Forced to look
We don't like to think about death. None of us do. It may well be the single most horrifying source of terror and tears, agony and heartache, and tragic loss. We strain through life squinting hard so that we see and think about death as little as possible. It’s almost like we think that if we can’t see it, it will disappear—like the bogeyman in your dreams that maybe isn’t really there.
But every once in a while reality jolts us awake from our comfortable blindness. Maybe someone you know suddenly passes away. Maybe you or someone close to you receives a medical report of a fatal condition. We try to muffle the inner scream, but something inside still shouts, "This is wrong!" In emptiness and confusion, we try hard to muffle the inner voice that accuses God of injustice.
But pause for a moment: while that’s going on, something else has happened inside of us. We, who by nature live our lives running from the slightest thought of death, have suddenly found ourselves staring at it unblinking, forced by the hand of circumstance to ponder the thing we would never have looked at for a moment.
Scared to Look
Is this good or bad? Is it good to be reminded of death, or should we turn and run?
To the unbeliever, the answer commonly is the latter. Death can only remind us of the endless slipping away of life, reality, vitality, and everything that is good—slipping away into the endless abyss from which no one will ever come back. One may cry an endless fusillade of tears for the death of his loved one, but each tear will just brings him closer to the grim reaper that waits at his own heels.
But what about for believers? How do the agony and inevitability of death fit into the Christian faith?
Believers share many things in common with unbelievers in regard to death. We stand beside unbelievers and agree that death is horrible. Death is frightening because it is a reversal of God’s beautiful gift of life; one of the first true horrors that post-Eden man would see. Death is also painful because it is a separation and a loss, the sort of tragedy that comes only in the aftermath of tear-stained faces looking up to God begging for a little more help.
But for believers, neither the terror of death nor the pain of death are the whole story. The deepest kind of terror is the terror that foreshadows evil, and the deepest kind of pain is the pain that is empty of purpose. But what if there was a terror that foreshadows wonder, and a pain that leads to the greatest purposefulness there could ever be?
Christ conquered death, and in that central event of all history he removed its sting. “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor 15). With the grip of sin removed, the meaning of death has changed. The terror we experience at death is no longer a foreshadowing of something horrible, but in fact a foreshadowing of something wonderful; and the pain we experience at death is no longer a scream of purposelessness, but instead a rallying cry of divine purpose.
Ready to Look
If this distinction is real, then we shouldn’t look at death (or rather, close our eyes to death) the same way unbelievers do. This is why Paul describes Christian loss in 1 Thessalonians 5, “that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” We must grieve, certainly, but not like those who lack God’s wonderful gift called “hope.”
What is included in this “hope”? (Which we know, of course, is a translation of the Biblical word for a confident expectation, rather than vague optimism.) The central core of this hope, in my opinion, is Christ himself (cf. Phil 1:23). This is what gives meaning, value, and joy to every moment of life on earth, and also what gives meaning, value, and joy to every moment of the life that follows. Christ is everything.
This is the breath of fresh air that Christian faith provides, and it gives us just enough courage to creak open the book of Psalms and read a passage that would make any unbeliever squirm:
LORD, reveal to me the end of my life and the number of my days. Let me know how short-lived I am. You, indeed, have made my days short in length, and my life span as nothing in Your sight. Yes, every mortal man is only a vapor.
Is the psalmist really intentionally drawing our attention to death? The Bible is clear that we shouldn’t have morbid or morose thinking habits; that much is clear (Phil 4). But here we are told to reflect on, seemingly, one of the most morbid concepts of all! (And this is certainly not an anomaly—consider Ps 90, Eccl, and Jas 4).
The psalmist isn’t trying to dredge up images of fear, hopelessness, or morbidity. Instead, he is drawing our minds to the eternity, truth, and significance that lie beyond. Ultimately he is pointing to the One who waits beyond death, to the God who gives eternal significance to every single moment we spend today.
Blessed to Look
We humans all like to hide from death, shut our eyes and never think about it. But sometimes God, through circumstance, forces us to open those eyes and remember how short-lived we are. Several times in the last couple years, I’ve been shocked by the tragic death of one of God’s servants; often, of someone very close to my own age.
Most of the time, we ask the wrong questions. But when passages like Psalm 39:5 (above) come to mind, we may be more likely to ask the right kinds of questions. Questions like, for example, “How long is my life and what am I doing with it?”
I wonder if it might even lead some to do the “gravestone exercise.” This is the odd little exercise where you pick up a piece of paper and draw a gravestone, and then put your name at the top and your birth-year at the bottom, followed by a dash. Then you slow down for a moment as you ask yourself, “What does the rest of the stone say?”
After all, each of us has a tombstone, so to speak, and both dates are already written in, carved in stone (no pun intended). What isn't yet written is the epitaph--that part is up to you. It's up to you to live today, and tomorrow, and the day after, either responsibly in the name of God, or irresponsibly for your own interests. That's what gives life meaning.
This Is Wrong
Remember the inner cry I mentioned at the beginning? “It's so wrong!” So wrong, it seems, when someone is living faithfully, and perhaps doing great things for God, and suddenly dies.
But maybe we should turn our eyes to a much deeper wrong, that can never be justified. Yes, it does seem wrong and hard to understand when God takes home a faithful believer who is more prepared than most of us to meet his Savior face to face. But what is dreadful and horribly wrong is when any one of us goes on living, day by day, without a single thought about that final day—spiritual things ignored, eternal value neglected, and no thought of the future approval or disapproval of Jesus Christ.
It is a far deeper wrong to live in this world without acknowledging the next, than it ever could be for a godly soul to move on to the next.
So, what's going to be on your tombstone? There's still time to change it.
Damien Riegel is a student at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity degree. He grew up in western Michigan with five siblings and received a Bachelor of Theology degree from FaithWay Baptist College of Canada in 2013. He currently attends Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, Michigan and is considering pursuing an additional Master of Theology degree after finishing his MDiv.
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