My father passed away in July 2009 of congestive heart failure. I spent his final month with him in a small, hot town in Texas. Although he’d achieved only an eighth-grade education, he was a successful entrepreneur. Many of the locals held him in high esteem as he cruised the pot-holed streets in his exotic cars. He was very active in his church and enjoyed his status as the top donor. What I found most interesting during the entire ordeal of his impending death was the nature of his final requests:
“I’d like to hear my sister Althea’s voice. Do you think you can arrange that?” She lived on the East Coast and they rarely spoke. There was no rift in the relationship; just never enough time to connect.
“Tell my sons to come and see about me. I can’t take care of myself.” All six lived in California and were already en route. He was never the type to express any kind of vulnerability or to do “mushy stuff” like send a birthday card or say, “I love you.” I marveled at the power of death to humble the proudest of souls.
I knew that my father was afraid to die, even though he had heard many sermons on death during almost a lifetime in church. Indeed, he had a reason to be afraid, for there was unfinished business between him and a couple of his fellow church leaders. He had flatly refused to forgive them for an offense that had hurt him deeply and had cost him a cherished fifty-year friendship. Of course, he was not without fault in the matter. We’d had many discussions about the situation during the past year. I was more concerned about his unforgiveness than his dying because I knew it was hindering his fellowship with God. Jesus was emphatic about the impact of unforgiveness: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15).
I finally took matters into my own hands and called his offenders. They expressed a willingness to forgive and finally made the necessary phone calls to reconcile with him. I rejoiced. I also led my father in a prayer of repentance for all his sins. I know that he is now resting in peace.
Fear of dying is one of the fundamental or core fears from which many other fears stem, such as fear of doctors, flying, and others that we will discuss later. Every member of the human race will eventually have a date with death. It is inevitable and its timing uncertain; consequently, almost everyone has some modicum of anxiety about it.
When discussing death, it is important to understand that we are eternal beings. Thus, when the Bible speaks of death, it refers to the physical separation of the soul from the body (James 2:26) versus total annihilation. The soul will live eternally in the presence of God or in hell. (Read Luke 16:19-31 for a vivid portrayal of the difference in the quality of the afterlife of Lazarus the beggar compared to the rich man who had ignored Lazarus’s daily plea for help.) The decisions that we make during the crucial interval called “time” will determine the place and quality of our eternal existence. God will make the final call. Thus, many people are afraid to die because of the fear of this final judgment.
American author and humorist Mark Twain once said, “A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” This reminds me of a story I heard about an aging church janitor. One night after a passionate sermon on the hereafter, the country pastor asked the small congregation, “How many of you want to go to heaven?” All raised their hands except old Jim, who sat quietly in the back still clad in his work uniform. The pastor, puzzled at his response, said, “Jim, don’t you want to go to heaven?”
“Yup,” came his reply.
“Well, why didn’t you raise your hand?”
“Thought you were trying to get up a load for tonight!” Like Jim, we all want to go to heaven, but not tonight.
Let’s look at what we can do now to conquer the fear of dying:
Prepare for death spiritually and emotionally. We prepare spiritually by accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior and living a life of obedience to His Word by the power of God. Emotionally, we must accept the inevitability of death—especially when death is imminent.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer in the study of the effects of death and dying, explained that most of us go through the following stages as we face our death:
1. Shock Stage: “Oh, my God!”
2. Denial Stage: “It can’t be true!”
3. Anger Stage: “Why me?”
4. Bargaining Stage: “Spare me, God, and I will do something for You.”
5. Depression Stage: “It’s all over. I have nothing to look forward to.”
6. Testing Stage: “What can I do to make my remaining days worthwhile?”
7. Acceptance Stage: “It doesn’t make sense to fight the inevitable.”1
Only the grace of God can empower us to experience inexplicable peace as we accept our Divine destiny.
Prepare relationally. We need to let the key people in our lives know how much we care about them. We must also forgive everyone who has hurt or offended us. This is critical to getting our own sins forgiven. We must also ask forgiveness from others for our trespasses against them.
Prepare financially. Being financially unprepared is surely a cause for legitimate concern—especially if you have dependents. Be smart and, at a minimum, get burial insurance and prepare a will that spells out who will handle your affairs and who will inherit specific assets. A will can be handwritten and notarized. As a certified public accountant, I recommend you not only have a will (for special, sentimental assets), but a living trust (for real estate, investments) and an advanced directive that sets forth your preferences regarding the use of possible life-extending measures.
Submit to His sovereignty. Neutralizing the fear of death requires focusing on living life to the fullest. My concern when contemplating my own demise has always centered on how I will make that transition. I don’t wish to die violently nor do I want to suffer a protracted illness. (I’m hoping for an “Enoch deal” [Genesis 5:24] where God just takes me up!) Meanwhile, since I have no control over how I’m going to die, I have decided just to let my “requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6-7) and to submit to His sovereignty. When the time comes, He will be there to give me the grace I need to join Him for a life of eternal bliss.
What reason can you give for why you would be afraid to die—tonight? Have you lived a life of selfishness and disobedience, and thus fear eternal damnation? Or can you confidently say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7)? If not, what must you do now to be ready to make that eternal transition? Do you need to forgive an offense, express your affection, or apologize for your wrongdoings? If an angelic messenger were to show up and announce, “Tonight’s the night!” know that death ushers believers into the presence of the Lord where there is fullness of joy.
Deborah Smith Pegues, 30 Days to Taming Your Fears: Practical Help for a More Peaceful and Productive Life (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2011).
We have just released a new Bible Study on the topic Faith and Hope Defeat Worry and Fear.
These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.
Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking. Answers are provided in the form of quotes from respected authors such as John Piper, Max Lucado and Beth Moore.
These lessons will save you time as well as provide deep insights from some of the great writers and thinkers from today and generations past. I also include quotes from the same commentaries that your pastor uses in sermon preparation.
Ultimately, the goal is to create conversations that change lives.