Just a few weeks ago I got my first experience at a cross-cultural funeral. Funerals are a part of life and death processes across the globe and for many they are often very routine, whether believer or not. It has been years since I have attended the funeral where the majority of the people in attendance, including the family, were unbelievers. Wanting to learn more about the culture in which I live, particularly about the unbelieving perspective, I paid close attention to the details that were taking place. In those moments of attention, I was struck by a prayer that was uttered in which it was said, “Lord we wish to be with the deceased, but do not want to be dead like him.” This is my paraphrase and not a word for word retrieval of it. And remember, these are unbelievers. This causes a question: Do we desire to death or life more?
Despite the many struggles we encounter, few people would profess to a stronger desire for death over life. From an overall perspective people really do enjoy life. Think about the given Facebook posts you read, the varying articles that are most popular, or the most popular books on the shelves. There is a constant barrage of positive thinking and getting the most out of life that infiltrates our lives. From a secular world with little hope of what comes after death, this mindset of getting your best life now is no surprise.
Even professing Christians find the intonation of the world’s melody, “This is the best there is so get all you can” is enticing. Many have convinced themselves that the here and now is the best there is, and therefore it is worthy to be soaked up to the greatest degree possible. How do people, especially Christians, arrive at such a point in which the here and now is greater than the then and there?
While Scripture gives us much information about haven, in many ways it is scarce on the details that people want to know. Rather than be content with what the Lord has revealed and trust in what He will reveal, people spend more time speculating and filling in the blanks. An issue exists here though: the only point of reference and understanding people have is earthly and thus many are prone to project that earthly perception into the heavenly realm. Thus the image of heaven one creates is not heavenly at all, but worldly. Why desire heaven when it offers nothing more than what we have now? At least in this life people have tangible knowledge and experience with the characteristics and attractions of this life.
The Apostle Paul was different. He writes, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21) and later on he writes “My desire is to depart” (verse 23). How can Paul write such a thing? Because his vision of heaven was far greater than his vision of life. Such a vision can only come from a humility that exalts God and His will above that of man. Paul wasn’t concerned about what was best for Him, but what was best for God (although we could make a case that what is best for God is best for people, but that’s another discussion). For Paul, eternal life was not about what life would be like for Him, but instead, there was a deep desire for Christ. That’s why the completion of verse 23 expresses Paul’s desire to be with Christ. The rest of heaven didn’t matter because what mattered was being with Christ.
As I listened to the prayers of the people expressing a greater desire for life than death, I couldn’t help but do a quick self-examination: what do I desire and what should I desire? As Christians the greatest of the two desires must not be death after life, but life after death. This does not mean Christians aim to die sooner. Instead it causes them to live more fully and find contentment in the knowledge the death (and really life after death) is to follow. Such a view of death affects the view of life.