Fear is a powerful force. Sometimes we don’t recognize the power it has over us until something draws it out.
This is one of those moments. A moment in time when deep-seated fear is being drawn out and staring us in the face.
The fear of death
It is normal to fear death.
When my husband, Lynn, died, I encountered a pain and darkness unlike anything I could have imagined. It taught me what an evil death is – a terrifying evil that slices through the fabric of our human interconnectedness.
Healthy humanity values life and sees death for the ugliness that it is: something evil, not of God, a dark separation that we were not designed to experience. It is not something to belittle, avoid, brush aside or disrespect. Furthermore, for the Christian, to deny death is to deny sin and the role it plays in our human experience. It is to close our eyes to injustice and all manner of human suffering.
Dear church, do not belittle or brush off the reality of death. Still, put it in its place inside the whole story of God.
The Church offers a narrative in which sin and death play a role, but they do not determine the beginning or the end of the human story.
With Jesus there’s a bigger perspective
In the gospels, in my estimation, Jesus never belittled the wretchedness of death but accepted its role in the whole story of God and humanity. Even he grieved and honored the reality of death. He took moments to pause and weep – all the while knowing that he was “the Resurrection and the Life.” He healed the masses and wept for his friends. He sorrowfully delivered his own life into the evil hands of death, purchasing life everlasting, the salvation of many.
Jesus had both the God perspective of victorious, eternal life and the human perspective of empathy toward our suffering under the curse of sin.
He leads the Church, His body, with a brilliant capacity to “Rejoice with those who rejoice [and] mourn with those who mourn.”
Western culture lives in an incomplete story
Western, or North American culture, does not promote a human story in which death makes sense. Its narrative stems from an ideal of self-made freedom, happiness and success and tends to deny the spiritual or metaphysical idea of eternal life. Other than the burial and funeral after a loved one dies, there are little to no celebrated traditions or rituals in our majority culture that retell the ongoing story of loss in the context of our natural human experience.
We seem cornered by both a fascination with death (as evidenced through movies and media) and a denial that it exists. We separate the idea of death from the idea of life, desperately trying to convince ourselves that we have outsmarted it – with enough money, enough technology, enough medicine, good choices and precautionary measures, surely, we can avoid this evil. Surely, we can climb ourselves out of the curse and away from those fingerlike tentacles that wrap around our ankles and draw us, one day at a time, into death’s gaping maw.
Many of us within the influence of American Christianity are affected by these tendencies and mindsets. We have not re-formed the deep foundational pieces of our inner paradigms to live in the true Christian narrative but continue to interpret our lives through our culture’s version of the human story. The result is a mixture or disconnect, in which we celebrate salvation and victory in Christ without a true understanding or healthy respect for the disease of death that clings to our bodies and wreaks havoc within our souls.
I see this contributing to a fascinating division between contemplative Christianity (a more introspective, mystical and soul-focused expression of Christianity) and charismatic Christianity (a more Spirit led, celebratory and victory-focused expression of Christianity).
Without each other, we lose perspective and live in parts of God’s story.
When my husband died, I was fascinated to discover, on the one hand, a kind of expectation that a victorious perspective over death looked like a denial of death. An overcoming faith seemed to necessitate a lack of acknowledgment, as though Lynn (my late husband) no longer existed and grief, therefore, had no role to play in the Christian story. This left me with no sufficient means of honoring and remembering the deceased.
On the other hand, those pockets of faithful believers who embraced grief as a natural movement of the human soul seemed to relish the darkness. There were undercurrents of cynicism toward the idea of healing and a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit. This left me with no sufficient means of honoring my grief journey while trusting the Holy Spirit to lead me in the victorious life of a Christ follower.
This generation is trying to reconstruct the Christian narrative in our new global context of understanding but struggling to place all the right pieces in their gospel place according to God’s design.
The whole Christian narrative sets us free from fear of death
To acknowledge death is part of the story of our salvation in Christ, just as much as the cross is a necessary part of Christ’s resurrection.
Paul didn’t want us to be uninformed about death “so that [we would] not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, NIV). He wanted us to have a proper narrative in which death has a lifespan, a beginning and an end. He was acquainted with the sorrows of death and loss but learned how to orient his perspective around the story of God and everlasting life.
You can’t remove sin and death from the Christian story and still get eternal life. Nor can you acknowledge someone’s death and forget that they still live, fully alive in Christ. You can’t be filled with the Spirit of God and all manner of healing and ignore the reality of a broken soul. Nor can you live in the brokenness of a depraved soul and not allow God’s Spirit to fill you and lead you into healing.
A healthy and vibrant faith seems to acknowledge the real suffering of our human experience, without losing sight of the bigger story of victory in which “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, NIV).
Free to love generously
The whole story of God both compels a life and compassion and frees us from the fear of death. It launches us into love, intimacy, urgency for the care and salvation of many and anticipation for the coming day. We can be free to love generously in times of great darkness and walk in Jesus’ footsteps to touch the untouchable.
In Christ, we can have absolute confidence that our souls are hidden with Christ in God! Nothing can separate us from His love! And when this body dies, we get to relinquish the cursed cloak of death and step fully into freedom, aliveness, and restored fellowship with God, ourselves, others and new creation!
Living in God’s story
No matter the reputation of the church, the doubts and questions, the divisions in and around our theologies or expressions, we are called to lose our lives and find them in the whole story of God. We represent a God of unrelenting compassion toward the brokenness of humanity. And we represent an invitation to step into a Love like no other that extends backward to the beginning of time and forward to an eternal home.
Let us rise to the occasion as the people of God and demonstrate with grace and power what is possible in Christ.
Rev. Natasha Dongell is an ordained pastor, worship leader, speaker and writer.