There are a few subjects we tend to avoid in life usually because they make us uncomfortable, death being one of them. Perhaps there are just too many unknowns or we fear it will come quicker if we talk about it. As a young adult I avoided thinking or talking about death because I feared “how” I would die even though I believed I would be in heaven for eternity. By avoiding the subject of death or by focusing on the pain, grief, confusion, or mode of death, I was actually minimizing the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross to save us. Now that I am older and as a result of being in ministry most of my life, the topic of death comes up often out of necessity and I am no longer uncomfortable with the subject because my focus is on the rewarding result, eternal life. Death is as much a part of life as birth and Christians cannot begin to comprehend eternal life without pondering and preparing for death just as thoroughly as we plan and prepare for things in life! After all, we only experience true life when we die, and we only die because we have lived.
Forgive me if I am pressing just a little by using an Oreo cookie to help visualize life, death, and resurrection since this is a picture the Lord gave me one day as I was pondering death. An Oreo cookie has two chocolate wafers held together by white crème in the middle. I am quite certain the white crème is not healthy, however it serves the purpose of holding the two ends together and it is tasty. Jesus lived, died, and lives again. There is life on both ends but in the middle was this devastating crucifixion. Just as the white crème is not healthy, death is the exact opposite of health but through tasting its bitterness we get to taste life eternally. Our life on earth begins at birth, but without death in the middle, we cannot experience true life in heaven. Just as trying to eat an Oreo without crème does not work, life without death just does not work! You can take the Oreo apart and eat one wafer but undoubtedly you will need to scrape the crème off, in other words, you will need to deal with the crème at some point in order to eat the other chocolate wafer. So it is with life, death, and life. We participate in life, but we need to deal with death before partaking in eternal life. And dealing with death takes effort and preparation as much as life!
The preparation we undertake for most things in life allows us to effectively cope with the unexpected happenings that are sure to occur. For example planning a wedding takes time, effort, and money. Even though we can expect unforeseen things to happen on the special day in spite of the best preparation, we are still better equipped to handle them if we have thoroughly prepared rather than simply hoping it all works out. We generally dream, think about, and plan our futures concerning family, education, and careers, and usually only make major decisions in life after pondering, discussing options, contemplating all scenarios, and considering the cost, time, and effort required. The time we spend preparing is never wasted! It is foolishness not to plan and prepare for things in life because it leaves us vulnerable and scrambling for answers when things do not work out the way we hope. Planning and preparing do not eliminate all issues, but do allow us to focus on the important things at any given moment. It seems that if we are willing to take so much time and make so much effort to prepare for things in life we would do that much more in preparation for our eternal lives, which can only happen through the death of our earthly bodies.
Thus it is to our advantage to prepare for death leading to life, making it a priority before we are “forced” to face it. In other words, think about and deal with the crème while we are enjoying the first wafer of the Oreo. If we simply wait for death to happen we will be unprepared and unable to focus on the hope we have in Jesus at the time of death. We should talk about life after death, eternity, relationship, love, and hope before we or a loved one is at death’s door. Even though the grief process may not go any quicker or smoother by preparing, it does free us to embrace the depth of emotions that naturally flow when death strikes instead of attempting to answer all the eternal questions at the same time. When I speak of preparing for death I am exhorting us to know what God says about it and settling His truth in our spirits and then live by dying to ourselves followed by dying in order to truly live. As I began to pray and seek the Lord it became quickly apparent the underlying reason we struggle with death is because we struggle with life. We simply do not embrace the fullness and victory we have in Jesus!
Christians know we have a place prepared for us when we die but unfortunately we still live and die as though we do not believe this truth. The proof is evident when we examine our investments. You see, when we truly believe in something, we invest in that thing. If I believe in marriage, I will invest love, loyalty, and commitment to my husband because I truly believe God created this oneness. If I believe God gives children as a blessing, I will invest all I can into my family for a lifetime. If I believe God has called me to a purpose for His Name’s sake I will invest all I have into His purposes, dying to myself and living in Him. If I truly believe we are to seek first the Kingdom of God and all else will be added to me, I will invest my time into kingdom seeking. You could fit a multitude of “things” we believe into this equation, knowing when we truly “believe” in something we will invest. It follows then that if we “believe” Jesus has prepared a home for us, if we “believe” we will be with Him in paradise just as the thief on the cross did, if we “believe” all sorrow and suffering will cease the moment we die, we will invest everything we have into living that reality now. Do we invest in this eternity?
Think about how we are encouraged to financially “invest” into our future. We do this because first, we believe in a future and second, we believe we are going to be around to enjoy that future. If we did not believe these things we would not take our hard-earned money now and put it away for some future use. We invest money into 401K’s and other retirement plans, insurance investments, perhaps even real estate adventures in order to secure some sort of future stability for ourselves and children. Likewise, we invest time and effort into education and business opportunities for the same reason. With the unstable economy and unpredictable life spans we are not even guaranteed our investments are wise ones, but yet we continue to believe, prepare, and invest for the future. Again, the question begs to be asked that if we believe so passionately about securing an earthly future for ourselves because a time comes when we are unable to labor as we once did, why do we not prepare as avidly for a future in heaven, where all effort, sorrow and pain ceases? The answer lies squarely in what we truly believe about eternity and our willingness to put the time and effort into investing in a guaranteed future today!
I suppose if we could just be transported from earth to heaven without the pain, suffering, and sorrow we would embrace death and eternity more willingly and excitedly. Most Christians look forward to the day they will be face to face with Jesus but getting there is another thing. However, because of sin, we must go through the death process, experience its sting, and then, if we believe and have invested wisely, we will live! Though we rarely admit it, we really do not want to die, even when we know our destination because there is usually a certain amount of fear and trepidation about the thought of dying. Though we say we are ready, looking forward to being with Jesus, and sing songs like “I Can Only Imagine” or “Smile”, the reality is we hope to go on imagining His smile for a hundred years. We call it the “will to live” which causes us to fight against death when the time comes so we hang on here as long as possible, grasping at every thread of hope. I am not saying we should just give up on life when we find ourselves at the brink of death, but I am saying we should embrace death as a part of life just as we embrace life knowing it leads to death. Once we cross the threshold from earth to heaven we will continue our journey of life, and since most of us will only pass this way once we should embrace it with great hope as shown in the Word of God.
People of God, we must get serious about living and serious about dying, leaving neither of them up to “whatever” happens. What do we really believe about Jesus? IF He is our way, our truth, and our life we can boldly proclaim with Paul from Philippians 1:21 “For to me, to LIVE is Christ, and to die is gain!” Living here on earth IS Christ! We do not live for ourselves, for our own plans and prosperity, for our own happiness. Our life IS Christ! If living IS Christ, and dying IS gain, it follows that we must get more of Jesus in death than we do in life! Hallelujah! Now that should certainly energize our preparation? Paul goes on to declare in verse 22 “If I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor. Yet, what I shall choose I cannot tell.” On earth we labor in the Lord and undoubtedly fruit is harvested for others leaving us with no doubt we are to continue laboring as long as we live and breathe.
In these verses, Paul shares his struggle with life and death but notice it does not consist of resisting death. In fact we see here that BOTH living and dying are good. To live IS Christ and to die IS gain! This struggle presents us with a holy dilemma indeed! We are to live and die with all the gusto we have available to us! In Christ, our delight, enthusiasm, zest, and passion is immeasurable! Paul goes on to say that choosing between life and death is difficult, but the desire of his heart and the “better” of the two is definitely departure. Verse 23 “For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” Friends, there will often be times in life where our choice is not between good and evil but between good and good. In those situations, we must seek the Lord’s “best”. When we embrace His best we will stop settling for the good! To live here IS Christ and that is very good! But to die is gain and that is “far better”!
No, Paul did not have a death wish nor should we. It IS Christ to live here on earth and this motivates us to live as fruit-bearers! But Paul understood how to live AND how to die and so should we. Paul KNEW there was MORE to gain in death than in life. He knew and believed departing this life and being with Christ was far better than living on in the flesh therefore he invested everything he had in this life to that end! Through this understanding and preparation his desire for life matched our Lord’s desire for life – togetherness! God’s original desire when He created man in the Garden of Eden was for intimacy and fellowship. Our face to face communion with God became impossible because of sin. But through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus we have the privilege of communing and fellowshipping with God once again as our spirits here on earth reach out to His Spirit. But friends, there is a day when the face to face intimacy will be restored which will be far better than anything we can even come close to imagining! Let us embrace and prepare for death while we live! And then let’s live!!!!!