For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)
As a teenager, I worked in the kitchen of a nursing home. My least favorite job was discarding the unfinished portions of food from the dishes that came back after the meals were served. In particular, the bowls of pureed meat or pureed vegetables always triggered a gag reflex. Evidently, it had the same affect on the residents because it was untouched. Next to that, the thing I dreaded most was taking the food carts to the third floor. I can still recall the sounds – the sounds of dementia on an institutional scale.
Woody Allen famously said: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Those with dementia probably come the closest to getting his wish. Yet, we look at them and say, “I hope I never get like that!” We want to be there when it happens. That reaction is consistent with our humanity. We were created for glory. Sin has robbed us of that glory, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
The gospel teaches us about Jesus’ victory over sin and death. By trusting in him, we have hope of future glory. We see death as a necessary, unavoidable obstacle in our path. But is it more? Before Jesus returned to his Father, he spent time preparing his disciples for their future mission. In a conversation with Peter, that was both restorative and predictive, Peter was told that he would be a martyr for Christ. The gospel writer then interjects this note, “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.” (John 21:19)
This statement about Peter’s death brings hope to all of us. John did not say that Peter’s death was going to be different in that it would glorify God, whereas most believers’ deaths are rather insignificant. What John is telling us is that every believer glorifies God in his death, and God determines how that will manifest itself.
We have the final words of many great men and women of the faith that inspire us. It is certainly easy to see how these glorify God. The book of Acts records that Stephen’s face shone with angelic brightness as he laid down his life for the faith. Even when the body has deteriorated, if there is a sparkle in the eyes as the dying saint declares his or her unwavering hope in Christ, we see strength shining through – almost bursting out – of weakness. In those times, we boldly say, “We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)
However, can I glorify God when I am reduced to extreme passivity. What about when I cannot walk, feed myself, dress myself, wipe myself, or even talk coherently – and I am not even aware of it? Can I glorify God passively?
The third floor residents of that nursing home taught me a lesson. Their cries and groans, though unintelligible, were an irrefutably cogent argument against a teenage boy’s aspirations for self-glory. I suppose all, believers and unbelievers alike, share equally in that role. But, as believers, is that the extent of our glorifying God, if we are reduced to that condition? I think we see another way, and it finds an illustration in reality TV.
At one time, makeover shows were the rage. Often they centered around a person struggling with the debilitating effects of morbid obesity. After months of dieting and exercise, we see them physically transformed to a fit and healthy person. At the climax of the show was the great reveal. They would show the before image – the picture when they were at their worst. Then suddenly, the live after image walks out from behind the curtain, and we marvel at the transformation.
If some day my body is shriveled up from the effects of age and disease and my mind has been reduced to that of a child’s, that is the before image. Death is the dramatic pause. By faith, I know that my after image will someday walk out from behind the curtain. On that day, the transforming power of Christ’s resurrection will be fully realized in all his saints. And he will receive all the glory for it.
So when you see your brothers and sisters in Christ incapacitated mentally and physically by approaching death, remember, “we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2) They shall be glorious!