Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mark's thoughts: I don't want to die

I don’t want to die.  I will be the first to admit it.  And while that sounds like a reasonable enough statement, sometimes Christians can get confused about this.  We know that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we have eternal life. After all, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).  We know that death cannot separate us from Christ.  We know that death means the end of the struggle against the devil, the world and our own sinful nature.  It means the end of all of the sufferings that we encounter in this fallen world.  And indeed when faced with the possibility of death Paul wrote to the Philippians, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  He went on to add, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better’ (Philippians 1:23).

All of these things are true and they are comforting.  Yet sometimes Christians combine these truths in a way that they end up meaning we should want to die.  Now it’s not that the average healthy person is expected to think this way.  Yet when a Christian becomes seriously ill there can be the self imposed expectation that he or she should think this way.  After all, if death means being with Christ and death seems near, shouldn’t a Christian want death that brings being with Christ in this way?  And if that person doesn’t feel this way – if they don’t want to die – does this call into question the health of their faith?  After all, shouldn’t a Christian want to die and be with Christ as Paul describes?

As we think about this, we need to recognize what God created us to be and what death is. God created us to be a living being which is a unity of body and soul. We learn from Genesis chapter 2, “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living creature” (2:7).  God created us to live in this good creation that He had made for He said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). This arrangement is how God made things.  This is what He intended and this is what he considered to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  The creation account in Genesis 1-2 teaches us that God is the giver of life.  And in this life Adam and Eve had purpose.  They were to live in fellowship with God in whose image they had been created (Gen. 1:27).  They were to live out their vocation – their calling – of taking care of God’s creation for we are told, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).

On the other hand, in the account of the Fall we learn that while life has its source in God, death has its source in Satan and sin. Satan tempts Adam and Eve to commit the first sin, and in doing so they bring death into the world.  After their sin God told Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).  Sin causes death which rends apart body and soul as the body returns to the earth. And sin also makes mankind’s vocation into something that involves work and hardship, for God says, “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field” (Genesis 3:18).

It is sin that has brought death.  Paul wrote, “Therefore just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12).  And Paul tells us that because of mankind’s sin, creation itself has been subjected to corruption – subjected to its fallen state (Romans 8:20-21).  Scripture teaches us that God is on the side of life and that Satan and sin are on the side of death. God created us for fellowship with Himself, while Satan and sin cut us off from God.  God created us to serve joyously in our vocation, while Satan and sin have turned it into work and misery.

In response to this situation, at the right time God sent forth His Son (Galatians 4:4) into our world in the incarnation (John 1:14).  He did this to reconcile us to Himself by making Christ be sin for us on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).  He did this to defeat death as in Christ the resurrection of the Last Day began (1 Corinthians 15:20).  Because He has done this, we look forward to the return of Christ on the Last Day when He will give us a share in Jesus’ resurrection (Philippians 3:21) and restore creation (Romans 8:21).

God created us to live bodily life on this earth.  This is what he declared to be “very good.” And so in the Psalms life is good and death is bad. The Psalms operate with a common sense approach.  They usually assume that dead people don’t praise God because they are buried in the ground.  For example we hear in Psalms 30:8-9, “To you, O Lord, I cry, and to the Lord I plead for mercy: ‘What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?’”  The writers of the Psalms want to live.  They want God to rescue them from death because they know that death is not what God intended for us.

I find the Psalms’ way of speaking to be very comforting.  I don’t want to die.  Instead, my prayer is “Come Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 21:20; 1 Corinthians 16:21).  I don’t want to have to pass through death on the way to the resurrection existence.  I want to be part of that number who are alive at our Lord’s coming (1 Thessalonians 4:15).  I want to be among those who do not experience death and instead only experience the transformation (1 Corinthians 15:51) of  becoming like the risen Lord.

Everyone before us has died, and so we recognize that there is the definite possibility that we will die too.  And while we may not want to die, we do not fear death.  As Jesus told Martha before he returned Lazarus to life, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).  In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, death has already been defeated.  As the forgiven children of God, we already possess the eternal life that will never end, and death cannot change this fact.

Because we don’t fear death, we may even arrive at the point when we feel that we are ready to die.  We have all probably known Christians who wanted to die – who were ready to die.  Often elderly Christians express this sentiment when their body has broken down and they face great limitations on what they can do, such as in a nursing home.  Sometimes the terminally ill who have experienced great hardships arrive at the point where they are ready to be finished and to be with Christ.  This is entirely understandable, and it too is God pleasing.  The Lord may guide our lives through circumstances that prompt us, trusting in Christ, to arrive at this point. 

Only God knows what awaits us in the future.  But no matter what happens and how we perceive the possibility of death, we do so in the confidence that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead. As Paul told the Romans, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.  For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:7-9).

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