The elaborate schemes that Wile E. Coyote used to catch the Roadrunner frequently backfired, sending the cunning canid over a cliff that was so high you could hear only the faintest of sounds when he hit the ground. A small puff of dust was all the evidence you would need to know that Wile E. Coyote had, literally, bit the dust. The next thing you know, Roadrunner was speeding around a bend in the road only to find Wile E. Coyote, once again, executing another hair-brained scheme. To my child mind, there was nothing incongruous or illogical about Wile E. Coyote making an appearance after just having died. Death was part of life, but a repeatable part of life. Death hurt, but it didn’t kill you. As an adult, that makes no sense, but it was perfectly rational to me as a child. Death was really no different than skinning your knee or falling out of a tree. Death was bad, but survivable.
When I was 10 or 11 years old, the Vietnam war was in full swing. “Tet offensive” and “My Lai” are burned into my memory. One night, I was watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite when CBS showed film clips of American soldiers moving through the jungle, engaging enemy forces. When Mr. Cronkite reported the number of soldiers killed that day, I remember thinking, for the first time in my life, that death is not a game; it is real; it is permanent. Unlike Wile E. Coyote, soldiers that died were not going to come back to fight another day. They would not be welcomed home by a kiss and a hug from their mothers. They were gone… forever. In that moment, the prospect of my own death frightened me.
As is the case with most kids, no one was there to help me understand death. No one came alongside me to help me figure out how to live life knowing that one day, on a day not of my choosing, I would die. Like most other kids, I was left to my own devices, to figure out how to deal with death, even if my strategy was completely irrational.
Through my prayers, I have recently come to terms with the life-long methods that I have used to bury my fear of death. One day, in prayer, I faced those fears, for the first time since 1963. Not only did I face my fear, but I recognized the seething anger that I harbor inside about the fact that Death is unbelievably awful. I had not known that I was so angry about Death, but once I acknowledged Death in my prayer, I realized why I might be angry as well as afraid:
Death is not only inevitable, but I cannot change the fact that it will happen to me. Death is not fair; I did not ask for death; I would not choose death. It is very bad; it is a very bad system, and it is going to happen, and it is going to happen at a time and through a method neither of which is my choosing and no one is going to ask me how or when I want it to happen. I cannot control death in any way; it has absolute, unforgiving, and absolutely merciless control over me; with absolute authority, death will take away my freedom, my life, my relationships, my goals, my dreams, my wants, my hopes, my pleasures. Death will not ask me if that’s ok. Death does not care what I think or what I want. Death acts with absolute impunity. Death is permanent and, once I am dead, I have no option to change my mind and return to life. The choice has already been made for me. Choice is taken away. Freedom is gone. In the end, death will win and there is absolutely nothing that I can do about it.
It is no wonder that the apostle Paul characterized Death as the last Enemy. Death is truly an enemy, and an enemy of the highest rank. It is an enemy that cannot be avoided by elaborate delusion or vanquished by the best efforts of the medical community. I am amused when researchers argue that such-and-such a drug or lifestyle practice will reduce the incidence of death by a certain percentage. The lie that is implicit in such statements is that those who don’t die from breast cancer or whooping cough will live forever. The truth is that, one way or another, Death gets everyone.
How does a person live with Death? How in the world do I look the greatest and most powerful Enemy of my soul in the face with any sense of courage? The apostle Paul put the question this way: “Who will save me from the body of this death?”
Most of us ask, and answer, the question differently: “What will save me from the body of this death?” We drink alcohol until we’re numb, engage repeatedly in sexual pleasures that cover the pain, bury ourselves in our work, eat like there’s no tomorrow, adopt religion in hopes that God won’t let us die. Our chosen strategies, drinking, working, eating, starving, cutting, don’t deal with the problem; death is still going to come to every one of us. We use these strategies anyway. The number of people on the planet who engage in these behaviors and ones like them is astounding, probably including almost everyone. Blaise Pascal, referring to our extreme vulnerability, said, “We are reeds, but we are thinking reeds.” As far as we know, human beings are the only animals that can think about and anticipate their own death, their own vulnerability. From a young age, we know, deep down, that we are going to die. And we don’t like this idea one bit. We know about it and we think about it, but there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.
It is not in our power to engage in a battle with Death and win. And considering that all the “whats” that we use to avoid the issue don’t work, the apostle Paul asked the right question: “Who will save me from the body of this death?” Of course, Paul had Christ clearly in mind.
In the 1970s, Andrae Crouch popularized a song, the first line of which goes, “Jesus is the answer, for the world today.” What I would like to know is how is Jesus the answer? I don’t want to know how Jesus will deal with my existence after I am dead, but how he is the answer to my fear of and anger about death right now. I am unwilling to accept trite answers (“Just trust in Him”; “He will never leave you nor forsake you”; “Dude, you’re going to heaven. What’s there to worry about?”). Considering the fact that Christians are hardly immune to the behaviors that people commonly use to avoid coming to terms with death, trite answers are not answers at all. Clichés are just as useless as getting drunk.
We speak of the suffering and death of Christ, almost as if “suffering and death” were one word. The apostle Paul wrote, “I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself.” (Phil 3:10, The Message) Suffering and death were realities for both Christ and Paul and they went together, hand in glove. What about the rest of us?
Suffering is not limited to a select few religious people. “All humans born of women have a short life, and it is full of suffering.” (Job 14:1) Walter Ciszek was a Jesuit priest who spent 5 years in solitary confinement in Moscow followed by 15 years at hard labor in a slave labor camp in Siberia. He knew a thing or two about suffering and offers the following helpful insight:
“For each of us, salvation means no more and no less than taking up daily the same cross of Christ, accepting each day what it brings as the will of God, offering back to God each morning all the joys, works, and sufferings of that day. But those are abstract words… It means getting up each morning and going to bed exhausted. It means the routine, not the spectacular. It can mean drudgery, pain, putting aside pleasures, happiness, or the love the human heart craves until another time, so that what is necessary at the moment can be done. It means working for others, touching the lives of others, through the medium of the body.” (Ciszek, He Leadeth Me)
Those of us who want to spiritualize suffering, or define suffering only in terms of overtly religious acts (i.e., persecution), are at risk of missing the suffering that is inherent in life on a planet cursed by sin. That some suffer more than others does not negate the fact that all suffer. Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross does not in any way mean that I will escape either death or suffering. Just as Christ suffered and died, so I, too, suffer and will die. How can I ask any more of God than to follow in Christ’s footsteps through a life of suffering that ends in death? The Son of God was not rescued from a life of suffering and he was not preserved from Death. The pattern of my life will be exactly the same. And, since Christ was raised from the dead, then I, too, will be raised, so that I may continue to follow Him.
So, how am I to face that dreaded enemy, Death? The same way Christ did.