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Dying well is not easy to do, but Jesus provided us with a perfect example of how to do it in His seven sayings on the cross. Trust Him to give us an example of how to do something hard as well as essential.
1.The first saying that is recorded on the cross is when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) If we haven’t already done so, it is important to forgive before we die, or as we die. It is important for us to do for ourselves: to clear the decks, have no bitterness, resentment, or broken relationships cluttering our souls. It is important, also, for the sake of those who need the forgiveness, whether they know they need it or not.
Jesus forgave the soldiers who were crucifying Him, although it is doubtful they recognized their need of that forgiveness. Probably they just thought they were doing their job. Perhaps one or two of them heard Him and thought about the implications: we don’t know. But Jesus forgave them. And He—the principle recipient of the hurt and violence—asked His Father to forgive them. Perhaps this is something we should seriously consider: asking God’s mercy on those who have hurt us. We know He forgives them, and they have access to that forgiveness when they recognize their need for it. But it may do our own souls good to pray for mercy on their behalf.
And then, Jesus did not need to ask forgiveness for anything He had done, but we tend to need forgiveness. Before we leave this earth it would be wise for us to clear up any harm we may have done to someone, any lingering resentment or regrets. We can only do our part, of course. We can apologize, we can express regret, we can share hopes for the well-being of the other person. But we are not responsible for how they respond. And we have to consider that sometimes, for the good of the other person—not for us—it is may be wisest not to bring the matter up: not to ask for forgiveness or grant it out loud, but simply to take care of the forgiveness needed or granted in the privacy of our soul, with God. Such decisions are a matter for prayer, prayer that needs to be engaged in as we prepare to die. If not before.
2. “Truly I say to you,” Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) This was after the two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus had had an interchange in which one of them mocked Jesus and the other expressed belief in Jesus. It’s quite incredible, really: all three of them, crucified, must have been in excruciating pain, yet they carried on a conversation. It was, though, a conversation about the essentials: who was morally in the right, who was in the wrong, who had power to do anything about it.
One thief spoke directly to Jesus, asking Jesus to remember him “when He came into His Kingdom.” Jesus responded with the reassuring promise that the thief would, number one, be with Him, and number two, be with Him in Paradise.
In our process of dying we will almost always be around other people: other patients or journeyers along the same path, doctors and nurses, maybe, family members, visitors. Being obviously near death often allows unusual openness for conversations about essential truths: defenses are lower, maintaining an image matters less, eternity looms. We should be ready to discuss essential truths graciously with whoever is open to such conversations. As far as we know, Jesus did not speak directly to the thief who mocked Him; He didn’t try to change the mind of someone prejudiced against Him. But He spoke clearly to the thief who engaged with Him and wanted hope. Whatever energy we may have left in the process of our dying, may Jesus Himself give us the strength to share mercy and hope. As He Himself did while in tremendous pain and facing imminent death.
3. ”When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your Son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.” (John 19:26) From the cross, Jesus provided for His mother. We don’t know why He didn’t bequeath this task to his younger brothers; He must have had His reasons. And I’m sure He had his reasons for choosing to place the care of His mother in the hands of John, the Beloved Disciple. But the point is that He made provision for her, as well as He could on this earth. And we should do the same for those we love, for those for whom we are responsible. Doing so may involve planning well in advance: wills, trusts, life insurance, clear instructions, powers of attorney. Some of it may involve last minute awareness and unselfish thinking—and decisiveness. Jesus was decisive, proactive and crystal clear in his instructions—a good model for us.
4. “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished to fulfill Scripture, said, ‘I am thirsty.’” (John 19:28) Jesus had been obedient to His father in all things while on earth; He had done everything He needed to do, except for enduring the last minutes or hours of hanging on the cross and dying. He had been brave and strong and courageous and patient. He had endured incredible things. He was dying in agony, although He could have, at any moment, come down from the cross. So He was no wimp. But He didn’t go in for stoicism either. He was thirsty and said so. He needed a drink and He asked for one.
There is a time for being brave and uncomplaining and there is a time for asking for help and relief from pain. In the process of our dying, whatever that may be, we can follow the example of Jesus in bravely bearing what absolutely must be borne, and just as bravely asking for what will ease our journey.
5. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) Jesus knew why. He knew His Father was forsaking Him because He was bearing the punishment for our sins. But still He asked the question—not from a rational, logical point of view, but from an emotional point of view—just the way the abandoned child or the jilted lover cries out, “Why, why, why? Why did you leave me? What did I do wrong? What did I ever do to deserve this? How could you do this to me?”
Jesus was always honest. He may have held back knowledge or thoughts that people weren’t ready for, or that could have hurt them. But if He said something, expressed something, it was what He truly knew or felt. He didn’t cover up, didn’t pretend. So even on the cross when He knew His Father had to turn away from the sin He carried on our behalf He cried out about how it felt to Him; He cried out about the loneliness and abandonment He in His soul. We hear the anguish in that cry.
Jesus was the only human being that ever lived that could have survived being abandoned by His Father, and He did survive, because He Himself was and is deity. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t cost Him. It was sheer torture and abysmal loneliness for Him to bear our sins and absorb the rejection of the Father. I don’t know if I, if we, will ever fully understand all that went into this cry of Jesus from the cross. Or if we can ever thank Him enough.
But if and when we feel that way, too—like we are abandoned by God, rejected, alone—even if our head knowledge assures us He still loves us and is with us, the example of Jesus allows us to express to God—as loudly as we want to and need to—exactly how we feel. He’s not going to leave us ever, for any reason, and certainly not for that.
6. “It is finished.” (John 19:30) Jesus had accomplished what He came to earth to do. His human life on earth, as He and His family and followers had known it, was over. Done. He was recognizing that fact and stating it aloud. What He had accomplished would not be apparent or visible to those on earth for some time, but He knew what He had done.
There is something about approaching death that causes us to realize that our efforts are over; they are not required any more. We may look back with a sense of satisfaction or gratitude, realizing that we can feel good about many of our efforts—and grateful that we were given the chance to do what we did. We may be frustrated that things we hoped to accomplish are not going to be accomplished, at least not by us. We may have deep regrets about things we did or didn’t do. Whether we are somewhat satisfied to be ending our work on earth, or frustrated at not being able to finish as we wish, or full of regret, the fact remains that the God who created us and designed our lives says our time is up: time to render all accounts to Him and trust His audit.
There can be a sense of relief in coming to that end. It is okay to feel relieved by having responsibilities relinquished, duties done, efforts released. Especially when we can trust the One who has our purpose, our timing, and our eternity in His capable and loving hands.
7. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) As Jesus willingly let go of His earthly, human life, these words are His expression of trust in His Father for what came next. If life is over, we too, are in the position of entrusting our Creator and Redeemer with our spirit—our selves—for whatever comes next. We don’t know what comes next, but we know Who we trust for it.
Whether we know we are probably facing death in the next weeks and months, or we have no idea when it will come, Jesus left us a beautiful example of how to prepare to die, and die well. His example shows us that we need to clear our soul’s decks by forgiving and asking forgiveness. We need to extend mercy and hope to those who share our journey. We need to provide for those we love with clear, proactive decisiveness. We can express our needs for relief from physical pain and suffering, and express our feelings of abandonment and protest to God Himself. We can and should recognize our life’s accomplishments and our feelings about having to release responsibilities and relationships. And we’ll still need to trust our Lord for what’s next—for what eternity is going to be like.
Jesus, in the midst of excruciating pain, did all of the above with such brevity and complete confidence that we can “fix our eyes on Him…and not grow weary or lose heart” (Hebrews 12:2) even as we face death. Whether we think that death is imminent, or not.