As a pastor, I think about death far more than the average person. But recent weeks have forced me to think about it even more than usual. I’ve presided over six funerals since October (yes, that’s a lot), which means I’ve spent the better part of two months visiting grieving families, preparing eulogies, coordinating with funeral homes and seeking to deliver words of comfort at gravesides.
My reflections on death are also deeply personal. Two of those funerals were for my own family members – my uncle and grandfather. And earlier this year, I endured my own frightening health scare. In a moment when I didn’t know what would happen next, I was faced with the reality of death.
I’m not the only one contemplating death right now. COVID-19 has touched all of our communities, killing more than 300,000 in the U.S. along the way. We all know of someone who has faced severe complications (or worse) from this vicious virus. On top of that, people are still grappling with other tragedies and losses unrelated to COVID-19 that make the year even harder. So many people are grieving right now. So many people are wrestling with the reality of death.
A wake-up call
Thinking about death is not normal for us, which makes this extended season that much more taxing. Death is an uncomfortable subject, one we often choose to ignore. We try to look younger by buying trendy clothes, coloring our hair, wearing makeup or having surgeries. We try to feel younger, exercising and seeking medical treatments to ward off disease and prolong our life. And when those don’t work, we simply distract ourselves from death via work, social media or a busy schedule. The cumulative effect, then, is that death seems far, far away.
But the last few weeks and months have served as a dramatic wake-up call. Death is real and unavoidable.
An opportunity to reflect
This increased focus on death can feel like a curse; indeed, the sufferings of our friends and neighbors are an absolute tragedy. We can and must “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), grieving alongside those who have lost loved ones. My heart aches for my own friends and loved ones who have died or faced immeasurable suffering this year.
But perhaps our growing awareness of death is a blessing, an opportunity to come to terms with our own mortality. Through the tragedies of 2020, we’ve been given a chance to reflect on how we’re spending our lives and where we’ll be spending our eternity.
How, then, are we spending our lives? The Bible prescribes for us “the good life,” a life spent living for God’s glory, cultivating our gifts and talents in such a way as to bear his image in the world (Genesis 1:26-28). So often, though, we settle for less, devoting our lives to idols, sins or achievements that don’t satisfy and won’t fulfill. Thinking about death can help us to see whether we’re investing our lives wisely or foolishly.
Where, then, will we spend our eternity? The Bible speaks repeatedly of a “day of the Lord” (2 Peter 3:10), a “day of judgment” (1 John 4:17) and a place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42). This is the destination for all of us apart from Christ. But Jesus has offered us a gift of forgiveness, eternal life in God’s presence (John 3:16). Thinking about death can help us feel the reality of judgment and the urgent necessity of repenting and believing in Jesus.
Stare death in the eyes
For some of us, these questions serve as a wake-up call. Something needs to change in our lives, and soon. But for those of us who have trusted in Christ, these questions can inspire comfort, not fear. As the Apostle John explains, “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment” (1 John 4:17). Receiving and living in the assurance of God’s love gives us confidence that when death comes, we will meet Jesus not with shame but with open arms.
In the wake of my scary health situation earlier this year, I can tell you this comfort is real. When faced with the reality of death, a God-given peace washed over me. I understood what parts of my life really mattered.
I also saw how real this comfort was in my grandfather. In his final days, this faithful saint knew that death was near. In his instructions to my family, he requested a closed casket at his funeral. “If anyone wants to see me, tell them to meet me in heaven,” he said. The comfort of being with Christ was greater than his fear of death.
Death is everywhere right now, but don’t run from it. Stare death in the eyes. What do you see about yourself? Waking up to the reality of death is painful, but it can be a gift from God. We can cut through the fog of everyday life to see what – and who – really matters.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Nathaniel Williams is pastor of Cedar Rock First Baptist Church and editor of Intersect, where this article first appeared. Reprinted with permission.)