I was due to write my monthly Gentle Reformation article last month on 18 June. I didn’t manage it however, because I was preparing for the funeral of Mabel Cordelia Clarke which took place on 19 June. I wrote about Mabel here two months ago, on 21 May, just a few days after she was born prematurely at just under 26 weeks. Since that post she suffered multiple setbacks, including two haemorrhages in her brain. It became very clear by 14 June that there was no possible way that she could survive. On 15 June we held a very simple service of baptism in her NICU room, not because her parents or I believed that Mabel’s salvation depended on her being baptised but because she was a covenant child of our congregation and we wanted to recognise her status as such. It was, as you may imagine, an incredibly moving experience. The words of the Aaronic blessing came home with great poignancy and power as I thought how in a few hours Mabel would see and feel the light of God’s face shining upon her in glory, experiencing the blessing of God perfectly.
On Saturday we held a thanksgiving service. I began with some of the questions that we all must have asked in recent days. ‘Mabel had been perfectly healthy in her mother’s womb—why did God allow her to be born so prematurely?’ ‘Why did God allow her to suffer those haemorrhages?’ ‘Why did God let her brain be so severely damaged?’ ‘Why did God allow her to die?’ To all these questions, and so many others, I said we don’t know the answers. It doesn’t mean there are no answers—just that we don’t have access to them. Deuteronomy 29.29: The secret things belong to the Lord our God… One day we might hear the answers. Perhaps God has told Mabel already and she now knows. But we don’t. We need the humility of the psalmist in Psalm 131.1: O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
Instead we need to focus on what we do know. For the whole of Dt 29.29 says this: The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. There are many things that God has revealed that are not secret, and we are meant to think about these things—to understand them, believe them and live by them as we cling to them daily. Here are just a few of those things that I mentioned that day…
1. God is sovereign over life and death and everything in between
Ps 31.15: My times are in your hand… The good times and the bad times, the happy times and the sad times; the times of grief, fear, disappointment, loneliness, depression and doubt just as much as the times of joy, success and encouragement. David is thinking here especially about difficult times—the surrounding verses speak of ‘affliction and distress of soul’. And yet David believes these times of anguish are in the Lord’s hand, under his control—not the Devil’s.
2. God is loving and good and wise
Rom 8.28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. The Lord doesn’t promise to work all things for our comfort or ease, but he does work all things for our good.
Rom 11.33: Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! We may not be able to understand God’s ways, but can know that they are infinitely wise. In other words he knows what is best and he knows the best way to bring about what is best. Dt 32.4: He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he. Mabel’s life and death are not a random, meaningless mistake.
Jer 31.3: I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. The Lord didn’t stop loving Joel and Hannah and Mabel on Tuesday 15 June, because his love is everlasting.
3. God knows what Joel and Hannah are going through
In grief we can hardly articulate our pain, even to ourselves. Words simply aren’t enough to describe it. But the Lord knows and the Lord cares. If he knows the number of hairs on our heads and if he sees the sparrow that falls, how much more does he see and care about the anguish of parents who have lost a child? Ps 56.8: You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book. The Lord Almighty has caught every single tear Joel and Hannah have wept for Mabel and logged it.
4. God is with his people to give them strength
Ps 121.1-2: I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. These words were written by a man on a journey approaching the hills—the most dangerous and frightening part of the journey. Going through them was like walking through a dark alley at night in a bad neighbourhood of a big city. So his question is perfectly understandable: who will help me through this? What’s the answer? The Lord who created the universe! As Joel and Hannah continue to travel through this unimaginably difficult part of the journey of their life, the Maker of the universe commits to helping them every step of the way.
5. Mabel is with Christ at this moment, which is better by far
David said of his first son born to Bathsheba after he died: I shall go to him, but he will not return to me. (2Sam 12.23). He was confident that he would see his son again, even if not in this world. If an Old Testament believer could speak with such confidence about his child, how much more can New Testament believers: …the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. (Ac 2.39)
6. Mabel is a picture of the gospel
What a beautiful illustration of salvation Mabel is. This tiny baby who only lived a few weeks is a stripped-down picture of the gospel.
(a) Mabel illustrates our great problem as human beings—the seriousness of sin. It is highlighted in her in the most emphatic way possible. After all, what could be purer and more innocent than a baby—than a premature baby? Yet the death of even a tiny baby like Mabel is a stark reminder that the wages of sin really is death. I don’t think we can say that Mabel ever actually sinned, but she inherited a sinful nature at the moment of her conception (Ps 51.5). Sin is so serious that even a baby born with a sinful nature can’t escape its horrible consequences. If Mabel needed to be saved, how much more do you and I who have committed countless millions of sins?
(b) Mabel illustrates God’s great solution to our problem—the glory of salvation. Just as Mabel couldn’t consciously commit sin, neither could she consciously put her trust in Jesus Christ as her Saviour. But that was no barrier to her salvation. It didn’t mean the Lord was thwarted because she couldn’t understand the gospel and respond in faith. No—he was able to work directly in her soul by his Holy Spirit and give her a new heart. So Mabel exemplifies with crystal clarity that salvation is of Lord! He does everything that is needed to save us. He always does, but we see that all the more clearly in a tiny baby.
The Lord Jesus said that anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will not enter it. This is because a baby is a picture of helpless dependence on others. If that’s true of a baby under normal circumstances, how much more true was it of Mabel, who for so much of her short life couldn’t even breathe for herself and needed medical help to perform even the most basic physical functions.
This is the only way we can be saved from the judgment our sins deserve. There is nothing we can do for ourselves—we must put all our hope and trust in Jesus Christ. May God grant that Mabel, though dead, would speak these truths to all who hear them.