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.
This behaviour is not merely psychological but theological – in that grey space I am passively refuting the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, I am dispassionately pursuing some kind of leverage, some way to lift the weight of my conscience rather than admit my shame and my tragic dependence. The problem is that if I make that my pattern of handling default and failure in my Christian life, then at my death I am going to find it difficult to rest in full acceptance from God on the basis of his gospel. If I am granted a deathbed, if I am given time to think and reflect, then I am going to have to handle the hard reality that union with Christ and his benefits is my sole means of access to and enjoyment with God, that I am hopelessly and hopefully dependent on another for my righteousness. When my energies for self-justification are spent, when the idea of a day to get myself together is unthinkable, when I continue to sin in the immediate lead up to meeting the Saviour, then I am going to need stronger gospel instincts than holding out for self-made holiness – I am going to have to cry for fresh mercy, place confidence in unshakeable grace, renounce my own efforts and rejoice in the perfection of those of Christ. The time to practice this humiliating gospel discipline is now, so that I am practiced at it then. À Brakel phrases it thus,
You must accustom yourself to arise immediately after a fall, receive the blood of Christ time and again, and wrestle so long until reconciliation and peace have been regained. This will teach you at death to lay your sin upon the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.
2. Good stewardship now, leads to fewer regrets then: time management is an issue for most of us; our lives are tightly wound, our days are heavily loaded, our schedule is a tyrant whose diktat is irresistible, and each year seems like heat haze in prospect and retrospect. I often reach the end of the day with a nagging sense that I haven’t fully realised its potential, that I haven’t best exploited its opportunities, that I have in some way defaulted on some crucial things. Undoubtedly this is often the misfiring of regret, the mental muscle spasms of a perfectionist streak, but at other times this is a legitimate concern. I am increasingly distracted by the real time politics of our day, by the backbreaking weight of national and existential angst which our culture insists we carry, and by the allure of the pale glow of a device to sooth away these feelings. The introduction of Time Limit on my mobile phone has driven home for me how possible it is to unconsciously waste time on ephemera, to squander vital minutes and moments that I can never recoup.
The reality of our death ought to sharpen our focus, it ought to clarify that our activities do not take place in a continuum, but in a closed frame of days, in a narrow isthmus of time bordered by the unknown waters of our birth and the horizonless ocean of eternity. As with my days, so with life – a time may come when the embers are burning low, when the light is dimming, when the end is no longer surreal, and I must live so as not to regret wastage, the wanton expenditure of my life’s choicest commodity. If Christ be not come, the day he has given will end, my time will come to a close, and this fact ought to drive me to invest myself selectively and prodigally. I must choose the space in which I live my life, I must earth my limited energies and passions in one direction, and then having so chosen I must gratuitously spend myself to that end. The gospel in time guarantees glory in eternity, and I want that glory to be the motivating factor, the chief principle, the primary driver of the decisions that I make today. Again à Brakel phrases this beautifully,
Hasten to bring your work to its conclusion. Do now what you would wish to have been completed at death. There is still so much unfinished work, and the time yet remaining is very short. Do you already have sufficient faith? Is your heart already warm with love? Are there no longer any sins that must be fought against and overcome? Have you already been weaned from the visible and do you live for the invisible? Have you already become an example of humility, meekness, generosity, spirituality, and love for your enemies? Have you already imprinted a footstep which your descendants will recognise and of which they will think, “Oh, how exemplary did he live! If only I would follow in his footsteps!”.
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.