Death is unbiased. It doesn’t care who you are, where you come from, how much money you make, or if you were a nice person in life. If you ever took in a breath of air then at some point you will exhale it one last time. We all know this, and yet we don’t usually talk about it. In my own life I have lost three of four grandparents, an aunt, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. As a minister I have watched old and young breathe their last and I have cried tears of grief, sadness, loss, and joy. From the expected death to the ones where we were caught off guard, none of them were easy. I’ve also talked with people as they knew their time was coming and were simply waiting for “God to take me home.” Yet, we shy away from conversations surrounding death.
We seem comfortable talking about our Christian hope only when we are not facing the reality of our mortality. When death looms over us, the life that awaits us should guide our conversations. We joyfully proclaim that “I am not my own but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ,” but there is also a scariness to that reality. Those words can become a tearful and fearful confession that lacks much hope and joy. Christ overcame death for us and has given us joy, yet we shy away from fully experiencing that joy. Or maybe we’ve focused on belonging to Jesus in “life” and have neglected the belonging in “death” part? Talking about “what comes next” can be uncomfortable and even painful at times for the people involved.
One of the most comforting texts we hold to is John 3:16. This text declares the love we have from God and reminds us that he sacrificed himself for us. This verse also declares bold trust in the eternal life that awaits us. Many texts declare this same truth (John 5:24, 11:25, 14:2-3 and Rev 1:18) so why are we scared and hesitant to talk about the life, love, and hope, and glory that stands ever-before us?
Maybe it’s the fact that we exist through experiences, and only a few of us have faced death only to live another day. Maybe it’s easier for me to talk about death and life because of the nature of my occupation. As a pastor, I preside at funerals and walk alongside dying people. And yet while I have watched loved ones die I have yet to stare at death myself. Nothing brings you closer to the reality of death than your own personal experiences. Death reflects the opposite of experiencing joy and happiness. Sin and brokenness result in death which is shrouded in pain and mystery. So we get scared. Fear can take hold when facing the inevitability of death. Yet in the face of fear and death, my calling as pastor is to speak of Christ and our future hope to the living.
Paul quotes Hosea 13:14 and Isaiah 25:8 in his letter to the church in Corinth (1 Cor 15:55), proclaiming that death will be swallowed up. Paul is claiming that the FINALITY of death is no more. Paul isn’t saying we won’t experience death, but he’s asserting that we won’t stay there. The cross and the empty tomb ushers in eternal life for those who believe. It’s a proclamation that though sin and death entered the Garden (Gen 3), their power has been eternally reversed. Death has been cast aside for the victory of the cross. In fearing death, its power takes hold of us. Satan, who has already lost, claims one last grip on our life when we avoid talking about the joy and hope present in the life to come. Avoidance allows Satan what he desires, which is to produce doubt.
Death doesn’t have to be the all-consuming fear, so I want to share with you a few thoughts and suggestions for gaining perspective and finding joy. These are meant for ALL of us and not only those looking at death right now. These are things I try to do as I face my own mortality and as I walk alongside others walking the valley.
Does death still sting? Absolutely, but fear is only what we allow it to be. Once we take the sting of fear away we can begin look to the joy of what’s next. So let us look and speak of death and so we might reclaim life.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Dr. Robert Ritzema