I’m checking my email. The usual assortment of junk mail, appointment reminders, freecycle offers, and invitations to share the hoarded fortunes of African presidents… Delete without opening. Delete without opening. Delete without opening.
But then an email I know I have to read. And re-read. And read again.
It’s from a friend whom I have not seen for some years – he lives abroad. And he’s writing to tell me that his wife has died at the age of fifty-three, after a long illness.
Greta was a remarkable Christian woman with a single-minded love for the Saviour and a willingness to serve him at all costs. She leaves behind her four children, all in their teens.
Max’s email starts with these words. ‘I am sending you a joyful but at the same time sad message.’ Sad? Yes, that’s easy to believe. Heartbroken might be a better word. But joyful? Is Max just putting on a spiritual show, saying the words that he thinks Christians will want to hear?
No, I think Max is telling the unvarnished truth. Helped by the Holy Spirit, he can rejoice that his beloved wife has finished her course, that her suffering is over, and that she is sharing the glory of the Lord Jesus. He goes on in his email to say that she has gone home. And he believes it. He believes that this world is only ever a temporary stopping-place for believers. This world was never Greta’s true home. But she’s at home now, happy beyond words in the Father’s house. Max is rejoicing for her.
But I’m still left wondering. As I read Max’s email I find myself wondering what has been in Greta’s mind over these past months.
It’s six years now since she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and underwent a massive operation. At that time, she and Max had no doubt what they wanted or how they should pray. They prayed and they asked others to pray for her healing. They wanted her to be spared and to live on in this world for many years. Did that change as the years went by and Greta endured more pain, greater weariness? When she was in the final stages of her illness, was she still wishing that she could stay with her family? Or did she say, as I’ve heard other believers say, ‘I’m ready now. I want to go home’? I don’t know. Maybe one day, I’ll feel free to ask Max about what he saw in Greta and heard from her lips.
Eager to depart?
I can remember Christians over the years who were genuinely eager to leave this world and to enter the Father’s house. The thought of dying had no fears for them. They were hoping to hear the summons soon. It couldn’t come soon enough for them. I was moved and challenged many years ago when I read the words that a young man of twenty-one wrote in his notebooks. Jim Elliot wrote:
‘Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus.’
And again, ‘Father, if thou wilt let me go to South America to labour with Thee, and to die, I pray that Thou wilt let me go soon…’
And then three years later, ‘Only I know that my own life is full. It is time to die, for I have had all that a young man can have, at least all that this young man can have. I am ready to meet Jesus.’
But most Christians I know don’t feel like that. Most of us, if we heard that we had only a few days or months in this world, would feel shocked, distressed, and yes, we would pray to be spared to live on for years yet. And we’d ask others to pray with us. Because that’s what we want.
The fact is that most of the believers I’ve known who have looked forward to dying have either been ill and in great pain, or they’ve been old and tired, or they’ve been folk who have been heartbroken by painful circumstances. Most of us while we’re well and healthy and happy want to carry on living in this world.
It’s not that we don’t believe in heaven. It’s not that we think that this world is better than heaven. But we still cling to this world and feel unhappy at the thought of leaving it.
Are we wrong to feel that way? Does it mean that there’s something wrong with us spiritually? Should every believer be able to say, ‘I’m eager to go’?
Some preachers would say yes. They would tell us that if we truly loved the Lord Jesus, we would want so much to see him that the thought of death would always be welcome. If we really hated sin, we’d be eager for removal to the world where we can never sin again.
Such preachers will tell you that it may be excusable for believers to fear the process of dying – but as to death itself, we should long for it, not fear it.
Listening to such preachers, Christians who in all honesty shrink from death may be made to feel guilty and sub-spiritual.
So are those preachers right? Well, they have a point. There are surely some believers who are too much in love with this world and the things of this world. They have little hatred for sin, little love for Jesus, little desire to see him. So of course they fear death and desperately cling to life here.
Paul tells us that we must set our ‘minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’ (Colossians 3:2), but in the case of such folk, they have minds ‘set on earthly things’ (Philippians 3:19).
But what about the believer who is truly seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness? Will it always be true that a godly believer will welcome the thought of death, and rejoice when he knows it’s close at hand? I don’t believe so.
Let me give you four reasons why a believer may legitimately shrink from the approach of death and want his life in this world to be prolonged.
Death is unnatural
Reason 1 is simple. Death is unnatural. Death – even the death of the body – had no part in the world as God created it. It was when man sinned that God decreed that‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 3:19).
Human beings, made in the image of the living God, feel a natural revulsion against death. And they are right to do so. There is nothing natural about a body that was created to reflect God’s glory being reduced to dust (Genesis 1:27). There is nothing good about the breath which God breathed into man failing in a groan or a sigh (Genesis 2:7, Psalm 90:9).
The Lord Jesus wept and was angry (John 11:35, 38) at the fact that death had carried away his friend Lazarus. He knew that he would raise Lazarus again to live for a time in this world, and then raise him immortal on the last day (11:24-25) but still he reckoned death an intruder into the world.
Paul calls death ‘the last enemy’ (1 Corinthians 15:26) – to be destroyed only at the return of Christ. Yes, the sting of death is gone for believers (15:55-56), but death is still our enemy, a hostile invader into God’s world and into our lives.
When Death comes to me, he will come as God’s messenger, at God’s time, but he will still be my enemy.
Programmed to live
Reason 2. God has planted within us an instinct for survival. Physically and psychologically, we are geared to avoid the approach of death and to resist it.
Even my body knows that it must do its utmost to dodge away from death. If a stone flies in my direction, my reflex reaction is to duck. I do it instinctively without thought. Why? Because I am programmed to survive. I am programmed to crave food and water when I’m starving or thirsty; to hide or run away when I’m in danger; to defend myself against dogs that attack me; to shield myself from excessive heat.
I do these things automatically and spontaneously because God has programmed me to preserve my own life.
The passionate desire to cling to life which most of us feel is part of that same programming. And God has endorsed it by the commands and examples he has given in the Bible. The Bible teaches us that it is a good thing to prolong our own lives and those of others. What is our responsibility to others? ‘Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter’ (Proverbs 24:11).
But we have an equal responsibility to ourselves. Jonathan told David, ‘Saul my father seeks to kill you. Therefore be on your guard in the morning. Stay in a secret place and hide yourself’ (1 Samuel 19:2). Was he wrong?
For that matter, was the Lord Jesus wrong when he told his disciples that, when persecuted in one city, they should flee to another? (Matthew 10:23).
The Bible is full of examples of godly people who, when in danger, prayed and acted instinctively to preserve their own lives – and who rejoiced when their lives were preserved.
Were the psalmists wrong when they cried out again and again, ‘For your name’s sake, O LORD, preserve my life’ (Psalm 143:11)?
Peter was in prison and expecting to be executed in the morning. The church rejoiced when the angel brought him out and spared his life (Acts 12). Should they have wept instead, because he had been deprived of the privilege of dying?
Paul felt the sentence of death during his afflictions in Asia. But he believed he would be spared and that many would ‘give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many’ (2 Corinthians 1:9-11). Was he wrong to see his deliverance as a blessing?
Why has God given us this instinctive desire for life to continue? Because he wants human beings to live – at least a large number of them – for decades in this world, to have families, to work, to learn, to build, to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.
Especially he wants his elect to bring him glory here in this world, not just by the way we die, but by the way we live. But if God had not given us a will to live and the instinct to guard our lives, none of us would survive to fulfil God’s purposes here in this world.
Yes, as a person gets older, especially if they endure long illness or loneliness, they may lose that will to live. God may remove it progressively from a believer as he or she approaches the time to depart from this world. She may find the will to survive outweighed by the desire for the joys of heaven. But when we see an apparently healthy person living in happy circumstances with fulfilling work yet to do who has lost any will to live, we may rightly suspect that there is something wrong in their psychological state.
Reason 3. The joys of heaven fall short of our final destiny. What happens to a believer when he or she dies? Answer: his soul is taken to be with Christ – which is supreme joy. That is what we mean when we say that he ‘goes to heaven’.
But what about the body? The body returns to the ground and becomes dust. That is why Paul talks about believers in heaven as being in a state of nakedness (2 Corinthians 5:4): they are naked souls, stripped of their bodies. It is only at the end of history, when the Lord Jesus returns to this world that our bodies will be raised and body and soul reunited.
Yes, the joys which we will enter into at death are wonderful beyond words. And yet the believer who dies and enters into the immediate presence of Christ must still feel that there is something missing.
Human beings were never created for a bodiless, naked existence. We were created to enjoy God’s world with all our senses. When I die, I will lose something – I will lose the delights of living in a physical body in a physical world.
Paul admits frankly that he does not look forward to the nakedness that he will experience when he dies. ‘We groan, being burdened – not that we would be unclothed…’ (2 Corinthians 5:4). Yes, he is sure that to be in the direct presence of Christ will more than compensate for the loss of bodily pleasure (5:8: ‘We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord’). But it is a loss nonetheless – a loss only to be remedied when this world is finally remade and we receive our new resurrection bodies.
Paul’s ultimate hope is not death but the return of Christ when the believer’s body and soul will be reunited and we ‘will be clothed with our heavenly dwelling’.
God gives me so many pleasures here in this world – pleasures which come to me through all my bodily senses. I would be ungrateful if I said that I could bid farewell to those pleasures without a pang of regret.
I want to see sunsets for a little longer. I want to hug my children. I want to sit at the seafront and feel a cool breeze on my face. I want to eat fish and chips. Yes, I want to see Christ and I would be willing to give up all those earthly pleasures to do so. But I can’t say that I want to give them up – and I don’t think that I should want to.
Reason 4. Most of us have unfinished business here in this world. Paul, in prison and facing imminent execution, confessed that he was unsure what he wanted most.
Yes, he desired to die because then he would be with Christ, which he knew is far better. But equally he knew he had vital work to do here in this world. For one thing, he hadn’t yet finished the task of teaching and training the Philippian Christians.
‘If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith’ (Philippians 1:22-25).
Most of us are in the same position as Paul. We have work that needs finishing and to which we’re committed emotionally. We have people for whom we’re responsible. It is natural and right for believing parents to want the Lord to keep them in this world until they have guided their children to adult wisdom and a steady walk with God. It is natural for missionaries to pray that they will live until their converts are spiritually mature and ready to lead the churches.
That was true for Jim Elliot. I have quoted words he wrote which show that as a young man he was willing to die. But when the Lord challenged him with the question, ‘Are you willing to lie in some native hut to die of a disease American doctors never heard of?’, he answered, ‘I am willing. Whatever you say shall stand at the time of my end. But oh, I want to live to teach Thy Word. Lord, let me live till I have declared Thy works to this generation.’
Jim Elliot prayed that he would live till he had finished his work. Paul likewise opted to stay until the day came when his ministry would be complete. And he knew when that day came. ‘The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (2 Timothy 4:6-7). He had no more conflicted desires. His heart was set on the better world.
The Lord promised another of his servants that ‘he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ’ (Luke 2:26). Until then Simeon still had work to do, praying for the coming of Christ and encouraging others to wait for his coming. But once he had seen and welcomed the Saviour, he could pray, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace’ (2:29).
Have you work still to finish for Christ? Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty because you want to stay in this world to finish it. But hurry up and get it done – so that you can look forward to heaven with an undivided mind.
The Lord prepares
None of us know when we will be called to leave this world. But the Lord does. And he prepares his children for the great moment.
You may have heard a beloved Christian friend or relative testify to the fact that their attachment to this world has faded and their longing for heaven has grown. They may have told you that they have been praying that the Lord will take them soon. And you have not been surprised when you hear the news that their pilgrimage is over – even if there had been no other indication that the time was near.
The Lord often prepares his children whom he’s about to take home by making them long to go there. He may do so by stripping them of earthly pleasures, by taking away friends and loved ones, by making them feel more acutely the misery of indwelling sin. or by subjecting them to illness or exhaustion.
He may do it for them by doing what he did for Simeon and Paul: by bringing their work to its end so that they could depart in peace. But equally he may do so simply by the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, giving them more vivid glimpses of the joys of heaven and greater longings for himself.
However it’s done, one way or another, he stirs them up to desire what he is planning soon to give them.
If he hasn’t done that for you yet, don’t be distressed. The attachment you feel to this world is natural and God-given. But pray that as the time gets nearer for your departure from this world, so your desire for the heavenly world will increase.
And if you are already longing to leave this world and to be with Christ, give thanks. It is God who has given you that longing. And whether the hour is very close, or whether he makes you wait a few years, the longing he has put in your heart will be fulfilled. Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001