5. Finding Life in the Face of Death

“Why are you weeping?”  I said.

He turned his head slightly to look at me and then turned back to look into the night sky. He was seated on a log freshly cut down. “My children have been snatched away.  They are in grave danger.  Most of them I will never get back.  I know each one of them by name.”  His voice was a whisper in the night air.

“What do you mean?  Kidnapped?”

“In a way of speaking.”  His back was still turned toward me, the side of his face visible in the light of the full moon.

“But can’t you just go and get them back?”

A deep sigh escaped into the night.

“They went willingly,”  he said quietly.

“Willingly?”  That didn’t make sense.  “Didn’t you throw them out of the garden?”

“I meant before that,” he said, “when they threw me out.”

I was still getting used to this conversation and I wasn’t sure that I heard him right.  I forced myself to relax and took a deep breath.  He turned his head to look at me, the deep blue of his eyes rooted me to my place, though he looked at me with sadness and his voice was gentle.

“Do you think for a moment I would throw them out of my garden, away from their home, if it wasn’t absolutely necessary and for their own good?”

I could not answer.  The divine perspective was overwhelming in its simplicity and depth of feeling.  I ventured another question, carefully.

“Did they know what they were doing?”

“Yes,” he said, “and no.  They were deceived, it is true, but I warned them of the danger.”

“Maybe they will find a way back by themselves?”  I said.

“No, they don’t even want to come back.  Once you’ve tasted the freedom of the forbidden, no one can come back…….or even wants to.”

“Freedom,” I said, “well, that’s not so bad.  Maybe you just have to let them go?”

“I cannot let them go.  There is no freedom from me that doesn’t end in evil, and suffering and death.”

“I’m not sure I understand.  We seem to be able to survive.”

“There is no evil in your world, no suffering, no death?” he asked, turning to look at me, his eyebrow arching.

“Well, yes there is,” I said.  I stopped, trying to put it all together. “Sometimes we think we have a handle on it and other times it seems to spin out of control almost as if it has a mind of its own.”

“A mind of its own, that’s an interesting way to put it.”

“But what I wanted to say is that we mostly think that we can handle it.  Science and technology are providing new solutions every day.”

“And creating new problems, perhaps bigger problems, as well.”

“Maybe, but there is sense that we will get through.  The indomitable human spirit and all that.”

“Let me assure you,” he said.  “that the problem is within you, even though the solution is not.  It is not within your grasp.  It is not possible in your own strength alone.”

“Many people don’t believe that.  Especially the leaders and philosophers.”

“Yes, I know.  They think that they can manage or, at least survive, without me but in fact, I continue to support them and make it possible for them to manage and survive.  There is no such thing as “without me” until I create such a place, and, believe me when I tell you, you don’t want to go there.” His face was tight.

“You have been supporting us all this time?” I said.

“How could it be otherwise?” he said.  “I hold all things together.  Everything is an expression of me and everything depends on me.  Besides,” he paused and looked into the night sky, “I cannot let you go.  I told you that.”  He looked back at me.  “Believe me when I say that there is no freedom from me that doesn’t end in evil and suffering and death.  Eternal death.  It is the nature of things.  It is who I am and it is how I created you.  We were meant to be together.”  Again he paused.  “It’s what makes it all worth while.”  He paused thoughtfully.  “But let me ask you a question.”

A question?

“Would you rather manage and survive without me – even with my help – or live with me, conscious of me, living under my authority, as my children?”  He wouldn’t look at me.  His face was turned away.

Did the answer matter so much?

I was silent.  I could answer for myself easily enough but I knew that many others would answer differently.  That’s always the question, isn’t it?  What do you want?  Do you want a relationship with God?

That’s a question for lovers, even friends, a question every heart asks of another, a foundation for community, for fellowship, for a life lived together.

“I know your heart, my son,” he said.  “But now you know why I grieve for all the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve.”  He sighed heavily.  “I have opened up a temporary space and time for each of them to answer that question for themselves.  I will support them long enough to give me an answer but, in the end, I will give them what they want.”

“What do you mean, give them what they want?”  Somehow it sounded dreadful and my chest began to squeeze my heart in a vice.

“Those who want me will find me, if they want me with all their hearts, but those who want nothing to do with me will also get what they want.”

“What are you saying, that you won’t…..support them anymore?  Will you turn away from them completely?”

“I cannot support evil and rebellion forever. This uneasy truce that I have established is unnatural and unsustainable.  The very foundations of creation groan and cry out for a return to paradise.  It is because I love them that I give them this brief space and time to respond.  And if, after everything is said and done, they want nothing to do with me…….that, too, can be arranged.”  His face was dark, unreadable.

“But will they understand the question?  Will they know what is at stake?”

“I will go personally and speak to them and I will show them without question that I want them back and that I would die for them.”  His eyes narrowed with thought, reaching far into eternity.

“If that isn’t enough,” he said finally, “then nothing is.”

*****

1.  Finding Life in the Face of Death

The problem with taking a leap of faith is the falling.  That feeling that everything is out of control, that you are rushing toward your own demise and there is nothing you can do about it.  The only question is when it would happen.

On the other hand, we are all dying.  Everyone is mortal.  That is the terminal fact of life which we must all deal with. The problem is that taking a leap of faith makes our mortality a sudden and inescapable reality because suffering, pain and, especially, death, are the key issues, the ultimate test of our faith.

A leap of faith into the arms of our loving Creator is a major step that leaves rationality behind.  Not that there aren’t good reasons to believe in God only that there is the sense that rationality is not enough, that it is insufficient for the task at hand.  Of course, that is true to a certain extent of all relationships, though there is a qualitative difference in a relationship with the Divine when we aren’t entirely sure (based on our normal methods of verification by means of our senses) that He is even there.

Faith is at a premium in this kind of endeavor.  We have launched ourselves into a relationship with the Divine and have risked everything, even life itself, on our intuitive, “beyond rational” trust in a Creator who claims to love us more than we love ourselves.

Perhaps we’ve been a bit hasty.  Perhaps we need to take another look at things but now from the other side of the divide, from the side of faith, from the side of a new relationship with God.  Perhaps a new perspective will give us some peace and assurance that we aren’t stark raving mad.

Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

Man´s Search for Meaning

What is interesting is that even many secular philosophers believe that this is the best place to ask the hard questions of life – in the face of death. This is where honesty is found, where reality reigns, where the expectations and influences of others are diminished and the human soul can gain a deep perspective on the real issues of its own existence.

Last year, late at night, I came across a show on television called “Philosophy – Here and Now.”  The intent was to make philosophy relevant.  Citing both Kierkegaard and Heidegger, the narrator made the point that only in the face of death can you find meaning in life.

In fact, Kierkegaard has often been quoted as saying that the more anguish you have in life, the more human you become.  Heidegger talks about “the inauthentic life” which denies death, or, at least, avoids it or treats it as an “event” or even a “spectacle” to be endured but not to be embraced.  This fear of death is at the heart of the inauthentic life.

In contrast, Heidegger claims, the basis of the authentic life is to accept death.

“No one can die for me,” he would say.  “I must die myself.” Pain, suffering and death are intensely personal.

These statements may be a way of confronting our finitude but they also create great anguish.  This is the source of the modern “angst” (anxiety) about life and, more specifically, the non-continuance of life, that is, death.

“Death makes impossible all the possibilities of your life,” he would claim.  When we face our anguish and come to terms with it, we find truth and out of truth we can construct meaning – at least for ourselves.

These philosophers recognize that the concept of “free will” is quite misleading.  Even Freud did not believe that we have “free will” but, rather, that we are all deeply affected and influenced by the thinking, the beliefs and the values of those around us (as well as deep forces within our own psyche).

Since death is so personal, so intimate, so final, you are forced (if only for a moment) to disregard the opinions of others and to focus on yourself.  What do you really want?  What do you really believe?  In the face of death, what are you willing to die for (or live for)?  What truth, what meaning can you construct for yourself in the face of this intimate and ultimate finitude?

Rather than living the life of the “herd” under the tyranny of others, often mediated through mass media with the purpose of creating a consumer lifestyle meant to fulfill (or, better said, to distract you from) your need for meaning, purpose and significance, death invites you to break the power of public opinion in your life and chart your own course, make your own way, find your own answers.

This is the existential search for meaning in a dangerous world.

This is, ultimately, a step in the direction of “free will”.  At least you can attempt to truly be the god of your own life if you are willing to throw off the shackles of fear and conformity.

Death is nothingness (they say).  The way to defy “nothingness” is to create something – find meaning, develop purpose, discover significance.

Declare what you believe.

Make commitments and back them up with action.

Find your individual voice, your own words, your personal contribution.

Find yourself.

Appreciate life, your life, by facing death.

Meaning Beyond Finality

These words are inspiring.  This perspective on life is genuine.  Who can resist the call to become a “god” over his or her own life?  Who doesn’t recognize the tyranny of public opinion and our incessant need for the approval of others?

Once again, it all rings true but it also rings hollow.  Why?  Because we intuitively (and experientially) know that no meaning, purpose or significance in life that we create for ourselves can stand in the face of death.  It is a finality when finality is exactly the problem.

Certainly the reality of death can make us appreciate life all the more.  No doubt.  Certainly we need to find meaning, purpose and significance in life and not just follow the crowd into mindless consumerism and a materialistic lifestyle.  Fine.

But whatever meaning, purpose and significance we create (or discover) must go beyond this life and conquer death.  The “nothingness” of death must be transformed into some form of “continuity” of meaning, purpose and significance otherwise all of our existential anguish will overwhelm us in the face of this final reality.

Two more things need to be said.

The first is that the interpretation of death as “nothingness” may not be accurate.  It is bad enough in its own right – the horror of “non-being” is truly abhorrent to a self-aware, sentient being.

Yet there is also the witness of multiple religions that death is not “nothingness” but rather a gateway to another dimension, another life, one that may hold punishment or reward.

Remember that religion (in the view of some) may provide us with a ground for morality.  We need to believe in a just universe where good will be rewarded and evil will be punished.  If not here and now, then later, after death, in the other place…..if there is one.

According to this perspective, death is not the end but the beginning.  There is more to be said (and experienced) beyond this life and, if that is true, we need to know on what basis we will be judged.

There truly may be “a fate worse than death” waiting for us or perhaps “a reward beyond hope” – either one is apparently dependent on what we do or don’t do in this life.  We would be wise to get that right before we pass on to the other side. Just in case.

A second thing needs to be said about the quest to create our own existential meaning in life.  To be a “god” over our own lives, to decide the meaning of our life, to create purpose and significance for ourselves, we must be masters over life and death for any of it to matter.

Only the insensitive, truly lost soul, can believe that death does not matter, reducing it to a biological function in a final service or servitude to the amoral forces of nature.

Death is the final assault on our value, the ultimate limit to our will.  In the face of death, we can no longer maintain the illusion that we are the masters of life.

Perhaps that is the point after all.

An Alternative Approach

Rather than trying to become “gods” ourselves, we may want to consider an alternative approach and seek out the true God of life and death, the Creator, the one who started it all and has conquered the power of sin (i.e. rebellion against the rule of God) and death (i.e. the natural consequences of a broken relationship with the Creator and Sustainer of Life) in our lives by dying on a tree outside a small, provincial city called Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago.

But perhaps that is too big a step for some to take at this stage in our discussion.  Still, it’s interesting how that “truth” about the existence of a sentient being called God outside ourselves (rather than being our own god) seems to put a lot of things in perspective.

The heart of the issue, in this view, is a relationship – a new relationship with an old acquaintance, our Father, the Creator.  A relationship that was destroyed at the beginning, creating the myth of (and the desire for) human autonomy at any cost.  A relationship that can be restored only through Jesus Christ and what he accomplished through his death on the cross and resurrection to new life.  A relationship that is the key to understanding human nature.  We were created to live in continual, physical-spiritual contact with and under the loving authority of our Creator.

The reality is that we do not always know what our real needs are in a world created by God.  We are more interested in the expediency of our perceived self-interest based on our felt needs.

We have tunnel vision when we need the broad perspective of someone who has all the information, can see the future consequences of every action, someone who has the power and resources to manage life for our benefit and finally, someone who is entirely and completely “good,” who loves us and has our best interests in mind.

We lost that connection and it must be restored.  That is the only true source of meaning, purpose and significance in this life.  It is the only thing that is able to defeat death and result in everlasting, ongoing life without end.

The True Purpose of Death

There is one thing in which the philosophers are exactly right.  It is when we face the finality and finitude of our own, personal death that we are forced to reexamine our lives.

Perhaps that is the true purpose of death – to act as a witness to us that all is not well on planet earth and that all of our feeble attempts at meaning, purpose and significance must finally face the ultimate test of our own mortality.

Whether that drives us to seek out answers beyond ourselves or answers within ourselves depends on whether we see the problem as a lack of morality and knowledge or, first of all and more fundamentally, a flaw in our very natures due to a lack of a relationship with God that is at the heart of the human experience.  It begins with a true, humble self-evaluation and awareness that the problem is within so the solution must come from without.

The problem is that being our own “god” is easier (although more dangerous in the long run) than letting our Creator be “God” over our lives.  If He is God, then we must follow Him.  He would have authority over our lives.  He created us and therefore we are proactively dependent on Him.  If we are “god,” then we can go where we like and do what we want and be a law unto ourselves within the social contract and legal limits – at least until we die.

At the end of the day, this is the fundamental problem of mankind – who is in charge and can He (or can I?) be trusted?  As Nietzsche has said, “Why must he rule and I serve?”  

Will we run our own lives, be an authority unto ourselves, or will we turn our lives over to our Creator in faith, trusting in His protection and providence, knowing that we were created to live a symbiotic, real, everyday, conscious existence together with Him, following His lead and trusting in His love and care for us.

At the end of the day, in this view, our meaning, purpose and significance is found in a renewed relationship with our Creator – a relationship (and personal existence) that even death cannot destroy.

*****

“Adam and Eve wanted to be like you, knowing good and evil.  Why is that so bad?”

“Because those are two entirely different things, being “like me” and “knowing good and evil”.  They knew evil by experiencing evil.  They participated in evil but there is no evil in me.  So, it wasn’t an innocent desire to be like me.  They were already created in my image.  They are like me in many ways.  This was something more.  They wanted the knowledge of good and evil, thinking that they would have the power to decide between the two, to choose for themselves what they wanted, to take my place and thereby make me irrelevant.  They kicked me out.”

“They wanted to take your place?”

“In relation to their lives, yes.  Often in relation to others as well.”

“Is that so bad?”  I said.  “Don’t you want them to make their own decisions?”

“Yes, of course.  Decisions and judgments and choices but in the context of a relationship with their Father, their Creator.”

“So, this was a way of saying that they didn’t want you in their lives at all anymore.”

“Exactly.  But that is impossible.  It simply isn’t an option.”

“Why not?”

“For one thing, that is the point of being the Creator.  I am essential to life.  Even more, a conscious relationship with me is essential to their natures, to their eternal lives.  That’s how I created them.”  Then his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.  “But there is another reason.”  He paused.  “Even if I was prepared to remain on the sidelines – which I’m not – it still wouldn’t work.”

“Why not?” I repeated.

“Because they weren’t created to make the ultimate decisions about right and wrong.  That’s my job.  Only I can see the consequences of every action, only I have all of the pertinent information and can process it appropriately, only I have the ability to control events and protect them so that the intended consequences of their actions are accomplished.”

“I never thought of it that way before,” I said.

“They need me whether they like it or not.  I am essential to life in every way imaginable.”  He stopped for a moment and looked at me curiously.  “But there is one more reason, the essential reason, why life and morality does not work without my active involvement.”

“What is it, Lord?”  I was truly entranced.

“Because morality is intrinsic to the structures of the world, and the structures of the world are a reflection of my nature.  It is my fellowship within the Divine that is the ground and the pattern for good and evil, morality, and all of reality.  There can be no other.  Ultimate reality, the deepest pattern and structure of reality, is relational……rooted in love and concern for the other even at the expense and sacrifice of yourself.”

That was deep and profound and I was unsure of what it all meant.  But he wasn´t done.

“When you kicked me out, you didn´t just kill your Primal Father, metaphorically speaking.  You didn´t just spurn His authority in your lives, individually and collectively, as terrible as that is.  What you did was turn your back on the most important truths of reality, the way the world works.  You made love optional, conditional, convenient.  You made it cheap.  And that just won´t work.  You are fighting the reality of the nature and glory of your Creator.”  He paused.  “If you did that with the laws of nature, gravity for instance, there would be consequences….. final ones.”

I was about to say something about our scientific advances in managing the forces of nature, and gravity, but he interrupted me.

“You know what I mean.  Science and technology can´t get around the fundamental laws of love between sentient beings.  And you know it.  Your best philosophers, even the ones who want nothing to do with me, tell you that love is the answer to all of life´s problems but you can´t seem to generate enough of it on your own.”  He paused and looked at me with his piercing blue eyes.  “Do you know why?”

“Why, Lord?”

“Because the kind of love that you need is rooted in a new relationship with me.  So long as you are worried about yourself, your survival, your protection, you find it difficult to think of others.  You need to trust in Divine providence and protection, in the Divine love, and you will be empowered and free to love others.”

He looked at my face and read the question in my eyes.  “Let me put it another way,” he said.  “You must exchange the secular problem of evil for the religious problem of evil but not consider it a problem anymore.  Trust me with it.”

I looked at him not knowing what to say.  The truth of it struck me to my core.

“Yes, it takes faith.  That is why I stay hidden and I don´t make my provision and protection obvious.  Without faith in me, there can be no love for enemies, no sacrificial love for those you do not like, no power to forgive, to humble yourself, to recognize your arrogance, to see yourself from the Divine perspective.”

I took a deep breath.  “Lord,” I said slowly, “your ideas about how life should be are so much higher than ours.  We just want to survive for a few years and do the best we can with what we have.”

“I didn´t create you to survive,” he whispered.  “You are my child, my firstborn, the love of my life, a precious life full of potential and promise.  I want the best for you.”

“Just like any parent would.”

“Yes, but even more…..much, much more.  I want more for you than you want for yourself.  That´s the way love is.”

“It can also be a pain,” I said.  I couldn´t look at him but I wanted to be completely honest.  “It´s often an inconvenience, a unwanted limit to our own desires even if what we want isn´t the best thing for us.  We would rather be in charge of our own lives than live with the expectations of love.”

“Love not only expects, it also empowers.”

“Yes, Lord, I know.  Without love, life would be unbearable but sometimes love itself is unbearable.  We want to be loved as we are but without expectation of change or imposition.”

“Love is an imposition?” he said.

“When it wants for us something more than we want for ourselves…..yes.”

“So, at the end of the day, there is something more important to you than love.”  He paused waiting for my answer.

“Well……..yes, I guess.”  I didn´t know what to say.  It sounded so childish.  “We want love on our own terms.  We don´t want anyone to dictate a higher standard for our lives than we are prepared to live with, even if they say that they love us.”

“My son,” he said gently, “it´s like falling in love.  When you are in love, you want to change, you want to please the other, you don´t even think about yourself at all.”

“But we don´t love you enough for that,” I said.  “Can we really have that kind of love for you when our natures cry out in fear and desperation at every turn and we have no faith in you and no desire to change just because you tell us to?”

“On your own, no, you can´t,” he said.  “But you aren´t on your own.  I will be with you.  I will put my spirit within you and he will inspire hope and faith and love in your heart.  You will need to respond.  You will need to be trained in the ways of love just like you need to be trained in marriage or parenting.  The best things in life are not automatic.  If it´s important to you, you will make every effort to move forward in your discipleship of love, trusting in my authority and casting down every idol that gets in the way of our relationship.”

“You will help us?”  I said.

“Yes, I will,” he said.  “But that doesn´t mean it will be easy.  You show me how important it is to you when you struggle, when you make sacrifices, when you put up with inconveniences and make your decisions based on my promises and truths instead of on your circumstances or desires.”

“What are you saying?”

“I´m saying that I will do most of the work as long as you keep saying yes to me.  Show me that you value our relationship enough to pay a price to keep going forward, forgiven and loved, and you will have all the power and help you need.”

“And if I don´t?”

“Love is not cheap.  I paid a heavy price to have a new relationship with you.  I´m not going to throw it away or let you, with your corrupt natures, control it.  Those are my conditions.”

“I thought your love was unconditional?”

“It is, but it is not cheap.  Love is valuable.  It is free and I give it to you unconditionally.  Faith is my gift to you.  But you must respond.  You must repent.  Evil will not be tolerated.  You must hate anything that gets in the way of our relationship, even if you find it within yourself.  And you must love and focus on anything that promotes our relationship.  That´s how love works.  If you want to enjoy the fruits of love, you must participate.  The goal of faith, hope and love is to create a new man, to create someone who wants to be something more than they can be on their own.  Love grows.  It changes you.  It can mark your life, change your character, fine-tune your personality, give you identity, purpose, meaning and significance in life.”

“I get all that,” I said.  “But I´m stuck on this condition that you put on your help…..oh, I get it now.  The condition is not on your love, or on our relationship, but on your help and empowerment for us to love others, to change, to be useful to you.”

“Exactly,” he said.  “You are mine and I am yours and it will always be that way.  But if my Spirit is within you, you will want to follow me, and please me, and express that love to others.  You will want to repent.  It is the mark and expression of the Spirit within.  Empowered repentance does not mean that it is easy repentance.  Making every effort at repentance, living and walking in the Spirit, going back to the cross in confession whenever necessary, focusing on forgiveness and reconciliation and spiritual unity, those are the signs of the life of the Spirit and are the elements of true discipleship.”

“It sounds wonderful, but hard,” I said.  “You keep expecting more from us than we really want to give.”

“I will help you increase your wanting, if you want me to,” he said.  “Besides, I have important work for you to do.”

“You do?”

“Yes,” he said.  “You have a crucial role to play in my plan to rescue the world.  Only when you learn the ways of love and the way of the cross, which are the same, will you be ready for the role that I want you to play.”

“I knew that you wanted us to help you,” I said, “but I didn´t think that it was such a crucial role that you wanted us to play.”

“My message is essential but that message must become incarnate in the lives of real people,” he said.  “The message of transformation must come from people whose lives are transformed.”

“And love is essential to that transformation?”

“The love of the cross is essential to that transformation,” he corrected.  “That is the nature of love in a dangerous world.  The circle of love always tries to include more and more people.  Our relationship is secure, but your effectiveness in loving others, in being useful to my purpose of expanding the circle of love, your ability to walk with me and enjoy our relationship together depends on whether you think it´s important enough to fight for.”

“Just like marriage…..or being a parent.”

“Exactly,” he said.  “A relationship with me is more than marriage and parenting but it is not less.”

*****

Tears of the Desert Warrior by Bert A. Amsing
Copyright © 2012 by vanKregten Publishers.  All rights reserved.
http://www.desertwarrior.net     info@desertwarrior.net

Footnotes and references included in the original manuscript.

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