Several weeks ago, I took my grandmother to visit my father’s grave. As I walked with her down the familiar slope toward the place of his interment, we passed by many gravestones. Most had Christian symbols and promises – a reminder that whatever we may profess in life, only biblical religion gives us hope in death. “Resurgiam,” “Sleeping in Hope of Everlasting Life,” and “I Am the Good Shepherd” were common. Gingerly, I picked a path through the granite and marble memorials: much fairer above than below ground, I thought. Still, I would not walk on the dead. They have beheld what I have not. Their bodies may be in ruin, but their voices call out: repent, believe, or perish.
More reflection – these decaying bodies were once as animated as I. Their families and vocations were important to them. They made decisions, worked, ate Christmas dinner, and went to the beach, as old photographs, letters, and occasional diaries reveal. Some worshipped God and served him faithfully. Now, their lives are over. For better or for worse, now in heaven or in hell, they spent their years as a “tale that is told.” The winds of fallen life blew them away. Their place remembers them no more. A gravestone, pictures on a wall, or an occasional reminisce are all that remains. As years pass, these memories dim, recalled only by those whose interest is family history. Time bears all its sons away. The most beautiful flower withers, its dried petals pressed in a book, its glory faded (Ps. 109:15-16).
Markers will eventually be set over our mortal remains. Death comes to us all. Those die best who live thinking about death – not morosely, obsessively, or fearfully but soberly and wisely. I will die because I have sinned against God. When Adam revolted, so did I. He stood in my place. His corruption became mine. All my actual transgressions flow from this poison root. As important as my life is to me, as busy and active as I may be, my earthly existence will one day close. Life will move on without me. I may be remembered fondly and tearfully by those closest to me, a familiar name to friends and acquaintances, but they, too, will die. A generation or two will pass, and I will be a distant memory, like the lingering aroma of pine needles after the Christmas tree is removed from the house. My place will remember me no more.
We cannot live well without such thoughts. God gives them not to crush us with despair but to press us with reality, away from which we will run and hide unless he forces us to face the truth. Violently opposed is fallen man to any wise thoughts of death. Even believers cringe when death forces itself upon their consciences. But those who have stood before the grave of a loved one or faced death themselves greatly profit from the experience. Death is a good teacher. To run from sanctified thoughts of death is to run from my history – announced by God with certainty beforehand, looming before me, sooner or later. I have an appointment to keep. The hour is fixed. My days are numbered and pass as quickly as a weaver’s shuttle (Job 7:6).
What should we be learning from death? It teaches us to number our days and truly embrace our frailty (Ps. 39:4). Pride is mortified only by facing honestly our weakness and dependence upon God. If we are in Christ, we need not fear death, but we must take it into account. Our lives will not continue forever. We are so frail that God must sustain us every moment by his goodness and power. We come into this world utterly dependent upon his faithfulness, and most will find themselves in the same weakened condition before they leave it. In the middle time, however, we forget this. We feel strong and have much to do. Still, if we would but remember how dependent we are upon God, that he keeps us strong and blesses us with ability to work and raise families and worship, we would cry to him with the fervency of a hungry baby and long for him to sustain us like holy invalids do. Most learn too late, if ever, to cry to him like this. Sin deceives us. We think we shall live forever, that there is plenty of time to give ourselves to what is important and lasting. There is not. There is enough time, but only if we redeem it as a precious gift from God (Eph. 5:16). Time, like money, is spent well only if spent wisely.
To spend time wisely, we must ask ourselves: will what I am doing, how I am living, follow me joyfully into heaven? Or, will I be ashamed that I frittered away God’s gift of life and time? Certainly the Lord gives us seasons of ease and refreshment, but did we use this gift to renew ourselves in him or simply to indulge whatever our silly hearts craved? Our works follow after us (Rev. 14:13), which might be taken to refer to God’s reward upon faithfulness, or the joy we shall have at our death if we know that we have served him in our generation. This is to die well in the Lord: to be deeply humbled by his grace and mercy to us in his Son, devoted to his honor and praise, work and pray for the strengthening of his cause in the world, and resist to our utmost everything that detracts from the glory of his majesty and love. If this has been our course, we have used time wisely, and our works will bring praise to God and joy to ourselves. Death teaches us to labor for such an end. All others are waste, regret, and ruin.
The day of our death must motivate us to spend our years in this fashion. While we are young, it seems life stretches out forever in front of us. Perhaps we even pine away for the future, only to look back when it comes with regret and horror that we did not “remember our Creator in the days of our youth.” The firm conviction that a dying day is coming gives us the right perspective on life. Spend and be spent for Christ and his kingdom. Live for the praise and pleasure of our Savior so that death will be a peaceable embrace by his loving arms, the Father’s last and light chastisement upon us before wiping away all our tears and receiving us to himself forever. Then, if we are weak and diseased, or poor and lonely, God holds out this hope in the midst of sorrow so that we might be encouraged to aspire to the heavenly life. Or, if we are strong and healthy, prosperous and surrounded by many friends, he would not have us forget that these will one day be swept away. I will die and stand before God. Either way, unless we lay up treasure in heaven, life is a waste. It does not last and cannot satisfy. Its sorrows and its joy are fleeting. It has meaning, solid joy, and salve for our sorrows only if it is nothing but a continual seeking of God’s eternal kingdom and our blessedness in him. Whatever our circumstances, we shall be more steadfast and patient, hopeful and joyful if we are persuaded that our Father’s approbation awaits us at the end of our course.
But all such hopes are a delusion unless death teaches us to live and die unto Jesus Christ. Without him, death is horrible. Comfort at the grave of an unbeliever is mockery. Better to have been racked with a thousand painful diseases and tortured every moment than to die once without him. We must ask: why do we die? Can anything be done about it? Am I prepared for this approaching hour? There is only one deliverer from sin’s curse: the Son of God and Savior of sinners. His death on the cross was judicial. He hung in our place and bore our curse. To believe in him as my “only hope in life and death,” to cling to his cross, and to plead only his blood and righteousness before God are the only way death’s horrible sting is removed. Through his redeeming work, the curse is gone, satisfied, paid in full. If your life on earth is a “looking unto Jesus,” your death will be a “received by Jesus.” Your gravestone can truly read: “I shall arise. My hope will be vindicated. With these eyes I will see my Redeemer and enjoy him forever.” Without him, your gravestone can only say: “Thou fool, this night thy soul was required of thee, and you were not ready.” Your soul will turn pale with terror in an instant if you die without faith in Jesus Christ and the good hope of his gospel. Turn to him. He is death’s vengeance. He wept over death and endured the terrors of hell so that our death may be a passage into his blessed fellowship. Armed with this hope, then our lives may be a continual living unto him, a confession of his love and compassion, and a looking forward to his blessed appearing.
When it is time to set down your gravestone, let it be an honest memorial for every stranger who chances to pass over it: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13). The best way to prepare for this hour is to walk with the Son of God, for then your gravestone is a stepping stone to heaven. Live and love as one who will soon stand before him. Confess and forsake your sins. Live in the light as he is in the light. Do not pretend to yourself that you will avoid this hour. Embrace and prepare for it. Aspire to his “Well done.” Set your affections where your true and eternal home is. Willingly lose all things to gain Christ. Trust God’s promises.