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Keeping Death in Mind

Death. It is a somber subject that many would like to refrain from discussing. However, although many wish it to be avoidable, it is inevitable. The writer of Hebrews penned a summation of this truth in chapter 9 verse 27 when he stated: “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once.” The infamous expression “you can run but you can’t hide” is almost a picture of those who attempt to escape the ever-approaching grip of death. It cannot be outrun, and it surely cannot be defeated by our mere human power.

But how does a Christian respond to death? As both a pastor and as someone who worked with the very subject and situation of death in a professional setting for over three years, I have walked alongside many in the “valley of death,” whether it be to provide comfort to grieving families or those fearful of the impending departure of life from their physical bodies. However, what troubles me most are those who ignore death, treating it like an alternate reality or fantasy with the impression that it is something that only occurs in the lives of other people. Rarely do many individuals give thought to their own death, especially a death that is inevitable at some point in their life.

Matthew McCullough authored a book entitled Remember Death, in which he emphasizes and expounds on this idea, stating: “Death is a fundamental experience, uniting all humans across time and space, race and class.” He also states that “Death is no less inevitable than it’s ever been, but many of us don’t have to see it or even think about it as a daily presence in our lives.”

For example, consider the medical industry. Trillions of dollars have been pumped into such medical organizations, treatments, and operations in hopes to allow humans to live longer. Surgeon Atul Gawande shared this idea by expressing "we’ve created a multi-trillion dollar edifice for dispensing the medial equivalent of lottery tickets—and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near certainty that those tickets will not win." To sum this point up, Gawande stated that the United States Medicare system spends approximately 25% on the 5% of patients in their final year of life, most of which that money goes for care in the last 2 months, yielding little or no apparent benefit.

But why is this so? Why do we throw everything we can muster at an unsolvable problem? Broadly spoken, it is because we are in denial about the naturalness and necessity of death itself. On a cultural plane, three factors of why we have banished the conversation and consideration of death from our minds are existential.

First, it could be stated that death does not collaborate with our culture's obsession with happiness. Our society trumps the words to the right of "the pursuit of happiness." Our culture’s attempt to foster a perfected environment of happiness and peace in every circumstance is impossible, and an unreasonable attempt to control our surroundings by manipulating them to fit our ideals. Death is one of those subjects, however, that cannot be manipulated. And, ultimately, the reason many of society’s individuals suppress death is that it is an overwhelmingly unanswerable challenge to our happiness and obstructs our pursuit of it.

Second, the reality of death is simply too horrific for the collective culture to consider. When we experience the hurt of the death of a loved one, we immediately feel a sense of separation from the individual. In the blink of an eye, a once-occupied body now becomes an empty carcass laying lifeless and unresponsive to our emotion, compassion, and care. Death is a dividing line between our dignity and significance, being, in the words of Matthew McCullough, an “unshakeable cloud for those living in a closed universe with no hope of a force from the outside breaking through to conquer for us what we can’t conquer.”

Third, the culture has suppressed death in its honest form, and even Christians have done much the same. Many Christians seek the medical miracles of today just like those who have no hope—a startling fact. We also pursue happiness on the same material terms as everyone else. We treat death as if it is not something to mourn but celebrate. Although this is true in a sense, Jesus’s response to the death of his friend Lazarus was weeping and deep emotion. Shouldn’t our response be of some similarity?

Perhaps this is due to our identity and how it collides with death. Ivan Ilych, “Death feels to us like something that happens to other people. Our own death is unimaginable. It seems as if the world can’t keep going without us.” But the startling reality, as alluded to by Ilych, is that death makes a statement about our identity: we are not too important to die.

Death is a humbling factor in our life. When we recognize our impending departure, it places into perspective that the world will continue without our active and tangible presence. Regardless of prominence, death prevails. But death also disorients us. Because death humbles us by delivering us the knowledge that our life will be forgotten at some point, it begins to disorient us—shift us from our self-appointed place at the helm of the universe to a place of subduing our self-inflated worth. This is where the true crisis begins regarding our identity. Our identity is certainly not something that a person is born with, but rather it is something we create for ourselves.

We have the ability to decide the specific things in life which make it significant, but contrary to our human will, we are unable to make the decision to be immortal. Concisely stated, you end up dead regardless of human will. Although human will allow us to form an identity, it can easily become one of the dangers that, when taken to the extremity, can become more disorienting than the inevitability of death itself.

But the question is also raised: How do we face up to death which defines our identity and characterizes our life? Those without hope derived from the Gospel can either commit suicide and accelerate the impending death, or they can revolt, living as if they matter, and pretend that their life has a value that death will not erase. Both are complete denials of death but are the two predominant methods people use to cope with death and difficulties.

However, there is a hope found within the Gospel of Jesus Christ that offers a life-giving alternative because our union with the Lord Jesus Christ completely transforms our life and perspective of death. Because of the liberation located within the Gospel, we see that, although death implies that we are less important than we have allowed ourselves to believe, the Gospel proclaims that we are far more loved than you ever imagined.

Therefore, those of us who's hope is in the Gospel of Christ derive their identity not from death or decision, but by declaring the Gospel in our life. There is a promised union with Christ, a justified life in Christ, and an adopted status with Christ. Because we are now children of God no longer under the sentence of death, but have passed from death to life, and recognize our need for God’s grace which conquered the grave of death, we now find a surpassing peace about death that we never understood previously.

The Christian life, in essence, is not characterized by works, deeds, goals, and accomplishments, although we do enjoy the results of such, it is rather characterized by Christ. We no longer live for what makes us noble, wise, or satisfied, but now we live for Christ in whom we discover our deepest and sincerest satisfaction. Because we trust in the gospel hope of Jesus Christ, we then mold our perspective around Christ, not ourselves. As a result, death becomes a reality that isn’t so intimidating to face, yet one which we anticipate with peace.

But the question raised by those with a dim perspective is, how can I truly enjoy anything with the certainty of death hanging over me? The answer is, again, found in Christ, who "came to give life" that we might “have it abundantly.”

But what about grief? How can I enjoy life with the grief which follows death? Perhaps the most significant emotion associated with death is grief. Grief is the general response to our recognition of death—being made aware of death. Grief is the reaction to the sting of death, as outlined in Paul’s letter. But I echo the words of Matthew McCullough, “we need to feel death’s sting so that we can taste the sweetness of resurrection.” A beautiful metaphor symbolizing death’s beauty amid pain. There is beauty in the pain of grief.

Although we grieve over those whom death has claimed, the Bible proclaims, “we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” There is hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but there is also peace in the grief that we have—knowing that those who are asleep in Christ will one day be resurrected, just as Christ. A reunion will take place, rejoicing will be imminent, and eternal jubilation will be experienced. We are made alive in Christ, that we would not perish but have the joy of everlasting life.

Death is coming. It is evident, unavoidable, and inescapable. However, the good news, our hope, is not in the expectation of death, but eternity after death. We pass from death into life eternal—spending eternity with the one who purchased our redemption because of our complete, unwavering trust in the redeemer.

New American Standard Bible, 1977, Hebrews 9:27 McCullough, Remember Death 2018. New American Standard Bible, 1977, Ecclesiastes 2 New American Standard Bible, 1977, John 10:10 New American Standard Bible, 1977, 1 Thessalonians 4:13

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