Strength to live or die

The problem, though, is not death. The problem is not even life. The problem is how to face the extremities of life or death. It is how to help others (our parishioners, for example,) look at life or death and not be overwhelmed by the impossibility or the horror of it all. It is to find a balance between anguish and serenity when perils of life or the certainty of death come knocking at our doors.

John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a contributing editor of Ministry.

Derek Humphry's Final Exit is a disturbing book. It's as simple as a cook book. The recipes are easy to follow. The ingredients are clearly described. The procedures are detailed enough. The results are guaranteed: quick, painless, and sure.

The book in a way reflects the priorities of our culture. We want quick exits from difficult situations, and in the process who cares about who gets hurt? Who cares about guilt? Who cares about any thing, except that the "I" be allowed to reign supreme, end what is not its to end, affirm its own vulgarity of power, and deny the existence of the other or the supreme?

The book shows how to die by one's own hand. It does not show how to face death. Nor how to cope with the perils of living.

The problem, though, is not death. The problem is not even life. The problem is how to face the extremities of life or death. It is how to help others (our parishioners, for example,) look at life or death and not be overwhelmed by the impossibility or the horror of it all. It is to find a balance between anguish and serenity when perils of life or the certainty of death come knocking at our doors.

I find my answer on the cross. The Man hanging there provides the perfect approach: agony and peace, fear and fulfillment, anxiety and composure are reflected in the way Jesus faced His ultimate crisis. On the one hand, there was the dread of abandonment: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34).* On the other, there was the breathing of assurance: "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" (Luke 23:46).

The Word

Pastoral counseling and preaching can draw from the cross event lessons on the art of living as well as dying. First, we note that Jesus found His strength in life as in death in the inspired words of Scripture. He knew His Bible. From childhood He was a diligent student of God's Word. In His boyhood confrontation with the rabbis, in His dramatic victory over Satan's assault in the wilderness, in teaching the disciples the meaning of His kingdom, in expounding the great truths of redemption to the multitudes, in defending the meaning of His life or the method of His mission, and now on the cross (Ps. 22:2; 35:1), Jesus found His defense and strength in the Word of God. Where the Word is cherished, strength is assured.

The mission

Second, Christ's serenity at the cross may be understood in terms of an accomplished mission. "It is finished," Jesus reported to His Father (John 19:30). Throughout His life Jesus was conscious of His mission. "My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work" (John 4:34) was the driving force of His life. Every step of His way, every day of His life, God's work possessed Him. On the sea, in the desert, in the Temple, on the streets, among friends or foes, Jesus had one single goal: to finish the work given to Him. His mission was one of revelation and reconciliation: to reveal God to the human race, and bring the human race back to God. With this one purpose Jesus overcame every trial, met every onslaught, suffered every agony, and "became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8). Where the mission of reconciliation is accomplished, strength is assured.

The submission

Third, we note that the Man of the cross was a Man of submission to God's will. The words "Father, into thy hands" (Luke 23:46), are the ultimate in commitment. God's will was paramount in Christ's life, and He died fulfilling it. The affection of His mother, the zeal of the disciples, the constant distraction of His enemies, the arduous struggle of His mission, the agony of Gethsemane nothing distracted Him from going to the cross. The way of the cross was the only option open to Him to fulfill the will of the Father, and that settled all issues of life and death for Him. Where submission to God is total and unconditional, strength is assured.

The empowering

Finally, life and death in a Christological context take on a new meaning in what happened after the cross. The Resurrection is the empowering act of God: defeating death, on the one hand; enabling full and eternal life, on the other. Because it is a divine act in human history, Easter is not something one finds in science. Zoologists cannot tell us about resurrection. They may talk of life. They may talk of death or even postpone death but after that the ways must part. The scientist's work stops at the grave. Test tubes do not function in the tomb. Cybernetics cannot probe beyond the embalming table. No electronic device can come up with resurrection. That is the privilege of the Christian faith.

Resurrection, therefore, is not for the weak or the timid. It is for the strong—those who are ready to accept the unacceptable, believe the unbelievable, and follow the unreasonable. It is for those who believe that in Christ life and death have meaning and purpose; for "he is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). Where the power of the resurrection abides, strength is assured.

Where, then, is our strength to live, our strength to die? In the Word, in being reconciled and reconciling, in commitment to His Will, in the power of the resurrection. Hence the apostle's triumphal assurance: "We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life,... nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:37-39).

*All Bible passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.

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John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a contributing editor of Ministry.

May 1992

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