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Jose Fernandez was high and drunk when he died. Should it matter?

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

When Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a tragic boating accident on September 25th of this year, the impact was felt far beyond the sporting world. The rising star’s tale of escape from his native Cuba made him a beacon of hope for many in the Miami area. His love for the game and the energy he displayed with every batter faced reminded fans of why they fell in love with the game in the first place. And his genuine appreciation for life and the freedoms he fought so hard to gain called people from every walk of life to question why we so often take those blessings for granted.

All of that is why so many are feeling a different sort of devastation after the recently released toxicology reports from that fateful day revealed that Fernandez had cocaine in his system and a blood alcohol content of nearly twice the legal limit at the time of the crash. While evidence suggests that he was not piloting the boat at the time of the accident, the other two men with him at the time—both of whom also perished when their boat hit the jetty at high speed—had also been drinking, though they were not over the legal limit.

For many, perhaps most, those reports will forever tarnish Fernandez’s otherwise magnificent résumé. They may still remember the great things he did and the hope he provided, but those blessings will be interpreted in light of the cocaine and alcohol used around the time of his death. But is that the right approach? Should being high and drunk at the time of the crash somehow make his death any more or less tragic?

As Miami Herald columnist and ESPN radio host Dan LeBatard noted, “There is something soothing in being able to blame him for this because not being able to blame something for this is just to have life be unspeakably cruel.” He would go on to note that “you can grieve a maximum level of grieving and also be disappointed in him and it doesn’t change the grief. The grief is already at the maximum level.”

Essentially, knowing why someone died doesn’t change the fact that they are dead. It can make it more comfortable for us and help us to make sense of the tragedy surrounding a person’s passing, but it accomplishes little to fundamentally alter the situation. Jose Fernandez is no more or less dead today than when his passing was first announced and met with unending talk of the amazing legacy he left behind.

For those who knew and loved him, he will forever remain the person they cherished. But for those who only have a passing knowledge of his career, perceptions of Fernandez are not as final. And even if it shouldn’t be that way, it is. As Christians whose kingdom purposes continue through the legacy we leave behind long after we have gone to be with our Lord, we would do well to remember that truth.

While it’s unlikely that our lives would make international news should you or I die tomorrow morning, each of us leaves a legacy that will impact how others see our God. Every choice we make adds to that legacy, for better or worse.

Scripture is clear that we should never make the mistake of thinking that our darkest sins will remain hidden from the light (Luke 12:2–3). That warning comes at the beginning of Christ’s teaching on the importance of living for God’s purposes rather than our own, even when it may seem expedient or beneficial to do otherwise. He contrasts such living with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in order to demonstrate that it’s not enough to be holy in public if we are corrupt in private. The whole of our lives will determine how people see us and, by extension, the God we claim to serve. Death will do nothing to change that reality.

Who we are in life, for better or worse, will determine how people see us after death. So live today as the person you want to be remembered as tomorrow. This moment might be the last you get to alter that memory. Use it wisely. 

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