Keeping an Eternal Perspective: Death

14 Jul

{This is the third installment of this weekly series.}

A good friend of ours from church recently found out that there’s a mass in his lungs the size of a softball. He got a biopsy on Tuesday and will most likely get the results tomorrow. He has had a very God-centered, realistic perspective on the whole situation — acknowledging that he might not have much longer to live or be entering into a season filled with surgery, chemo, and unpleasant side effects. He’s currently coughing a lot, which is taking its toll as well.

Our friend’s reaction to this situation made me think of what the apostle Paul said in Philippians 1:21, 23 — “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Paul was ready to go home. He would choose dying over life, because it meant being with Christ. “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”

If Jesus returned this very minute, would I be overjoyed and ready? Or would I say, “Well, this isn’t really a good time. You see, I’ve got my first Olympic triathlon coming up in about a month. And I still haven’t seen Greece or Italy, had a book published about how I became a Christian, or had kids. So can you come back in 10 years or so? I’ll be ready then.”

I have to admit, there are times when I think that if Jesus came back today, I’d be slightly disappointed that I had to miss out on all those things I’m currently looking forward to experiencing. But that’s me being a child making mud pies in the slum, turning down the offer of a holiday at the beach. It’s so easy to turn good things into ultimate things. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Great Divorce, illustrates this with people who are in hell, still maintaining their death grip on what they valued in their earthly lives. And that’s exactly why they’re in hell. Even some of the people who make the journey to heaven turn back because they can’t let go of their earthly treasures.

I think Paul sums up what our approach to these good earthly experiences should be in Colossians 2:17 — “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Think of what your shadow looks like when you’re standing outside in the sun. Distorted. Hard to make out. You can kind of tell what it is.

That’s what these earthly things are: shadows.

Family, achievements, goals, new experiences, beautiful places — all of these are dark blobs of the reality. In light of how enjoyable and amazing these earthly things are, that’s saying a lot about the reality! What is the reality? The gospel — that God has acted through His own Son, Jesus Christ, to reconcile a fallen race to Himself, in order that He might live in fellowship with and enjoy us for eternity. That is the reality that He is revealing through this experience and place we call Earth. This is not the final product. This is temporary. This will fall away.

Are we longing for that day? Or are we busying ourselves with “good things” that cause us to lose our edge, soften our convictions and compromise our character? Are we Christian warriors, constantly sharpen our weapons for the day of battle and being constantly vigilant for the return of our King? Or are we so busy with our projects, goals, daily lives, and routines that our weapons and armor are gathering dust and getting rusty?

I’ve heard it said that the Christian life isn’t about choosing between good and bad; it’s about choosing between good and almost good. Satan is sneaky (if you haven’t read The Screwtape Letters by My Favorite Author Ever — can you tell? — you totally should) and will use anything he can to deceive us and to foil our relationship with God. Even innocent things, things that God Himself created.

“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and natural and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we are always trying to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It’s more certain; and it’s better style. To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return — that is what really gladdens Our Father’s heart.” (The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis)

If you want to read more about the idea of good things vs. ultimate things, I recommend reading Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller. It’s a very good book.

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