There are innumerable tips on the internet on how to get rid of wrinkles. There are serums, cremes and lotions, thousands of so-called natural remedies such as applying lemon or apple juice to wrinkles and then, there are more extremes measures one can take ranging from the less intrusive Botox injections to face lifts that take 6 weeks to recover from. All of these solutions assume wrinkles can be prevented, stopped or reversed. The world of cosmetics is proclaiming loud and clear that having wrinkles is a problem to be fixed at all cost. Gone are the days when having wrinkles was a sign of maturity or of an age worthy of respect.
But are wrinkles the real issue? Is the fight really just about wrinkles or does it go much deeper? The obsession with eternal youth has to do, I think, with the desire to reverse the clock and beat the passage of time to hold off the inevitable: namely DEATH.
It is not just the world of cosmetics that is trying to put a stopper on death.
Just this past Monday, I was in the car to pick up my son from school, when I heard a fascinating interview on BBC. A doctor was being interviewed who has developed a special way of resuscitating dead people by cooling their body and brain in order for him to have time to fix whatever problem caused the death and then slowly thawing the brain again and jump-starting the heart. This technique is obviously cutting edge and has many risks, including very severe brain damage. This doctor claimed that, in the future, it will be possible to reverse almost any death, provided the cause of death is something fixable. So, say, if someone died of a heart attack because of a blood clot in the heart, he would be able to surgically remove the clot, fix the heart and then revive the person. But, even he had to admit that it will eventually be impossible if the cause of death is something like widespread cancer that cannot be stopped.
The advances in science notwithstanding, anyone who has stood by the casket of a loved-one knows full well that no amount of creme, healthy eating, exercise or medical intervention could ultimately have prevented the person's death. We are given the illusion of control over our health by the media and even the medical world. And the problem is, the information we are getting is constantly changing, leaving us frustrated in our attempts to control our lives and health. For years we were told that animal fat was what was clogging our arteries and causing heart disease. Good-bye bacon and eggs and butter! But we all knew octogenarians who ate bacon every day and were as healthy as an ox. Now we are told the real culprit is sugar, not fat.
We are told we can avoid getting cancer by eating certain foods and staying away from others. But what about a family I know whose baby was born with a cancerous tumor wrapped around his spine. Or my niece who was diagnosed with cancer at age 2? What bad eating habits could have caused her to develop such an aggressive form of cancer at such a young age? The reality is that we have very little to no control over our lives, our health and the time of our death. Am I saying that because of this, we should make no attempts to lead a healthy lifestyle? Obviously not, but what I am saying is that we cannot control when we will die in the end. Does that thought scare you?
Death is an inevitability we all have to face. All of us have at least two things in common and it might sound so obvious that it's barely worth mentioning: we were all born and we are all going to die
Today, we are focusing on the second reality: We are all going to die. This fact is obvious but what is not obvious is how each one of us will react to it. As I was reflecting on the reality of death, I could think of only two possible reactions to the inescapability of death. I am neither a philosopher nor a psychologist and maybe they have come up with more, but here are my limited thoughts:
The first reaction is the repression of the thought of death. We live as if death won't touch us. We keep dying folk behind the closed doors of hospitals and hospices, we busy ourselves, focus on making life as comfortable and pain-free as possible, gathering up material wealth around us. We will want it all, here and now, especially if we have no belief in an afterlife, we will feel the compulsion to suck the marrow out of this life since this life is all there is. This is the only reality. We become insatiably hungry for experiencing bigger and better things with a sense of entitlement. Pain and sickness will always surprise us since that is not the way life is supposed to be. Loss of health and vitality will lead to deep depression, confusion and anxiety.
The second reaction I could think of is obsession or living in constant fear of death. We may not really want to admit to it, but we are controlled by the fear of dying. That fear, though maybe not even conscious will lead us to be the type of person who will not be ready to take many risks in life. We will be the types to work like crazy and we will try to provide for ourselves a safe and steady environment with no nasty surprises. We might become obsessed with healthy eating and exercise because we've been told we can control our lives that way. We may worry about personal safety and the safety of our loved ones, becoming overbearing parents. We will start panicking when our bodies start slowing or breaking down which will lead to a dogged activism against the inevitable. We will spend lots of money on our appearance in an attempt to slow or reverse the natural march of time. We might have a facelift or breast enlargement to make us feel young and sexy again. Pain and sickness make us angry because we are not able to control them.
Now obviously, these are extremes, but I think we can all recognize ourselves in these reactions, to a certain degree. Which reaction do you tend to? Repression or obsession?
So how do we live in the face of death's reality, as our wrinkles remind us every day that we are not immortal? How do we not repress death or obsess about death? What hope is there beyond wrinkles?
This is where the Christian message about Easter is wonderfully good news. It has nothing to do with Easter bunnies and eggs. The Bible teaches that death entered the world through sin. Death was not part of God's original design for human beings. Death is a horrible intruder that cuts life short. But worse even than physical death, the Bible tells us that we die spiritually when we alienate ourselves from God, the creator and the life-giver. The apostle Paul wrote that the "wages of sin is death." This means that without God's intervention, we are all doomed to die physically and spiritually. The only thing that can save us is for God himself to lift the curse, to take death upon himself. That is exactly what Jesus did. As God incarnate, he died on the cross on good Friday and paid the wages of sin with his own life. Because of this, God did something amazing! Jesus' sacrifice was accepted on our behalf and God raised Jesus from the dead on Easter morning. There was nothing that could hold Jesus in the tomb. His resurrection sealed his work and it was death's death. When we believe in him, we experience new spiritual life here and now and have the promise that we will be raised, as Jesus was, after we die. Jesus says in the gospel of John:
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25)
Jesus also said that he was going to his Father's house to prepare a place for us. This place is what Christians call heaven. There are many descriptions of heaven: a place with no more sadness, sickness or tears. No more struggles, conflicts, wars or broken relationships. It's a place where all things are made new and we are a part of it. If you could imagine the closest human relationships you've ever had, the best party you have ever been to, the most glorious view of nature you have ever seen and the deepest sense of peace and satisfaction you've ever had. That's what heaven will be like, all wrapped up in one experience that is not tied to time or space but will last forever. Jesus says that believing in him guarantees access to this amazing place.
Interestingly enough, patients who have had near death experiences report that the place they saw was so glorious, so beautiful, filled with such love and such light, that they found it hard to go back to this present reality and all of them were forever changed people. Complete atheists who've had such an experience, come back saying things like: "I don't need to believe in a life after death, I know there's one!"
Because of this certainty, we can live in the face of death, knowing that death will not have the last word. We do not need to repress death not obsess about it. We will live in freedom and without guilt. Here's how your attitude will change if you believe in the resurrection:
First, for those who tend to repress the thought of death:
1) You will become more realistic about death. You will no longer repress your thoughts about death, rather, you will allow them to help you prioritize your life into what is really important. Since you now know that death is not the end, you can afford to become generous here and now with your time and resources. You know you can't take anything with you so there's no point in being possessive or greedy. People will become more important than things to you.
2) You will not feel the urge to have it all now, since you know the best is yet to come
3) Loss of youth and wrinkles, pain, sickness will no longer surprise or depress you, rather, you will see them as welcome reminders that though this world and your body are wasting away, God will renew all things.
For those who tend to obsess with death, here is how you will change:
1) You are now enabled to live boldly without fear to pursue God's calling on your life. You might go crazy places and do wild things when you listen to God's leading in your life. You will become a risk-taker and encourage others to do the same.
2) You will grow old gracefully, be a fun person to be with and become inwardly beautiful instead of fretting about outward appearance.
3) You will start reprioritizing how you spend your money. Instead of the facelift you've been saving for, you'll want to spend your money on things of eternal value.
For those of you struggling with some aspects of both tendencies:
1) You will live life in such a way that you won't come to the end of it with regrets. You will want to live in reconciled relationships be it with God, family members or friends
2) Your love for God and his purposes on this earth will become contagious. People around you will be changed because of you.
3) When the moment comes, you will be able to release your clutch on life. You will know where you are headed and you will be ready to meet your maker. You will even surprise others around you with your joy and eagerness to finally meet God face-to-face.
When my grandmother was dying, I called her from Berlin to talk to her one last time. She knew her time was coming, had set all other affairs in order, had closure with all her family members. She was ready. One thing she said to me shortly before she died was this: "When you are dying, everyone wants to tell you how great of a person you are. What I need to hear now is how great Jesus is and what he has done for me!" I will never forget that moment and this is why I am writing this today. I want to tell you how great Jesus is and what he did for you. He overcame death out of love for you, he has the power to heal and raise from the dead and restore this broken world. He reaches his hand out to you and invites you to live with him. To really live. Will you accept his invitation today? If you do, you will not regret it, ever! Not for all eternity.
This was originally a talk given in Leipzig