Over the past thirty years or so, western culture has become more insulated from suffering and death. We’ve removed aging and dying from our homes and put them in hospitals and convalescent facilities.
We prefer to visit suffering and death rather than experiencing them as ongoing parts of life. In previous generation, aging parents were brought to the homes of their adult children to finish their time earth.
This came with hardships, discomforts and sacrifices, but it also offered education in what earlier generations called, “The art of dying well.”
Made from the dust of the earth, yet created in the image of God, we humans are the crowning work of the Creator. As fallen from our original place, the image of the Creator, though still evident in us, has been profoundly disfigured. Along with our original dignity, there is depravity.
Dignity and depravity — this is our common story. It shouldn’t be hard recognize this duality in humans. Side by side in human history, we find great acts of kindness and heroism (dignity) and horrific acts of hatred, violence and evil (depravity). The fault line runs through every human heart through every moment of history.
Because of the simple yet tragic fact of our fallenness, we all live under a curse:
“From dust we have come and to dust we shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Stated differently: “Death is the destiny of every person and the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).
It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, influential or unknown, educated or uneducated, religious or heathen—one day, we must all draw our last breath and die.
Before going on about dying well, let’s acknowledge several truths about death and life.
- Death is an enemy and a thief –not a welcomed friend.
- Death reminds us of our sin and the curse
- Death separates us from our loved ones
- Death is an occasion for grief and sorrow.
- Life is precious as made in the image and likeness of God.
- Life must be valued and promoted.
- Life must be protected when possible.
Life in our physical bodies is not ultimate and should not be elevated above matters of eternal consequence. Jesus said, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4-5).
“Believers are not to cling to the trappings of this life till the very end. Rather we should slowly lose our grip on this world as our affections are gradually transferred to the next. This must start early in our Christian lives. It is imperative that, as maturing Christians, we begin early the process of dying. We must no longer fear death; we must see it as a defeated enemy. We must begin to relinquish the material values of this life and to focus increasingly on the life of eternity that God has prepared for us. It is with these perspectives that we will be prepared to face the latter days of our lives.”
“He who fears death or is not willing to die,” wrote Luther, “is not sufficiently Christian. As yet such people lack faith in the resurrection, and love this life more than the life to come” (quoted in A Commentary to the Epistle to the Hebrews by P. E. Hughes, [Grand Rapids, 1977: Eerdmans] 114).
Jesus faced death with majestic calmness and selfless devotion. He hung on a brutal instrument of torture while his followers forsook him. The soldiers mocked him and divided his garments. The religious leaders were outraged over the mocking sign on the cross declaring him king of the Jews. The crowd ridiculed him and shook their heads in disgust. Yet we learn that Jesus committed no sin and never uttered a deceitful word. While being repeatedly insulted, he did not retaliate. Though he suffered so greatly, he uttered no threats. He “kept entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (I Peter 2:23).
In the garden of Gethsemane, after loud crying and tears to the one who was able to save him from death (Hebrews 5:7), he embraced that Father’s will to bear the judgment our sin deserved — death. While dying on the cross, Jesus prayed for his abusers (Father Forgive them), tended to his mother, ministered to the needs of a criminal, bore the judgment sin deserved and accomplished our salvation.
When the appointed time had come for him to die, no man took his life from him he laid it down by himself (John 10:18). Jesus called out with a loud voice: “Father into your hands I commit my spirit”. Then he breathed his last breath and died. What dignity!
But the story didn’t end with death because, “God raised him up putting an end to the agony of death since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24). Because Jesus broke the power of death, those who trust him as their Savior should have a radically different view of death.
This is where the Scripture offers unparalleled perspective, comfort and hope. If you have come to Jesus and trusted him as Savior, he wants you to be clear that “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).
Those who come to Christ have been given to him by God the Father and Jesus said, “I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:39-40). Jesus was unequivocally clear when he said, “…because I live, you will live also” (John 14:19).
Those who belong to Jesus should adopt the perspective described in Romans 14:8, “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” The reason we have this understanding of living and dying is that, “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep (i.e. alive or dead), we may live together with him” (I Thessalonians 5:10).
Yes, “…the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). If you trust in Jesus as your personal Savior, remember his words, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades (Revelation 1:17-18).
Jesus gave his followers encouraging orders: “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3).
Consider some truths about the place awaiting us: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).
These words of hope should cause us to join the apostle, confessing that, “…we prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord (II Corinthians 5:8). Even while we desire to serve Christ in this life, we live with tension because at a deeper level, we “desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better (Philippians 1:23).
Although death itself is not desired, the destiny awaiting those who belong to Jesus should be strongly desired. This is why the apostle can write, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). We cannot live or die well unless we take ownership of these words. This must become our life purpose statement: “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”