I will die someday, and so will you. I will not rage against the dying of the light but reach toward the dawning of the day, to so repent, and plan, and live that eternity is the welcome realisation of where my eye has been fixed in time. I will need God’s daily grace and discipline to make me think and feel and act in this way, but the Scripture’s counsel to number our days in pursuit of a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12) needs to be my motto each moment as a follower of Christ.
It takes effort to be habitually weaned from the visible – Wilhelmus à Brakel
It’s not often that my interaction with Twitter manages to mirror any of the features of life in the ancient world, but a feed I follow entitled ‘Daily Death Reminder’ gets pretty close. Each morning this account faithfully advertises the fact of my unavoidable death, a kind of mortal bell toll among the other shrill notes of outrage and virtue signalling – ‘You will die someday’. This message is not original to social media, but reflects a practice of some ancient philosophers who often employed friends or acquaintances to remind them each day that their death was inevitable, that life was fragile. The idea was that it might focus the mind wonderfully.
I am, however, somewhat inured to this message. I come from an early background where largely Arminian fire and brimstone preaching was the mark of the pulpit, and where the reality of death was frequently dangled before the congregation, where their imminent demise (often by way of an unfortunate encounter with a passing bus) was forcefully and fearfully insisted upon, and where even the parousia was suspended in favour of making the inevitability of death patently plain. As a result death-dealing in sermons was often evangelistic, other-focussed (I was bus-proofed by the gospel at a young age), and ultimately irrelevant outside of the suffocating confines of the sermon text. (Evangelistic preaching must authoritatively and sensitively deal with the issues of life, death and eternity – it is less than faithful if it doesn’t – but if our preaching on mortality is predictable and univocal then much of the impact of Scripture in this area is reduced).
A more rounded biblical picture of our death, which is conditioned only by the prospect of the Saviour’s return, was never really explicated, and my spiritual growth was the poorer for it. In this post I want to reflect on why believers need to think about the end of their own lives, and the fundamental difference our death makes to living here and now. I have recently been challenged and blessed by Wilhelmus à Brakel’s treatment of this theme in his marvellous The Christian’s Reasonable Service (1700), and much of what I share here springs from his reflections:
1. Good repenting in life leads to great confidence in death: I have observed a horrible pattern in my Christian life when I fail God, when I sin – the ‘cooling off’ period. I indulge an attitude, I build a cosy nest for the crows of uninvited thoughts, I load my words like artillery and render structural damage to others, I let my eye rest too long on the fleshpots of materialism and hedonism, I act in good ways from bad motives – and then dawns the clammy realisation that I have let the Lord down, that I have sinned against him. My reflex is not to repent, nor is it to run, instead I play dead, I remain lifeless and inert, I hang fire on reading the Scriptures and seeking God in prayer, I spend time carefully scaling my sin and cooling my shame so that I don’t have to really face the actual enormity of failing my own standards and those of God. A day of rest from repenting means that I don’t burn to the bone when I talk to God, my inner corruption has time to lawyer-up and will now happily admit guilt at the heavenly bar, but all the while arguing mitigation and seeking a plea bargain.