Though there are many questions yet unanswered regarding the sudden death of pop super-star Whitney Houston, her untimely death certainly carries with it a lot of emotion and a variety of reactions. Some will quickly overlook Houston’s obvious foibles pertaining to alcohol and drugs and label her a “good person” based completely on the nostalgia factor. They remember her flawless look, her angelic voice and her ability to mesmerize her audiences with both as she performed hits such as “I Want To Dance With Somebody” or “Greatest Love of All.” Others will vilify her for her participation in such vices and for wasting or throwing away such incredible beauty and talent. What should one’s reaction to Houston’s death be, at least as a follower of Jesus Christ? In an earlier post, I wrote about a Christian response to the death of another famous (or perhaps better, infamous) person – Osama Bin Ladin. In this post I want to address what we can take away from the passing of this American icon.
Let me begin by acknowledging an important question that is being often asked in the midst of this tragedy: “Was Whitney Houston a Christian?” A quick internet search will provide a variety of answers to that question. Some will indicate that she certainly must have been as she began singing in church as a child and given that her last performance included singing “Jesus Loves Me.” Others would look at the overall trajectory of her life and describe it as the relentless pursuit of the idolatry of fame and fortune, which led to excessive drug and alcohol use – weak attempts to fill the emptiness of such a lifestyle. I do not pretend to know the answer to this question. Ultimately, that is between Miss Houston and God. There is only one who can rightly judge her life, the One who created her. I will trust that judgment to Him. Trevin Wax, blogger at Kingdom People, quotes Miss Houston from a 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer as saying of her drug addiction and lifestyle, “It’s my deciding. It’s my heart. It’s what I want and what I don’t want. Nobody makes me do anything I don’t want to do. It’s my decision. The biggest devil is me.”
I think one of the biggest takeaways from this sad tale is the truth of Jesus’ comment in Mark 8:36-37, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (ESV) By any earthly standard, Houston had it all. She had beauty, talent, fame, fortune – all in large quantities. For many, she was the epitome of the American dream. Many parents would have encouraged their young daughter to chase such a dream. For many contestants on shows such as American Idol or X-factor, Whitney Houston would have been the embodiment of the dream they were chasing. And yet, at the end of the day, all of the things that Houston had long-since achieved left the pop star with a seemingly gaping hole in her heart and soul. Her attempts to dull the pain of the emptiness of stardom through the use of drugs and alcohol only apparently made the pain worse and the hole larger.
What we can learn from this is that the things of the world that we should supposedly desire – beauty, talent, fame, fortune, etc – are big on promise but short on return. Perhaps the only thing more devastating than longing for these things and never achieving them is to have achieved them, as Houston did, only to discover that the emptiness of heart and soul that you hoped they would fill still remains. Then the emptiness is compounded with unmet expectations and despair.
Another lesson we can learn is that for our lives to really count, they must point to something (or rather, Someone) bigger than ourselves. If a singer’s life points to herself, when her voice is gone she also loses her purpose. If a major athlete’s talent is allowed to point to himself, a career-ending injury takes his sense of purpose with it. Our lives were never intended to be about ourselves or to point other people toward us. If we allow such to be the case, our purpose will be brief, as brief as our own lives, which the Bible describes as a vapor, easily dissipated by the wind (James 4:14).
So, how do Christians respond to the death of a star like Houston?
1) We pray for her daughter and family. We pray that they will know the grace and comfort of God, if they do not already.
2) We neither blindly or nostalgically label her a “good person” (a view which her own actions disallow), nor vilify her as a terrible drug-addict/alcoholic who deserved death (knowing the Gospel reminds us that we all are deserving of death, due to our sin). Instead, we speak about her life with the appropriate dignity of one who was created in God’s image, who seemingly tragically missed the hope, peace and fulfillment that only a relationship with God through Christ can provide.
3) We allow ourselves to be reminded of the hollow promises of power, fame, fortune, etc. The Gospel reminds us that purpose and fulfillment are found in a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ, not in the these temporary, fleeting things of the world. We must pursue eternal things that will last – “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33), knowing that all of our temporary needs will be provided for us by God Himself.
4) We remember that our lives are not about bringing attention and glory to ourselves but rather to God. Only as we live for the glory of God will we find fulfillment by living out the purpose for which we were created.