Updated: Jul 10, 2018
Our youngest daughter, Bethany, used to work as a character performer at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida. Together with charities such as Make A Wish and the Starlight Foundation, Disneyworld gives terminally ill children and their families the opportunity to enjoy the holiday of a lifetime – a little ray of sunshine in an extremely challenging environment.
Bethany told me a story about a four year old girl who came to Disneyworld recently with her family. When this little girl was introduced to one of her favourite characters, Goofy, she said, “I’m going to be with Jesus soon, and when I see him, I’ll tell him about you.”
As Bethany recounted this heart-wrenching experience, tears rolled down my face. “What would it be like,” I thought, “living with the knowledge that you were about to die?” The truth is: we are all going to die at some point. And facing that fact can change the way we live right now.
The apostle Paul lived his life in the light of eternity, as evidenced by his letters to the churches. On eight occasions he uses the phrase ‘that day’ or ‘day of the Lord’, in reference to Christ’s return and the end of the age. Clearly, the awareness of eternity was a dominant theme in Paul’s life and ministry. Paul exhorted the believers in Rome,
But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgement seat of Christ. For as it is written: “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. (Romans 14:10-13).
The knowledge that we are going to stand before the judgement seat of Christ and give an account of how we have conducted our lives on earth should have a direct effect on our behaviour, and especially our relationships with one another. “Each of us shall give account to God … therefore let us not judge one another anymore.” Suddenly, every word and action is weighed in the light of eternal judgement!
Paul also admonished the Corinthians, We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:8-10).
The knowledge that we are going to stand before the judgement seat of Christ brings a sense of perspective into our lives. It helps us, as Paul said, to ‘aim’. Indeed, the knowledge that we are going to have our lives evaluated by the Lord Jesus Christ helps us clarify our values, rearrange our priorities, and establish worthy goals.
However, the tendency of human nature is to procrastinate under the assumption of an abundance of time. It’s like the pupil who knows that an exam is coming up but refuses to study, preferring instead to watch television and go out with friends. And on the night before the exam she tries to make up for lost time, ‘cramming’ four weeks of study into six hours – a strategy that rarely, if ever, works.
We all know, deep in our hearts, that there is an exam coming up in which we will give an account of the way we have lived in the time allotted to us on earth. The problem is, no one knows for sure when that exam is going to be held. James warned his readers:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? Is it even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16).
It’s true: we simply do not know what will happen tomorrow. None of us have an iron clad guarantee that we will still be here this time next week, or next month, or next year. Like the rich farmer in the parable, we can build bigger and better barns, assuming that we have many years left in which to enjoy the fruit of our labour. But when we least expect it, we may hear the Lord say, “This night your soul shall be required of you!” (Luke 12:16-21).
Don’t carry excess baggage through life
The word of God exhorts us to “lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us” so that we can “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). Throughout my forty years of ministry, I have watched an interesting phenomenon take place as people come to the end of their lives. Suddenly, the things that have been important and have dominated their lives such as money, prestige and power, fade into insignificance. Likewise, the things that have been neglected such as family, friends and God, take on a whole new meaning. I can concur with the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner, “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”
I have also noticed that when facing death, people find it easier to let go of resentments and grievances. Perhaps it’s because, in the light of eternity, offences that hitherto were too important to be forgotten or forgiven, just don’t matter anymore. Or maybe, it’s because we know, deep in our hearts, that we can’t stand before God and expect his forgiveness, and at the same time refuse to extend forgiveness to those who have sinned against us.
But wouldn’t it make more sense to get rid of the excess baggage of unforgiveness now, so that we can run the race unimpeded, rather than wait until we are about to die to “cleanse our hands and purify our hearts”? In other words, live the way you want to die!
When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother, Jesus replied “up to seventy times seven”, thus implying that forgiveness should be an habitual practice (Matthew 18:21-22). Indeed, forgiveness is to be a way of life - not just something we do as a last resort before we step over the threshold of eternity.