Death: Signing and Framing Your Life's Portrait

Bertrand Russell has been called the greatest mind of the twentieth century. Anticipating his death he said this: “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”

Other than our Lord Jesus, perhaps the greatest mind of the first century was the apostle Paul. Anticipating his death he said this: “I expect that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.…I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil. 1).

Two famous men. One did not know God. The other knew Him intimately. And that accounts for the different perspective.

A dear friend of mine, Jerry Hardin, has been diagnosed with a terminal and aggressive liver cancer. God may choose to heal him, or take him home in a few months or years. I’ve had the opportunity to pray with Jerry and Carol, in their home, with their church elders, and in a large meeting at Grace Community church. Many lives have been touched by Jerry’s illness.

The prospect of death has a way of getting our attention, of cutting to our very heart. Yet we also have a way of turning our eyes away from Death’s burning light to gaze again at the shadows of this world, stepping back away from death and ignoring the message it sends.

Death gives rise to the question of life. Don Quixote tells his friend Sancho that as a dying soldier lay in his arms his eyes asked a question. Sancho asks, was the question “Why am I dying?” No, Don Quixote replies, it was the question “Why was I living?”

A little girl stepped in a mud puddle once, and as she looked at her muddied shoes she asked her mother, “Mommy, what is mud for?” “To make bricks, honey.” “What are bricks for?” “To make houses.” “What are houses for?” “Houses are for people.” Then the girl thought for a moment and asked “What are people for?” And her mother could not answer.

For the questions that don’t really matter, society has all the answers. For the questions that ultimately matter, society has no answers at all. But God does. The Bible does. And the focal point of these answers relates directly to the issue of death.

The truth is this—we all have a terminal disease. We are all going to die. 10,000 people die every hour, 3 every second (snap fingers). The statistics are consistent and dependable. Of those who are born, 100% die.

You’ve probably heard the old saying: “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” It’s cute, but it’s only half true. There is such a thing as tax evasion, but there is no death evasion.

Some of us live daily with that awareness. Some of us ignore and deny it. What we call “life” is a minute portion of the life that lies ahead of us, a brief window of opportunity to affect eternity. What lies ahead is true life, unstained by sin, untainted by suffering and injustice, unhindered by the ravages of disease. Our current life will seem dark, shadowy, unreal when we are bathed in the light that eternity shines on us.

My friend Jerry is not experiencing something unusual. On the contrary.

“Death: Signing and Framing our Life’s Portrait.” The idea is that death is the finishing touch, the final signature we put to our self-painted portrait. Death frames and thereby defines our lives. Only at the moment of death our lives are open to final scrutiny, but not before. As long as we are alive the book of our life is still being written, we do not know how the final chapter will end until it has ended.

At our deaths the appraisal can be made, will be, must be made. What have we done with our lives? Have we invested them in eternity? Have we carved in the minds of our families and our church and our community a burning image of the Lord Jesus Christ? Or have we poured our lives down the hole of prideful ambition or irresponsibility or godlessness or materialism or empty religion?

What heritage have we left—what blueprint have we drafted, what model have we built, what monument have we constructed? Keep those thoughts in mind and we will return to them. But now, let’s address some basic truths about death. The first of these is:

Psalm 90 tells us “Life like grass—the sun wilts it, and we are like a flower that comes and goes.” “Teach us to number our days,” Moses says, “that we might have a heart of wisdom.” We can conclude from this that the person who does not number his days, who is not acutely aware of his mortality, cannot be wise.

Psalm 39:4-7

Death is like a great ocean, and we are on this shore seeing people depart. But every ocean has two shores, and every person we see depart is seen as arriving on that other shore. Death is not the end.

Just as birth was our ticket to this world, so death is our ticket to the next. It is less of an end than a beginning. If I told you today I would move you from the slums to a beautiful country estate, you would not focus on the life you were ending but the life you were beginning.

The most beautiful, wonderful sights and sounds and experiences and relationships of this world are no more than a foretaste of the indescribably wonderful world to come. Heaven is a specially prepared place for specially prepared people. We are now living in the shadow lands. At death we will move from shadows to the light of day.

Death spells the end of opportunity. Have you ever developed photographs? After exposing the photographic paper to light and putting it into developer, the image begins to form. When it’s fully formed, you put it into fixer or the stop bath, where the image becomes permanently fixed.

If our lives are comparable to a developing image, death is like the stop bath. Our lives become fixed at the point of death. Scripture teaches that there is no second chance either to accept Christ or to earn rewards that will affect our position for all eternity.

This life is your opportunity—that’s why it is such a shame to waste it on fame and fortune and depression and anxiety and resentment. Invest it in God, in his people, in his kingdom program. Invest your life in eternity. C. T. Studd, who gave up his great wealth to go to the mission field, said “Only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”

To live with death in view is to live with eternity in view. And when you live with an awareness of eternity, you will live very differently. Materialism—the pursuit of money and things, and hedonism—the pursuit of temporal pleasure—are seen to be empty and wasteful.

Let me ask you: If you died today (and you may very well), what heritage have you left to your family, your church, your neighborhood, your community, your fellow workers or your classmates?

I didn’t ask what kind of inheritance, but what kind of heritage?

There is entirely too much emphasis placed on the money we leave our families and entirely too little placed on the legacy or heritage we leave them. To some people “ready to die” means they have lots of life insurance and a will. People, that’s not being ready to die! Yes, by all means have your will, but don’t think that’s having your life in order!

It only takes money to leave an inheritance. It takes character and spiritual vitality to leave a heritage.

What will they remember? Dad was too busy to help me, too busy to talk with Mom, too busy to volunteer for even the most basic ministry at church, so busy reading the newspaper that there was no time for the Bible, so busy buying new cars no money to give to missions. If that’s true, my friend, no amount of money you leave can cover up the fact that you have left your family nothing of eternal value.

My mother left me no money, but she left me a heritage that I thank God for every day. She didn’t even come to Christ until after I did. And her oldest grandchild only knew her 2 1/2 years. But last Sunday night at her baptism an eight year old girl who loves Jesus very much talked about her Grandma Alcorn and shared what a very important person she had been in her life. In everything of value I do, in everything of value my daughter does, the quality of my mother’s life is and will always be present. That is heritage.

Think of the heritage of the world’s billionaires, and all the failed marriages and neglect and bitterness they have left their families. Then think of all the poor believers who have left their family only spiritual riches—the one thing that really matters.

How do you want to be remembered? As a man or woman or boy or girl who walked intimately with God and obeyed Him, who spent his life not pursuing treasures on earth but treasures in heaven? A husband who loved and nurtured and communicated with and prayed with his wife and his children, who read them God’s Word, who lived out God’s Word, who always had time to tell them of God’s love and grace?

Now let me ask—what are you doing to make them remember you in such a way?

Or is your life such that you are unprepared to leave it? Are you unready to face death, and will you leave your family unready to face it? A life that leaves you unprepared for death is a poor life, in fact a life not worth living.

But be encouraged. For today you are still alive. And life means opportunity. Today you can change the course of your life. Today you can look beyond the money you have laid up for your children’s college and begin to establish a true spiritual heritage.

The day approaches quickly when we will finish our course in this world and face our God in another. In 1 Corinthians 3 and other passages, Scripture refers to the day of reckoning simply as “that day.” That day is the hope of the true Christian. When that day comes—and it surely will come—it is God’s appraisal of our lives here on earth that will matter, and that alone.

Martin Luther said that on his calendar there were only two days—”today and that day.”

My friend Jerry is facing a difficult trial. But he has a great advantage.

Read from Lewis, The World’s Last Night

Let me close with poem that describes Christian death:

I’m standing on the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She’s an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and the sky come down to mingle with each other. And then I hear someone at my side saying, “There, she’s gone.”

Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side. And just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There, she is gone” there are other eyes watching her coming and there are other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!” And that, for the Christian, is dying.

Browse more resources on the topic of Heaven, and see Randy’s related books, including Heaven.

Photo by fotografierende on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries