One of the most remarkable sermons I ever heard was delivered by Norman Vincent Peale, at the Ocean City Tabernacle in Ocean City, New Jersey. At the age of 98, he stood fully energized before a packed-out house and declared, “I am going to preach a sermon on a topic I know more about than anyone else here tonight! I am going to preach on the topic, ‘Getting Ready to Die.’”
As this venerable dean of American preaching made his claim, there was no one present who was ready to challenge him by claiming to be older. Instead there must have been many who envied him because he seemed to possess a confidence in the face of dying that most people wished they had.
The old man in the pulpit spoke with authority. It was the authority of someone who had come to look death in the face without blinking and had challenged the despair that it can impose on those it comes to claim. He held the congregation in the palm of his hand, because we all knew that he knew of what he spoke and that what he said could help those of us who had not yet faced death in a realistic fashion.
Facing death, say both the philosophers and the psychologists, is the most important and difficult task in life, so it is no wonder that so few of us never seem willing to deal with it. Yet, dealing with death is something none of us can avoid.
We Christians know that the fear of death can be overcome if we only believe as Christ called us to believe in Him. We know on the cognitive level that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and that whoever believes in Him through he or she dies, yet shall that person live (John 11:25). But when faced with the reality of death existentially, most of us have a tendency to pray that prayer which a desperate father once prayed to Jesus, “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief,” (Mark 9:24).
Yet, most Christians do work through their sense of dread about death and, if handled with honesty and prayer, often come out of their struggles with a confidence enabling them to be capable of facing death with their fears and anxieties under control.
No one I know was more able to do this than my own father-in-law. In the later years of his life, the Rev. Robert Davidson suffered from the hardening of the arteries. As the years passed, he seemed to become increasingly detached from everyday life. We sensed that we were losing him. One morning at about 5:00 am he suddenly sat up in bed and, according to his wife, said with a sense of triumph as he addressed an unseen presence, “Oh death! Where is your sting? Oh grave! Where is your victory. Praise be to God who gives me victory!” Then he laid back in his bed and died! When I heard this story I could only say to myself, “what a way to go!”
But how do people like Norman Vincent Peale and my father-in-law get to that point wherein they are ready to die as Christians are expected to die? How do they learn to resign themselves to dying with all the evidence of being victors over fear and anxiety? Nobody can answer for sure, but having been with several people as they worked through the reality of their own mortality, there are a few things that I have discovered from those who were able to gain peace, and even joy, in the face of death.
When first confronted with the knowledge that the end of life is at hand, the first reaction, as might be expected, is denial. Most of us hang on to the thought that it is other people who die and do our best to make our own impending deaths unreal. On an intellectual level everybody knows that he or she is going to die, but it is more than hard to grasp subjectively what is an all too obvious truth when it comes to one’s own death. To feel the reality of one’s mortality is far different than thinking about it abstractly as an inevitable fact of life. It’s one thing to affirm with one’s mind that one is part of the human race, every member of which eventually dies, and coming to that subjective awareness that can trouble you as you go to sleep at night. As you put your head on the pillow, you might imagine a voice out of nowhere whispering in your heart and mind, “You are one day closer – and there aren’t many days left!”
It takes awhile before a person can emotionally deal with the reality of his or her temporality and personally acknowledge that time is running out. It is so hard that most people do everything they can to avoid it by becoming preoccupied with other things. But sooner or later all of the distractions that might keep us from thinking about death are likely to break down, no matter how useful these escape mechanisms might seem to be for a while. As Kierkegaard once said, “There comes that moment when even Beethoven is not enough!” Sooner or later those psychological mechanisms that keep us from facing the reality that death is closing in will fail, and we come to realize that dying is real and actually happening and that there is no escape from death’s nearing inevitability. It is a hard depressing truth, but if we wait long enough it drives away all our denials and we then move into the next stage which is bargaining.
We tell God that if divine intervention just will deliver us, we will be different, and we promise to do some incredible acts of service for Christ and His kingdom if we can just have a little more time. We begin a long litany of imploring petitions which begin with the words, “If only…You spare me I promise that …” The bargaining with God is all part of the dying process. In most cases, however, it does not work, and we realize that God is probably not going to cut a special deal that will temporally save us from death. It is then that we become ready to accept the inevitable.
Acceptance, and the peace that it brings, comes as a welcome relief from the painful struggles that accompany denial and bargaining. But coming to this final stage of acceptance is not for Christians simply a matter of some necessary psychological adjustments that we make on our way to the grave. Instead, it is a process through which we are led by the Lord Himself. In the 23rd Psalm, we are given the promise that though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death that God will be with us every step of the way. In our passage to resigning ourselves in death into God’s loving hands, we may discover that God provides comfort and strength. These too are promised in Psalm 23.
The comfort and help that God gives comes in a variety of ways, but the most important gift in the face of death is the assurance of his radical grace. In the face of death, each of us, like the apostle Paul, may become convinced that we are the worst sinners in the world and deserving only of condemnation. Certainly Paul had this sense about himself when he was given to reflection on his character (1 Timothy 1:15). Like Paul, we can conclude that regardless of any religion we might have had, or any good works we might have done, that our just due is condemnation from God. But if we have time to really get into the Bible, we will get the message that God loves us anyway, even in spite of our being terribly flawed. If we stop living in fear over how sinful we really are, we learn to trust in the Good News that Jesus did everything necessary to guarantee us forgiveness and cleansing and promises of eternal life.
Grace means that we get what we never earned and don’t deserve. We are told in Romans 5:20 that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” The verses that drive home that truth better than any other I know is Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Finally, as we face death, we should find comfort in the declaration that God, by His grace, not only forgives and delivers us from that which would ban us from the joys of heaven; He not only undoes the consequences of the evil that has marked our lives; but He also forgets that we ever sinned in the first place (Isaiah 43:25). Who would want their sins remembered? So thorough is God’s work in our lives that on that great day when we are presented to the heavenly hosts, we will be introduced as persons who are faultless. The book of Jude affirms this truth: “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy” (1:24).
I can just imagine Jesus saying, “Father! I want you to meet my friend Tony … The Perfect One!” And that is what he will do for everyone who trusts in Christ when we meet Him on the other side of the great divide.