In college I used to think dying sounded awesome. I got saved in my early twenties and was quickly exposed to John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life and I wanted everything the book offered—radical living, unending joy, and passion for Christ. Dying was gain, right? How can it not be when Christ is my all?
But I’m not in my twenties anymore. And life has a way of aging a person.
Everything is fine until it’s not.
My journey into parenthood has been laced with a fair amount of death and sorrow. Two weeks after I saw that faint second line, I wept on the floor of our bathroom over the loss of our first baby. For two years after that, my womb was empty—dead, silent—except for the monthly reminders that I wasn’t pregnant again, and possibly would never be. When I finally got pregnant, we were shocked it was twins! But an early delivery only intensified my fears that my womb would only ever be able to produce death. In God’s kindness, they lived. But the silence in the delivery room because their lungs were too small to gasp breaths stayed with me. It still does.
We miscarried again.
I had another baby.
And then got pregnant with my fourth son. Benjamin John Reissig, named after Jacob’s cry for Benjamin in Genesis 43:14 (“If I am bereaved, I am bereaved”) because we thought we were going to lose him in those early weeks of pregnancy. But those early fears passed, and I naïvely thought it was all smooth sailing. I had paid my hard pregnancy dues and life would only be normal. I scheduled my C-section. It was all good.
Gather Your Sea Shells while Ye May
Until one morning it wasn’t.
At thirty-three weeks pregnant, I developed a life threatening complication that not only was a risk to my son, but also could have killed me too. And I lived in that state for three more weeks. Attached to monitors, a slave to my own anxious thoughts, and utterly terrified that my son and I would die.
The zeal of my twenties over dying seemed utterly naïve for a thirty-four-year-old pregnant mother on the verge of losing her son and leaving her older children motherless. Death felt like complete loss, not gain. Death felt like the worst thing that could happen to a person, not the best. Death, when it was crouching at my own door, didn’t seem as appealing as it did when I was strong, healthy, and young.
Legitimate fear doesn’t discount a limitless God.
I believe that God is sovereign. I believe in heaven. I believe that death is the gateway to life everlasting, where the sin, pain, and anxiety of this life is gone. But I also believe that death is absolutely awful, and something that even the most faithful Christians find fearful.
Death is not the way it is supposed to be. When God made Adam and Eve, he made them to live. When sin entered the world, so did death (Romans 5:12,; 1 Corinthians 15:21). Death, while it is the way we get God and freedom from the curse of this life, is also the final reminder that all is not well.
In the final pages of Dangerous Journey, the children’s version of Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful have to pass through the waters of death in order to get to the Celestial City. There is no other way. As the waters rise, their struggle only increases. It’s frightening. It’s unnatural to give in to the waters that are attempting to drown them. But to get to heaven, they must, even in the face of great fear. But it’s the line explaining these waters that gets me every time:
“But the troubles a man goes through in these waters are no sign that God has forsaken him.”
This is the echo of countless other passages of scripture (Psalm 23; Isaiah 43:2; John 11:1–44), where death and suffering are crouching, but God is always right around the corner.
What I’ve had to come to terms with is that the fear I have over death is legitimate. No amount of knowing God’s presence removes that fear. Death is unnatural and I hate it. If I could escape it, I would. But when I do come to that final moment it won’t be because God has forgotten me. I can be afraid of the process of death, but can also have an anchor in the storm, in the deep waters.
Maybe the unwasted life is the life that holds this fear in tension. Maybe I can live out my youthful zeal, with an ache and a sobriety that death is gain, but death is ugly. I don’t have all the answers yet. But I do know that when the day comes, it will be no sign that God has forsaken me, painful and ugly as it is.
Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, I may be utterly terrified when the waters of death drown me, but I will reach the shore. I will reach the shore.
Cover image by Jakob Owens.