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Finding Life in a Death Sentence

  • Marty Russell Talbot School of Theology
  • Updated Sep 29, 2008
Finding Life in a Death Sentence

"Dead Man Walking" is an award-winning movie about a death row inmate awaiting his execution. The story line deals realistically with what's involved in facing that long walk toward death.

Last night, I met a dead woman walking. But she faces death, not from crimes against the state, but from the broken human bodies we all inherited from Adam and Eve’s rebellion.

Her elegance and style caught my eye. She wore a dramatic, flowing dress in rich shades of green. In the fading light of dusk, we began to chat as we both waited for the concert hall doors to open. In spite of the lilt in her voice, I could see the “death sentence” on her face. This lovely woman was approaching the end of a long battle with cancer. She was on a special outing with her husband to a musical performance … maybe her last public excursion.

As we got acquainted, she told her story as casually as one would talk about a change in the season. With great energy she talked about “the chemo room” and how, as a psychologist, she’d had profound spiritual dialogues with others who were facing their own health crises. She rejoiced in the way God’s kindness was so evident in allowing for her upcoming hospice care to be arranged with Christian caregivers through her HMO. “Only He could have done that!”

While she spoke, I was struck with the tragic paradoxes that cancer fighters face: What is it like to have life sustaining toxins run through your arteries? What is it like to lose the very parts of your body that exemplified your femininity? What is it like to see fear in your family’s eyes and to face your own fears at the same time? What is it like to beg God for healing and not receive it?

I was reluctant. Her story enthralled me, but our conversation felt like an invasion of privacy. Death is a topic that even close friends tiptoe around. Amazingly, here I was conversing about such things with a virtual stranger. With the guileless candor of a child, she seemed to enjoy sharing the details of her story. I had a dawning awareness that she was ushering me into a sacred, intimate place. What an uncommon gift she, a dying woman, was giving to me, a total stranger.

As I gazed into her spirited eyes, she was the embodiment of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

Although her skin was pallid and lacked the rosy glow associated with health, her true self radiated a deeper reality. Her “weight of glory” far surpassed her affliction because it was reflecting the lasting beauty of her true identity. How ironic that the ugliness of death could actually show forth the transcendent beauty of her spirit, much like a ring setting shows off the brilliance of a priceless diamond.

As each of us anticipates our own end, will that be true of us? Will the “eternal weight of glory” be obvious? Will eternal truths be lived out? Or will they just remain ancient words in our Bible?

Perhaps this woman had heard this passage in a sermon or Bible study; perhaps she even memorized it. Even so, it’s not enough to simply cite Bible verses. While the scriptures are true, they aren’t a magic carpet that whisks us away to a spiritual Pleasantville in times of crisis.

Unfortunately, many of us sit in church week after week and receive a steady diet of biblical doctrine, spiritual facts and miraculous stories. Despite this constant menu of spiritual food, we might still suffer from spiritual anemia if the truth isn’t internalized into the fabric of our soul. It’s even possible that we might faithfully have regular quiet times with little more than “devout indifference.” Eugene Peterson expounds on this danger in “Eat This Book:”

Passionate words of men and women spoken in ecstasy can end up flattened on the page and dissected with an impersonal eye. Wild words wrung out of excruciating suffering can be skinned, mounted and labeled as museum specimen. The danger with all reading is that words will be twisted into propaganda or reduced to information, mere tools and data. We silence the living voice and reduce words to what we can use for convenience and profit.

Jesus spoke of this kind of condition for Israel when He said: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will keep on seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes” (Matt 13:14-15a). Jesus is saying that it’s very possible for religious people, even those with ample biblical knowledge, to resist the Bible’s penetrating, life-altering impact. These aren’t necessarily skeptics or heretics. Tragically, they are more likely to be those of us who are spiritually over-satiated sheep who faithfully attend church every Sunday and think we’ve “heard it all!” Peterson says,

The Holy Scriptures give witness to a living voice sounding variously as Father, Son and Spirit addressing us personally and involving us personally as participants. This text is not words to be studied in the quiet preserves of a library, but a voice to be believed and loved and adored in workplace and playground, on streets and in the kitchen. Receptivity is required.

Besides receptivity, Paul clarifies in Colossians 2:2-3 that something more than accurate knowledge is necessary for the Word of God to be life-sustaining. Paul’s desire was that believers “might have the full riches of complete understanding” and the “treasures of wisdom” which the Bible offers us. Thus, for the woman dealing with cancer, Peterson explains how the word of God had become “interior to her life, the images and truth became practices of prayer, acts of obedience, and ways of love.”

And now, as she traversed this dramatic passage toward death, her spirit was marked by the “aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15). Like rich spiritual nutrition the treasures of wisdom became the living Word which had softened her attitude toward her own physical death. She viewed her last days as a pathway to her true home and was at peace with God’s greater purposes for her in His kingdom.

If we hope to survive in the tough trenches of life and live as Christ has challenged us to live, we must not only hear the Word, we must also digest it. The truth needs to be grounded in our daily reality in tangible ways. Eugene Peterson says this well:

In this business of living the Christian life, ranking high among the most neglected aspects is one having to do with the reading of the Christian scriptures. Not that Christians don’t own and read their Bibles. And not that Christians don’t believe that their Bibles are the word of God. What is neglected is reading the scriptures formatively, reading in order to live…. In order to read the scriptures adequately and accurately, it is necessary at the same time to live them.... It means letting Another have a say in everything we are saying and doing. It is as easy as that and as hard.

As serious-minded believers, the sober issues we must wrestle with are these: How much of the Bible is transformational in our daily life?—whether facing our own mortality or simply learning how to better love an irritating neighbor? Do we sometimes approach our Bible readings as if they are little more than a spiritual duty? Or, do we see them as an encounter with a penetrating, Living Word that grabs us by the throat and pleads with us to take every word seriously?

Just like the woman facing death, in truth, we’re all dead people walking, waiting for that unavoidable day unless the Lord returns. Whether in the mundane challenges of everyday life or facing a major crisis ask yourself, “Whatever I encounter today, how should I live in light of these unseen realities which are imbued with a ‘weight of glory’ far beyond my wildest imagination?”

This lovely woman understood how transcendent and eternal the unseen things are compared to what is seen. She embraced her own suffering, knowing that our “...light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Though her battle with cancer was soon to end, I will never forget this radiant woman who found life in the midst of her sentence of death. She knew her imminent death from cancer was only half the story.

She really got it. The question is, "do we?"

Marty Russell is an adjunct professor the Talbot School of Theology, Biola University and co-director of the Springs chapter of the Network of Evangelical Women in Ministry. Contact Marty at: Marty.russell@biola.edu.