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Put your house in order… The importance of making a will

May 2020 | by Stephen Rees

As I write this, we’re a few days into the coronavirus ‘lockdown’. A couple of weeks ago, people were just realising the seriousness of the crisis that was soon to engulf the country.

The phone rang. It was an old friend who wanted some advice. She spoke first to my wife and then my wife handed the phone over to me. Lucy and Jack (not their real names) were worrying. Why? Because they had never made a will. What if this epidemic were to carry them both off? What would happen to their two young children? What provisions should they be making for them now?

Of course, as Lucy said to me, if the Lord had so appointed, he could have taken them both at any time. But this international crisis had brought home to them the need to make practical preparations for that eventuality.

We all know, as believers, that we ought to live every day with the thought that it could be our last. We are never more than a step away from death. My heart could stop beating as I sit at my computer this morning. I could trip on the stairs and break my neck this afternoon. I could fall asleep tonight and never wake up again in this world. In that sense I’m in no more danger now than I was six months ago. But still it’s true: this epidemic will have reminded many of us that we need to be prepared for the day when we leave this world.

I began to make my preparations many years ago. I entrusted myself, body and soul, into the care of Jesus Christ. Even as a child, I knew I was a sinner. I knew that I had wronged God. I knew that if I died, I would be lost forever. So, full of doubts and fears, I came to Jesus Christ. I put myself in his hands. I believed his simple promise, ‘Whoever comes to me, I will never cast out.’

So, whatever happens, I am safe. Safe in the arms of Jesus. Safe forever. I have the word of Jesus Christ, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live…’ (John 11:25). ‘I give them eternal life and they shall never perish…’ (John 10:28).

In that sense I’m prepared. But there are other preparations that need to be made if we’re to face death calmly. I wish I could say that I’d made them all. If I were to die tomorrow, I would leave behind me a great pile of uncompleted tasks, unanswered letters, unsorted papers, a long list of people whom I planned to visit but never did: so much unfinished business. The Lord Jesus could say to his Father as death approached that he had ‘accomplished the work you gave me to do…’ (John 17:5). Paul could say, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith…’ (2 Timothy 4:7). I wonder how many of us could use such words?

But at least there is one bit of practical preparation that I have sorted out. I have made a will. So I was able without hypocrisy to urge Jack and Lucy to make that a priority. I made my will many years ago, and I’ve kept it updated as circumstances have changed. I changed it when I got married. I changed it again when our children came along. I’ve no worries on that score.

That is one very simple but very important way in which every Christian should prepare for death. The Bible encourages us to sort out while we live the arrangements that are to be put in place after our death.

King Hezekiah was told by the Lord that he needed to decide what would happen in his family after his death, and especially who would inherit the kingdom. ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die…’ (2 Kings 20:1).

King David put off the job of setting his house in order till it was almost too late. He reached a stage where he was almost completely incapable, physically and mentally, of making intelligent decisions (1 Kings 1:1–4). But he still hadn’t made his will! He hadn’t announced who should be king after him. If his wife Bathsheba hadn’t pushed him into the decision, two of his sons would have finished up at war with each other.

Of course, wills were not always written down on paper. But a wise father always settled the question of who should inherit what before he died. Jacob called his children and grandchildren before him and declared what the inheritance of each should be (Genesis 49). People were shocked when he announced that his younger grandson Ephraim should be put in front of Manasseh, the older. But at least there could be no argument after Jacob’s death.

God himself is portrayed in the Bible as making his will. The writer to the Hebrews (12:15–18) tells us that the new covenant is God’s last will and testament, made ‘so that those who are called may receive the promised inheritance’. And he adds that that will cannot now be changed, since Jesus has died.

Let me give you some reasons why you should make a will.

To settle what will happen to your property.

Or rather, to the Lord’s property which he entrusted to you while you were in this world. Remember that: it’s his, not yours. It’s your duty to make sure that while you’re here in this world, you use it in the best possible way. And as you prepare for death, it’s your duty to make sure that it will carry on being used in the best possible way: the way that will bring most glory to him.

It’s a tragic fact that many Christians leave their property to people who then use it for selfish, silly, or plainly wicked ends. A Christian lady dies. All her life she’s been careful to use her money wisely and well. But she leaves no will. Her estate goes to a distant cousin who’s not a believer and who will use it just for his own comfort and pleasure. Or it goes to a relative who is a Christian but who has never learned the value of money – and who squanders it all. Wouldn’t it have been better if she had made a will and bequeathed her property for the support of evangelistic work in this country or for the relief of needy believers in the third world?

We shouldn’t assume even that our own children are the best people to inherit our property. A Christian man dies. He’s never made a will, so his unconverted daughter inherits his estate. She was already well off and had no need of the money. Her new-found wealth may even harden her further against God. Didn’t Jesus warn that it was hard for the rich to enter the kingdom — as hard as for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle? (Matthew 19:24). Secure in her wealth and the status it brings her, this woman feels no need of God or his mercy. Again, wouldn’t it have been better if her father had left his property to some appropriate Christian cause?

To avoid causing unnecessary stress for your loved ones after your death.

Many people assume that they don’t need to make a will because it’s already clear where their property will go when they die. ‘Well, it will all go to my wife, won’t it?’ What they forget is that the procedure the family have to go through when there’s no will can be very complicated and very prolonged. A bereaved wife who’s struggling to come to terms with her loss, who’s trying to adjust to the new situation, who’s having to keep track of endless bits of official-looking paper, now finds that, in addition, she has to jump through lots of unnecessary legal hoops before she can lay claim to what is hers by right. Surely it’s a matter of simple kindness that we avoid putting those we love through such stress and distress.

To avoid conflicts within the family.

Many families have been torn apart by bitter rows after the death of a family-member. That can happen of course, even where there is a will. But it is far more likely where there isn’t one. Perhaps the law requires that the estate be divided between the children. But who decides how the division is to be made? ‘But he always promised me that I would have that…’ ‘But the house was worth far more than that…’ ‘But he was always giving you money while he was alive…’ Again, how much better if those things are all settled in a way that puts your wishes beyond doubt!

To make proper provision for your children.

I said earlier that we shouldn’t assume that our children are the best people to inherit our property. But of course, if we have young children, we do have to make provision for them in the event of our death. What if my wife and I were killed together in a car crash? Who will act as guardians for our children? If we leave the estate to our children, how much freedom should the guardians have to use it for their benefit? How important is it that our children should stay together?

Have you made provision for your children in the event of both yourself and your spouse dying suddenly? Can you be sure that your children would be cared for by believers? You may have made some informal arrangement with relatives or friends. But if it’s to stand up legally, it needs to be put down in black and white in your will.

To make sure that your wishes are respected when you die.

Do you want to be buried or cremated? What sort of service would you want it to be? Whom do you want to take it? What wording do you want on your gravestone?

I’ve known of instances where a believer has died, and her unconverted family have taken charge of the situation, called in a minister who knew nothing about her, knew nothing of the gospel she loved. The funeral was ghastly — a horrible travesty. I know it couldn’t harm her: she was with Christ, beyond pain or grief. But her fellow-believers here on earth were grieved, knowing that this was so far from what she would have wanted.

Your preferences can all be written into your will, if they’re important to you. Or they can be included in a letter of wishes to be kept alongside your will, with copies given to relatives.

My understanding is that legally, it is the responsibility of your appointed executors to arrange the funeral. And they are not bound by your wishes, whether stated in the will or in a separate letter. But it’s for you to name as your executors people whom you trust to respect your wishes as far as possible.

For the record, I confess that I haven’t written my funeral arrangements into my will. But my wife knows them. She knows where I want to be buried. (My place is already reserved there). She knows whom I would want to take the service. She knows that I want Christian men — my friends and colleagues — to carry my body to the grave, rather than leaving that to paid undertakers.

For those of you who have already made your will, let me suggest one other thing you may want to do. You may want to write letters to the people you care about, to be kept and read after your death. Perhaps there are things you’ve never been able to say to them while alive, which you can say from the grave.

Obadiah Holmes is one of my personal heroes. Born a few miles from my home, he was one of the heroic generation that emigrated to New England in the 1630s. In 1681, a year before his death, he wrote his will. Six years earlier he had written a series of letters to his wife and children. He also wrote one to the church he pastored in Rhode Island; one to the ‘world’ — i.e. the unbelieving community around him; one to his brother Robert and other Christian friends back in England, outlining the doctrines he believed; one to all his Christian friends, sharing the story of his conversion and life. Why did he write them?

He explains: ‘The Lord moved my heart to write these lines that they might speak forth my mind if I should lie down in silence, if I should be taken away suddenly by the enemy or die with sickness and my senses or memory should fail me; that then my dear and near relations, and my brethren natural and spiritual and the world may know what I was what I am and what I expect to be and enjoy; and it may be some may make but a scorn of what is writ and others slight the same; but it may be some may ponder and weigh the same and if any receive either information or comfort give the glory unto the Lord forever and ever. Amen.’

He was prepared. Am I? Are you?

All Bible quotations in this article are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001. The substance of this article first appeared in the monthly magazine of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. It has been revised for publication in ET.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.

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