“You must remember this one thing,” Dr. Mike McDuffee whispered to us, “for your life and ministry depend upon it.”
We were sitting in the Wolf and Kettle Coffeehouse, with our professor holding court around a table of Moody students. He put down his cup of espresso and paused to make sure he had our attention. “Like a blind man groping his way in a room in which the furniture is not where he expects it to be, you will always grope for life unless you approach it through Christ’s death.”
The parables of McDuffee sometimes required an explanation. So as we walked back to campus along Chicago Avenue, I pressed for clarification: “What does it mean to pursue life through Christ’s death?”
“Ahh, we come to the practical question,” McDuffee responded with a smile. “Some lessons cannot be learned in a moment; they must come into focus over a lifetime. This is one of those lessons.”
During our current season of coronavirus lockdown, as life and death continue to dominate public conversation, the importance of that lesson has reasserted itself.
Life and Death
Let’s face it. When you’re a pastor, you often face life and death. Early on, I used to imagine the closing moments of life as having rapturous visions of beatific blessedness—sort of like Stephen’s experience in Acts 7. But I soon learned this notion is misguided, for it leaves one unprepared for the enemy’s cruelty—the unnatural and grotesque, the raw indignities and painful miseries that attend one’s exit from the City of Man. A few months into my pastoral ministry, I began visiting a 40-year-old woman who was fighting cancer. As her body wasted to a skeletal shadow, I learned how death consumes every shred of life, a destruction that no embalmer can restore.
This is why McDuffee’s suggestion to approach life through Christ’s death may sound strange. Death, after all, is “the king of terrors” (Job 18:14). It made courageous David exclaim, “Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me” (Psalm 55:5). Paul deemed it the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26).
We spend our lives avoiding death at all costs. We carefully count our ten thousand steps a day, hoping for a longer life. And why else would we eat organic kale chips?
But the dark doorway eventually stands before us, a reality that is especially vexing in our age of scientific breakthrough. We who can explode through the earth’s atmosphere still find ourselves stopped in our tracks by cancer. Brain EKGs have replaced mirrors held before one’s mouth to test for life, but death’s intrusion is relentless. Death awaits each of us, a fact anticipated by children each evening at their bedsides when they pray, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” In this way, each night’s rest anticipates death, a foreshadowing of the real thing.
Nevertheless, McDuffee’s startling, counterintuitive statement is entirely right. We must approach our lives through Christ’s death.
The Mystery of Faith
Yes, life in its fullness, to say nothing of life hereafter—peaceful, pure, beautiful, joyful, glorious life—requires one to embrace death. “Truly, truly,” Jesus said to His disciples, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
The modifier in McDuffee’s statement is crucial. It’s not simply death that leads to life, but specifically Christ’s death, a concept Dr. Harold Foos taught us when he lectured on the “Theology of the Cross.” Quoting Martin Luther, Foos explained how the significance of Christ’s death transcends the usual theories of the atonement, reaching forward to define our very existence—everything from our knowledge of God to the practical dynamics of Christian living. The fullness of human life, he insisted, is always “cruciform.”
But, as McDuffee pointed out, some lessons come into focus only over a lifetime. Now, twenty-five years later, I’m finally grasping what the cruciform life is all about. In the recurring vale of tears that is human experience, we all participate in the swirl of sin and lament, the disgust and emptiness of everyday life—even we who belong to Christ. It’s the paradoxical blending of Christ’s suffering with His resurrection triumph, our pain and death with the new creation. We are, as Paul says, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:10, ESV).
The weight of this lesson hit me in January 2017 when I attended Dr. Foos’s funeral service at College Church in Wheaton, where he had been a member. Having served on the pastoral staff there for eight years, I had enjoyed getting to know Harold and his wife, Janet. The old professor wasn’t nearly as intimidating at home! And any residual fear was quickly allayed by sweet Janet’s hospitality. But now we were all dressed in black, remembering a brother who had fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.
As I drove home, I imagined the family huddling at the private graveside service. I envisioned dear Janet placing a flower upon the casket and lingering to watch it being lowered into the frozen earth. Down the gravel road, visitors would eventually depart, followed by workmen dragging their shovels. Soon it would be dark and bitterly cold. Even so, the radiant flame of hope abides.
Alone in deepest agony, while tired apostles slept;
No one to share His vigil—weep with Him as He wept;
Before Him, clearly rising, the Cross, the dying pain,
And sins of hosts unnumbered whose souls He dies to gain.
O Garden of Gethsemane! the God-like lesson, then
Left as a precious token to suff’ring, sorrowing men,
Has breaking hearts oft strengthened, that else, so sharply tried,
Had sunk beneath sin’s burden and in despair had died.
—from “The Garden of Gethsemane” by Rosanna Eleanor Leprohon
We now live in Gethsemane, the place of suffering and sorrow. But on account of Christ’s shed blood and victorious resurrection, the Grim Reaper’s sickle reaches only so far. Yes, all of humanity is exposed to his blade, but our Savior has overcome! Jesus removed the Reaper’s claim, robbing death of its sting. Therefore, we have the audacity to look upon caskets such as Harold’s in hope, knowing that today’s gray veil will one day be torn apart by the radiance of our Savior’s presence.
Living toward the Future
While we all know intellectually that we will die, we tend to imagine that day to be far off. The current pandemic, however, concentrates our minds on the fickle and arbitrary nature of death. What once seemed theoretical now seems to be crouching at our doors, ready to drag us away without a moment’s notice. We are told that we are at great risk through no fault of our own. Older friends, who are more vulnerable to the virus, are told that they risk life itself if they so much as take a step outside of their homes. Of course, the reality is that we risk death every moment, virus or no virus, a fact that is easy to overlook. If we will listen, the pandemic can teach us that this life is indeed transitory and that our only true hope is Christ.
This is where a theology of the cross is essential. It directs the fearful not to self-reliance or to scientific advancement but to Christ’s atoning death at Calvary and His victorious resurrection. This is what it means to approach our lives through Christ’s death.
Doubting Thomas struggled to believe this message, demanding instead to feel the Lord’s nail marks. In that moment, the Apostle insisted on living by sight and not by faith. With his eyes of faith closed tight, Thomas was like McDuffee’s blind man, fearfully grasping his way through an unfamiliar room. But soon he would find light in his crucified Savior—his Lord and his God.
The same cruciform assurance is available to us—even now as we grasp for certainty in the darkness of this historical moment—because we too have believed in the One who died and rose again. Therefore we can face whatever God has ordained for us, regardless of how dark it may become, until He calls us home.