Nobody should ever die alone. Yet it happens all the time.

A veteran policeman who lived near my home suffered a serious drinking problem. He kept it quiet, afraid of losing his badge. Then one night fellow officers caught John snoozing in his car beside open beer bottles. I’m not sure whether they reported him, but he managed to maintain both his job and his addiction.

Meanwhile at home, life was falling apart. John yelled at the kids and their friends, causing chaos and setting a bad example. As for his marriage, “for better or for worse” turned out be worse than imaginable or acceptable. Tough love was his wife’s last resort. She warned John that if he came home drunk again, she wouldn’t let him in the door.

He did and she didn’t.

Homeless now, John resorted to a $35 motel with a bright yellow sign that belied its bleak environment. Retreating to his private panic room, John lay on the bed to contemplate his future. He didn’t bother to get beneath the sheets. About midnight he sat up on the side of the bed, pulled out his service revolver, and shot a bullet through his tortured heart.

The gunshot announced John’s death. Now he was beyond help. By the time I arrived, his body was gone and the room was empty. Too late for ministry, I knelt on the faded blue carpet, close to the small circle of congealing blood.

Within reach of John’s pillow, in plain sight, was a Gideon Bible. John couldn’t have missed seeing it when he entered the room and switched on the bedside lamp.

I reached for the Bible, flipping through its pages of printed notes offering self-help from God to be set free in Christ: verses for overcoming addictions, verses for when you’re lonely, verses for coming to Christ. All of them bore testimony for God in cold black type.

If only . . .

If only John had reached for that Bible instead of his pistol. That was a chilling thought. Then another possibility, even more haunting, suggested itself: Maybe John did reach for that Bible, scanned a few verses and put it down, hopeless as before.

For some who seek it, God’s grace seems like candy on top of the fridge—tantalizing and desirable but far beyond reach of a toddler. Sometimes you need a friendly human boost to grasp the gift of freedom in Christ.

Bibles from the Gideons have encouraged and helped save thousands of souls over the decades. Thank God for that wonderful ministry, which I admire. But sometimes people cry out for a human word to understand the written word—this, for them, unlocks the truth in Christ that sets them free.

Long ago an Ethiopian court official ventured to Jerusalem for worship. Heading home, he was reading a Gideon Bible from his hotel room but not getting its message. Heaven’s sanctuary dispatched Philip the deacon, who had to run to connect with the rolling chariot. Out of breath, he panted: “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man replied: “‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:30-31).

Thank God for Phillip the deacon and his Bible study on wheels. Too bad nobody was there for John the policeman as he reached past the Bible to grasp the gun.

I’m not blaming anybody. His wife had done everything she knew to save her husband and their kids. There was a Pentecostal church around the corner where I prayed every Thursday morning with the pastor, a fellow chaplain. Like Phillip, we both would have hurried to the side of someone in crisis. In fact we did it all the time. I just got there too late for John to be set free from his despair.

God alone can judge John, so I’m not blaming him either for what he did in that lonely motel room. Nor am I excusing anything that he did—either to his family through the years or to himself that last dark night. But obviously freedom from bondage to sin and despair seemed unavailable to him.

That’s what the Psalms of lament are for, which David composed when he felt forgotten by God and humanity. God’s Spirit can awaken those Psalms from the printed page to inspire fainting souls with the same help He provided David 3,000 years ago. But sometimes our minds are just too confused to get much out of ink on paper—even though it’s the word of God in print. Sometimes we need the word made flesh to set us free.

The living word

That’s what happened when Jesus walked this dearth. In this weary wasteland, He came as the fountain of God’s living word—refreshingly personal. The spoken word hadn’t accomplished enough in Old Testament times. Yahweh had talked to the world many times in various ways. Finally He Himself came in the person of Jesus to set us free. And the world has never been the same since “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

It was our living, loving God who hiked the hills of Galilee, who slept on the lakeshore with snoring disciples, who kissed the tears of worried mothers and carried their gleeful children on shoulders muscled by hard labor. He showed skeptical fisherman how to catch human souls with love that was more than bait on a hook.

But it wasn’t long before the world was fed up with the living bread from heaven. Only by a miracle did Jesus survive the wrath of organized religion long enough to be nailed naked to a cross. But He didn’t let that happen before creating and commissioning an alternative spiritual community called the church.

The church was not deployed to defeat nations with the sword, as did Muhammed for Allah—and Christian Crusaders brandishing a red cross on their armor. God’s plan was to conquer human hearts by love, one by one setting them free. And then He took these scattered graced-based converts and united them into a new human race, the fellowship of the church.

Thus we experience freedom in Jesus from our lonely addictions, liberated to love one another with a personal touch—even as we have experienced His love.