When I was about 10 years old, a local pastor’s teenage daughter died. The story I remember is that their car went into a river, her long hair got caught and she drowned. From then on I’ve wrestled with a fear of dying in a horrible way. Over the years I’ve watched many wonderful humans die from terrible diseases and each time my fear grew. My fear grew feet and muscle and power. Yes, I’ve prayed about it. Yes, I’ve focused on God’s promises. Yes. I’ve done all the things you’re supposed to do. But here’s the thing, there is no promise in the Bible that we will die in a beautiful way. In fact, many of Jesus’ followers died in horrible ways. And the prophecies in the book of Revelation talk about the horrible ways Believers will die. So there. My fear not only has muscle… it has Biblical support.
This fear doesn’t really affect my day-to-day life. I’m not afraid of dying today. But I have a nagging thought stream that trickles in the back of my mind. And it tweaks my view of life and of God.
My rational mind knows that this tweak means that my view of God is impaired. If my fear is true then God is either: cruel to let people go through such pain, powerless to save them, or absent from that moment.
Each of us is on a different journey to trust God fully. Some of you may be wondering if God is cruel. Some of you may be wondering if God is powerless. I don’t wonder about those things. I know from personal experience and Scriptural truth that he is fully loving and merciful (not cruel) and all-powerful. Those questions are answered for me.
Today I realized that my fear is connected to the third: I have been believing that God is absent from that moment. Wow. A door to the basement of my heart has swung open and Light is pouring in. All these years my heart has questioned God’s presence in the passing from this world to the next.
I know He is here on earth as the Holy Spirit. And I know He is in eternity as Father and Son. But what about the in-between. How will I pass from the Holy Spirit’s presence to the Father & Son’s presence? Who will hold me in between? Who will share that agony? Who will understand it with me?
Today my fear has been silenced. Power gone, muscle withered, feet crippled. It’s gone.
The moment came during a discussion about the deaths of James and Stephen. My Bible study group is doing Beth Moore’s excellent “Mercy Triumphs” study on the book of James. Today’s topic was the death of James and the social, political and religious climate when he was leading the Elders in Jerusalem. The Bible doesn’t record how James died but historical records and research point to him dying in a terrible, horrible way (aka murdered) when Ananus (II) was High Priest. To cut a long story short, this conversation not only stirred up my fears but also the fears of other women in my group. We echoed each other, “I don’t want to die that way.” Then Beth’s writings led us to consider the horrible death / murder of Stephen.
The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists in rage. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily upward into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!” Then they put their hands over their ears, and drowning out his voice with their shouts, they rushed at him. They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. The official witnesses took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul. Acts 7:54-58 NLT (emphasis added)
I’ve always know that God the Father and Jesus are heaven. And I’ve always known that the Holy Spirit is here with us on earth. But today I saw two new things:
– God present IN Stephen because he was full of the Holy Spirit.
– Jesus STANDING in action (versus “sitting” at the right hand as He does at other times)
I’m not sure I’m able to put this into words well. But my heart is so full right now. I will not be alone in my death. I have the Holy Spirit IN me and I have Jesus in ACTION for me. They will experience my passing with me. They will carry me and strengthen me and sustain me. I am stirred and inspired that Stephen “gazed steadily” toward eternity. Something huge was happening in that moment. Something we don’t get yet. Something supernatural. It gives me goosebumps to think about. That moment is in my future. I will know what Stephen knows. Wow. It’s actually exciting me. Talk about a 180. Where fear once lived, now expectation grows.
I always wondered how the Martyrs did it. I wondered if it was just a radical personality type that could stick to their faith during extreme pain. Turns out I was majorly under-rating the power of the INdwelling Holy Spirit. Totally changes my view of the story of Polycarp and other Martyrs. They could endure the torture because of God’s power IN them… not because they themselves were a special breed of human. And if I have to face something like it: His power is IN me too.
And now I will send the Holy Spirit, just as my Father promised. But stay here in the city until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven. (Luke 24:49 NLT)