A year or so ago I was chatting with my primary care physician. As he
started a new page in my very thick chart I told him how surprised I was
to find deep denial in my heart concerning my own mortality. His
immediate reply was "all of us are in denial about dying." My doctor has
given me outstanding care for 15 years. As I glanced at the thick stack
of charts on his desk I realized that every day he saw people who were
dying (after all, the mortality rate for our race is still a flat 100%).
Surely he thought a lot about the eventual end of his life also.
In the hospital a year earlier (pulmonary embolism) I had had some very anxious nights as I began to talk with God about "going home to heaven." Now that this event called death was a lot closer and could happen at any time, I found that I was actually terrified. My head knowledge of dying far exceeded the emotional realities in my heart.
Many times in my forty-eight years of Christian experience I have prayed the verse, "Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7) That night in the hospital, as soon as I really prayed from my heart, the peace of God came down immediately. As always, God was being faithful and showed up when needed. I did have to ask for help, however. That one incident in the hospital did not end my anxiety about the future, nor my need to get head-knowledge moved down into my heart. I had needed a wake-up call.
Several weeks ago a friend of twenty-five years dropped over. We talked about our deepest fears, the things we usually don't share with anyone. I told my friend I had not realized how deeply I was in terror of leaving familiar surroundings and the "comforts" of my present home for a strange new place called "heaven." He immediately told me his deepest fears were not about meeting Jesus of Nazareth face to face. He said that he dreaded meeting the "Cosmic Jesus." I could identify. Would God reject me at the very last minute? (contrary to promise after promise in the Bible). Would I be banished into the outer darkness, whatever that is? At the very least I did not want to face the Judgment Seat of Christ (which every Christian does face at death). That "reviewing stand" evaluation one-on-one with Jesus is not about our sins, (all of our sins have been dealt with by Jesus on the Cross). The Bema is about one's wasted years, and a poor performance review. Only what Jesus does through us has lasting value. Then too, I had no idea what Jesus looked like and I had not found many clues in the Bible about what heaven is like. A number of my Christian friends and family members have already gone "home to be with the Lord." It will be great seeing them again. I could write a book on God's fidelity and on how He keeps His promises. My problem, as mentioned above, was not the promises of God but my own unbelief. What a wimp I am!
After I decided to be more real in telling Jesus about my fears concerning the end of this present life, I saw right away that in many other areas of my life I was to some extent also "living in denial." While on trial for his life, Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." My very-common problem was really about unbelief. Finishing the race with Jesus is as important as starting. I can think of dozens of people I once thought highly of who have since dropped out of the race and been assimilated into the world.
"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The LORD will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: 'For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.' But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul." (10:23-39)
God asks us to walk by faith no matter how long we have known Him. Faith means leaning one's whole weight upon Jesus and "laying hold" of the promises of God in Scripture. It's about "nothing coming from me, everything coming from Him." Many years ago one of my favorite teachers said, "The longest journey in the universe is from the head to the heart." Head knowledge does us no good until it gets to the heart. That happens through prayer and faith. Truth not acted upon is lost. Head knowledge can not save. It dawned on me that the daily dying to self of authentic Christian life is the best possible teaching tool for preparing us to leave this life and step into the next. Our flesh, our self-life resists being put to death. Dying to self is never a lot of fun, but as soon as we yield and trust Jesus, new resurrection flows in where previously there was only a pocket of useless old self-life. No wonder Paul said, "I die daily."
This exercise in ongoing faith has reminded me that our Lord wants us to be intimate and personal, real and transparent when talking to him. Never mind the fact that he already knows everything: we need to come to him as frightened or lonely or anxious children. It is OK to be weak and helpless--it's preferable in fact--since we really are in ourselves without the power to do anything useful or of lasting value.
Recognizing my naïveté about dying and "going home to heaven," has awakened an awareness of many other areas of my life where I have been "living in denial" (as psychologists put it). I am incredibly self-centered.
When I started praying about other aspects of life I normally did not examine closely, I began to realize the deep denial that exists in many churches these days. Denial is not just my problem. I thought of the wonderful Christians I know who seem to have become stuck somewhere--they are somehow living in the past. Why aren't they living in daily intimate sharing with Jesus? If we only take God for granted, we're hypocrites, and God hates hypocrisy.
"The blessed hope of the church" has for 2000 years been the hope that Jesus would return soon. Now that we are very close to the time the return of Jesus WILL take place, why are so many Christians hiding? Why is it that many entire churches totally ignore the tremendous prophetic passages of the Old Testament (and the New), which tell us about things that are sure to come? Should we not be eager to look at (and pray over) all the unfulfilled prophecies pointing us to our marvelous future with Jesus "for ages to come." Our country is in a mess right now largely because of the apathy and worldliness of our churches. How could so many churches deny that Israel will again be at center stage as this age comes to a close. Yet Israel is the most prominent item in the daily news? In many churches one prayer is repeated weekly, year after year. It's not yet been answered. It will be answered. Do we know what we're asking for when we solemnly pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven..."
None of us knows when God will call us home as individuals, or when Christ will re-enter world history and call the entire true church home. Ray Stedman once said that our greatest problem as Christians is unbelief. I agree, more now than ever.
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