I understand dying. As youngsters, my brother and I attended more than our fair share of wakes, funerals and ICU waiting rooms with our father, a pastor. In my own ministry, I’ve eulogized many, sat with family members while their loved ones breathed their final breaths, and said goodbye to loved ones of my own. I navigated my way through college biology, gaining an elementary understanding of how the human body works… and how it inevitably quits working. Both physically and theologically, I understand dying.
In theological terms, death is separation. For the deceased, death severs the temporary component of personhood (the physical body) from the eternal one (the spirit). The body returns to the dust from which it came; the spirit lives forever.
For the relatives left behind, death severs relationships. We survivors experience the acute pain of separation from our departed loved one, who is no longer here to laugh with us, listen to us, or make their signature banana pudding for us.
From a Christian perspective, the pain of death’s power is mitigated by the promise of eternal life in Christ. As Dr. Martin Luther King said,
“Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal.”
I understand death. But I don’t understand not living.
Jesus didn’t die to save your body, or anyone’s body. Not from cancer, congestive heart failure, a car accident or an angry swarm of bees. Someday, you’re going to die. People die every day, and not necessarily because they are good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. We die because ever since Eden, death is part of living. If you’re not subject to death, then you’re not really alive. Rocks do not face death, for they are not alive to begin with. Physical death is part of life. But until you die, resolve to live.
Christ-followers believe that the finished work of Jesus on the cross provides salvation. The word salvation implies deliverance from some undesirable fate or danger. The heart of the gospel is that God took on flesh. Christ gave His own life as a sacrifice to redeem sinners from eternal death. That is the narrative of redemption, but that’s not the whole story. Here’s how Peter said it:
“It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ.” -I Peter 1:18-19
Did you catch that? The blood of Christ not only redeems believers from eternal death. It also redeems from their “empty way of life.” Peter’s word “empty” could have also been translated deceptive, not what it appears to be, vain, or worthless. Half of Peter’s audience had received a cultural religion that was full of rules, traditions, holy days and dietary restrictions, but generally empty of any personal relationship with the Creator. Emptiness.
The other half of Peter’s audience would have received a religion of political power… full of lofty-sounding ideals, but offering no hope of eternal life. For them, the gods were detached and unknowable. Stoic self control was admirable, but since physical death meant the end of existence, the chief aim of existence was to enjoy life while one could. Again, emptiness.
In Walden, Thoreau famously wrote of his fear of reaching death only to discover the he had never truly lived:
“I did not wish to live what was not life… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… to put to rout all that was not life.”
I met Thoreau the summer I turned 13. My teacher was Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating, as Dead Poets Society opened my eyes to a world that I’d never known, a world of beauty and poetry. Years later I grieved at the death of Robin Willliams, because I so deeply appreciated the gift that he had given me, opening my eyes to the world of words and beauty.
Sometimes, beauty can be so overwhelming that it’s almost painful. But in those moments, I’m reminded that I’m alive.
And so I pursue beauty, because beauty makes me feel alive. Teaching makes me feel alive. Even though I’m an introvert, I’m energized when standing before a crowd, sharing timeless truths and new insights. Nature makes me feel alive. Adrenaline surges when I’m floating through river rapids, wading through pre-dawn icy water, or standing atop a 2000 foot granite ledge in Yosemite. I need to feel alive.What makes you feel alive?
Part of our being made in the image of God is our capacity to love, forgive, plan, dream, and maybe most of all, to create. We are not merely animals. We are hard-wired to do something besides just eating and paying bills and procreating until we die. If you’re a believer, you’re not just redeemed from eternal separation from God – you’re also redeemed from an empty way of life. So don’t live in emptiness.
Do something. Leave a legacy. Love somebody. Beef up your obituary. Feel scared. See a sunrise. Create. Provide. Paint. Write. Feed your soul. Eat great food you can’t afford.
Someday, you’re going to die. But until then, for God’s sake, live.