How to Get Ready to Die Without Pretending That It’s No Problem
One of the most remarkable sermons I ever heard was delivered by Norman Vincent Peale, at the Ocean City Tabernacle in Ocean City, New Jersey. At the age of 98, he stood fully energized before a packed-out house and declared, “I am going to preach a sermon on a topic I know more about than anyone else here tonight! I am going to preach on the topic, ‘Getting Ready to Die.’”
As this venerable dean of American Preaching made his claim there was no one present who was ready to challenge him by claiming to be older. Instead there must have been many who envied him because he seemed to possess a confidence in the face of dying that most people wished they had.
The old man in the pulpit spoke with authority. It was the authority of someone who had come to look death in the face without blinking and had challenged the despair that it can impose on those it comes to claim. He held the congregation in the palm of his hand because we all knew that he knew of what he spoke and that what he said could help those of us who had not yet faced death in a realistic fashion.
Facing death, say both the philosophers and the psychologists, is the most important and difficult task in life, so it is no wonder that so few of us never seem willing to deal with it, yet, dealing with it is something none of us can avoid. Every once in a while we hear of someone who died while sleeping so that he or she never had to think about dying. When we hear of such case, there is a strange kind of envy that we feel. A friend of mine unexpectedly died of an aneurism. At the prime of her life she went to bed with her husband. In the middle of the night, she woke, got out of bed, and started towards the bathroom. She never made it! After a few steps she suddenly slumped to the floor and was gone. While we mourned her death, I sensed a kind unspoken hope among those of us at her funeral that death might always come that way; at the end of a long and fulfilling life, without having to think about it. “There was no pain! She must have never known what hit her! She must have never realized what was happening!” were some of the comments that could have been heard. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again the first thing she saw was the face of Jesus.
For most of us death comes in ways that are somewhat difficult to handle. The anxieties that are experienced as death comes rushing toward us can dampen our appreciation for life for some of us, so that we end up psychologically dead long before we actually do die.
Howard Becker, whom many consider to be the most brilliant modern interpreter of Sigmund Freud, contends that the repression of death from the consciousness is a pre-requisite to living a happy life. Becker, in his book, Denial of Death, argues that when the defense mechanism that are constructed to ward off the awareness that death is encroaching on our lives begin to break down that the inevitable results is a sense of angst or despair. Becker claims that this is the reason that we participate in an array of socially created illusions designed to erase the reality of the impeding end of life, as we know it.
Soren Kierkegaard picks up this same theme as he described our futile efforts to escape from thinking about death. He said that each of us is like a smooth stone that we toss over the surface of a pond. Like that stone, each of us dances along the surface of life until each runs out of momentum and then each of us sinks into “a 100,000 fathoms of nothingness.”
Some of us are threatened not only with the pain of leaving this life but also with our fears of what might lie on the other side of the grave. Nowhere are such fears given more dramatic attention in English Literature then in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be.”
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
that Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
must give us pause…”
“…the dread of something after death,
the undiscovered country, from whose bourn
no traveller returns, puzzles the will,
and makes us rather bear those ills we have,
than fly to others that we know not of.”
We Christians know that the fear of death can be overcome if we only believe as Christ called us to believe in Him. We know on the cognitive level that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and that whoever believes in Him through he or she dies, yet shall that person live (John 11:25). But when faced with the reality of death existentially, most of us have a tendency to pray that prayer which a desperate father once prayed to Jesus, “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief,” (Mark 9:24). Yet, most Christians do work through their sense of dread about death and, if handled with honesty and prayer, often come out of their struggles with a confidence enabling them to be capable of facing death with their fears and anxieties under control. No one I know was more able to do this more than my own father-in-law. In the later years of his life, the Reverend Robert Davidson suffered from the hardening of the arteries. As the years passed, he seemed to become increasingly detached from everyday life. We sensed that we were losing him. One morning at about 5:00 am he suddenly sat up in bed and, according to his wife, said with a sense of triumph as he addressed an unseen presence, “Oh death! Where is your sting? Oh grave! Where is your victory. Praise be to God who gives me victory!” Then he laid back in his bed- and died! When I heard this story I could only say to myself, “what a way to go!”
But how do people like Norman Vincent Peale and my father-in-law get to that point wherein they are ready to die as true Christians are expected to die? How do they learn to resign themselves to dying with all the evidence of being victors over fear and anxiety? Nobody can answer for sure, but having been with several people as they worked through the reality of their own mortality there are a few things that I have discovered from those who were able to gain peace, and even joy, in the face of death.
When first confronted with the knowledge that the end of life is at hand, the first reaction, as might be expected, is denial. Most of us hang on to the thought that it is other people who die and do our best to make our own impending deaths unreal. On an intellectual level everybody knows that he or she is going to die, but it is more than hard to grasp subjectively what is an all too obvious truth when it comes to one’s own death. To feel the reality of one’s mortality is far different than thinking about it abstractly as an inevitable fact of life. It’s one thing to affirm with one’s mind that one is part of the human race, every member of which eventually dies, and coming to that subjective awareness that can trouble you as you go to sleep at night. As you put your head on the pillow, you might imagine a voice out of nowhere whispering in your heart and mind, “You are one day closer – and there aren’t many days left!”
It takes awhile before a person can emotionally deal with the reality of his or her temporality and acknowledge that for him or her personally time is running out. It is so hard that most people do everything they can to avoid it by becoming preoccupied with other things. But sooner or later all of the distractions that might keep us from thinking about death are likely to break down, no matter how useful these escape mechanisms might seem to be for a while. As Kierkegaard once said, “There comes that moment when even Beethoven is not enough!” Sooner or later those psychological mechanisms that keep us from facing the reality that death is closing in fail and we come to realize that dying is real and actually happening and that there is no escape from death’s nearing inevitability. It is a hard depressing truth, but if we wait long enough it drives away all our denials and we then move into the next stage which is bargaining.
We tell God that if divine intervention just will deliver us, we will be different, and we promise to do some incredible acts of service for Christ and His kingdom if we can just have a little more time. We begin a long litany of imploring petitions which begin with the words, “If only…You spare me I promise that …” The bargaining with God is all part of the dying process. In most cases, however, it does not work, and we realize that God is probably not going to cut a special deal that will temporally save us from death. It is then that we become ready to accept the inevitable. Acceptance, and the peace that it brings, comes as a welcome relief from the painful struggles that accompany denial and bargaining. But coming to this final stage of acceptance is not for Christians simply a matter of some necessary psychological adjustments that we make on our way to the grave. Instead, it is a process through which we are led by the Lord Himself. In the 23rd Psalm, we are given the promise that though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death that God will be with us every step of the way. In our passage to resigning ourselves in death into God’s loving hands, we may discover that God provides comfort and strength. These too are promised in the 23rd Psalm.
The comfort and help that God gives comes in a variety of ways but the most important gift in the face of death is the assurance of his radical grace. In the face of death, each of us, like the apostle Paul, may become convinced that we are the worst sinners in the world and deserving only of condemnation. Certainly Paul had this sense about himself when he was given to reflection on his character (see 1 Timothy 1:15). Like Paul, we can conclude that regardless of any religion we might have had, or any good works we might have done, that our just due is condemnation from God. But if we have time to really get into the Bible, we will get the message that God loves us anyway, even in spite of our being terribly flawed. If we stop living in fear over how sinful we really are and learn to trust in the Good News that Jesus did everything necessary to guarantee us forgiveness and cleansing, and promises of eternal life. Grace (that word that appears over and over again in the New Testament) means that we get what we never earned and don’t deserve. We are told in Romans 5:20 that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” The verses that drive home that truth better than any other I know is Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast,” (New International Version).
What many people think is that God, like the Statue of Justice, has a scale of some sorts and that on that day of judgement God weighs out all the good that we have done against all the sins in our lives. Then, if the good outweighs the sin, God lets us into heaven. The spoofs on judgment day in the movies certainly reinforce this kind of thinking, and those of us who are caught up in those images are led to believe that God will let us through the pearly gates only if we are good enough.
Well it doesn’t work like that! Sin is more like poison. It only takes one little drop in a glass of clear water to kill you. The Bible says that everybody has taken more than enough of this poison to warrant the eternal spiritual death we call Hell. The Bible says: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23 NIV). That puts every man and woman in deep trouble. Nobody has what it takes, according to the Bible, to escape the condemnation that is his or her just due. Every single person who has ever lived, but one, has inherited the moral character of Adam, the founder of the human race, which include an inborn tendency to sin. However, over and against the bad news is the Good News! And here it is: Romans 5:17-18 says, “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”
In case you didn’t get what the Bible tells us, it is that we had nothing to do with becoming oriented to being sinful. It’s part of being in that long line of Homo Sapiens that traces its lineage all the way back to the Biblical couple that got humanity going in the first place. What is of crucial importance, however, is to realize that the flip side to that bad news that the Bible is telling us is that there is nothing we have to do to become acceptable to God! What needed to be done was done for us on the cross and in the resurrection by Jesus.
Please don’t ask me to explain how all of this works but this is what you are asked to believe: When Jesus died on the cross all the sin in your life was absorbed into His personhood and you are freed of sin and its consequences because of that! You don’t deserve what He did for you, and, in all probability, you haven’t shown sufficient gratitude for what He did for you since you found out about it. But it’s a done deal! The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:21? “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
You need to stop and reflect on all of this in the face of death. Objectively you ought to just keep telling yourself over and over again, “I don’t have anything to worry about. Jesus took care of everything that would have made me unacceptable to God and would have barred me from eternal life.” Romans 8:1 – “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Roman 8:1). Subjectively, you ought to be allowing Jesus, who is an invisible presence where you are right now, to penetrate your mind, heart and soul. In the face of death it is time to shut out the world and thinking about dying and to yield to an invasion by His spirit. As that happens, you will sense to the extent that His loving spirit flows in that the depressing fears that generally come with dying will gradually be driven out. 1 John 4:18 – “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t sin enough to lose God’s love. You can’t do enough good to earn God’s love. It’s a gift.
You need to take time to think about what He did for you on the cross, but you also must take time to let His spirit do something to you in the “now.” Go off by yourself. Shut the door of your room (Matthew 6:6). Sit still and ask God to help you feel Jesus penetrating your psyche. In the words of that old gospel hymn, “take time to be holy.” Let Jesus happen to you in the stillness! In all of this His spirit will work on your state of consciousness and give you the assurance you long for in the face of death.
There is something else that has to be settled in the face of death if you are going to be able to accept it with what the Saints have called, “the peace that passes understanding.” You have to face the burden that goes with remembering the ways your sins have hurt others. You know that even if you are able to sense a freedom from guilt and the assurance that you really are a child of God bound for glory, you cannot help but be deeply troubled by all the hurt and trouble your sin has brought into the lives of others.
Perhaps you’re a woman, who in loneliness and neglect, found affection in the arms of another man other than your husband, and you think it might have had numerous effects not only your husband’s life, and in the lives of your children, but also in the lives of other people.
Or maybe, you’re a man who left your wife and children to go off with another woman and the wounds that you inflicted on them are still open and will mean a lifetime of suffering for them.
It could be that in some way you have lived a lie. You got where you are because people do not know the truth about you, and you fear that in the next life those you deceived will know the truth.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the rhyme of The Ancient Mariner declared that a deed in time is irreversible. He tells us that once an evil thing has been done, its effects cannot be undone, and that the guilt that comes with the evil done goes on forever. Coleridge was wrong!
There are two reasons to reject the despair defined by Coleridge. The first is the good news that God somewhat can undo the consequences of the sin that any of us have done. Consider the often abused verse, Romans 8:28. Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The verse does not tell us that God causes everything that happens. God certainly is not the author of the sins we commit (James 1:14). What the verse does mean is that in the midst of all the good and the evil that goes on in our lives and in the lives of those with whom we are involved, God is at work figuring out how to make things turn out good for those who trust Him with their lives. What that means is that you can turn over to God the messes that you’re made for others. You can call upon Him to step in and miraculously bring about some good for everyone involved. This does not absolve you from the need for confession and doing all you can to ease the pain of those you have hurt. You need to do both of these things.
Thousands of years ago, there was a young man we read about in the Bible named Joseph. We read that Joseph’s brothers did him dirty in a horrible way. At first, they threw him into a deep pit and had planned to leave him there to die. When they saw a caravan passing by on its way to Egypt, however, they figured that they could make some money by selling off their brother to be a slave to the owners of the caravan. The woes of Joseph that followed are well known to those who know the Bible, but so are the triumphs of Joseph. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, Joseph overcame his adversities while in Egypt and rose to be the king’s prime minister.
Years later Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt because a famine had brought them to the verge of starvation. They had heard of the wise prime minister of Egypt who had made sure to it that ample food supplies had been stored in the king’s silos to meet just such an emergency as might be caused by a famine. So they went to Egypt to ask the prime minister to spare some food for their family, not knowing that the wise and now famous prime minister was none other than the brother that they had wronged.
After some painful theatrics Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, who in turn shuddered at their possible fate at Joseph’s hands. But Joseph comforted his brothers by offering hope, as God does to all of us who repent of sin. In Genesis 50:20 we read that Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives,” (NIV). It didn’t undo the sin but it evidenced that God could bring something good out of it.
At Eastern University, where I have taught for many years, I would sometimes ask my students what was the greatest sin ever committed in history. They always say, “The Crucifixion of Jesus.” Then if I ask what was the greatest blessing ever bestowed in history, the usually say, “The crucifixion!” That proves my point.
Leslie Weatherhead, in a brilliant little essay entitled, “The Will of God,” helps put what I am trying to say here into some kind of logical form. He contends that there is God’s Initial Will. That means that before the world began God meant for there to be no evil at all in the world. He wanted for goodness to reign and for love, joy and peace to be evident everywhere and in everything. But humanity rejected what God planned for us and came up with its own plans for life, and those plans were disastrous. The good news is that God didn’t give up on us, even when God had every right to give up on us and give us what we deserved. Instead, God established what Weatherhead called the Circumstantial Will of God.
By the Circumstantial Will of God, Weatherhead meant that God went to work in the midst of the messes that we created. God derived plans wherein God took the evil actions and the sinful circumstances that we have generated and weaves them into an outcome that turns out for good for all involved. I am not sure about any of the details as to how all of this works, but by faith I leave the messes I created in God’s hands. I have to believe that God will not only undo the consequences of the evil for which I am responsible, but that He will be able to turn the evil into accomplishing some good. The death and resurrection of Christ is all the evidence I need to believe that He can. After all, were there ever such evil plans and actions that compare to what they carried out against our Lord on that tragic Friday when they nailed him to the cross? Yet God took the evils of Judas, the high priests of the Temple, Herod, Pilate and the blood thirsty mob, and turned all of that into the greatest blessing of all time. There is just no telling of what God can do when He takes the evil that we committed and decides to use it to do some good.
Weatherhead completes his little essay by telling us about the Ultimate Will of God. This is his way to declare that at the end of history evil will not have the final word. The most miraculous reality is that ultimately God will make everything new (Revelation 21:5) and right. In the end, as Julian of Norwich said, “All will be well! All manner of things shall be well!”
Finally, as we face death we should find comfort in the declaration that God by His grace not only forgives and delivers us from that which would ban us from the joys of heaven; He not only undoes the consequences of the evil that has marked our lives; but He also forgets that we ever sinned in the first place (Isaiah 43:25). Who would want their sins remembered? So thorough is God’s work in our lives that on that great day when we are presented to the heavenly hosts we will be introduced as persons who are faultless. The book of Jude affirms this truth. Jude1: 24 states: “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.”
I can just imagine Jesus saying, “Father! I want you to meet my friend Tony … The Perfect One!” And that is what he will do for everyone who trusts in Christ when we meet Him on the other side of the great divide.
In light of all this good news about how those who understand and live out the gospel can face “the last enemy,” which the Bible calls death, we can deal with the fact of death. We can more fully understand why Jesus said what he did in John 14:1-4, in what many consider to be one of the comforting passages of scripture in the face of death: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
With that truth undergirding us, let us listen to our Savior, who tells us in the face of death, “Fear not!”
This is an extended edition of the August 16, 2018 article featured on the Red Letter Christians blog.