This past Tuesday, I thought I was dying. This is no stretch of the truth or over-dramatic hyperbole. The fear of my physical death hung over me; to the point where I left work in the middle of the day to seek medical attention. I should probably mention that I am no hypochondriac. Before yesterday, it had been years since I’d seen a doctor. But this was different.
The previous night, I hardly slept at all. A nagging pain had developed just above my knee. It was enough of a discomfort to get my attention. Normally, I would have shrugged it off, but within in the past month, I have been doing a lot of traveling. I went on a mission trip to Thailand. I also went to Phoenix. In preparation for the Thailand trip, I had read that one risk of extended flight time is blood clots in the leg, which if left untreated can lead to death. This is the context into which the Author of my story wrote in a persistent pain in my leg. And it really freaked me out. I decided I wanted to have a doctor check me out when the pain started moving up my leg. By this time, my mind had begun playing tricks on me, which made me feel nauseous. Tis better to be safe than dead, I thought in the midst of it all. So off to the doctor I went.
The doctor’s exam and subsequent blood test yielded no indications of a clot. I’m in the clear. Yet, I still find myself troubled. The dread I felt as this odd pain emerged in my leg was real. I was fearing death. Anxiety welled up over the possibility of suffering. So what should I take from my imagined brushed with death? Perhaps you think it silly to even ask such a question, as if there is an answer. Doesn’t God have better things to do? Perhaps, but most likely not. The God who spoke the world into existence and sustains all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3) must continue to speak, or nothing would exist. Whether a falling sparrow or a spinning universe or a small pain in my leg, they do not happen apart from Him. So I ask again, why was this scene written into His story? I think it was to teach me (and maybe you) that I fear death more than I think I do.
So what’s the big deal? “Everyone fears death”, you might be thinking. I guess you may be right. But, “fearful of death” is most certainly not a way a true disciple of Jesus could ever be described (hence my consternation over my reaction to my imagined brush with death). When you think about the history of the church, it is tinted red by the blood of martyrs; men and women who did not fear death, of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:36-38). These brothers and sisters are held up as examples of faithfulness. Their perseverance through trials and suffering perfectly imaged their elder Brother. For Jesus, despite experiencing much suffering, persevered to the end. He remained faithful to God (Hebrews 3:1-2). And it was His faithfulness that freed these other brothers and sisters from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). His faithfulness enabled them to be faithful themselves…faithful to the end. This is why I pause to consider my own heart in this situation. If I share in Christ, I have been freed from the fear of death. And if you share in Christ, you have been freed from the fear of death as well. This is gloriously true and eternally significant.
Can you imagine living in a time where the threat of death faced you everywhere? No matter where you went or who you encountered, death hung over you like a palpable mist that choked your existence. It’s unimaginable. Yet, this is our reality, if we would only see it. The Christian life is fraught with dangers. And the one weapon that Satan uses to tempt us to faithlessness is the threat of suffering unto death. Which is why the fact that Christ Jesus has freed of us from the fear of death is so significant. When the devil attacks, with his darts of flame unleashed, we can stand tall. The shield of faith extinguishes and deflects that ammo set on fire by hell itself. For Satan can only kill us (and only by God’s permission – Job 1:6-12) and after that is glory! If we truly believe this, if we truly lay hold of it, fear melts like ice in the presence of red hot coals. For “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). But if fear remains, we have yet to be perfected. We have yet to lay hold of the depths of the Gospel. Thus, we are in danger. An evil, unbelieving heart may lurk within our being. One that will deceive us and then destroy us (Hebrews 3:12).
This all may seem like bad news. And it is. But, the bad news is what makes the Good news that much better. The truth is, I have an evil, unbelieving heart and Jesus lived, died and rose for people just like me. I fear death because I’m still learning that the Gospel is better than I think it is. It’s better than I will ever fathom this side of heaven. This is the truth I must preach to myself. This is the truth that I must have preached to me (Hebrews 3:13). This is the truth that emboldens faith and shrinks fear of death and fear of suffering. This is the truth that will neuter the power of temptation and delivers me safe at home by preserving me to the end (Hebrews 2:18).
It’s easy to speak with bravado about our lack of fear when the object of that fear is far off. But it’s not far off. In an instant, your life could be over. There is an urgency to repent. There is an urgency to submit. There is an urgency to reach out to those who are lost. “Today”, the author of Hebrews warns (Hebrews 3:7-8), is the day we should submit. Do not assume you can live your life as you wish and then get things right with God before the end. Your arrogance will betray you. For God opposes the proud (Proverbs 3:34, James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5).
For me, this whole experience has crystallized in my mind my deep need for the Gospel. It has crystallized in my mind my deep need for the local church. Without the Gospel and the church that the expansion of the Gospel creates, I would be hopelessly lost. And so would you.