Medicine for an Anxious Heart: a Christian Meditation on Death and Fear

Court-of-death

 

Peter Lawler stated in a recent article, “Philosophy is learning how to die, to get over obsessing about your personal significance. Being (existence) itself is not in our hands.” Lawler aligns himself with great thinkers such as Plato, Cicero, and Montaigne in believing that Philosophy has the purpose of preparing oneself to die. Shakespeare even incorporates this thinking into his many plays. But, I am convinced that philosophy can only do so much to sooth man’s soul, and I would like to assert that one should replace Philosophy with Christianity. And, I am fully convinced of this: Christianity is learning how to die.


This past year has been quite a year. I graduated from college debt free. My brother was married. I became an uncle. I was offered a job that I wasn’t qualified for. And most importantly, this year, I married my beautiful wife, Stephanie. God has been gracious and kind to me.


But, although this year has been filled with joy and happiness, I found myself deeply saddened. April 15th, 2016 marked the 18th year anniversary of my father, John Francis Elliott’s, death. It can easily be deduced that my father was not at my graduation, at my niece’s birth, at my brother’s wedding, or at my wedding. His death still has a real affect on my life, even though it was 18 years ago. So much so that in April of last year, I had an anxiety attack that landed me in the emergency room of Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington. Having too much caffeine from coffee and to much stress from school, work, and wedding planning resulted in the anxiety attack, but I am convinced the root cause was my deeply rooted fear of death. Let me explain.


Because of my father’s early death, I have always feared a premature death, myself. My dad died of a heart attack when he was forty-one, and I was so scared that my anxiety attack was a heart attack that I literally tricked my body into thinking it was going to die. The doctor told me that I had experienced a hypochondriac reaction. I had convinced myself I was dying, and my response consisted of being frantic, afraid, and scared.


But, this brings me back to my original point. Christianity is learning how to die, at least a large part of it. Death is the great equalizer of humanity. Every one experiences death. Naked we enter this world, and naked we leave. From dust we are formed, and to dust we return. No matter who you are, you will die. Death is scary, and the fear of death has many tangible reactions. Anxiety, denial, and ignorance are just a few.


I am afraid of death. I am afraid of being separated from my family. I am afraid of the pain I might face in my final hours. I am afraid of not being there for my children. And, every year I remember my dad’s death, and what he has missed, it incarnates that fear even more into my life. Fear is not something that mankind merely experiences, it is a part of our nature. Although a concept, fear incarnates itself into our reality in a concrete way. How does mankind conquer fear and its many consequences? The Apostle John with such sublime and simple words tells us that, “Perfect love casts out fear.”


But, how does love cast out fear? Often the answer to this question places the action on man to love and not act out of fear. Preachers often tell us, “You, human, in your own capacity, do not fear. You, human, in your own capacity, love other.” But this is the wrong way of understanding this concept. Fear has incarnated itself as a part of our human nature. The only thing that can overcome the human incarnation of fear is a divine incarnation of love.


The question one should ask is not “how do I with love cast out fear?” but rather, “how does perfect love, the Triune God, cast out fear?” The Father gives us His Son, Jesus Christ, through His Spirit. And, the presence of Jesus Christ in our souls casts out human fear. Christ casts fear out, because He is perfect love. And, as Christ casts out demons who controlled the men and women they indwelled, so Christ cast out fear from his church’s body. The God who calmed the raging waters of the Galilee Sea, can assuredly calm the fear in his children’s heart.


Therefore, the answer to fear is Christ himself. Christ went through death for humanity. God experienced death. As Peter Leithart eloquently explains in his article Lord over Death, “He (Jesus) is not only Lord over the safe confines of heaven…Not only Lord over galaxies, but Lord in the world of hunger and thirst. Not only the Lord over nations, but the Lord in suffering, injustice, and pain. Not only the Lord over life, but also the Lord and tamer in death.” Christ did this as our brother, a partaker in humanity. Adam sinned and brought death, destruction, and fear upon all mankind. But, through Christ, the God-man, mankind has life, redemption, and love. As Leithart states in another article, “The Lord of life becomes Lord of death. God’s throne is a tomb… Any old god could put up a throne in a temple. The true God must reign also in the midst of hell, among the ruins, or he doesn’t reign at all. He is no living God if he isn’t the living One among the dead.” Our God not only became man, He experienced the dirty, messy, humiliating act of death.


Modern society views death as man’s weakest point, that great adversary of mankind. Death is the point of human existence in which human will and ability can do nothing to stop the impending destruction of life. Death is in its nature a humiliating moment. Perhaps this is why euthanasia is becoming so appealing to many; human will can exercise its power one last time. Human will desires to be lord of its own peaceful death. But, that subject can be tackled at a later time.


In Christian thought, death receives a new nature and purpose. Death is man’s act of victory; man’s final experience of pain and sorrow, becomes its moment of victory. Death is still humbling in Christianity’s understanding, but it is humbling because we submit ourselves to God in humility with faith that he will raise us up incorruptible. Christian’s go to the grave not fearing death, for in death’s humiliation we are exalted to the heavens into the throne room of God. God made his throne the grave, so that man’s grave could become his throne. This is why a large portion of Christianity is learning how to die. For, Christianity teaches that in death we have life if we place our faith in the power of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We literally preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in our very death. Man is sinful and weak and deserving of the punishment of death, but through faith in Jesus Christ man is restored to a divine life that is incorruptible. This is the message of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.


So, when fear attempts to reincarnate itself into the hearts and minds of men, man is to think of Christ. Think on that perfect love, who incarnated himself on this earth and in your heart. Think on Christ, who descended into the grave and rose victorious. And, pray. Pray for Christ to give you His Spirit. For through His Spirit, we receive the power, presence, and love of Christ, the Eternal Son. Our God, came to this earth as one of us, and conquered not as a powerful King, but as a dying servant. And, through this we have peace. Our anxieties and fears can be calmed, for God has accomplished the work of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ. And, with this peace, man can truly live. Understanding the true nature of death leads to true life. Anxiety, stress, and despair slowly fade.


My fear of death still exists, and my heart is still anxious. Every year when I remember my father’s premature death, my heart will become heavy with fear and anxiety. But when my heart is heavy, I think of the word’s of Christ, “Come to me all who labor and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Christ speaks to my heart through his Word, through His Church, through His Communion, and through Prayer. He tells me to have no fear, for he has conquered the grave. And, slowly, very slowly, I am learning how to die.


Title Painting: The Court of Death by Rembrandt Peale. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012645626/

Thoughts on Fatherhood from One Who is Fatherless

Today, being the sixteenth anniversary of my father’s death, I reflect and meditate on the truths of God pertaining to death and life. This is my consolation. Reflecting on the nature of God truly is the only consolation I have found in this life, in my sorrow. Asking questions of God, and meditating on how He Himself is the answer is the only source of contentment and satisfaction. The triune God is the summum bonum, the ultimate good, and until we find satisfaction in Him we will never find peace, we will never be content, we will never find happiness.

So then, let this be my meditation:


C.S. Lewis once wrote that his literary mentor, George Macdonald, believed that Fatherhood must have been at the center of the universe. Yes, fatherhood, specifically, the fatherhood of the triune God to his creatures, for we are not only called his “creatures” but his “children.”


We see this theme throughout all of Scripture, and we see it most in the relationship of God the Father and His Son. We are told by God through the incarnation of Christ that the Triune God is in Himself a family, a divine family. The triune God is a Father, who eternally begets the Son, and in their union they emanate the Spirit. This is beautiful, for God fashioned us in this very image. God made the base structure of humanity the family unit. Fatherhood and Family is at the center of the very universe. The entire structure of our world, civilizations, and economy is the family unit. Without it, we would fall apart. I believe that this is a beautiful reminder of the nature of man, that we are secondary, that without God we fall apart. The temporal family is then a means of seeing the eternal, divine Family.


But what of those who are fatherless? What of those who are motherless? What of the orphans? This is a question I have often asked in the absence of my Father. The answer to this question is beautiful, the answer is God and His work in the Church. We know that Christ is the head of the body, and that with Christ’s mind unifying His body, it acts as the hands and feet of God. The Church is used as the physical manifestation of God’s nature, for we know the Spirit indwells to testify of Christ, who being the physical manifestation of the Father, we imitate. Thus the body should testify of God’s nature through God, for God is at work in us for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). We are the family of God, being fathered by the triune God.


 This is why the Bible talks of the Church as a family unit. This is why Jesus is the husband, and the Church is the bride. This is why God is our Father, and fellow Christians are our brothers and sisters. We are His children, and He is our Father! This is why Jesus stated that only those who obey the will of the Father are His brothers, sisters, and mothers. Jesus as our co-heir lovingly led us to His Father. And, as His children God lovingly disciplines us as Hebrews 12:7-8 states, “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” This is also why God is known in the Old Testament as a Father to the fatherless and a helper of the widow. And in the New Testament, this is why pure and undefiled religion is to visit the fatherless and the widow!


 So then, the Church is a family in itself. It is a family that has a greater bond than even the biological family. Our God truly is the Father to the fatherless and a defender of the widow. I can tell you that in my own experience, as I was raised fatherless, the Church provided fathers for me. Loving men, some were married and some did not have children and were single, came alongside of me and taught me. They mentored me, took me to baseball games, and showed me the truth of the Gospel. My mother who would sometimes be unable to provide, received help from the church. God worked through his Church; He was my Father, when I was hopelessly fatherless! He was my mother’s defender! This is what God shows us in how Paul relates with Timothy. Timothy, who did not have a Christian father, receives fathering not from his biological father but rather from Paul, his spiritual father.


So then let this be a challenge to you! Take every opportunity to help those who are fatherless and widowed, who are abandoned, who are weak. Take it from one who was fatherless, God is displayed through the familial relations, which He designed and commands us to follow. We are fallen; we experience death. God then has given us redemption! God is our Father, and by His Spirit we cry out to Him, “Abba Father!” Let us then act upon this. Let us proclaim to the world through both word and deed that our Father will father the fatherless, he will defend the widow, for He is the redemption of humanity. In human despair, God is the answer. In suffering, He is joy. And when death rears its ugly face, He is our life. Living out the Gospel requires being part of a family, an eternal family. Let us through the work of the triune God show the world that our God is Love, our God is Life, our God is the Father of the universe.


In loving memory of John Francis Elliott: Child of God, Gracious Husband, and Loving Father.

You are remembered because you attached yourself to the truth of God, which is eternal.

Love Examined. part I/II : Love and the Triune Nature of God.

Love. What is it? So many people claim to have it, but how many truly do? People have said love to be indescribable, some have said that love is pure commitment, and others pure emotion and elation. Love can be rationalized; love can be romanticized. But what is love? Love has been described as many things, but it can only be one. In our modern subjective world, many thinkers have created definitions for the word “love” and many of them, when challenged, then lean on the crutch of relativism to defend their position. Love, then, from this confusion has come to be known as acceptance and tolerance.


In relationships, women “dump” men who do not accept them for who they are. On social networking websites, disagreements run rampant because others cannot accept certain beliefs. These people become known as “haters” because they do not follow the law of love, acceptance. In families, sons and daughters carry disdain for their parents, because their parents do not understand their so called “needs” and refuse to accept their petty demands. No matter what arena of life you enter, love, from its myriad of definitions, has lost its true meaning and has been reduced to tolerance.


So what is the true meaning of love? Can we know what love truly is?

The Apostle John states, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (1) Humanity, by the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ, is given the superlative of love, to sacrifice one’s life for his friends. But how can this be? The greatest command from God was to love Him with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength and then my neighbour as myself. How can Jesus have these two ideas of the greatest “love” cooperate?


Christ, when speaking to the disciples in John 15, brilliantly displays the eternal truth of love. True love and the greatest good even in John 15 is this: the imitation of Christ through humility which results in partaking of the divine nature of God. Let me explain. In the following verses of John 15 the Apostle John writes of Jesus saying to his disciples, “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you….I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” (2) Christ describes that love consists of doing what He commanded; it consists of imitating Him. A true friend of Jesus, whom He as a man “laid down His life for,” will follow Him and will have a life that resembles His.


And why does Jesus wish this? Because Jesus, Himself, has been displaying the Father to them. Jesus is telling His disciples that imitating Him, a distinct person of the Trinity, is imitating the one essence of God. Later in Jesus’ dialogue He states, “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.” (3) Love is in its essence Trinitarian. Let me explain.


The Trinity works in a way that displays all three persons of the Godhead. Christ magnifies the Father, the Father exalts the Son, the Father and Son emit the Holy Spirit, and then the Holy Spirit magnifies Christ. It is in this act of aseity or oneness that God magnifies himself to the world. So then when Christ says, “when the Comforter (Holy Spirit) is come…he shall testify of me” He is revealing that true love in His disciples will result in humble imitation (sacrifice) and partaking in the divine nature of God. For, when we accept the saving grace of Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit as a down payment. The Holy Spirit then magnifies Christ to our mind, renewing us, causing us to live sacrificially, and in imitating Christ, through the Spirit, we then imitate the Father.


Again, the Apostle John speaks of this act in the epistle of 1 John. He states:

Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins….No man hath seen God at any time….Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. (4)


Again, love is of God, for God is love. And God is Trinitarian, so then his love manifests itself in a Trinitarian way. God is the highest good, the fullness of what love truly is. Thus our love must also follow what Christ, the fullness of God and man, did. He sacrificed. He lowered Himself to live a life of service on this earth in the form of his very own creation; then He lowered Himself to death even the death of the cross. And this God, who is the best and highest good, is thus worthy of our love. And loving Christ will result in imitating Him, and imitating Him results in obeying His commands, and obeying his commands results in a rightly ordered life.


And why does Christ command this? Why is this important? Because the same way the Spirit displays Christ, who displays the love of God to us, so we as the Church display the love of God to the world. Hence this theology of love is also practical. He writes in John 13, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (5) The Church then, as it loves one another in its imitation of Christ, displays the love of God. If the Church clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, and gives drink to the thirsty, it shows the world the love of Christ.


But, love must be a full display of Christ to the world. The same way Christ stood for morality, so also should Christians. In the same way, Christ rebuked the hypocrites so should the Church. The same way Christ was righteously angry so also should Christians. But, can these acts, alone, fully display the love of Christ?


No, for all of these acts, whether feeding the poor, rebuking hypocrites, or correcting immorality, are of an external nature. This means that these acts carry the possibility to be done for the wrong reasons. For, if a man can die for the faith without love and give all he has to the poor without love, then this love must be something deeper.


The love of God is much deeper than this. The love of God is a change of motives. Previously, in chapter 13, Christ washed His disciples feet, and in doing this He showed them that humility is the key to loving one another. For, after washing their feet, He told them to do likewise to each other. Christ was demanding a heart change from his disciples, and it was in this heart change that the world would see Christ. The love of God is philosophically a motive that manifests itself in an action; it is not just an action, and it is not just a motive. Thus love is fully recognized in a humble act that has a sacrificial motive.


Sacrifice, exalt others, and in doing this you will display Christ. Love changes one’s motive from serve self to serve Christ, which will manifest itself in serving others. Yes, actions are necessary in displaying the love of God, but this love is something deeper. It’s a changed heart. It’s the ability to balance your emotions, thoughts, and motives in order to address every situation in a correct manner. Love changes the thoughts of man from “what can I get?” to “what can I give?” It changes the emotions of man from “what can satisfy me?” to “how can I satisfy others?” And, it changes the motives of man from “how do I preserve myself?” to “how can I sacrifice myself to help others?” This is Love, to sacrifice one’s life for his brother and in doing so imitate the Triune God.


Love is not tolerance, love is humble sacrifice. Love does not react in passivity, love acts with humility. In doing this we imitate the very nature of God. Let us all pray with Saint Augustine:

“O Love ever burning, never quenched! O Charity, my God, set me on fire with your love! You command me to be continent. Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will!” (6)


1.The Holy Bible: King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995. Print. John 15:13.
2. John 15:14-15.
3. John 15:26.
4. 1 John 4:11-15
5. John 13:34-35
6. St. Augustine. The Confessions. New York: Collier, 1961. Print.