Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 28, 1961
NUMBER 21, PAGE 4,13b

The Awareness Of Death


"By the time this appears in print I shall be dead." This is a quotation from an article appearing some months ago in a magazine of popular appeal. The author described how an insidious disease over a period of two years had been slowly sapping his life; there was no cure for the malady, and no hope for any extension of life. He was dying. He knew it; his family knew it; his friends knew it. From the day of the diagnosis he had been given approximately two years to live. The two years were nearly ended, the disease was running its course; the author was writing his valedictory, to be published after his death.

And he declared that these final two years of his life were by all odds the richest, fullest, and happiest he had ever known. The certainty and the imminence of death had given a new dimension to all living. Every moment of every day was precious and not to be wasted; friendships were cultivated; the trivial things of life, so often frustrating and irritating, were shrugged off with easy indifference. One did not have time to waste on such things as anger, jealously, feelings of being ill treated or mistreated. Knowing that death was not to be delayed, somehow dissolved the frightening anxiety and terrible apprehension which so often accompany a terminal illness. The bitter battle between hope and resignation, with its terrible emotional cost in hours of fluctuating between rising assurance and bleak despair was no longer a problem. The issue had been decided; there was no time to indulge false hopes, nor to weep in desperation over the inevitable. The business of living (for two years) was now the important thing; and every hour was to be guarded jealously, every day was to be filled to the brim.

There is a very real sense in which this heightened level of existence is, and should be, the normal life of the Christian. The awareness of death can bring this new richness of life, but all too often most people (even faithful Christians) are prone to minimize and dampen this awareness. They know they are going to die, but they refuse to realize (make real) this fact. Even if one becomes gravely ill, and is obviously dying, the tendency of both family and friends is usually to refuse td, face the fact as long as they possibly can. And then, when death is right at the door, to rush the dying one through as quickly (and as wordlessly) as possible. It would almost seem as if there were a conspiracy between both the dying and the survivors to conceal and suppress the reality, to pretend that it isn't going to happen; and, once it happens, to disguise it with euphemisms and platitudes.

Why not face death? Why not live daily in the acute consciousness of its inevitability and nearness? Those early disciples of the Lord, living under conditions of danger and probable persecution or martyrdom, lived for heaven which our blas and earthy generation can scarcely comprehend, much less understand or duplicate. And their lives were richer and more rewarding because of it. Consider Luke's triumphant report of the release of the apostles after they had been beaten, "They therefore departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name." (Acts 5:41)

Of all children of men who ought not to fear death, the Christian stands first. It is generally true that happy people are not fearful of death, while the unhappy and embittered abhor the very thought of it. And faithful Christians axiomatically, are the happiest of earth's creatures. This is as it should be. The nightmarish bondage to "things" — houses, lands, cars, clothes, jobs, schools, gadgets — has made too many of us creatures of earth. The spirit has been enslaved, the eyes blinded, and the soul shriveled by materialism. Edwin Markham's "Man With The Hoe" catches the feel of this brutalizing serfdom:

"Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,

The emptiness of ages in his face, And on his back the burden of the world."

But the near approach of death, for most of us at least, can change all of that. Who can read the story of the venerable Polycarp without an exulting lift of the heart?

Or, nobler still, the triumphant affirmation of Paul as he wrote these joyous words to the Philippians: "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain!" At the time of that writing he had no certain knowledge as to what the future might hold; whether he would be released to further years of service or would crown his life with martyrdom on this occasion was still an unsettled question. But to Paul it mattered very little one way or the other. His personal preference was to let the curtain fall on his earthly pilgrimage now; but if he could be of service td his Lord and to his brethren by lingering a while longer, he was perfectly willing to abide.

How many angry words would be left unsaid, how many mean and petty jealousies would be smothered, how many deeds of kindness done — if only the awareness of death were stronger with us! Brethren who are alienated would seek each other out to be reconciled; churches which have had trouble would quickly find the entire atmosphere changed for the better; men who have been too busy piling up earth's treasures would find a different purpose in life — if all could bring themselves to realize the truth of "It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment."