February 2012 - Vol. 57
Recently, my father-in-law passed away. He was 86 years old and he had lived a good life. Before he died, he was able to be reconciled with his loved ones and was able to prepare well spiritually. For me, that was a good way to die – all set and ready to meet his Maker.
Before my father-in law’s death, I have had reflections about athletes who excel in their fields of expertise – those who are multiple champions, or consistent in their brilliance and endurance. But nothing beats entering or ending a sports career with a flash, like winning a championship as a newcomer, becoming the rookie of the year, or leaving the field as a champion. There are very few sports figures who achieve these goals at the start or at the end of their careers, at the beginning or at retirement.
Combining these thoughts brought me to an anticipation of my own “retirement.” Like an athlete, I know that life on earth is not permanent, and sooner or later I will pass on to a more permanent state. I do not know where and when it will happen, but wouldn’t it be great to “go with a bang,” as a “champion,” and an exalted way to enter into the more permanent state of being?
As a Christian, how can I go “with a bang?” What is the best way to die, if there is ever one? Death is one of those things that will surely come, sooner or later. Shall a disease, an accident, or old age be my passage way? I do not know. But one thought came to my mind as possibly the best way to die: through martyrdom.
Is the thought of martyrdom too radical or too extreme at this time and in this age? In the past, dying as a martyr was widespread. Persecutions and tortures for the faith were ordinary. Some of our forefathers in the faith had to shed their blood, and faced many forms of torture, including being whipped, in chains, imprisoned, and stoned. Some of them were sawed into two, thrown into the fire, or beheaded. There was nothing idealistic or romantic about dying as a martyr during those times. It did not look good and it did not feel good – but they glorified God literally with their own bodies.
As I reflect on passages in the Bible, I am more convinced that we should aspire to martyrdom. Didn’t Jesus say, “No one has greater love than this that a man lay down his life for his friends”? and, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it”? What about the disciples: their words and their lives? Most of the disciples died for their faith. The Lord Jesus honoured Stephen with a vision of heaven as he died the first martyr. Didn’t he die with a bang, and make a magnificent entrance into heaven? Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I live; yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me. And that life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith toward the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself on my behalf.” And Paul died as a martyr according to Christian tradition.
Living in this time and age, most of us experience little or none of the persecutions or trials that the first Christians faced. There are now few opportunities to die for our faith, to live and die as a martyrs. Does that mean we will not get a chance to die for God? We don’t know. I do not think we are all called specifically to die as martyrs, to seek to go where Christians are likely to be killed for their faith. To die as a martyr is a grace that God gives to some of us – and we cannot and should not “force” ourselves to martyrdom.
But I believe that God calls all of us to be martyrs in our hearts. Do our lives belong to God? Are we not citizens of heaven? Are we not called to die to ourselves day by day? Are we not supposed to sell all that we have, in order to gain something of greater value? If God is worthy of our lives, is he not worthy of our deaths? What do we value most, and what can we give God that is best? Are not our lives no longer our own anyway? How can we glorify God best with our life and also with our death?
I believe that as a Christian, I am called to become a “sleeper agent” who is willing to die for the cause that I believe in. “Sleeper agents” are spies who are placed in a target country or organization, not to undertake an immediate mission [that is where the comparison fails – we do have a mission], but rather to act as a potential asset if activated. Sleeper agents are also popular plot elements in espionage fiction and science fiction. But in reality, I believe I am called to become a sleeper agent for God, willing and ready to die for the glory of God if and when called to do so. And if and when that time comes, I think it will not be easy, or romantic, or idealistic. It will be a real test of faith – and I hope that I will succeed in the test.
What is modern martyrdom? For me, it is a life of sacrifice, a life of discipleship, to follow in the Master’s footsteps, and dying to my self-will, day by day. I want to practice the ideals that my life is no longer my own and I want to glorify God with my body. God is calling me to die every day to my selfishness, to the works of the flesh, to anger, and greed, among many other things, in order to become like him more and more.
One thing I do: I pray and hope that I will end in a high note and begin my life in heaven with a glorious entrance. I want to desire martyrdom. I want to aim for it. I want to set my eyes high! If I aim low, can I expect a noble ending with my life and a grand entrance to heaven?
May God give us the grace to die well, prepared to meet him face to face. But greater still, may God give us the grace to die for him – he who is our all – through dying to ourselves daily, or in one single act of martyrdom, to the glory of God. Whichever way, may we hear those glorious words that all of us await: “Well done my good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master!”
[See related article: Lessons from the Martyrs, by James Munk]
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