Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Purposeful Dying

I have a friend who teaches a class on Christian theology. Near the end of the class, confronting the task of discussing how Christianity views the future, he starts by looking at the students and offering some version of this simple observation:

"For any of this to make sense, we all need to acknowledge an essential fact. You are going to die, and in a hundred years or so no one is going to remember who you were."

Compared to almost every culture in our world, past or present, we in the West are ill-equipped to confront our mortality. Some of this is an artifact of how we have structured the modern world, espeially health and end of life care. However, I suspect even more of our struggle is because of how death interacts with our ideas about purpose.

Death and Purpose
Consider some of the options different cultures adopt for life's purpose. In one culture we might view it in terms karma. Life is reincarnated iteration, each one a chance to put some positive notches on a cosmic belt so that, in our next life, we'll be better off. In another time and place, we might view life in terms of individual honor. What matters most is being dignified and recognized. In still another, life's purpose is to serve the community. Any particular person's needs are subsumed into those of the family or nation.

All of those systems can be found on our planet, and all of those systems can make sense of death. It can fit with those purposes and even in a sense be a part of them. Death is necessary for reincarnation. Death, like life, can be approached honorably. While a person might die, the community lives on, made better by both how the individual lives and how they die. Christianity has its own notions on these points, but we'll get there momentarily. They aren't always what we think.

What is the purpose of life in the modern West? It is self-actualization. It is the freedom to be what you wish. It is the pursuit of happiness and comfort. Unlike karma or honor or community, death stands as an essential threat to all these goals. In it the self is de-actualized. It overrides our freedom, reducing us all to the same thing: mortal. Death presents the ultimate unhappiness and discomfort that, for all our prosperity and plastic surgery and political ingenuity, we cannot escape.


This is a fatal flaw in our worldview (pun intended). One of the tests of a culture's durability is whether it equips people to confront their mortality. The closest ours gets is encouraging us to buy products promising eternal youth and hiding the sick and elderly away, institutionalized far from public view and the myth-making power of media. When those steps fail and we are forced to stare into the gaping maw of the grave, we have nothing to offer.

I have seen this firsthand the last few weeks. Thanks to certain convictions we'll discuss shortly, my wife and I have sought to name the reality of mortality in confronting her cancer. "My wife is dying," I put it when I'm feeling particularly blunt. Or, more diplomatically, "Her cancer will be terminal."

People seem offended by this attitude. Christians often seem offended. For some, it seems their understanding of the Christian hope is only as hope in miracles. Such people have accused me of having a lack of faith. Nothing could be further from the truth - of course God can heal. However, he often doesn't. I believe that God might intervene, but also that life has a 100% mortality rate. Indeed, Scripture is adamant we confront the reality that we are mortal creatures. "For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return." (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20) Or, from the Psalms:
"O Lord, make me know my end   and what is the measure of my days;   let me know how fleeting I am!Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,   and my lifetime is as nothing before you.   Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!" (Psalm 39:4-5)

Any view which cannot bear to look at this reality has not understood Scripture's honesty about our condition.

Besides this appeal to the miraculous, other Christians resort to reasoning drawn from cultures mentioned above. "At least she has lived a good life," people might suggest, as if what mattered was racking up enough positive vibes. Or, "She'll live on in you and the kids." There are pieces of truth in both observations, yet what strikes me is how poorly they fit with how Scripture views death. The Bible doesn't seek to console us with karma or communal memory.

One last mistaken notion of the Christian hope manifests in the refrain, "At least she'll be in heaven." Yes, this is true. But often it serves as one more way to avoid reckoning with the reality of mortality. While heaven is good, dying is wrong. People are not meant to die in the Christian worldview. We were created to live forever. Jesus, when he is confronted by his dead friend, even though He knows He is about to resuscitate Lazarus, still collapses weeping in the face of the grave (John 11).

The problem with all of these approaches is that they fail to ask the more fundamental question - what is our purpose? Why are we alive to begin with?

The Glory of God
As we said, Christianity's answer is different from that of other cultures. It is also different from that of the modern West. The great danger of both appeals to the miraculous and appeals to heaven is that they can be pious containers in which we smuggle our goals of self-actualization and comfort. God will make us comfortable and happy if we just pray hard enough or believe firmly enough. We can still be the people we've always wanted to be, just with an incorporeal interlude. It's rarely stated so bluntly, but that is in essence the thought.

One of the passages I often turn to for comfort is Isaiah 43. It begins with this sweet promise of the Lord's salvation:
"But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
'Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.'"
(Isaiah 43:1)
So we have God speaking to His people as their Creator and their Redeemer. After establishing this posture, God promises to sustain His people through their troubles:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43:2)
All of which sounds good, but doesn't get at the reason God promises this care. That waits for a few verses later. God has already alluded to the fact that He created His people. He also joined that, in verse 1, with the easy-to-overlook remark that they are "called by my name." The end of this passage returns to that theme but makes it explicit:
"everyone who is called by my name,
 whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made."
(Isaiah 43:7, emphasis mine)
We were created for the glory of God, Isaiah says, and it is this that is the reason for God's salvation. Lest we miss the theme, Isaiah spells it out repeatedly in this and the following chapters. God rescued Israel in order "that they might declare my praise." (Isaiah 43:21) The goal of God's salvation is that He "will be glorified in Israel." (Isaiah 44:23) This culminates in Isaiah 48, which makes the theme so explicit only the most strenuous of exegetical gymnastics can avoid it:
For my name's sake I defer my anger;
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another."
(Isaiah 48:9-11, emphasis mine)
The New Testament also picks up this theme that we are meant to glorify God. " So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10:31) "In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:16)

This idea - that God's work and our existence are ultimately about His glory - can seem unsettling to us. Our discomfort, though, largely rests on a misunderstanding of the terms. When we talk about the glory of God, we are not talking about His arrogance. That is how people hear it - "God created us for His glory" sounds like "God created us because He really wanted to call attention to Himself." Glory is not something that flows from creation to God. Rather it is something that flows out of God and through His creatures. We are meant to be instruments of glory, shining forth the light of divine goodness and love and truth. We are not spotlights God demands be directed at Him on some cosmic stage. We are mirrors on the stage and God is the sun we are meant to display.

God's Glory & Our Dying
More than this, Scripture argues that such a life lived for God's glory is the best sort of life we can experience. Our Western cultural ideals have convinced us that happiness is the goal of life, but happiness is in truth a paltry purpose. Those seeking it never accomplish much of worth. Given that life is one of suffering and ultimate death, what we need is a purpose significant enough to make that fight worthwhile. We need something worth laboring for, and there is no more significant thing to labor for than God's goodness embodied in our lives.

All of which brings us back to the idea of death. If in Christianity our purpose is to show forth God's glory, that purpose is uniquely suited to a view that is unafraid in the face of the grave. When our highest ambition is to show forth the goodness and love of God, we can do that just as clearly in our dying as in our living. Perhaps more clearly - it is in His prayer of preparation for the cross that Jesus prays, "Father... glorify your Son that the Son may glorify You." (John 17:1)

That isn't the same thing as saying that dying itself is good. As we said above, it is wrong. It is the great enemy. However, what God's glory provides is a purpose we can live into even in the midst of death. We can find meaning and direction in our lives that even the grave cannot take away. Death can wound us, but it cannot rob us of our delight and our significance if our delight and significance rest in serving the Lord.

This also doesn't remove the real hope of heaven and the resurrection. However, it recasts that as well. Our resurrections are not about restoring us to a place of comfort but instead restoring us to our ultimate calling. Death is thus doubly defeated - it cannot rob us of our meaning as we are dying or even after we die. In the resurrection we will finally and fully be men and women showing God's glory to the universe. We will delight in the beauty of God's goodness and shine out the power of His love in the new heavens and earth just as we are called to do in this dying world.

A longing for God's glory also recasts how we view the miraculous. It reminds us of the true purpose of such acts - when God heals it is just another way to show forth His glory. Jesus, when asked about a man born blind, responded this wasn't some punishment for his sin but rather "that the works of God might be displayed in him." (John 9:3) If God brings healing to my wife, it will be as a display of His goodness, and our hope in that will be to proclaim that goodness. Yet if He doesn't He is still good and we will go on displaying that same goodness in how we suffer and how she dies.

One last word in all of this - that is truly a worthwhile calling. One of the things that makes me love my wife the most in the midst of this journey is her insistence that her cancer is a calling. She speaks at times of feeling special, almost blessed, to be given this hard and special task to perform. Of course, in between there are many tears. It is not the task we would have chosen. Yet there is immense power for life to blossom even in the face of death when we understand that, far from robbing us of purpose, dying well is a part of all of our callings. Living we praise Him, dying we glorify Him, and at the resurrection it is His glory that will raise our bodies into imperishable testimonies to His power and love.

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