The Last Battle: Preparing for a godly death
Please note this is an abridged version of a 30 minute talk!
Death is our last battle of faith. We aim for a triumphant, faith-filled, Christ-honouring death. But our flesh will shrink back in fear; Satan will assault us and cripple us with doubt; and the world will eclipse our vision… If we are to die a death in which (at least as far as we have control over the circumstances) we conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Phil.1:27), then we will need to spend a lifetime preparing. Preparation for a victorious death begins long before we approach it.
When we look at the Bible, and over the generations of the Church, we see that our ambivalence, perhaps even reluctance to die is out of step with our spiritual forbears. Christians while happy enough to live if that was God’s will, have tended to prefer the prospect of death! Death removes the veil of flesh, and ushers us in to deeper communion and enjoyment of Christ. As one old saint put it: ‘Most men might need patience to die, but a saint, who truly understands what death would introduce him to, would need patience to live!’
But how can we be prepared to die in such a manner? Here are some suggestions from the pages of Scriptures, and forged in the reality of Christian experience.
First we must, of course, be Christians if we are to die a Christian’s death. Only those who truly live can approach death with confidence (John 5:24). We will need a deeply authentic faith that has shaped life if it is going to stand the test of confronting death. What am I living for? How am I spending my time and energy and money? If my treasure (and so my heart) are rooted inextricably in this age, death will always be a threat (Matt.6:21). Only if we have lived for Christ will we long to meet Him in death (Ps.23:4; Ps.31:5).
Secondly, throughout life we must discipline ourselves to meditate on the impending reality of our death (Eccl.7:2-4; Ps.39:4-5). Far from pessimism, this is faith-based (albeit counter-intuitive) realism! As the old BCP would have us pray: ‘…teach us who survive in this and other like daily spectacles of our mortality to see how frail and uncertain our own condition is, and so to number our days that we may seriously apply our hearts to that holy and heavenly wisdom whilst we live here…’
Thirdly, we can weaken the power of death over us. ‘The sting of death is sin’ (I Cor.15:56), and so by our pursuit of Christ-likeness, and by learning to resist sin throughout life we lessen death’s power to harm us. A righteous death follows a righteous life. If we have let sin reign unopposed we shall struggle to face death with confidence. This lies behind a strong tradition of Christians calling for their pastors to guide them through a deathbed confession of sin that should have been dealt with many years previous. Nothing more undermines our ability to die triumphantly, than when our conscience condemns us. Additionally, a lifetime spent learning to resist temptation will equip us to face the greatest temptation to doubt, fear and despair as we peer into the grave.
Fourthly, we learn to die well in the dress-rehearsals for death that we have throughout life. Our daily sufferings and sicknesses and the losses they entail, prepare us for the great suffering of death; and the self-discipline of submitting to God’s providential love throughout life, prepares us to trust Him in the approach of death. All our ‘little’ deaths, teach us how to bear the greatest death we are exposed to – which is of course, not the greatest death! As we grow older these grow more prevalent: loss of usefulness; loss of friends and loved ones; loss of youth / energy/ potential; loss of independence; loss of faculties. All these can serve to prepare us for death, weaning us off this earthly life and awakening in us the hope of our resurrection bodies!
Fifthly, entrust all you leave behind to the care of God. In the olden days ‘Last Will and Testaments’ tended to start by leaving family and churches to the care and love of the Lord! This conscious focus and deliberate decision to reflect on the trustworthiness of God gave people greater freedom to leave behind those they had shared life with.
Sixthly is our considered and doctrinally informed understanding of what death means for a Christian. This guards us against what used to be called an ‘immoderate fear’, by teaching us to look beyond the experience of dying to all that lies beyond. Fear of the unknown is a real problem, and the focus of the second half of this course is to replace it with a faith that comes from the known…
Do you think it matter how we die? Is there a particularly ‘Christian’ way to throw off this ‘mortal coil’, as opposed to an un-Christian way?
Are there any other strategies you use or can think of that would help you as you prepare to die as a Christian?
How has your thinking about dying changed as you have grown older?
Read Philippians 1:20-26
What would you say to a Christian who didn’t share Paul’s concern that Christ would be exalted … whether by life of by death?
What do you think it looks like for Christ to be exalted in our bodies … by life? And by death? Why does Paul feel the need for courage in order to ensure this happens? Why would failure in this lead to Paul feeling ashamed?
What does Paul mean when he says, ‘to live is Christ’?
Why do you think Paul says it is ‘gain’ to die? Do you agree with him?
Do you think you could say ‘to die is gain’, if you couldn’t also say ‘to live is Christ’? What is the connection between the two parts of Paul’s declaration?
When do you think it would be wrong as a Christian to desire to die?
If it’s better to be with Christ in heaven, is it wrong to seek medical treatment for serious illnesses? Why/why not?
How would you answer an advocate of euthanasia who appealed to Paul’s “death is better” perspective (v.23)?
What does this passage tell us about how Paul views the Church? Do you share his view point?
Further Reading (John 11:1-44)
(we’ll be coming back to this passage several times in the next few weeks)
Is Jesus saying that it was a good thing that Lazarus died (see e.g. 11:14-15)? How do you feel about the fact that Jesus is willing to let someone die in order to help His disciples believe?
Are there other situations where the Lord might decide it is best for someone to die (see e.g. Isaiah 57:1-2)?
What does Jesus mean when He says that people can live even though they die? Is the converse also true: can people die even though they live? What would that look like?
If it is appropriate, write your own funeral service. Mark would, of course, be available to discuss this with you if that would be helpful. You might also find it helpful to visit: churchofenglandfunerals.org