One of the many effects that COVID-19 has had on us is that it has brought death constantly before us. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement on TV or the internet of just how many people have died so far from the sickness.
Especially in light of this, I am constantly surprised at how careless many Christians are in dealing with death. Over decades of pastoral ministry, I have encountered many spouses whose life partners have died without making responsible provisions for them. Some are left financially at risk, but mostly their problem is that they don’t have passwords to computers, banks, and other essential bits of information. Neither do they know where necessary documents are or who they are supposed to contact. I have come across widows having to locate and then repatriate overseas funds, wind up companies that have been left without succession, and search for passwords to key online resources. Amazingly, many spouses, particularly wives, live in almost total ignorance of the family finances and their husband’s business dealings. Of course, although for my generation it is mainly the men who are responsible for the things I address in this article, nowadays it could apply to either husbands or wives. I view this negligence as selfish and unloving, but Christians are not usually either of these. The deceased husbands I knew that had failed to deal with the consequences of their own demise were good men, involved in church and Christian ministry and they loved their wives. So why then were they, and many others, remiss in dealing with death?
Fear of Death
Only the mentally disturbed or cultishly brain-washed believe that they will continue to live on earth forever. For 99.9% of Christians, mortal death is a biblical and medically provable certainty although, hopefully, they believe with equal conviction that they will live on eternally with Christ Jesus in the heavenly realm. So, denial of the fact of death can’t be the answer to the problem. Perhaps the answer is thanatophobia. Say what?! Yup… it’s a word I have recently acquired and it means ‘fear of death’. This ‘death anxiety’ includes a fear of the death process and I can understand this, especially if the prognosis is of a painful and protracted demise. Woody Allen is quoted as saying: “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” However, I don’t think that the kind of people I have in mind suffer from this kind of thanatophobia.
- Some Christians lack assurance of their salvation. They know that they have sinful aspects of their lives and they are not convinced that they will get an entrance ticket from Saint Peter when they arrive at the pearly gates.
- Others simply cannot conceive of any form of life that does not consist of material substance.
- Yet others have grown up in a culture or family that treats death as a taboo.
Whatever the cause, an unfortunate response by many is denial – a conscious or subliminal refusal to face up to the reality of death. This is deeply unfortunate because it both robs the sufferer of the joy of an assured eternal future and it impoverishes those left behind to live with the consequences.
Living For Two Things
The scriptural text that sets this out most succinctly is Philippians 1:20-26, which reads as follows:
(20) ‘I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. (21) For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (22) If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! (23) I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; (24) but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (25) Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, (26) so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me’.
Living for Eternity
Living for eternity includes living now for the glory of God.
Eternity starts the moment we are born again of the Spirit into union with Christ Jesus.
Paul’s wish was that Christ would be exalted in his body, whether by life or by death. In other words, he wanted to glorify God both by living and by dying in Christ. We live in an eternity that starts here on Earth and continues in heaven. The Lord Jesus put it this way: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
Continued existence in the presence of God should not be doubted by Christians. Right in the middle of the book of Revelation, Revelation 14:13, we find these words; ‘Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.”Jesus, John, and Paul made it clear that continued existence in heaven is not conditional for those who have been born again of the Spirit.
Even the convicted criminal dying on the cross next to Jesus heard the assurance that he would be with the Lord in Paradise because he had acknowledged the Lordship of Jesus (Luke 23:430).
However, even though our eternal destiny is certain and secure, we are still required to live for a legacy.
Living for a Legacy
In the passage I quoted from Phillippians, Paul acknowledges that although it was in his best interests to die and be with Jesus, he realised that the disciples best interests would be served if he continued ministering to them. He needed to complete his legacy to the believers of his day and to those who would follow. Amongst other things, he needed to complete writing what would later become the bulk of the New Testament! The bible itself is a glorious legacy inspired by God but recorded by many faithful disciples – ‘These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:31).
Most Christian ministries are genuine legacies that need to be preserved and stewarded into the future, and this requires faithful succession planning. Recently a long-term friend of mine died leaving behind an important ministry that will probably die with him. We talked about this eventuality several times over the last few years yet still he did not provide satisfactory succession. He was neither stupid nor uncaring; he was, I think, just not prepared to deal with his own inevitable death.
Family is a legacy – spouses, children and grandchildren. Local churches are legacies. Wise knowledge is a legacy. Art, music, and literature can be worthwhile legacies. Whatever we have and whatever we do can be either a legacy or a liability to family, society, and the Kingdom of God. Perhaps the greatest legacy of all consists of those we have introduced to Jesus and helped to know him better and become more like him. All of us can leave this legacy and surely we would choose legacy over liability?
Both-and, not Either/or
However, living for eternity and living for a legacy should not be either/or choices. As we live for eternity we leave a legacy, and the legacy is good, beneficial and God-glorifying if we live for eternity. As Paul put it, ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain’.
The Benefit of Dealing with Death
Apart from the obvious benefits of us dealing with the reality of our own death for those who are left behind, there are two major immediate benefits.
Firstly, Jesus told parables about the need to be prepared at any time to meet him in eternity (Matthew 25:13, Luke 12:40 and so on). Paul also taught on this subject in places such as 1 Thessalonians Chapter 5. For the early disciples, there was little difference between the end of the world and personal death, for both meant the termination of life on earth.
The second major benefit of dealing with death is the peace of mind it brings to both you and your loved ones. It is a real act of love to set everything in order and to ensure, as best you can, that your family will be able to survive you with as little emotional pain and problem as possible.
I want to turn lastly to some practical aspects of dealing with death through responsible preparation.
Perhaps the best way I can serve you here is to pose a series of questions.
- Have you compiled and kept updated a list of all the passwords that those surviving you would need to access computers, cell-phones, social media, bank and other financial accounts and the like?
- Have you drawn up a will and placed it in secure hands?
- Have you set out directions for who and how to contact key people such as undertakers, pastors, financial consultants, banks, and the like – names and contact details?
- Have you collected all important documents such as wills, title deeds, insurance policies, licences etc. into one secure place and made this known to your spouse, children, or trusted friend or agent?
- Have you documented the procedure for continuing or winding up any companies or ministries you control?
- Have you provided leadership and administrative succession for any enterprises, projects, or ministries that you believe should be preserved?
- Have you provided capital and access to funds for the period it takes your estate to be wound up?
These are just some of the practical things we should all attend to, now while we can, for we do not know when we will die; we just know that we will. I hope that this is useful to you. I haven’t raised other important matters such as pet care, last wishes, and unfinished emotional issues… but I am sure that you will consider these. So deal with what you can, make it as easy as possible for those who succeed you, and be at peace.
Many texts have a bearing on the things discussed in this article, but here are just some that I have not mentioned so far:
Several useful websites offer practical suggestions and working documents, and here is one of them: https://docuri.com/download/death-and-dying-workbook_59bf38aaf581716e46c36654_pdf