How Do I Overcome My Fear of Death?
Article by John Piper, Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org
The fear of death keeps people off jets and into cars, a more deadly form of transportation. The fear of death exerts tremendous force over people in this world. It makes us irrational. So what counsel do we have for Christians who live under a perpetual fear of their own mortality? The question arrives from a woman who has not given us her name.
“Hello, Pastor John, I have been building a relationship with God and have thankfully been delivered from a love of alcohol. I am 25, married to a godly man, but have been struggling with the thought of death on a daily basis. I think it started when my friend passed last year. Before that a friend of mine, and my sister, just months apart, both had dreams that I died while I was still drinking. By the grace of God he allowed me to let go of that habit, but I can’t stop thinking that something will happen. I decided to get to the root — I have a fear of death. All I sometimes think of is dark, depressing thoughts, and I do not want to live my life like this. Please, can you give me some insight?”
My experience over the years is that sometimes God delivers people from the bondage of fixation, like the fixation with the possibility of dying, in a roundabout way that seems surprising. If this seems roundabout what I’m about to do — roundabout and jolting — hold on and at least give it consideration. She doesn’t give us her name, so I’ll just call her our friend.
I’m picking up from our friend’s wording that her view of God and his sovereignty over our lives, including when and how we die, may not be as biblical and as solid and as freeing as God means it to be.
She says, for example, with regard to her former drinking problem, “By the grace of God, he allowed me to let go of that habit.” Here it is again: “He allowed me to let go of that habit.” Now that kind of language, that allowing language, in relation to God’s work in our lives, sends alarm bells off in my mind that her view of God’s sovereignty — God’s rule over her personal life and over her willing and her actions, like drinking — is something like this: “If God would just step aside, then I will let go of this habit.”
Now she may not mean that, but sometimes the language we use speaks more deeply about what we believe than what we say we believe. She did say, “God allowed me to let go of that habit.” Really?
So the first thing I want to urge our anxious friend to celebrate is that God is way more actively involved in our habit breaking than mere allowing or permitting. Hebrews 13:21 says, “[He] equip[s] you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” This means that God is fully able — in his time and in his way — to take away not only the desire to drink, but the fear of death and the fixation on death. God is able not just to allow you to do it, but to do it decisively in and through you.
Now, related to this view of God’s sovereignty in delivering us from fixations in our minds is God’s sovereignty over death itself, which is so crucial for our friend to grasp. I want our friend to see in God’s word that God has final and decisive control over how and when we die.
This is true, even though Satan has some secondary role to play. He’s not absolute. He’s not decisive. He’s not final. He’s always on a leash.
For example, when Job’s ten children died in one day, Job says, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). James says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there.’ . . . Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:13, 15). God decides if we live and do this or that.
This has filled God’s people with incredible courage and energy and joy over the centuries in very risky circumstances of ministry. Why? Because we are immortal until our Father decides to bring us home. Think of it: immortal — you are immortal.
I wish I knew your name. I wish I could say it to Jane or Mary: You are immortal until God’s work for you is done. You really will not die. You will not die until God intends for you to die. This is wonderful. I mean, where else would you rather rest than in this?
More Precious Than Sparrows
You are not at the mercy of Satan. You are not at the mercy of nature. You are not at the mercy of man’s cleverness or carelessness or evil. You are rock-solid secure in God’s omnipotent hands, and you will not die except at his decision.
Where else would you want that decision to lie? He is your all-wise, all-knowing, all-merciful Father, which leads Jesus to say the sweetest of all words: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” And then, ironically, after telling us to fear God, he tells us what he really means by that: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” Picture your father leaning over you asleep in your crib, counting your hairs (which is no problem for him). “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:28–31).
Fearless, fearless, fearless. And he’s good — he’s your Father. Jesus died to secure this. He died to secure Romans 8:28, Romans 8:32, and Romans 8:37 for his sinful children. He died to secure the truth that all things work together for good, so death cannot separate us from the love of Christ.
Everything we need in life and death was bought by the blood of Jesus. So Paul says, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Make My Day
Here’s my counsel to our anxious friend and the rest of us. Instead of trying to stop thinking about death, every time that thought comes into your head, say to death, “Go ahead, death — make my day.” Say, “If you let me live, Christ will be honored on earth in my life. If you take away my life, I get more of Christ in heaven. I can’t lose.”
Then get on with your work. Make a meal, vacuum a rug, close a real-estate deal, give a flu shot. Go about your daily life with a totally happy uncertainty about when you will die.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons.