At 7:31 pm on August 6th, 2021, I received a text that changed my life. At 3:01 pm on August 7th, 2021, my father passed away in a hospital over eight hundred miles from home. The nineteen hours between separating the two miraculously shined light on my darkest moment. This is the true story of the longest night of my life.
I was putting dinner in the oven when I received word that my father was suffering a stroke. He had no history of poor health, no warning signs — I had spoken with him on the phone just an hour prior. There was no sign of the tragedy soon to strike. Within two minutes, I was frantically searching for flights that would take me where he and my mother had vacationed, desperate to be by his side. As his condition worsened, my mother and I both found ourselves calling 911 — me, still from eight hundred miles away. My voice did not quiver when explaining the severity of the situation to the kind operator. There was no earthly reason I should be so calm; that was how I knew to fear the worst. With what felt like a pound of lead in my heart, I fell to my knees in my driveway, punching the ground with reckless abandon.
I screamed, “Not like this! Not like this, God!”
The thoughts that prevailed were ones that many victims of tragedy share: “He doesn’t deserve this — I don’t deserve this. This isn’t how it should happen.” The only acceptable death we envision is a painless passing after our loved ones have gotten the most out of life. But for some of us, the rug is pulled long before we feel such a moment has arrived. And in my tragic hour, that inversion’s very presence made me feel scorned, abandoned, and forsaken. The levee of hardship had broken, bursting forth the reality of an entropic world into my comfortable life. At least, that is how I saw it on my knees. As my fists went numb, I felt as if there was no grace for me – and certainly nothing beautiful about the story that had just begun.
I grew up in a Christian household. I had a loving church around me, blessed to never experience many of the pains others find in the faith. I was fully convinced of God’s goodness. I held He was gracious, granting salvation through no act of my own but through Christ alone. I often extolled the beauty and virtue of His plan and engagement in human life. As my father told me one night, “Son, God has looked after this family and will continue to.”
But it is easy to cling to such warm beliefs when the blessings flow. Loss had never stained my life. I was content to leave it at arm’s length, never asking myself how the nature of death affected my theology. Yet in an instant, this loss was shoved into every waking thought. There was no ignoring the obvious.
With no flights available, I quickly made the preparations to drive through the night. As I dropped my dogs off at my childhood best friend’s house, he told me to slow down and tell him what was happening. I fell into his arms, sobbing as I explained. My friend had lost his father eight months before – also eight hundred miles away. He sprinted with me to my car, ready to make the journey with me. Both of us choked up when he looked me in the eyes and said “I didn’t get to say goodbye. I’m going to make sure you do.”
Night fell as we sped down backroads, our hometown behind us praying fervently over us. For the first few hours, I felt as though I were in a tunnel, incapable of seeing or thinking about anything except that which was directly in front of me. My sole fixation was the promise I made to my mother: I would be by her side at sunrise. After fighting to save my father, she was left broken and alone. The speedometer read 108 when the blue lights appeared in my mirror. As I explained to Trooper Prosperie in the ditch of Highway 59, I could never live with myself should I not do everything in my power to get to my father. His official warning still remains on my desk.
My recklessness revealed a deeper, more selfish truth about my human perspective. The same innate nature that screamed at the injustice of it all and rebuked any grace now whispered that I was on my own. The only comfort I could have, the only recourse for my loss, was a stoic solace in taking control. My subconscious was brewing a rebellion against the faithful beliefs of my childhood. As I stepped back into my car, I found emblazoned in my mind:
How could an all-powerful God take my father? And how could I ever call that God gracious or beautiful again?
As the miles droned on and the minutes turned to hours, I reasoned with myself that those questions would go unanswered for years. People in movies and books who experienced searing loss could experience a triumphant return with an eventual mental reframing. I thought my story would be the same.
But those questions were too daunting for my mind to avoid wrestling with altogether. I wanted to get at the philosophy of it all. For millennia, Epicurus’s hedonism implored that man become “familiar with the belief that death is nothing to us, since everything good and bad lies in sensation, and death is to be deprived of sensation.”  Philosopher Lucretius postulated that death mirrored the time before birth, asking “Is this so grim, so gloomy?” . Such arguments suggested I could identify some ubiquity of an inane death, powerless and therefore devoid of tragedy. When disarmed, I could place death into perspective as a part of life illogical for me to concern myself with. As Stoics both old and new would suggest, I then could (and should) temper my grief with the reality of a fleeting existence .
Though there is little doubt that these outlooks have brought comfort, meaning, and purpose to many in my position, I found no relief from their logic. Reality did not square well with their constructions. It is readily apparent that life is not simply an accumulation of sensation as Epicurus suggests. There is something uniquely spiritual about the human experience, regardless of faith or creed, which cannot be so casually written away. If we are more than just a sum of events, full of higher purpose and spiritual existence, then the death of this purpose cannot compare to its primordial absence. And those of us who have experienced grief understand the unrealistic demands of Stoicism and its attempts to relegate mourning to an issue of management.
Could my Christian faith fare any better in the eleventh hour? That night, I recalled every argument I had heard against Christianity. If our God created us, and He holds power over this domain and over sin and death itself, why does He allow loss to continue? Bad things happen to good people every single day. Citing this discrepancy, Neil DeGrasse Tyson famously declared: “if the god you describe exists, that god is either not all-powerful or not all-good.” 
I was fully convinced that I would resent God. Not because of some intentional malice, but because the story I had fallen into challenged my perception of God’s omnipotence. As I write this today, I realize that challenge was the greatest tool in my spiritual maturation. On Interstate 40, somewhere outside Little Rock, Arkansas, the Holy Spirit made several things clear that contradict everything our culture suggests about death and loss.
Biblical teachings surrounding sin, or acts of disobedience to God, are some of the most controversial in modern times. In the natural drive for self-justification, it is common to twist and turn the boundaries of Biblical prohibitions to argue for some modicum of supremacy. Yet the Bible tears down any claims of righteousness that one might offer God on the day of Judgment. In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul declares “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” . Paul later establishes the equality of all sin: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” . Extrapolating the two, Christian theology posits that every human faces “death,” often described as an eternity separated from God, on account of their disobedience. Where is the beauty here? Where is the grace?
As heirs to a post-modern America, we are frequently ignorant of our incalculable prosperity. Too often, we lament any detour from the life that our individualistic nature suggests we have earned. The religion of Americanism programs its disciples to look strictly at the negative: bad things are a deviation from the life we merit. The glass starts full and deserves to stay that way – if something spills out, it is nothing short of a cosmic injustice. But a Christian philosophy rooted in the Bible contends we deserve nothing of what we have. The second breath I took as a mere baby was undeserved in the face of a holy God. It pushes a view towards the positive: good things are the deviation from the life we deserve. The question is not why bad things happen to good people, but why good things happen to bad people.
Revolutionary theologian Abraham Kuyper described this reality as “common grace,” whereby the beautiful grace of God was that “Man did not die on the very day that he sinned, but saw his life spared…human life on this earth nevertheless remained possible.”  The air around us is undeserved but graciously awarded . How much more then had I been granted? How blindly had I walked in the reality of common grace all my life? When I thought I would imagine all the moments my father would now miss, I could only face the gifts of his life. I had eighteen years with a father I loved – that alone is a gift many will never receive. It was a gift I never deserved; nothing I ever did meant I deserved the man my father was. To curse God for not granting me a bigger gift would only be arrogant folly.
The blessing of life does not negate the pain of death. But a proper perspective grants the comfort that worldly hedonism fails to procure. I am but a humble recipient of grace, accepting the fallen, sinful world of the present. I am sustained in grief by the common grace of my God, hopeful for the redemption to come. This is not unique to my situation; God Himself, through the person of Jesus Christ, experienced death, grief, and longing. Hebrews 12:2 reveals “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” While there was nothing pretty about Christ’s crucifixion, there was something beautiful. The God of the world endured grief not dissimilar from my own for the gracious redemption of the world. It was endured for the redemption of sinners like myself, and allows believers like my father to spend eternity with the Lord. It gives me the power to continue to this day.
If such an intellectual debate seems incredulous for that frantic drive, it is. This revelation was nothing short of supernatural. Questions I never dreamed answerable had a clear response: there was no undeserved injustice in the death of my father — only a remembrance of a merciful gift on this temporary Earth.
Armed with that appreciation of grace and beauty, I steeled myself to walk through those hospital doors. I made it three minutes before sunrise, keeping my promise to my mother. There is no denying the pain of those hours spent next to my father, the droning beeping of a heart monitor ensuring there was no escape from reality. I prayed over him — something I might not have stomached just twelve hours before. And as I did, I said my last words to my father: “Now, go on to the joy that He has set before you, may God rest your soul.”
At 3:01 pm on August 7th, 2021, my father passed away. It remains the worst moment of my life. But at 3:02 pm, as the hospital chaplain prayed over us all, I was supernaturally comforted. Not just by the sweet gesture of the chaplain, but by the firm understanding that I was part of an unimaginable, beautiful grace for eighteen years. And the grace for my father only continued in paradise, even as I wept.
Inscribed on my father’s headstone is Psalm 46:10, which reads: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” . God was exalted in my darkest hour. I pray He may work the same in your life.
In loving memory of William Houston David III.
- Luper, Steven. “Death.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2021, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2021. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2021/entries/death/.
- “What Stoic Philosophers Can Teach Us About Grief.” Literary Hub, 17 May 2021, https://lithub.com/what-stoic-philosophers-can-teach-us-about-grief/.
- David, Freeman. “Neil DeGrasse Tyson Talks God, Aliens, And Multiverses.” HuffPost, 5 Oct. 2015, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/neil-degrasse-tyson-talks-god-aliens-and-multiverses_n_561297abe4b0dd85030c97fc.
- Romans 3:23 NIV.
- Romans 6:23 NIV.
- Kuyper, Abraham, et al. Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World. Lexham Press: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 2016.
- Psalm 46:10 NIV.