Pastor Note #69: Death and the Victory of Christ

Living and Dying Well

Coneflower seed head in the frost; photo by GAC
Coneflower seed head in the frost; photo by GAC

You are going to die.  So am I.  This is a fundamental and unavoidable truth for all human beings, and how we deal with that great truth can have a profound impact on how well we live and on how well we die.  Sadly, many people are so oppressed by fear of death that they do not deal well with the unavoidable fact of their own mortality.

I’ve been thinking about death and dying a good bit in the past few months.  There hasn’t been anything particularly morbid about that.  I’m not depressed or living in dread.  I suppose the fact that I turned sixty a few months ago may have had something to do with that.  I’m finding that death becomes less abstract, more concrete.  I’m closer to it, by any calculation.  I seem to be able to see it a bit more clearly.

Then, of course, about a month ago, my father died.  He was preceded in death by my mother some 22 years ago.  I am now becoming the oldest generation in my family.  There is no generational buffer between me and my mortality.  Let me say again, I am not stewing on all this in any sort of morbid way.  I’m not experiencing any dread or anxiety about any of this.  In fact, these thoughts aren’t particularly new to me.  They have simply been refreshed and a bit revised as I’m entering a new stage of life.

Pastoral ministry puts a person in close proximity to death on a fairly regular basis.  I remember being confronted by that fact early on in my career.  It involved a man named Carl.  He was, as I recall, the first person I ever baptized.  He met Jesus rather later in life than most people.  He was 62 years old at the time.  A couple of years later, I found myself visiting with him in the hospital, where he had just received the news that he had an advanced and quite aggressive form of lung cancer.

It wasn’t long after he’d received the news of his diagnosis that I visited with him.  I spent some time with him as he tried to wrap his head around the reality that death had now settled in very close to him.  I was in my late twenties at that time, maybe three years out of seminary.  I had been well-educated.  I had learned a lot of the concepts and ideas about how pastoring was supposed to work.  But I had had very little experience with the down and dirty realities of life in this fallen world.  I did have the good sense to mostly keep my mouth shut, ask a few questions, and then just listen.

What I remember most about that visit in the hospital had more to do with me than with Carl.  As I walked down the hospital corridor after visiting with him, I found myself thinking, “I wonder how I would deal with it, if I got that kind of news.”  Then, a voice in my head (the Holy Spirit) corrected me.  “Gary, it’s not ‘if.’  It’s ‘when.’  How will you deal with it WHEN you get that kind of news?”  Now, it may not be lung cancer, but the chances are very high that at some point in my life I will receive news that I am afflicted with some sort of life-threatening, life-shortening illness.  It is not a hypothetical possibility that we might face death.  It is an absolute certainty that every one of us will die.  It is simple wisdom that we should come to terms with that fact.  It is only in coming to terms with death that we will be able to live well and to die well.

Fear, depression, sadness, grief, anger, doubt, and dread are some of the things people feel when they come into the presence of death—their own or that of someone they love.  All of these negative, uncomfortable feelings cause us to avoid thinking about death.  They make us unwilling to come to terms with the fact that we and everyone we love will die.  Our unwillingness to come to terms with this fact of death interferes with our ability to live in peace and to be well prepared for the time when death will come to us.

Death will always bring with it the pain of grief.  Death separates us from those we love, and the pain of that separation is unavoidable.  Jesus himself knew this pain.  But in Christ, it isn’t ultimate, and it need not be permanent.  Through his own death, Jesus has pulled the teeth of death.  Death can no longer do us ultimate harm.

Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!
He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.   (
1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

Eastern tiger swallowtail on a cone flower; photo by GAC
Eastern tiger swallowtail on a cone flower; photo by GAC

On the day before my father died, Meg and I visited with him in his hospital room.  He was very sick and in great physical distress.  That death was near was obvious to us all.  We talked to him about his relationship with Jesus Christ.  He assured us that he was trusting in Jesus for his salvation.  We asked if he was ready to be with Jesus, and he said he was.  We prayed with him, as he squeezed our hands.  We felt sad, but ultimately the joy and the peace were far greater than any sadness we felt.

The victory of Jesus takes away any power that death has to steal from us our ability to live well and to die well.  The victory of Jesus over death can overcome the fear and dread that would steal our joy and our peace.  The victory of Jesus can give us the boldness to talk about death openly and without fear.  We need to do that with the people we love and with our pastors.   We each need to plan for that time, which we all know is coming.  Below are links to a couple of websites that can help you have those conversations with the people who love you and lead you through a process of preparing to die well.  None of this needs to be grim or morbid, because, remember, Jesus has won the victory!

©2017 Gary A. Chorpenning, all rights reserved.

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