A few weeks ago I got news that my dear Aunt Sandy passed away and went to be with the Lord. It didn’t take me by surprise. She had the worst case of brain cancer of the worst kind. Outside of a miracle, there simply was no chance of recovery. What did surprise me was that she developed cancer at all. Just a month and a half ago, Aunt Sandy was living a normal life with no problems and no signs of cancer. Fast forward two weeks and she’s lying on a hospital bed immobilized and virtually unresponsive. It all happened so fast and it came out of nowhere.
The recent passing of Aunt Sandy reminds me that dying could happen sooner rather than later. In fact, I have a chronic G.I. disorder that’s eluded diagnosis. It’s not a stretch for me to imagine it turning terminal at some point (not that I’m in any perceivable danger at the moment).
But my own health struggles coupled with the loss of my aunt has forced me to think a lot about my own dying. Bear in mind, I’m not talking about death. I’m talking about dying. There’s a difference. Death is the cessation of life that ushers you into the next. Dying is the duration of time that precedes death where your body is an observable state of accelerated decline. Put more simply, dying is having one foot in the grave; death is having both. I’ve thought a lot about death before and what awaits me in the next life. But until now I’ve given little thought to what my own deathbed experience will look like (assuming, of course, God chooses to give me one). What will happen in those final moments as I wait for death to come? And what do I want those precious last minutes to look like?
I’m thankful that the deathbed doesn’t have to be a terrifying, lonely, or depressing ordeal. The Apostle Paul says as much in a little known part of a well known verse, “For to me to live is Christ, and TO DIE is gain” (Philippians 1:21). He doesn’t say death is gain, which is what I know we’re all tempted to make him say. Death certainly is gain because pain stops and eternal bliss begins. But Paul says “to die is gain.” Dying—the process that leads up to death, however short or long it may be—that is gain. It is gain for the believer to go through those last moments, however long and agonizing they may be. It almost sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? To experience gain on your deathbed. I don’t know about you, but I want a little piece of that pie. I want to be able to say on my deathbed along with the Apostle Paul, “Dying is gain.” So I decided to put together a small wish list for what I would like any dear family and friends to do for me when that day comes. Here’s how you can make my deathbed experience gain. And I hope this will serve as an encouragement to you when you have to be the one sitting by someone’s bedside or actually in the bed yourself.
- Read me the Gospel. Reading Scripture to a dying loved one is very common for Christians, so I don’t necessarily want to state the obvious or beat a dead horse, but I would feel irresponsible if this wasn’t on at the top of my list! And yet while this is standard for any Christian deathbed experience, I do have a special request here. I love familiar deathbed passages like Psalm 23, John 14:7, Revelation 22:1-5, Romans 8:38-39, and a host of other promises and reassurances about my passing and soon-to-be reunion with Jesus. But I don’t just want to hear about “what will be.” I’m actually more interested in “what has been.” No offense, but I’m about ready to experience “what will be” for all eternity. But what I want to remember is why I get to experience “what will be” in the first place. Take me to the gospel. Talk to me about the work of Christ. For example, don’t just encourage me with the wonderful truth that I can’t be separated from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Give me the basis for why God will never forsake me (Romans 8:31-34), that it’s based on a zealous and concrete act of God to justify me through His heroic Son Jesus Christ. Rehearse for me the doctrines of predestination, imputation, substitutionary atonement, redemption, adoption, and union with Christ by reading for me those Scriptures that illuminate these profound truths. Take me to Ephesians 1:4. Guide me through Romans 5:12-21. Put on repeat 2 Corinthians 5:21. Preach to me 1 Peter 1:18–19. Recite John 1:12. Pray me through all of John 17. Scratch that. Expand it to John 14 through 17. I won’t care that it’s long. I don’t have anywhere else I need to be at that point. I’m not going anywhere. The single greatest way you can make my deathbed gain is to give me the gospel one more time.
- Pray with me. I love watching Christians encourage dying saints with statements like, “Praying for you!” or “You’re in my prayers!” It’s great to watch the body of Christ encourage one another with these assurances. But when I’m dying, I personally don’t just want to know that you’re praying for me. I want to know what you’re praying for me about and, if given the opportunity, I even want to hear you pray. It’ll be nice to get a message like, “You’re in my prayers, James.” But it’ll be music to my ears when I hear you say, “I’m praying that your faith remains strong, James, and that the Lord will keep you secure until you rest safely in His arms.” You want to thrill my heart and send shivers down my spine? Explain to me what you’ve been praying or just take the time to pray with me. The more specific you can get with me about what you’re praying and how you’re praying, the more encouraged I know I’ll be. Telling me you’re praying for me reminds me that you love me. But praying for and sharing your requests with me reminds me how God loves me. I want both, don’t get me wrong. But (don’t take this personally) I want the latter more. So let me know what you’re praying. You and I will be better off for it!
- Raise the roof with theologically rich music. You heard me. Let’s rock the hospital halls with great hymns of the faith and deep modern worship music. Give me a balanced combination of older classics and newer stalwarts. So, that rules out the old timey stuff, like the “I’ll Fly Away” songs—as fun and apropos as those may be. Give me, instead, the “Be Thou My Vision’s.” Give me the “How Firm A Foundation’s.” And while you’re at it, give me 2.0, “Jesus Firm Foundation.” Give me the Getty’s “By Faith” or Enfield’s version of “Lead On, O King Eternal.” And on a purely personal note, please don’t go for the slow, melodic songs that everyone wants to associate with death. Pick some upbeat ones. Just because you’re sad doesn’t mean you have to make me sad too on my way out. I’m headed for paradise, people, and I don’t want to have to explain to my eternal Champion why I have a frowny face for my first few seconds of glory. I want my first encounter with my Savior to be pure elation! So make it a seamless transition. Obviously, I’m speaking a little tongue-in-cheek here. There’s an appropriate amount of grief that’s expected and needed. But please don’t make me depressed in my final hours! I fail to see how that’s Philippians 1:21 gain.
- Be sensitive to everyone else. When a traumatic event takes place in the life of a family, it’s inevitable that emotions will be all over the place and tensions are going to run high. Often the person on the deathbed’s the most calm and relaxed of the bunch. But those of us beside the deathbed can quickly develop a sinful tendency that redirects our grief and frustration into anger and backbiting towards others. We’re careful with what we say to the dying, but then take out our frustration on everyone else. But when I’m on my deathbed, I don’t just want you smiling at me. I want you smiling at everyone else. There’s got to be nothing more discouraging for the bed-ridden on his last leg than to watch the most precious people in his life squabbling. I actually don’t think this will be a problem for the people in my life at the moment, but I realize that’s not always the case with every family. Be sensitive to others and put the same kind of energy into your relationships with them as you do with the person on his deathbed.
- Get some sleep. If you’re the type who’s deeply relational and loves to worry, this is gently meant for you. I know you love me, but God loves me too. Please get some sleep. You don’t need to worry. He’ll take care of me when you drift off. If I’m on my deathbed, I’m not getting any better and I probably don’t want to be. So please don’t concern yourself too much with me. Take care of yourself. You obviously still have more life to live than I do and I don’t want my last picture of you to be one of a worried wreck. Believe that God’s in control, because He is, and that you’re not, because you aren’t. There’s nothing you can do to change my situation by losing sleep. So do you and me a favor and get some rest. Your healthy rested face just might bring a bigger smile to mine.
I obviously have no clue when I’ll be lying on my deathbed and I don’t plan on being prophetic anytime soon. My time may be decades from now and I’m sure by then I’ll want to tweak what I’ve put down here. But I trust the day the Lord lays me down for one final sleep I’ll want the core of what’s here to characterize my last moments on earth. For now, to live is Christ, and I plan to make the most of it. But I hope when the death knell tolls, I’ll be able to smile and say, “To die was gain.”