She never forgot the spring just before she turned six. She had been wading in the murky waters of the Arkansas River near Wichita, Kansas. She felt the tug of the current but saw little movement on the surface. Another step and the roiling waters swept her off her feet. She panicked at the sudden loss of footing, and her rigid body began to sink. The next instant the muddy floodwaters closed above her. Her feet lodged against an unmoving obstacle, and the force of the swirling waters held her down. But then a pair of strong arms swept her out of the water into the spring air. Her older brother carried her back home, where her mother warned her to “stay away from the water. You nearly drowned!”
My mother never forgot that brush with death. Even before she told me the story, I had a sense that danger lurked in any deep water, and her story reinforced that fear. Only many years later, as an adult, could I overcome that palpable sense of menace and learn to swim, and I never came to truly enjoy it. To this day, whenever I’m in a body of water and I begin to feel my feet leaving the bottom, a flutter in my stomach warns me to stop, and only conscious effort allows me to float and swim.
But back to my mother. It wasn’t just water that she was afraid of. Danger lurked everywhere. And since I received my first nourishment from her, I’ve spent much of my life—way too much—fearful as well. I don’t blame my mother. She turned five in 1919, in the wake of the great influenza pandemic. Coincidentally, the first cases in the United States broke out in Kansas. Just as the troops returned home from World War I, this frightful disease carried off millions of otherwise healthy adults. In those days, death was a constant companion.
My parents both lived through very hard times: two world wars, the influenza pandemic, and the Great Depression. Death claimed friends and family. Between the time that my sister and I were born, my mother lost three other children. One was a sad miscarriage. Another infant died in her womb, which she carried dead for a month. Barely a year before my birth, a little sister had come to full term, only to be strangled by the umbilical cord at her birth.
My mother had good reason to fear death!
When I arrived, she felt great joy, but, understandably, great fear for my safety as well. Then came the polio outbreak. Children my age died or lived only with the aid of massive machines called “iron lungs” to keep them breathing. I share these things, not to blame or excuse, but simply for context. Others have no doubt suffered more and feared less. I simply share my story.
Religion offered me little comfort. The God of my childhood was demanding. Every detail of life—what we ate, what we read, the clothing we wore, recreational choices—all had to be precisely what God approved of, and He approved of little. The summer I was seven, we attended tent meetings in nearby Temple, Texas, where the evangelist painted a vivid portrait of the seven last plagues. Jesus was soon to return, he told us, but before that a great tribulation must come. Only those who were “ready,” whose lives had been purged of sin, would survive. For months after that, I shuddered every time I turned on a faucet, fearing blood would flow rather than water. I knew I wasn’t ready.
We seldom spoke of death in my childhood home, yet the fear of it was ever present. I don’t think I realized how much fear permeated my world until late in my teens. At boarding school, I lived for a time in terror that I would never see home again.
A few years later, doctors diagnosed my father with a brain tumor. Surgery and chemotherapy followed, but he died 14 months after the operation, a mere husk of the vigorous, athletic man I had always known. But at the time I was finishing college, had recently married, and didn’t have time to grieve.
Yet I now realize that, in reality, all I did was grieve. Whenever a noted individual died suddenly, I quickly became certain that I had symptoms of the same condition. When a pet died, I was disconsolate for many days, far out of proportion to my loss. Though they were largely hidden from those around me, I suffered panic attacks in which I felt certain that I was dying. When one of my father’s brothers died at the early age of 59, I knew genetics had doomed me to a short life. It seemed to me that death loomed around every turn in the road.
For me, the fear of death is not an abstraction. I know what it feels like to be almost paralyzed by fear, to anticipate that every encounter with a physician will reveal some terminal condition. But, praise God, I’ve found several ways to deal with that fear, which I believe can help you to face death without fear.
Personalize the Bible’s passages of praise.
I don’t just read passages that speak of God’s love. I personalize them by substituting my name or the word me in the text. Here’s an example: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for Ed,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper Ed and not to harm Ed, plans to give Ed hope and a future’ ” (Jeremiah 29:11). Romans 8:38, 39 is another text I’ve found especially helpful when gloomy thoughts surface: “For Ed is convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate Ed from the love of God.” There are many others, but these are two of my favorites, for they speak of hope, of a future that God plans for me. They assure me that even death cannot remove me from God’s love.
Focus on what you hope to accomplish, not on what might happen.
I’ve come to realize that death is certain, but living is optional. I see others whose worlds contract due to fear, who spend so much effort avoiding possible dangers that they have none left to enjoy life. Henry David Thoreau said that when it came time to die, he did not want to “discover that I had not lived.” I also don’t want to let the fear of death keep me from living.
Instead of dwelling on my fears, I focus on what I hope to accomplish while life lasts. I have plans and dreams that I will certainly not accomplish in the years remaining. I’ll only be ready to die when I find there’s nothing left that I want to do.
Abandon legalism and embrace grace.
In my childhood, the weight of trying to live a perfect life in order to avoid dreaded punishment from God weighed me down. Even when I was unaware of any present sin, I worried about the future. What if I failed at some later date? How could I be certain I was saved? But, of course, as humans we never know the details of the future. The best we can do is trust God today. And, as it turns out, that’s the perfect time! As Paul reminded the Corinthians, “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2; emphasis added).
Recognize that you only live now.
I have no idea how many tomorrows God has planned for me. But I can no more live those days than I can relive the days that are past. Yesterday and tomorrow are both beyond my grasp. Like Phil Connors in the movie Groundhog Day, I have had to learn that I can only live—can only be happy—today.
Remember that death doesn’t hurt.
I find it helpful to remember that as long as I live in this world of pain and suffering, death is merciful. My mother, who feared death for so long, eventually welcomed it as an end to her suffering. While many people question the morality of death with dignity laws (also known as physician-assisted suicide), they do illustrate the fact that, for many people, death comes as a relief.
Even those in good health may find death a relief. The legend of the Wandering Jew describes an individual who was condemned to live forever. You read that right: condemned to live forever. The main character committed a cruel misdeed, and he received a sentence of immortality. But after witnessing the death of loved ones, the continual cruelty of humans to one another, the suffering of age and disease, he came to long for death, to find rest from the conflicts of a sinful world—and couldn’t find it.
Jesus compared death to sleep. On hearing of Lazarus’s death, He said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep” (John 11:11). Those who sleep in death are not troubled by the sin and suffering of the living.
Remember that, for the Christian, death is not the end.
Jesus promised that the dead will rise at His return (John 5:28, 29). And, standing near the tomb of Lazarus, He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25, 26).
Many of us are familiar with the story of the raising of Lazarus, but we often forget the resurrection that happened at the time Jesus died. The Bible says that “the earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life” (Matthew 27:51, 52). This story tells us that the resurrection is not merely some promised event in the future, as wonderful as that may be. To the contrary, the resurrection has already begun.
When death comes.
Despite all that knowledge and my best efforts, the fear of death still arises, and I feel helpless, vulnerable, just as children do. But that’s exactly how Jesus felt on the cross.
How do we know?
There was a time when mothers commonly taught a bedtime prayer to their small children that begins, “Now I lay me down to sleep . . .” Archaeologists and historians have discovered a similar prayer that Jewish mothers were teaching their children at the time Jesus was a child. It goes like this: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). That’s the very prayer Jesus prayed as He faced death!
A number of years ago, I heard Pastor Sieg Roeske say, “Every night when I go to sleep, I trust the Lord to wake me in the morning. And when it comes time to die, I will trust the Lord to wake me in the resurrection morning.”
When fears of death come to me in the darkness, I pray my child’s prayer and say to all, “Have a good night. I will see you in the morning.” Knowing that nothing can separate me from God’s love, I lie down in peace. I can trust Him to wake me after a needed rest, whether it’s tomorrow morning or resurrection morning.