Recently I was given two reminders of the reality of my own impending death. I say impending, because I have a disease that will at some place, at some time, in some way, do what God did not intend – separate my spirit from my body. This disease is known as mortality, and the cause of it is sin. And while I am so thankful to God for his amazing grace in the Lord Jesus, that my eternal future is secure, these reminders were powerful none the less.
The first reminder was a funeral that I did. It was for a 96 year old woman. The second was watching one of the last vlog posts of Nabeel Qureshi, who entered into the joy of his master, Jesus Christ, after enduring a year-long battle with cancer.
It has given me pause to ponder the questions:
How do I die well? What does it mean to do well?
I remember hearing of a Bishop’s wife who was at a women’s prayer meeting and the women were praying for a Christian woman who has a terminal illness. After many ask God to comfort her and to heal her and to give the doctors wisdom as they treat her, she asked God to enable her to ‘die well’.
There was some disquiet amongst the prayer meeting, how could she be so insensitive? How could she even mention the ‘D’ word? How could she give up hope?
Yet I believe these questions say more about the problem in Australian culture (in fact I would say the problem with Western culture) than it does with the Bishop’s wife’s prayer.
The problem that was highlighted to by Assoc. Prof. Richard Chye, who is the Director of Palliative Care at Sacred Heart Hospice in Sydney, who in the SBS 3 Part Documentary in which three terminally ill people talk about Living the End said this (at the 22:30 mark of the vid)
“Culturally I don’t thing we deal with dying well…even more so now with the westernisation of our culture has put death into a much more secretive too hard basket…and we drammatise dying as being something that does not happen often”.
From my observations, I believe our culture dramatises dying as if it won’t happen at all. We live as if life is permanent; as if we won’t die, and if we ignore it, deny it, then someone how, some way, death will pass us by. We never see it and this is deliberate. If we are honest death frightens us, it puzzles us, it angers us, it confuses us and it hurts us.
Christians are not immune from death, Christians acquire the same illnesses as the non-Christian, Christians are killed from accidents and mishaps just as the non-Christian is.
However observing the responses from the prayer meeting and the request to God that a fellow believer die well, is it possible that us Christians in the west also don’t deal with dying well?
Why is this the case? Here are thoughts I have:
We imbibe this world– We all know the story about the frog in the pot – the theory goes that if you place a frog in boiling water it will immediately jump out, but if you place a frog in warm water and slowly bring it to the boil it will die. The reason is that the frog does is so immersed in the warmth of the water and comfortable it does notice the changes, changes that will lead to its demise. We live in the pot of this world, and swim in the water of our culture, we feel the pull and currents of the various loves, passions, pleasures and morés of our culture. And therein lies the danger, if we are not discerning, if we don’t critique our world in light of the Scriptures, we don’t notice that we change with the culture, we become like our culture and we like our culture…and we dislike those things our culture dislikes…things such as death, the use of the D word, so we end up ignoring death also, not thinking about it and become offended when a fellow Christian prays for that another Christian will die well.
Our grip on this world is too tight – There is Christian singer named Colin Buchanan. He writes very funny and entertaining songs for children, but they are songs that are packed with the Scriptures and good theology. In one of the songs the chorus goes: “Passing through, passing through, on the way to heaven. Don’t let this old world get its group on you. God’s children are only passing through”. Although I agree with Colin, perhaps one of the reasons we baulk at thinking about what it means to die well, is because we grip onto the world so tightly that we see Heaven as the consolation prize, and this life is the main thing and as a result don’t see as ourselves as temporary residents on this world.
We are vague about what happens when we die – We tell our children that when we die we go to Heaven. Which of course is right and proper, but as adults we become vague on the details. We don’t notice what the Scriptures says about Hades/the place of interval, we don’t think about the fact that Heaven is our final destination, that Heaven will be on a redeemed earth where our bodies and spirits are reunited into a perfect resurrected body. We don’t think about the end times, and perhaps have a panmillenial approach to Jesus’ return (i.e “Who cares about the details, God has it sorted, it will all pan out in the end”). Vagueness I think can lead to uncertainty, which can lead to doubt, which can turn into fear, a fear that feeds our culture’s fear of death, of talking about death, which prevents us from dying well.
Compartmentalisation – So we compartmentalise dying from our thoughts, and heaven, we reserve heaven to being that place we go to when we die (which hopefully will not happen for a very very very very long time), so I can get on with living my life now, enjoying my family, church, work, etc now.
So what does it mean to die well?
Dying well means dying:
Full of faith – Hebrews defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. (Heb 1:1). The Christian’s faith is not an empty faith, not wishful thinking, but is a faith based on real promises, fulfilled in the real death and real resurrection of the real saviour the Lord Jesus Christ, who has conquered the death and is preparing the place for us that we can never prepare for ourselves (John 14:1-6). This same Jesus who is the first fruits of the resurrection, who will then in turn resurrect our bodies when he begins his millennial reign! (1 Corinthians 15:20-24). Of course, like the rest of humanity, I do not know when and how I will die, but I do know that I want to be full of this sort of faith when I do, and it is my prayer that I will.
Full of thanksgiving – There is always something about living in this world that leaves us unsatisfied, it does not matter how much money we have, or have had, how successful we have been in our career, or in our families, or our marriage. There is something about living in this world that leaves us wanting it – it…that something more….that something that will satisfy us perfectly and permanently…that it, is the world that we are made for. We will never be fully at home in this world. Our world is a pale reflection of what is waiting for us. The author C. S Lewis knew this about the human condition and wrote these words:
“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Why do we not feel at home here? It is because Heaven is our ultimate destination. We are made by God and for God, and to abide with God. We have an eternal longing for our eternal home. C.S Lewis also wrote:
“Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Of if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures?
The Church Father Augustine knew well that all of us are made for God and he wrotes these words:
“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
So our most profound fulfilment, completion and joy cannot be found on this world. Each day of life is one day closer to that most profound fulfilment, completion and joy and all this because the grace of God found in the Lord Jesus, that he has redeemed us, justified us. This is something that should fill us with thanksgiving! Dying often gives opportunity to reflect back on one’s life. There are many things that the Christian can be thankful to God for, not only our salvation, but for family, for those who brought us to Christ, for opportunities to tell others of Christ, for all the good gifts that God gave us for our enjoyment in this life.
Full of Prayer – Dying is the final time God’s people have to speak with God through the eyes of faith, that is to speak with him before we see him. I like to think that dying well means dying with a prayerful heart. Thanking God, praising God, asking for forgiveness for leaving undone those things in our lives that we out to have done, and for things we have done that ought not to have done. Committing to God those we are leaving behind, praying for unbelievers that we know, perhaps even hospital staff (if that is we are when we are dying).
Full of excitement – Each day of life brings us closer to being with the Lord Jesus where we will no longer battle with temptation, with sin, the world, the flesh and the devil. The act of dying brings this reality home for us. We have nearly arrived. When we die we will be the Lord, and although not in body (that will happen when He returns). But we will be with the Lord Jesus Christ and enjoy beautiful fellowship with him and all of God’s people, including all those great saints of the past and Christians whom we have known and loved who are already there. We will be with Abraham (Luke 16) – we will meet all the people of faith, including the Apostle Paul. For this is the King’s garden party. Angels will also be there. If you die alone, or unwanted or uncared for, or in a tragic accident, God has his angels waiting for you on the other side to care for us! It is wonderful! (Luke 16:22). This is why Paul says, he longs to depart. We will be with Jesus the moment we die. What the Lord Jesus said to the thief on the cross ,“Today you will be with me in paradise”, will be our experience too! And while we are there, we will have that indescribable expectation of knowing that there is even better still to come, when the Lord Jesus will resurrect our bodies at his return and we will meet all God’s people in the air as Christ begins his reign. This is something to be excited about!
So how can we die this way, full of faith, thanksgiving, prayer and excitement – to die well?
Pray – Pray that God by his Holy Spirit will enable us to die well. Contrary to popular belief, dying is not natural. We are not meant to die. The separation of our souls from our bodies is not natural. Physical death is due to sin and no human being is shielded from sin’s physical consequences. So it makes sense I think to conclude that if dying is not natural then dying well is not humanly possible. It is not a human trait. But the good news is that the ability to die well is a divine quality. We can die well, because of the presence, power and enabling of the Holy Spirit, who remember indwells us and is a guarantee of what is coming!
Walk with the Lord – Read God’s Word, really read it, inwardly digest it, cherish it, make it the normal part of your life, so much so that a day without reading God’s Word feels like a very weird and strange and odd day. Pray, (I know I just mentioned this above), but pray daily in your life. I use the BCP daily, and I like to think that if God’ grants me long life, yet I lose my memory, that I will still remember the wonderful prayers of Cranmer and will pray the prayers of Cranmer! Walk with the Lord, praying that your life will be one that is full of faith, thanksgiving, prayer and excitement.
I have heard many people who work with the dying say that people often die the way they have lived. So for the Christian, if one lives well (as the God defines living well), they will most likely die well and I think that is the heart of it.