Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, lately I’ve been thinking about death. But don’t worry, this is not going to be a sombre text, just so you know. The thing is, I’ve been reading some texts by Russian orthodox priests, because what they say interests me, and their love for Jesus shines so beautifully through all their texts, and they promise healing for the soul, so I’m really interested. But, they also say some strange things, like that you should constantly feel deep sorrow over your sins, and think of death daily. This makes me suspicious, it smells like salvation by works, and not at all like the joyful message of the gospel. Nor could I understand how such seemingly morbid and depressing advices can bring healing.
When Jelmer, my husband, and I were taking a walk in the beautiful surroundings of the Grebbeberg, a place with a history that naturally reminds one of death, I asked him what his thoughts were on this.
I explained all my objections and said: ‘It makes me think of the Gereformeerde Gemeente with their black stockings and sombre faces and all the things that are forbidden.’ After some thought, Jelmer said: ‘But that is different. For they are sad because they are unsure of their eternal salvation.’ And then I realized that this makes all the difference! All this thinking of death and sins and need for repentance will naturally lead to sadness if we forget about the security of eternal life. But not if we start with that! We know we are sure, we have been saved, Jesus does love us, and therefore, as in helicopter view, from the safe height of Jesus’ hands, we can have a look at our earthly life, and see the temporariness and flaws in it without fear.
So now I’m going to rest assured that Jesus loves me, and then face my limitations with courage. What are these limitations? Well, first of all, I am limited in space and time. When we were standing on top of that mountain (only according to Dutch standards of course, other people would call it a hill at best), we could see fields, the river, some towns… all very nice places, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t be at all those places at the same time. Now that’s a silly observation of course, but I confess I needed to realize again that we cannot do everything. We must choose. So, what do we do, and what do we leave?
First of all, ditch the sins, that’s the easy part. After all, who wants pride? Keeping up appearances is really a drain on our energy. Same for vainglory. Envy is totally useless, and wrath just eats back into yourself. I leave the rest of the vices as an exercise for the reader, shouldn’t be too difficult, apart from gluttony. Once that’s done, we get to the difficult part, which is the good things. Unfortunately for the perfectionists amongst us, we cannot do all those either. This is frustrating, especially when you’re good at remembering that we are called to love everyone, and that loving is not an abstract feeling but actual action, and therefore ignoring anyone’s need is wrong, right? There is a famous quote of St. Augustine that says that we should pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on us. But of course that doesn’t mean everything. Because, really, if I work as if every thing depends on me, that is asking for a burnout (as I have experimentally determined). God obviously doesn’t intend us to do everything, and we have been given a brain, so I think we need to learn to figure out what has most priority. My advice stops here, because I’m actually still trying to figure it out. But I’m considering to put myself on top of the list. This may seem a bit selfish, but it’s also the most practical, since I know best what I need, and then you all can cross me from your to-do list, deal? Anyway, the fact that I am safe in Jesus gives me the freedom to experiment and make mistakes to figure out a workable balance between work and rest.
Pondering on the theme of death a bit more, it occurred to me that it is pointless to try and improve the old life that is on its way to death. Using the descriptions of virtues and vices to improve our character is like nailing up the corpse in the upright position. Soldiers used to do that in the war to fool the enemy into thinking that their dead colleagues were still alive, so that their army seemed larger. But in our case it’s more like the enemy fooling us that we are still alive! This will only divert our energy into useless channels. I think we can use these lists as a tool to help us see how much our old life is still alive and causing trouble and then we’re even more motivated to turn to Jesus. Here is where all the contrition and repentance comes in. John the Baptist already said that we are saved by the remission of sin, and this is really all there is to it. By repentance we make room for the new life that Jesus gives us. It is not difficult and brings great joy. One verse in Isaiah that is always comforting me, seems applicable here. It’s In returning and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and in trust shall be your strength (Is. 30:15). I think there is a chronological order in this. After we’ve opened our eyes, and seen how we messed up, we first return to the Lord, and take the rest that we so desperately need. Then, (much) later, we will become quiet, and open to see what God will do, and trust in His guidance. We really cannot and should not try to improve ourselves in our own strength, all we need to do is continually try to become more open for the Lord, for He fights for us, and in us.