Thursday, June 28, 2012


I quite like talking about death.  Reminding ourselves that our life is temporary and possibly shorter than we think clarifies some things in life, I think. We often feel like our story will go on forever when we are in the middle of it.  But really we never know when it might come to an abrupt end.  And we do know that it will end – sooner or later.  But we mostly live as though it won’t and as though the lives of those around us will go on forever too. 

I remember a couple of years ago visiting an old lady from our church who was in hospital dying. She had been particularly kind when our first child was born. I wanted to say goodbye in person. When I went, she was already in a coma.  I sat with her a while, prayed a little and kissed her goodbye.  She was so very, very still.  The only thing moving was the sheet.  Every time her heart beat - and it was beating slowly but hard - the sheet above her chest would pulse.  I was acutely aware of how that beating heart was only shallowly covered by a sheet, a gown, skin and some bone.  And that my own heart was the same.  Vital to my going on and yet so vulnerable.  We don’t often think about how truly fragile we are – one knock, one break, one cut, one blast and it’s all gone.

Maybe the first time I saw death face to face was when I was a little child.  Dad was taking a funeral for the son of one of our church members.  Burial sites were expensive for ordinary folk and it was common in that area to re-use family plots.  In this case, the grave of a grandmother was going to be cleared for her grandson.  The cemetery workers were to remove any previous remains before the funeral procession arrived.  They did, but they weren’t tidy in their work.  As we rounded a corner, there on top of a wall was the partly mummified head of the long-dead grandmother with no eyes but some wirey hair still clinging to the skull.  And everyone knew it was her instantly.  I was about four or five but I don’t remember having nightmares about that.  I think I just accepted it was one of those things that sometimes happen and I hadn’t known the lady anyway.  But I think from that point on I wasn’t confused about people living forever.

Around the time of Jim Stynes’ death, there was an interesting piece in the Age about how we talk about terminal disease.  You can click on that link to read the full article but in summary, the author is a palliative care nurse who suggests that we stop talking about terminal illness as a “fight” or “battle” and referring to a person’s death as “losing his fight”.  He argues that it puts an enormous burden on patients and families to mask their true feelings and appear brave and stoic at all times so as not to be seen to “give up the fight”.  Worth a read, I think.

But lately I’ve been thinking about whether death should seem any different for a Christian.  After all, we say we believe in everlasting life after death.  Surely that changes things?  When someone is facing death, does it make a difference that they are a Christian?

And I’m going to say ‘no’.

Here are two reasons I think a Christian facing death is no different to anyone else:

Firstly, the type of death I experience won’t necessarily be less painful or less horrible because I’m a Christian. There’s no promise that Christians will die peacefully in their sleep in their 90s. I might die like that or I might die in a horrible way or through a horrible disease. Just like everyone else, I live in a world that no longer operates beautifully and perfectly because of the entrance of sin so long ago. And God doesn’t promise me some kind of holy bubble that keeps all the pain away. He does promise that the pain will one day be swept away forever. But in this life, I will still have to face the suffering that comes from living in a fallen world. So I can’t hope for some special non-horrible kind of death just because I’m a Christian.

Secondly, I am not necessarily going to feel more peaceful when dying because I am a Christian. I might. I hope so. I hope that in death I will be rejoicing in the hope of heaven and comforted by the fact that I know God is in control of all things. However, that might not happen. I might, in my final hours, overwhelmed by fear and pain and anxiety, feel anything but secure. I might cry out against God in anger at my circumstances. I might be trembling at the thought of leaving this life and what might come next. I might even feel that the faith that sustained me so well in life is nothing but a sham and that all is lost. And that doesn’t matter. I don’t think that if I feel that way, God is going to come in and punish me (or decide not to heal me if he was going to do so) because I haven’t done the right thing. Because I believe that I am not saved by me and my faith but by Jesus and his strength. I know that my Saviour will hang on to me, even if I lose the strength to hang on to him. Just as I know that I ought to be patient with everyone and yet I still lose my temper from time to time, so in death I know I should trust firmly in God and yet I might not trust as I should in my weakest moment. No matter. I am not saved by my good works, or my strength of faith or how much I can muster up belief and courage. I am like a lost sheep that could never find its way home on its own. And Christ has come and saved me and promised to carry me home. I might fail him, but he will not fail me.

Of course, there are some things about death that I do think are different for a Christian – the hope of eternal life for example. And I hope that I will be brave and bold as I stare down the ugliness that is death. To know that death is not the end and that God has prepared a home for you in heaven is a comfort. But I think it should be okay for Christians to say that death is awful and dying is horrible. That’s the truth – death is our mortal enemy and it’s not unchristian to hate death. Thankfully, my eternal security is not hanging on my emotions in the last weeks/days/hours of my life.


Karen said...

This is a great post. Thank you.
Your points about Christians facing death reminded me of how Jesus faced up to the knowledge that He would die for us. There's a line in the song Consider Christ that has always stayed with me: "though full of dread and fearful of the anguish, He drank the cup that was reserved for me..." So he obviously didn't feel peaceful about what was to come...

Anonymous said...

We are all human after all. It's such a relief to know I don't have to be stoic and appear amazingly faithful when facing death. Jen