Death, Thanksgiving, and the Resurrection

“Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” — St. Silouan the Athonite

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. An acquaintance of mine is a widower, and while I knew previously that his wife died several years ago, I only recently learned how: she suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. This woman was in her early thirties and in good health, and she died shortly after giving birth to the couple’s first child.

It’s easy for me to think of tragedy as something very distant and other. Tragedy happens to people on the news. It is sad and horrible, but always in a somewhat abstract way.

It’s easy to put my faith in statistics and regular exercise and my daily vegetable intake.

It’s easy to believe that because I am young and reasonably healthy I have a lot of life ahead of me.

Of course, if asked point-blank, I would not say that I expect to live to a certain age or that my life will go exactly as I hope and plan it will; no rational person can say that with certainty. Tragedy teaches us that life is very uncertain. Yet my underlying attitude comes out in my words: I joke with my husband about “when we’re old and gray;” I muse about parenting strategies and baby names in preparation for “when we have kids.” I use language of certainty when I speak of the future.

Like so many things in a young person’s mind, I often and far too easily relegate death to the far-off “someday” category. It will come when I’m old and after I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to accomplish. Perhaps I don’t believe this completely or even all the time, but in some small corner of my heart, I believe that death will come when I’m ready for it.

And so, it seems I have built an altar to my hopes and dreams, to what I expect out of life and what I think I deserve. I rely on a good diet and good luck for a fulfilled life, and in so doing I ignore the reality of death and tragedy, which really boils down to ignoring God and my need for him.

A former priest of mine used to respond to the question, “How are you doing?” with the statement, “Thank God.” That is, regardless of the circumstances in his life at that moment—whether joyous or tragic or somewhere in between—he responded in this way to practice continual thanksgiving. This is a good reminder of what our baseline should be as Christians: thankfulness to God for every good and perfect thing, and, more importantly, thankfulness for his unchanging goodness and mercy despite our current life circumstances.

After my priest’s example, I am trying to change the way I talk about my life. I speak of the future in terms of God’s will instead of my own plans. Rather than saying, “When I’m an old woman,” I’ll say, “Lord willing, when I’m old.” It’s not bad to hope for good things, but it is bad to idolize our desires and expectations.  We must remember who is ultimately in control, placing our faith in God’s sovereignty and grace above all else, especially when life doesn’t go according to plan.

This past Saturday, my church celebrated Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead. I was moved by one of the Scripture readings during the service, from the book of Hebrews:

“Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’…Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” — Hebrews 13:5-6, 8

In just a few verses there is such a profound and overarching message: that we must be content with what we have, for the greatest thing we always have is a God who will never abandon us, and that is all we could ever need.

While ignoring the reality of death and tragedy can be detrimental, I am not promoting the opposite extreme of being so consumed with the notion of death and mortality that we become hopeless and fail to live our lives well. Rather, we must be mindful of death, our weaknesses, and other realities that ultimately illumine our continual need for God and his grace. The Jesus Prayer, inspired by the parable of the tax collector in Luke 18, is a powerful aid for such mindfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

My contemplation of death seems appropriately timed, as we near the end of Holy Week and rapidly approach Easter Sunday. Soon, the Christian world will celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Death has been defeated, and while it is still a terrible reality of this life, it is not our end. Our mortality and our shortcomings remind us to be humble, but, as St. Silouan says in the quote above, we must not despair. This is not to say that tragedy and suffering are to be dismissed as insignificant; Christ himself mourned the death of Lazarus, which points to how death is unnatural and against God’s will. Death is a horrific thing that tears apart a human’s very being. But thanks to Christ, we have hope beyond death and despite tragedy and suffering, as our savior tells us:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33

Thank God.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Family Matters: A Biblical perspective one’s duty to the family

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26).

These are the words of Jesus, spoken to a crowd of his followers. This is a severe and perhaps surprising assertion. One would not expect Jesus, who demonstrates perfect compassion and love, to ask his disciples to show hatred towards their families. This demand does not seem to fit in with the behavior that is expected in the Kingdom of God. To complicate matters, Paul says in 1 Timothy that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1Timothy 5.8). Paul’s statement is also harsh, but what he says seems to contradict the words of Jesus. Yet, with a deeper investigation, these seemingly opposite claims can be reconciled.

When Jesus says his disciples must hate their family members, he is not giving instructions on how to treat one’s family, but rather communicating the cost of being a disciple. He concludes his talk saying, “therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.33). He means that the cost of being a disciple of Christ is a heavy one. It requires the complete renunciation of oneself. We are to serve God and God alone. This does not mean that we ought to hate our families, but it does mean that we have to renounce our duty to them. The severity of Jesus’ statement is genuine. He is reminding us that one cannot enter into the Kingdom of God half-heartedly.

Paul statement on the family is actual instruction for the church. The family is an institution created by God. It was designed so that members could care for each other. In fact, proper care of one’s family is necessary for the thriving of the church as a whole. Regarding church leaders, Paul writes, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1Timothy 3:4-5) To be effective in the church, you must first prove to be faithful in the small things. We are called to care for our families before we can extend our reach to the church and to the world.

Jesus and Paul are speaking of two different aspects of the Christian life. Jesus is talking about the weight of the decision to follow him. Paul is giving guidance of how we ought to live once we have given our all to Jesus. Combining the messages of Jesus and Paul, we can conclude that when we renounce our family, we receive an even greater responsibility for them. To become a follower of Christ, we must surrender all. Yet, we take on a new lifestyle when we choose to follow Jesus. We are expected to behave differently. We now put God above all, and in doing so, recognize everything that all we have belongs to him in the first place. Jesus reminds us that our families are not actually ours. Family is a gift which was graciously bestowed upon man by God. Thus, we must care for them, adhering to the structure and order that God has designed. Of course, this cannot be done without love, compassion, and attention to our loved ones. When we are faithful in this task, we can also serve effectively in God’s church. It remains our responsibility to love our families as Christ loves us.

What Kind of Faith Do I Have?

There seems to be a disconnect in my life between my absolute faith in Christ as the Savior of the world and of my soul, and my sometimes-less-certain faith in his guidance of my everyday life. Of course, in my head I absolutely believe that he will provide for me every second of every day. But sometimes my heart does not believe this as securely as my head. I feel like the man whose child was possessed by a demon and in desperation, cried out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Matt. 9:24) I don’t like uncertainty—I want to know what is ahead and how I should act or react. I want to know, but most of the time, God’s only reply is, “It’s ok to not know; you must trust me.”

I’m not very good at that.

So there seems to be two kinds of faith in my life: first, the grand, overall faith of Jesus as my Savior; and second, the plodding, grinding faith of Jesus as my daily guide. I know how my faith works in the eternal part of the story: I believe; Christ saves me; I die and go to heaven instead of hell. It’s the nitty-gritty details of what happens tomorrow that I struggle with. I graduate from college in less than nine months—what will happen then? Will I be able to find a job in my chosen career? Where will I live? Can I be successful and make my family proud? When God says, “Have faith in me,” about these kind of things, I struggle more to say, “Yes, Lord,” than when he asks me to trust in him alone for my salvation.

Somehow, I don’t think there are supposed to be two different kinds of faith in the Christian’s life—and neither does John Wesley.

Wesley was preaching in England at a time when many were concerned with the issue of assurance—how we can be certain that we are saved. This concern came as a result of Calvinism, in which many insisted that no one can be sure of salvation (although Calvin does not expressly say this himself). Wesley was very concerned with the salvation of his congregation, but not only as a distant event that would take place only after death. Instead, he spoke of saving faith as something that is very present, and should influence every action of a Christian’s life:

Whatsoever else it imply, [salvation by faith] is a present salvation. It is something attainable, yea, actually attained, on earth, by those who are partakers of this faith…a salvation from sin, and the consequences of sin, both often expressed in the word justification; which, taken in the largest sense, implies a deliverance from guilt and punishment, by the atonement of Christ actually applied to the soul of the sinner now believing on him, and a deliverance from the power of sin, through Christ formed in his heart. (Standard Sermon One, Salvation by Faith)

Not only does faith save us from hell sometime in the vague future, but our faith saves us from sin now. This is what Wesley means by deliverance from the power of sin. The Christian who believes in Christ for his eternal salvation also believes in Christ for his everyday needs, and relies on Christ to guide him in doing good works. There should be no disconnect between our saving faith and living faith—it is all one faith.

This is the same idea that the Apostle John teaches in his first epistle:

 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:3-6)

John’s idea of abiding in Christ and following his commandments is the same as Wesley’s idea of the present, daily saving faith. As Christians, we cannot only believe in Christ for our salvation after death—we have to believe in our salvation now, on earth.

It’s hard for me to “not be anxious about anything,” and instead, have faith in Christ to help me lead the kind of life that will glorify him. I am so eager to try for righteousness on my own. I only have one life; my tendency is to think that it might be messed up if I let the Lord take control. But in reality, he’s in control anyway. I may as well sit back and enjoy the ride.

From Atoms to Mustard Seeds: Assurance and Uncertainty

John Wesley insists we can have assurance of our salvation. Romans 8:16 states, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Wesley takes this to mean that we can be absolutely certain of our entrance into heaven:

“To secure us from all delusion, God gives us two witnesses that we are his children [his Spirit and our spirit]…Their testimony can be depended on. They are fit to be trusted in the highest degree, and need nothing else to prove what they assert.” (Standard Sermon Eleven, The Witness of the Spirit)

The problem with Wesley’s argument is that it is based on a feeling of conviction. The reverend does warn against deception by instructing his congregation, “Let every man who believes he hath the witness in himself, try whether it be of God; if the fruit follow, it is; otherwise, it is not.” Nevertheless, feelings can be misplaced. Mormons are some of the kindest, most sincere, and religiously pious people I know. Yet when they are presented with a difficulty in the logic of their faith, they ignore rationality and instead reply that they know their beliefs are true because of a “burning in their bosom.”

John Calvin capitalizes on this possibility of deception, insisting that faith may not be real, but only a false pretense. In other words, feeling an assurance of salvation is not a promise of that reality. According to Calvin, if someone turns away from his or her faith, they were probably not part of the elect, and never truly saved in the first place:

“The faith of some, though not true faith, is not mere pretense. They are borne along by some sudden impulse of zeal, and erroneously impose upon themselves, sloth undoubtedly preventing them from examining their hearts with due care.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter II)

If Calvin is correct, then I could believe that I have salvation through Christ, not realizing that I will fall away 20 years down the road and end up one of the reprobate. That is not a comforting notion.

Which of these two doctrines do I believe? Both Calvin and Wesley are well-known, well-respected theologians, whose texts are still read centuries after their deaths. They both present convincing arguments, defended with conviction. Yet the opposing arguments and objections seem equally convincing. How could God allow a single soul to slip through his fingers, once grasped? Yet how could God cling to and save a soul that does not desire salvation?

In all honesty, I do not have a final answer for this issue. It seems very important—not necessarily to the non-believer, but to every Christian. I would like to absolutely know that I am safe in Christ—that I will not fall away and find myself burning eternally after my death.

While I don’t know all the intricate details of how salvation works, I do know one thing—God is good. He sent his Son into the depths of hell to save us from our foolish decisions, which means that he desires our salvation. Jesus tells his disciples, “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” (Matt 18:12-14)

This issue of salvation is only one of many uncertainties. The more questions I have, the more unanswerable questions I have. I must rely upon my Creator to support me through the uncertain and unsolvable. That is extremely difficult. As humans, we want to have knowledge and certainty; we want a floodlight on our path, not a simple lamp. Yet if we did know all the answers, there would be no need to trust God. If a mustard seed of faith will move a mountain, I only have an atom. But more answers will only decrease my reliance on faith, not increase it. I pursue God more through uncertainties and trials than times of assurance and harvest, which is probably one of the reasons for testing. And while it is hard to suffer through uncertainty, if it will bring me closer to the Lord, I am willing to endure.