciding to obey the gospel and to preach, is the wisest decision I ever made. I love you so much, and I hope I never give you reason to doubt that.

“Thanks for being you and being everything I need as a wife, a companion, a helper, and a lover.”

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 17, pp. 517-519
September 1, 1988