Servants' News

July/Aug 2001

The Living and the Dead

“This is a life and death issue!” That expression means that something is very important. Yet how many of us like to talk about real issues that involve real life and real death? King Solomon wrote a lot on the subject. One saying:

“.. .a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing…” (Eccl 9:4–5).

If we have goals for this life, we need to accomplish them while we are alive and healthy. It is not a sin to be severely ill or dead, one simply cannot accomplish much in those states. While this point may seem overly obvious, we often do not live our lives as if it were true. We sometimes have great fear of illness and death, but have little fear of temptations and sins that we encounter on a daily basis.

The purpose of this article is to help all of us lose our fear of death and to seek a righteous life. If one has lived a life that is largely righteous (no one is righteous enough to save themselves—Rom 3:23), it is a very dangerous thing to fall into sin:

“But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die” (Ezk 18:24).

The previous three verses show that a man who sins most of his life, but repents in the end is better off than one who lives a righteous life and turns to sin in the end. This is why Solomon said:

“The end of a thing is better than its beginning” (Eccl 7:8).

As a man or woman builds up years of following God, they should be more concerned about turning to sin than dying or becoming disabled. When one’s life ends in righteousness, it is a good thing. Three friends whom I considered righteous men died during this year. Now, I realize that I cannot “preach them into the kingdom”. God will judge them. But as far as I know, they were generally righteous men.

Mitchell Smith of Lindale, Texas, died instantly when the crane he owned and operated tipped over due to incredibly soggy ground. He was in his 60’s. Efficient at wrecking an old building or putting up a new one, he always seemed to have time for others. He talked to everyone like he had known them all his life. He was quite a Bible student, and an organizer of several Bible-centered conferences so desperately needed when the Church of God groups were splintering. I met and admired his family who were all involved in these activities—though largely grown up and on their own.

Harold Maybury of Preble, New York, was electrocuted by faulty wiring while working on a plumbing job underneath a house. He was also in his 60’s. He had great skill in construction, mechanical, and other technical areas. He ran his own business for many years, but always seemed to have time to help out brethren who had something that needed fixing. We cannot tell all the stories of people he helped and encouraged in his life time. He raised a family of talented, interesting and kind children who mostly now have families of their own.

John Davis of Warsaw, Indiana died from a heart attack in his sleep. He was in his 40’s and suffering from some health problems, but they did not keep him from his job of making prosthetics for handicapped people or from conversing with hundreds of friends—both face to face and on the Internet. John was wise and understanding—a great help to many people in times of difficulty. Yet he was also funny, interesting, even sarcastic—but always seeming to know which approach would be most helpful. He was so tactful, that even in all of his conversations, I never remember anyone being upset with him. (I certainly cannot say the same thing for myself!) John had just completed his house and was hoping to marry and start a family.

As the Scripture says,

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Pslm 116:15).

These men did not know that they would die. Each was living his life and making plans for the future. And suddenly, without warning, it was over. Worrying would have done no good.

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? (Matt 6:27, NIV.)

These quick deaths were in many ways a blessing to these men. They did not have one day of the incapability that so many older people experience. The trial was not upon these men, but was upon the many people who loved them and whom they served. No one will ever “replace” these men, but their families and friends will have to find other ways of doing what they used to do for so many.

We can learn three lessons from the experience of these men.

Lesson #1: Do Not Fear Death or the Future

We know that God loves us and that if we enjoy this life now, we will enjoy the future even more. If we cling to life because of what we have now, how much better will be the things of the future.

Now that does not mean that we can be careless with our lives or our property—we need to take very good care of these most valuable things that God has given us. But it means that we do not have to fear that someone or some odd occurrence will take away our property or life. If it is a person who does it, it is their sin. If it is some chance happening (as was the case of these men), it is probably the work of God. The book of Hebrews explains how we can be delivered of our fears:

But there is a place where someone has testified: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.” …Both the one who makes men holy [Jesus] and those who are made holy [us] are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers… Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:6–8, 11, 14–15, NIV).

If we knew that we were going to die tomorrow, what would we do? If we have families to raise, money to manage, important jobs to do or projects to complete, we know that we will not finish them in a day. The best we could hope to do is leave those tasks to someone else to complete—or to realize that God is simply not going to make a way for them to be completed. In reality, we should have a will and other documents in place so that our families are taken care of and our resources can continue to be used effectively. (Extensive preparations where one tries to manage one’s estate after death almost never work, but minimal preparation to transfer control without expensive court costs is much better than no preparation at all.)

But let us examine another aspect if we knew we were going to die tomorrow. Would there be people we would want to make amends with before dying? Would we want to change the way we treat some people? Would we try to stop some bad habits? The answer is probably “Yes” to many of those things. Could we accomplish all those things in one day? Probably not. That brings us to our second lesson.

Lesson #2: The Blessing of Dying Slowly

Most everyone knows someone who is old, has a major illness, and is expected to die in a few months or years. Actually, we may know a lot of people like that. The greatest number of new members came into the Church of God groups in the 50s, 60s and 70s. If most were age 20 through 40 when they came in, they are between 50 and 90 today—the ages when long-term illness is fairly common.

Some of those people are suffering terribly. Some cannot take care of themselves. How can it be a blessing? But step back and see what God has done. Even though illness and death have probably been made much worse by the sins of mankind, the basic order of life seems to have been set by God for both man and even most animals.

We are born nearly helpless, relying on the care of parents. We grow, gaining physical strength and dexterity, as well as knowledge and experience. We learn to take care of ourselves and then to produce offspring of our own and to take care of them. Most people live many years when they can take care of themselves and effectively serve others.

But as we age, strength and other physical abilities begin to wane. We eventually reach the point were we can no longer take care of others—only ourselves. And then, that ability often leaves, and we need others to take care of us—just like when we were babies. This “second childhood” sometimes lasts many years, sometimes only days, or may never occur, as in the case of the three men earlier in this article.

God does all of this.

In the animal world, some kinds of animals actually help take care of their old and sick ones, while in other cases, they may drive them away or even kill them. God gives us these examples to see, but clearly commands each person to honor their parents (Ex 20:12). It is clearly a blessing to die surrounded and loved by one’s extended family (Gen 50:22–24; Job 42:16, Pslm 128:6).

While it is not fun to have a long-term illness or to know that one is dying, there are often things that desperately need to be accomplished during these times.

People can see themselves as they are, and “prepare to meet their maker”. While that is just a saying, there is a lot of truth to it. David (1Kngs 2:1–10), Stephen (Acts 7:59–60), Paul (2Tim 4:6–8) and other leaders of God all used a time when they knew they would soon die to make peace with God and to close relationships with other people.

When one expects to die, trivial, earthly things no longer matter. Fame and fortune mean nothing. Expression of love to friends means a lot. Thanks for past help is important. Apologies for failings are important. Communication with old friends—even though it may not have existed for years—often re-emerges. These things are good.

Furthermore, when a person of great service spends some time in illness before death, the people he served have a period of time, rather than an instant to learn to get along without the person who is dying. Also, the dying person often has time to get a will and other important papers in order. Most people take a long time to get used to new ideas and new situations.

On occasion, when God sees how a person reacts to their impending death, he changes His mind and gives them more time (2Kngs 20).

But unless God specifically tells us, we do not always know whether a particular illness, no matter how threatening, will lead to death.

Sometimes, severe illnesses do not lead to death. Sometimes, they are the starting point of long-term life changes where people recover and then their lives are much better after making needed changes. While many people do not think of it this way, severe illnesses are very helpful in determining what place we are giving God in our life. When they first occur, do we simply seek a “medical professional” or do we think about confessing our sins—both physical and spiritual—and asking God for healing? (Jms 5:14–16). And if we do ask God for healing, and do not receive it right away, do we then look to a medical professional for deliverance?

There is a big difference between using the services of a medical professional and “looking to them for deliverance”. If we took a car to an auto repair shop, and it was clear to us that the mechanic did not really know how to figure out the cause of its problem, but was just going to “try some things” to see if the symptoms would go away, we would probably go to another repair shop. We might even try a couple of repair shops to see if they agreed on what the problem was. The human body is millions of times more complex than a car. Mechanics and medical professionals are people—they often act as if they know more than they do—both out of vanity, and to keep their business profitable. How much more diligent should we be to do research and get multiple opinions in taking care of our bodies than we are in taking care of our cars?

There is no foolproof formula in dealing with medical people. All medical doctors are not bad and all chiropractors are not good—nor vice versa. It is not that all herbalists and naturopaths are good and all the other guys are bad. Nearly all branches of healing arts and sciences have some truth and some error. There are honest and dishonest people in all of them. What a believer should hope to find are honest men and women. We hope to find ones who have realized that some of the things they learned in school may make money, but do not really help the patient much—and stop using them. We also hope to find ones who realize simple things that they were never taught in school sometimes do work.

I was pleased to hear a story of doctors who told an overweight man about all kinds of expensive procedures they could use to help treat his condition, but went on to say that eating better, exercising regularly and learning to be at peace with his stressful conditions (taking our trials to God in prayer) would be much better long-term solutions. The sick man’s fellow believers should have told him that, but praise God that the doctors did! It does not always work out that well. I know of other people who had relatively minor problems, went to a doctor for treatment, and became much worse or died as a result of the treatment.

The point of this is that when a severe long-term illness occurs, believers need to muster all of the spiritual and physical resources that they can and not leave it in the hands of medical professionals who frequently act like they know a lot more than they do, but may be more interested in their fees than their results. We need to politely ask very specific questions. (Do you know what the problem is? Have you diagnosed it or treated it before? Do you know the chances of recovery? Is there someone more qualified who would probably do a better job of treating this?)

We need to get multiple opinions, read books on the subject, browse the Internet, ask other believers who have experience with similar problems. We —not a medical professional—need to ultimately decide what treatments we will accept. The professionals may not like that. They may ask, “Why do you, an untrained person, think you can make a better decision than me, a doctor of twenty years?”

The answer is that God has given us the responsibility for caring for our body, and we are not to let another man or group of men stand in the place of God.

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Rom 8:28).

The purpose of a believer’s serious illness is for the believer’s benefit, not the medical professional’s benefit.

Lesson #3: When it Seems that Our Church Group Might Be Dying

Church groups are not people, but their growth patterns of life and death are often similar. Christ said:

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, “These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die...’” (Rev 3:1–2).

Does this apply only to certain “eras” of history or could it apply to us? Christ explained exactly who should listen to this warning:

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 3:6).

New church groups are often started by a parent group or a strong leader who guides them through infancy. Some grow slowly, some grow very rapidly. Once established, these young church groups are able to take care of themselves as well as minister to the needs of others. They may help “plant churches” in other areas. They may serve their communities in many ways. They may grow so large that they split into several strong, smaller growing groups. This productive stage can last a few years, or sometimes it can last decades or even centuries with different people filling the necessary functions.

But at some point, middle age usually sets in. People begin to take for granted what they once worked diligently to achieve. There may be less ability to serve others, and more of the money, time and attention of the group may be focused on the group’s own members and their problems. Debates over doctrines and internal policies and procedures begin to overshadow the basics of living by faith and preaching the Gospel. Outside evangelism may completely stop, and the group may plan to continue simply as members’ children become members. (That method rarely works as some members’ children usually do not become members, and there will be nobody to “replace” the current members that have no children attending.)

Old age is setting in when groups are concerned mostly about maintaining what they used to have. Old age has arrived when the most important topics of discussion are which programs and activities should be discontinued. Other signs of old age are:

  1. many more older members than younger ones;
  2. more deaths than baptisms;
  3. more members leaving for other groups than coming in from other groups;
  4. more discussion about keeping those who currently attend than encouraging new people to attend;
  5. more arguments about who will get the few “preferred” positions of responsibility in the group, rather than who is capable of fulfilling the many needs of the many service projects taken on by the group;
  6. more discussion about ministers’ salaries and benefits than getting as many people as possible involved in some aspect of ministry.

To this author, it seems fairly clear that many if not most Church of God groups are at the “old age” stage of life. They have most or all of these symptoms.

Groups, like people, can sometimes make massive changes in their living habits, and be revitalized and live on for many more productive years. But these major changes in direction do not come easily. They utterly will not come about by “doing what we have always done”.

As another approach, people can leave a dead church group and go on to either join or form a “living” one. Are they disloyal or traitors for doing this? After all, shouldn’t somebody help look after the people even if it is a “dead group”? Christ called a man who a felt similarly obliged to take care of the dead, and told him: “…Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59–60).

Like people, churches generally suffer a long period of obvious old age and illness before they die (cease to function). However, sudden death does sometimes happen. A leader can die, a new leader or slick teacher of false doctrine can take over and change almost everything. Sometimes, many members are struck with illness or move away all at the same time. Sometimes, a group simply loses its meeting place and is not able to establish another one.

If we find ourselves in a dying church, rather than feel sorry for ourselves because of our difficulty, we should look upon it as an opportunity to change and recover before it is too late. We need to act just like the person who has a life-threatening illness. We should not just trust one “professional” who might claim to have the answer to our problems, but leave us sicker than before. (This is common; people go from one dead church to another.) We should take responsibility for our congregation’s illness just as if we ourselves were seriously ill:

1) Ask God for healing and to specifically show you what you can and should do for the dying church group.

2) Talk to other believers who see the problem and want to make changes.

3) Visit other congregations that are successfully growing and teaching the Bible—even though they may have doctrines that you believe are wrong. Learn from what they are doing right!

4) Read Starting a Local Congregation (distributed with the previous issue) for principles and ideas to use to revitalize your existing congregation or to start a new one.

5) Think about things in your life that are less important than serving God that you could reduce or eliminate so you will have time to do what is necessary to better serve God.

In Summary

Life and death are not things from which to hide, but things to be recognized as part of our God’s great plan. We have only so much time in this life, and we need to use it well. (Please ask for a free copy of What Does the Bible Say about Eternal Judgment? if you do not have one.) If we are healthy, we need to be thankful for it, but live our life for God, realizing that it could be over at any moment. If we (or others) are suffering from a serious, possibly fatal, illness, we need to use the time to reform our lives, preparing for death or for the renewed and better life that God may grant us.

Finally, we need to examine the congregation to which we belong. We will need to answer to Christ for what we are doing. Are we giving the master a good return on the talents with which he has entrusted us? (Matt 25:14–30).

— Norman Edwards

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