We do not want you to be like whose who have no hope – A Reflection on Modern Christian Attitudes Toward Dying
At a recent meeting wherein an elderly relative was preparing advanced medical directives, a friend of the family, a secular Jew, expressed the discomfort the speaking about dying brings something to most people. I happened to mention in passing, that for a Christian, the day we die is really the greatest day of our life. She looked to me with some surprise and while I expected her to articulate that she thought that heaven was a dubious reality, instead she Said something quite different. She said, “Perhaps there is heaven for the faithful who believe after death. And perhaps then, to die is the greatest day of one’s life. But I do not observe the Christians live this way. It seems that they are just as anxious as anyone else about dying, and earnestly seek to avoid death just as much as anyone else.”
A very interesting observation, and one that I found mildly embarrassing, even as legitimate explanations quickly entered my mind. But even after giving her some of the legitimate explanations for this, I must say some mild embarrassment still lingered as to the kind of witness we Christians sometimes fail to give to our most fundamental values. Based on her remark, and I’ve heard it before, most of us Christians don’t manifest a very ardent longing for heaven. I have remarked on this before, but in today’s conversation this concern once again came home to roost.
There are of course some legitimate reasons that we do not rush towards death as well as some lesson illegitimate reasons. Briefly, I’d like to speak of a few legitimate reasons that we drawback from death, but also articulate some other reasons that are less legitimate and frankly a bit embarrassing.
As for some legitimate and understandable reasons we may draw back from dying, and may not at first think of dying is the greatest day of our life, there are some of these:
1. There is a natural fear of dying which is certainly part of our physical makeup, and it would seem, hard-wired into our psyche as well. Every sentient and physical being on this planet, man and animal, has a strong instinct for survival. Without this instinct, strongly tied to the hunger instinct, as well as to sexuality, We might not only die as individuals, but as a species. Further, the instinct also helps us to look not merely to the moment, but also to the future as we work to procure survival, even a thriving for our children and those who will come after. So this is a basic instinct for the human person and we ought not expect, even for believers, but this will simply disappear, since it has necessary and useful aspects.
2. Other things being equal, most of us would like to finish certain important things before we leave here. It makes sense, for example, that a parent would like to see their children well into adulthood before, as parents, they meet their demise. Parents rightly see their existence in this world as critical to their children. Hence we love life here and cling to it, but not only for our own sake, but because we understand that others to depend on us to a greater or lesser degree.
3. The Christian is called to love life at every stage. Most of us realize that we are called to love what we have here, and to appreciate it, for it is the gift of God. To so utterly despise the world that we are almost suicidal and wish only to leave it, manifests a strange sort of ingratitude.
It also manifests a lack of understanding that life here, somehow prepares us for the fuller life that is to come. I remember that at a low point in my own life, afflicted with anxiety and depression, I asked the Lord to please end my life quickly and take me home out of this trouble. And yet, without hearing words, I understood in the sort of infused way, the Lord’s rebuke: “Until you learn to love the life you have now, you will not love eternal life. If you can’t learn to appreciate the glory of the gifts of this life, then you will not and cannot embrace the fullness of life that is called eternal life.” Indeed, I was seeing eternal life merely In terms of relief, or an escape from life, rather than the full blossoming of a life that has been healed and made whole. We don’t embrace life by trying to escape from it.
Thus a healthy Christian attitude learns to love life as we have it now, even as we yearn for an strive for life that we do not yet fully comprehend, a life which eye has not seen, nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him.
4. Most of us seek to set our life in order to some degree before we go to face judgment. While it is true that we can procrastinate, there is a proper sense of wanting time to make amends and prepare in a fitting and growing way to meet God.
5. And finally, it is not necessarily death that we fear, but dying. Dying is something none of us have ever done before, and we tend to fear the unknown. Further, most of us realize the dying involves some degree of agony. Instinctively, and understandably, we draw back from such things.
Even Jesus, in his human nature, recoiled at the thought of the agony before him, so much so, that he sweat blood and asked if possible, that the cup of suffering could be taken from him. Manfully though he embraced Father’s will, and our benefit rather than his. Still, he did recoil humanly at the suffering soon to befall him.
So then, here are some reasons that explain and make understandable why we do not run toward death.
But it remains true, that for a faithful Christian, the day we die is the greatest day of our life. And while it is true that we go to judgment, a day that we ought to regard with sober reverence, nevertheless if we die in Grace, with joyful hope we go to the Lord who loves us and for whom we have longed. And that day of judgement, awesome though it is, will , for the future saint, disclose only that which needs final healing in purgation, not that which merits damnation.
But I wonder of my family friend’s observation that Christians do not seem to live as though dying is the greatest day of our life. I am not speaking here of the cheesy slogans and attitudes at Catholic funerals these days of how Uncle Joe is in heaven now playin’ cards with Jesus and Moses! But rather, of a serene and joyful march through life that rejoices that every step brings us closer to going home to live with God.
Instead we hear lots of fretting about how we’re “getting older” and lots of anxiety about health, even usual matters due to aging, and there are such grim looks as death approaches. Where’s the joy one might expect? Does our faith really make a difference for us, or are we like those who have no hope? Older prayers often spoke of this life as an exile, and expressed a long for God and heaven. But few of our prayers or sermons ever speak this way today.
Why is this? Perhaps a few reasons are:
1. We live comfortably. Comfort is not the same as happiness, but comfort is very appealing. It is also very deceiving, seductive and addictive. It is deceiving because it tends to make us think this world can be our paradise. It is seductive because it draws and shifts us from the God of comforts, to the comforts of God. We would rather have the gift than the Giver. It is addictive because we can’t ever seem to get enough, and we set our whole life on gaining more and more comforts. Comfort here becomes our preoccupation rather than attaining to our truest happiness which is to be with God in heaven.
2. Comfort leads to worldliness. Here worldliness means that the whole of our attention is to make the world more comfortable, and any notion of God and heaven recedes to the background. Even the so-called spiritual life of many Christians is almost wholly devoted to prayers asking to make this world a better place: “Fix my health…fix my finances….grant me the promotion…etc.” And while it is not wrong to pray about these things, the cumulative effect of them plus our silence on more spiritual and eternal things give the impression that we are saying to God, “Make this world a better place and I’ll just be happy to stay here forever.” What a total loss, because the world is not the point, it is not the goal, Heaven is, being with God for ever is the point.
3. Worldliness makes heaven and being with God seem more abstract and less desirable. With our magnificent comfort that leads to worldly preoccupation, heaven and any talk of heaven or going to be with God recedes to the background. In this climate few talk of heaven or even long for it. They’d rather just have the new cell phone, or the Cable upgrade with the sports package. Some say they never hear about Hell anymore in sermons, and that is regretfully true (though NOT from my pulpit thank you). But it is also true that they almost never of heaven either (except in the cheesy funeral moments mentioned above which really miss the target altogether and make heaven seem trivial rather than a glorious gift to be sought). Heaven just isn’t on most folks’ radar, except as a vague abstraction for some far off time, certainly not now, thank you.
And here then is the perfect storm of comfort+worldliness leading to slothful aversion to heavenly gifts. Thus, when I utter that dying is the greatest day of our life, or that I am glad to be getting older because it means I’m getting closer to the time I can go home to God, or I say that I can’t wait to meet God….people look at me strangely and wonder if I need therapy for depression or something.
No, I don’t need therapy, at least not for this. I am simply expressing the ultimate longing of every human heart. Addiction to comfort has deceived, and seduced us such that we are no longer in touch with our hearts greatest long and we cling to passing things and (I would argue, as does my family friend) we seem little different from those who have no hope. Put most regretfully, we no longer witness to a joyful journey to God that says, “Closer to Home!….Soon and Very Soon I am going to see the King….Soon I Will be Done with the troubles of this World….Going home to live with God!”
As stated, there are legitmate reasons to be averse to dying. But how about even a glimmer of excitiment from the faithful as we see the journey coming to an end. St Paul wrote to the Thessalonias regarding death We do not wnat you to be like those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). Do we witness to the glory of going how to be with God or not? It would seem not. Or am I just crazy?
This song says:
The golden evening brightens in the West,
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest
Sweet is the calm of paradise most blest. Alleluia!