Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Faith and the Fear of Death

This morning, after a couple of weeks away, I got back to reading Hebrews. The Epistle to the Hebrews, that is. I started from the beginning, just to reacquaint myself with the early chapters, and was arrested by this passage:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18 ESV)
I want to take note of a few things here.
  1. Fear of death and sin are connected.
  2. All who are mortal (bound to die) live in fear of death.
  3. This fear amounts to a kind of slavery.
The human condition, I suppose.  But God in Christ enacted a plan, conceived before time, to release men and women from this fear and, thus, this slavery.  Christ is the key that releases us from the shackles of slavery to fear and death and utter helplessness with regard to temptation.  The life of freedom from fear that results, for those who believe, is elsewhere in the New Testament called "new life," or life "in Christ."

Question: why then do we still live in fear of death?

Here's an observation that may hold a clue to the answer.  Our conception of faith, here in the LaLa-land that is American Christianity, is deeply skewed.  I would describe it this way: faith is understood as the confidence that the things we desire will be given to us, and soon.  We may rhetorically attribute this confidence to Jesus, but in truth it has nothing to do with him, and is far from the New Testament conception of faith.  

Nothing puts the damper on this kind of desire-centered faith more quickly than the fact of ensuing death.  If what we desire most is to avoid dying, then death will trump faith every time.

Another question: seeing as how Jesus has defeated death, why then do we not spend more time and ministry preparing ourselves and others for dying well and in peace, rather than acting as if, right up to the very end, all we really need to do is pray harder for a miracle (and then of course believe God will grant it).

Story: there's a new couple in the church.  The husband has ALS (Lou Gerhig's Disease).  It has advanced far enough now that he can no longer speak clearly, and the wife must speak for him.  They're desperate.  The medical diagnosis is utterly hopeless (that is if you define "hopeful" as the possibility of not dying from ALS).  What they need is a miracle, and so they have come to church to find one.  They go forward for prayer at the end of the sermon.  A prayer-warrior listens empathetically and quickly prays for just that: a miraculous healing.  Then he says encouragingly, "I'm believing for a miracle!"

But doesn't there come a time, sooner or later, when we must see our dying at last as inevitable.  I am not suggesting that we not pray for miracles, but I am suggesting  that our prayers for miracles may reveal more about our fear than about our faith.

The author of Hebrews says that death holds sway over us, enslaves us, and that it is at the root of our helplessness with regard to temptation.   Our fear of death shapes our desires, and our lives--even our lives of faith--become consumed by the pursuit of these desires.  And the one desire we pursue most avidly, and yet with the least hope of satisfaction, is the desire not to die.  The tragedy is that we import this attitude into our faith. In fact, we make our faith serve our fear!  The rags of the old man still cling to the new.  Our faith turns out to be nothing more than desperate and worldly (flesh-derived, flesh-oriented) optimism.

My ultimate point here is that we should spend some time on this, we Christians.  Should the fear of death so control us that it even shapes our understanding of faith?  Did it control Paul (see Philippians 1)?  Shouldn't our preaching and teaching contain a prominent component concerning the Biblical attitude toward death?  Where is the wisdom in avoiding this topic?  And shouldn't our church ministries include, prominently, a ministry to the dying that is something more than simply believing earnestly that God will not allow their death?

Sadly, with regard to the subject of death and dying, we are deeply influenced by the flesh, and not by the Word of God.


interpolations said...

"My ultimate point here is that we should spend some time on this, we Christians. Should the fear of death so control us that it even shapes our understanding of faith?"

Hello. Death, yes - that's a difficult subject, isn't it? Even non-Christians should spend some time thinking about life and love and death. I'm guilty of thinking about it too much. The sight of withered grass often affects my mood for the whole day. I'm reminded of Epictetus who says that life is like a shoreline filled with beautiful stones and shells, flowers and trees, but when we are asked to leave the coast and board the ship bound for Nowhere, we should put back the stones and shell, the flowers and limbs we have collected — and do this as cheerfully as possible. Therein lies the greatest act of freedom, on E's conception.

Bob said...

Interesting stuff. Thanks for stopping by. One might suggest that if everyone is boarding a ship for nowhere, who cares about the pretty things on the shore! This is an example of how Greek philosopher's never really lift our spirits when we're feeling morose. I mean, all this talk about ships for nowhere! I'll trade Epictetus' ship for Woody Guthrie's train any day!