Looking at death might seem like an awfully strange place to start pursuing peace, but the first verse we come to in the Bible with the word peace in it has to do with just that subject. Death.
In Genesis 15:15–God says to Abraham: “Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers (die and join your ancestors) in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age.” In The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Eugene H. Peterson says it this way: “But not you; you’ll have a long and full life and die a good and peaceful death.”
Peace here means Shalom, a Hebrew word describing being well, happy, or perfect. It’s the type of peace you have when all is well or perfect with you. You are happy. Or you say to someone “Shalom” as a salutation of peace, or close a letter with “Shalom.” You’re letting the person know you hope they may be at peace. God was telling Abraham that in death, Abraham would rest well. God was giving him a prophesy of hope and promise. When Abraham’s journey was over, he would go to his grave in peace. And rest well while there.
The first question I am inclined to ask is: Don’t all people experience Shalom type of peace when they die? Was Abraham worried about it? Should he have been worried? Just why did God feel that He had to point that out to Abraham? (God does go on to say: “Not until the fourth generation will your descendants return here; sin is still a thriving business among the Amorites.” Which leads me to believe that maybe things weren’t going to be so peaceful for Abraham’s descendants, which, we know—if you read ahead in the Book—they weren’t.) In any event, God always has a reason for what He says and does, so I knew His pointing it out was important.
So I started thinking about all of the relatives and friends I’ve watched die, all of the stories I’ve heard, recounting how people died. And I came to the conclusion that some people don’t experience peace. And I’m not talking about comparing those who die sudden, violent deaths (like car accidents). I’m talking strictly about those who know they are dying. The ones who are staring it in the face. I thought about whether there was Shalom present with them in their dying and deaths.
I remembered the story of a co-worker whose father suddenly ended up in the hospital—for the first time in his life—with unusual symptoms. After a battery of tests, the doctor entourage trooped into his hospital room with the diagnosis: multiple myeloma. An unforgiving, always deadly (at that time) blood cancer. One of the worst cancers you can have, if you’re just measuring the pain and agony you endure in the death process.
His sons—who had rushed to his side—were stunned by the diagnosis, and the poor prognosis. Questions rattled around in their brains, and between themselves and the doctors: What about chemotherapy? Stem cell transplants? New treatment options? How long? Evidently the boys thought they were going to have a lot of input into Dad’s treatment decision making.
They were wrong. Dad didn’t flinch. He didn’t ponder, and he didn’t worry. He eyeballed his adult children and had an adult-to-adult talk. He said, “I’m not going to have any treatment. I’ve lived a good, long life, and I’ve taken care of everything for your mother. (She was living in a care facility.) I’m ready to go.” And that was that.
Perfect Shalom. This man was ready to die, to go to his grave in peace. He believed it would be well with him and with his surviving family. With pragmatic forethought, he had made the necessary plans. Within three days, this man had lapsed into a coma and breathed his last. It was a shock to the family. It happened so quickly; before they even had time to mentally process their father being sick, let alone the terrifying diagnosis and decision. They thought they had more time. (Unfortunately, we always think we have more of that.) But Dad was ready, and, evidently, he laid his life down with satisfaction, purpose, and conviction. In peace.
Just like a friend who went into the hospital emergency room one night with a brain-splitting headache and was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. His response? “I don’t like it much down here anyway.” He was ready to go. He looked forward to resting in peace. Within a week, our friend had lapsed into a coma and succumbed to the tumor. To him, death was a peace he hadn’t known in some time, even though he was a man of great faith in God. He knew it would be well with him, and he was happy to walk that path. No, wrong way to put it. He embraced it.
And I remember dramatic contrasts. Some years ago, a family member was in the hospital, recovering from cancer surgery. Things weren’t going too well, either. In the course of care, he’d acquired a deadly infection. He ended up in quarantine, and his tiny, suffocating hospital room and view-of-a-building-wall window further contributed to his mental decline. Depression set in, and he seemed without hope, in spite of all of the cheery dispositions and encouraging words we traipsed into his room with.
Contrast that to our friend who lay in a hospital room across the hall, battling cancer, and losing the war. A magnificent woman of faith, she maintained a fierce hope throughout the ordeal. Tethered to a ventilator, she still attempted to smile, laugh, and talk with visitors. She even wrote encouraging salvation messages on lined notebook paper to deliver to other hurting patients. Uplifting praise and worship music caressed the room as talented friends and family strummed guitars and sang. The medical staff was stunned that she managed to handle the ventilator without any pain or muscle relaxant medication.
The contrast was palpable. In one room, fear, distress, anger, disillusionment and depression reigned. Sometimes it felt like entering the room was like walking through a thick, murky cloud of dread. Across the hall, a middle-aged mother ravaged by cancer exuded peace and joy as her body succumbed. Walking into that room was like walking into the Light. Light haloed by peace and joy. Our friend didn’t want to die; she fought fiercely to live. But the peace surrounding her in the process, the peace she felt despite the inevitable, were a glory to all who witnessed her journey. Clearly this woman possessed Shalom.
She did lose her battle, while our family member on the other side of the hall won his. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? But God, in his infinite mercy, gave him another five years. And when his final time did come, he was ready. He died in peace.
There are so many other stories: My grandmother who battled cancer in her early eighties, and then approached dying with determination and peace after its return. Her children also assembled to “make a decision” and were confronted by her refusal to endure any more treatment. Her lament still pulses in my memory: “Why won’t they just let me die?” She was a woman of faith who knew where she was going. She wasn’t afraid, and she died at home, happy and in peace, surrounded by family.
Then there’s the friend to whom I recently said goodbye. She had battled cancer mightily for nearly two years. Then she made the decision to stop battling and gracefully walk the valley of the dying. I went to visit her one day near the end of her journey. She lay on a special hospital bed stationed in her bedroom, so she could be near her husband in sleep and in the comfort of familiar, soothing surroundings. As I perched myself cross-legged on her former bed and leaned toward the hospital bed, she turned her head slowly and worked to focus her fading eyes on my face. “You know I’m dying don’t you?” she asked. “Oh, yes.” I smiled and nodded at her. “I do.” A spirit of Shalom passed between our hearts. I didn’t want her to leave all of us, but I knew where she was going. And I was happy for her. She nodded her head and closed her eyes, satisfied that my heart and mind were in tune with hers. Our spirits would be together as much in death as they were in life. It would be well for us. Shalom.
In the process of her cancer diagnosis and battle, my cousin went from not knowing Shalom to being drenched in it. “No one else seems to understand,” she lamented. “I know this sounds silly, but…even the air smells different!” I understood, our hearts knitted together in understanding and peace. She struggled hard, and endured tremendous pain, but she died in peace.
And I thought of the perfect example of Jesus willingly giving up his spirit, and the martyr Stephen evangelizing and forgiving right down to the last silencing stone aimed at his head, and I realized that dying in peace doesn’t mean dying without pain, or dying easily. Dying in peace means knowing all is well with me. It will be perfect. And I am happy.
Finally, think about the words this courageous young mother uttered as she faced a recurrence of a rare cancer and decided to forego any further treatments: “I’ve taught my children how to live,” she said. “Now I’m going to teach them how to die.”
It’s not something we do very well, is it? Teach our children, and others, how to die. With our modern cure-alls and positioned-on-a-pedestal, sanctified medical care, we believe (or want to believe) that doctors, pills, chemicals, and machines can cure everything. We really don’t have to think too much about dying, we fight it with every ounce of energy we can muster, and we’re stunned when it actually happens. As people have walked away from their faith in God and embraced a faith in science, they have also turned their hearts from the inevitable truth: that dying is just as much a part of life as living; and—most importantly, whether you choose to believe it or not—is not THE END. It is a transition, a journey. And if you are a believer, you believe and know it is a transition to an even more beautiful life than the one you had “down here.” It is something you can, and should, look forward to—dying a good and peaceful death.
And if it’s important enough for God to point out, it’s worth understanding—and pursuing.
Questions to Ponder:
1. Unless we will be part of that fortunate group still standing when the Lord returns to earth, a time to die is appointed to each of us. Are you afraid of that truth, or fearful of dying? If so, what are you afraid of, or why are you afraid? (Personally, I’m afraid of the pain that might go along with it. I’ve suffered a lot of physical pain in my life, and I’m fearful of dying in pain.) Write down what first comes to mind.
2. Consider the Apostle Paul’s words he wrote to the Corinthian believers in his second letter to them. The passage is found in the fifth chapter. “So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”
And then his words to the Philippians: “…so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor, yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.”
If your doctor told you today to get your personal affairs in order because you had a
month to live, what would be the first thing you would do? Why?
Do you live a life characterized by “walking by faith and not by sight”? How does
your life demonstrate that fact?
Do you possess the kind of faith Paul talks about, knowing that to live is Christ and to
die is gain? Do you consider it better to be with Christ than to be living on earth?
Can you truly say: “It is well with my soul?”
3. Another person I’d like to look at today is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Lutheran theologian who was sentenced to prison, later transferred to a concentration camp, and then hung for his involvement in the Nazi resistance movement during World War II.
Of course, he had a different perspective from many of us, because he, his family, and his countrymen were living amidst war and annihilation. Yet some of his writings, found in the book Letters and Papers From Prison, address thoughts we should consider.
Even though he is in prison, he knows he cannot, must not, stop living. And while living, he learns how to confront death with grace, dignity, and Shalom. His words encourage us to live, even while we know we may die.
“…there remains for us only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future. …Thinking and acting for the sake of the coming generation, but being ready to go any day without fear or anxiety—that, in practice, is the spirit in which we are forced to live. It is not easy to be brave and keep that spirit alive, but it is imperative.
“It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; in that case, we will gladly stop working for a better future. But not before.
“We still love life, but I do not think death can take us by surprise now….It is we ourselves, and not outward circumstances, who make death what it can be, a death freely and voluntarily accepted.
Do you love life? Do you think death takes you by surprise? Are you, and your heart
ready to “go any day without fear and anxiety”? Are you ready to let your loved
How do you think you do, or can, balance living every day as if it were your last,
and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future?
Can you think of anyone you know personally who has accepted, or accepts
death freely and voluntarily? How can you better prepare yourself, your heart,
and your loved ones to face death with this kind of Shalom?
4. In his letters, we also learn something about how Dr. Bonhoeffer spent his day and the effect it had on him. In a letter to his parents, he writes: “It is surprising how quickly the days pass here. I can hardly believe that I have been here three weeks. I like going to bed at eight o’clock (supper is at four), and I look forward to my dreams. I never knew before what a source of pleasure that can be: I dream every day, and always about something pleasant. Before I go to sleep I repeat to myself the verses that I have learnt during the day, and at 6 a.m. I like to read psalms and hymns, think of you all, and know that you are thinking of me.
“The day is over now, and I hope you are feeling as peaceful as I am. I’ve read a lot of good things, and my thoughts and hopes have been pleasant, too….
“I hope you are feeling as peaceful as I am.” Clearly this man, who was severely confined
by human standards, had peace in his soul. He still hoped, he fully lived, and yet he was fully prepared to die. He had Shalom.
Do you have that kind of Shalom? What kinds of things or activities do you
participate in on a daily basis that impart a happy, contended peace to your
Dr. Bonhoeffer seemed to gain strength from reading the Psalms and singing hymns.
Like Dr. Bonhoeffer, do you read God’s word? Sing praises to Him or sing hymns
that impart scripture to your heart, or remind you of God’s goodness?
If you don’t dream at night, do you daydream, or think on good things? Do you think
of those you love and remember the blessings, laughter, and joy you’ve shared
together? The Shalom.
5. If you possess Shalom, take a minute to thank God for it. Thank Him for the happy and well type of peace He gives. You may want to write your thank you prayer in your journal.
6. There are horrific stories, though, like some told in life after death books. I remember one story, about a man who was terrified of dying. To visitors, he would constantly ask questions like: Don’t you see them? Those evil-looking men outside my window? They’re just waiting for me. Waiting to come and get me when I die! Can’t you see them!? He’d point and cry and shake, but no one else could ever see the ghoulish-sounding creatures. As he neared death, evidently these evil men drew closer and harassed him from the corner of his room.
Clearly, this man did not experience Shalom in dying. He experienced terror.
Clearly, this man did not experience Shalom in dying. He experienced terror.
If you do not possess that Shalom, or a confidence of peace in knowing where you’ll be
going after you die, ask God for that kind of peace. Then you will never have to worry,
like this man did.
Next Monday we’ll look more at the Shalom type of peace. (But we won’t be talking about death!)
Until then, may your week be full of blessings that you receive and give, your heart be full of joy and thankfulness, and your days be filled with laughter! Build a little heaven in your life right now, and watch your heavenly garden grow!
In Christ’s love and peace,
When the eyes of the soul looking out meet the eyes of God looking in, heaven has begun right here on earth. ~ A. W. Tozer
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