Those who have been around Pleasant Ridge long enough have heard me talk, more than once, about dying well … perhaps especially in relation to what a privilege it is for us to help other people do so. What a precious ministry we can have to those who are facing their last days – visiting, encouraging, reading scripture, singing hymns, praying, and so on! And all of it in the attempt to help them finish well, “fixing [their] eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).
Indeed, if you ask me what it means to die well, Hebrews 12:1-2 is my answer. Dying well means that, even at the end of life, we “run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus.”
But what does that mean? Well, perhaps we can understand what it means to die well by defining what it does not mean.
First, dying well; running with endurance to the end of the course does not mean that we are physically stoic or triumphant, as though our bodily suffering were no big deal. Many of us will suffer greatly as we draw near to death. And a few Christians (and non-Christians, too) may be gifted with an ability to remain stoical through it all. But the capacity to block out physical suffering is not of the essence of dying well. Running with endurance is not in reference to our pressing on with outward things, but with inner faith in Jesus. I think, for instance, of a sermon illustration I recently heard (from Ralph Davis, I believe): The story of a saint of old who was suffering tremendously on his death bed – near to the point of mental breakdown. But that would not hinder him dying well. ‘I may die mad (insane)’ he said, ‘but I will die in Christ.’ And that is what it looks lie to die well – not to be stoic, or even always composed, in the face of the physical suffering of death; but to face death (and all that comes alongside it) with the assurance that no one (and not even our own madness) can snatch us out of the Savior’s hand.
Nor does dying well mean that we will have no apprehensions, fears, or disquiet in our souls about the process of dying. No! These troubles are common to many believers as well. And dying well doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t face them, but that, in the face of them, we will cling all the more tightly to the hand of Jesus, who alone can lead us across the river. That’s what Samuel Rutherford wrote, in 1631, to a suffering friend:
Be content to wade through the waters betwixt you and glory with Him [Jesus], holding His hand fast, for He knoweth all the fords. Howbeit ye may be ducked, but ye cannot drown, being in His company … Be not afraid, therefore, when ye come even to the black and swelling river of death, to put your foot in and wade after Him. The current, how strong soever, cannot carry you down the water to hell; the Son of God, His death and resurrection, are stepping-stones and a stay to you; set down your feet by faith upon these stones, and go through as on dry land.
Marvelous and biblical counsel! The key to finishing well is not that we have no apprehensions when it comes time to cross the river of death, but that we hold fast to the hand of Jesus, and place our feet in the waters, trusting in His death and resurrection, like stepping stones, to bear us safely over!
And finally, let me say that dying well doesn’t mean that we can look back at our Christian lives with no regrets. That is what many a foolhardy unbeliever may think it means to finish well – to be able to come to the end and say: ‘I have no regrets. I’ve done my best. I wouldn’t change a thing.’ But that is not the gospel, is it? That’s no good news! Not least because, as I said, it is foolhardy! None of us has done our best! “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”; and all need to be “justified as a gift … through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,” not through our own having ‘done our best!’ And so do not be duped by the lie of the devil that you must die with no regrets. Because if you take that as your mantra … you’ll either die with no comfort at all (because you cannot help but have regret over your sin) or you’ll die deceived, with a rude awakening when you stand before God’s judgment!
Now, am I advocating that the sins that cause regret are actually no big deal … and that we should live accordingly? Of course not! I am simply being realistic that our hope and comfort in the face of eternity must not be in our own having done the Christian life reasonably well. Because we haven’t done it well enough. Martin Luther, one of the greatest Christian men who ever lived, uttered the following as among his last words: ‘We are beggars, this is true.’ Not a triumphant statement about how much he’d done for the cause of Christ (more than almost any other man in the history of the church), but a simple statement of his own neediness – and, surely, an implicit acknowledgement of his need for the mercy of Christ!
The world sometimes likes to paint death up in pretty colors – lauding the stoicism, the courage, the triumph, the fearlessness, and often the accomplishments of the dying. But, as the great missionary David Brainerd said on his death bed, ‘It is another thing than people imagine, to die.’ Death is not, in and of itself, glamourous. Indeed, it is often ugly, painful, frightening, and even mentally debilitating. And even when there is great confidence and triumph on a believer’s deathbed, those things arise, not out of personal strength, but from a sure-footed faith in Jesus! And that is the key to dying well – holding fast the hand of Jesus! Whether our hands be raised together in triumph, or whether we cling to Him with the most trembling of fingertips … dying well means nothing more and nothing less than dying with our eyes and hope and faith fixed on Christ.
So look to Jesus; hope in Jesus; hold fast the hand of Jesus … and die well. And, until then, be about the glorious business of helping many other people do the same.