Only a few short months before the death of Dr. Jerry Falwell, founder of Thomas Road Baptist Church and my alma mater, Liberty University, the seminary at which I teach invited Dr. Falwell to our campus.
In the way that only he could, he unleashed a powerful torrent of ideas and perspectives in a packed house. Having been around him numerous times and, again on that day, being able to have a conversation with him, I was struck at the freedom of spirit he enjoyed-- and the unmistakable sense of liberty in his life... He truly lived with abandon.
You could imagine my shock as, only a few months later, the 74 year old leader was felled by a massive heart attack. In the days that passed, I was able to spend intimate time with some people who knew him much better than I-- people who were close personal friends with Falwell-- who traveled with him regularly and, the real test of closeness, had his personal home and cell phone number.
That's when I learned that Jerry had struggled with a long history of physical problems, particularly with the "granddaddy of them all," his heart. In fact, I learned that on perhaps two separate occasions, Falwell had been taken in and had emergency heart operations- and that, at least once, he had to be revived from death (that took place some two years before his final demise). Now, it's one thing to have a hang nail or some other minor health issue-- that's par for the course... But living with a condition of major heart disease is another.
That led me to wonder... "How can a man (person) facing such known physical threats like heart disease, not only function so powerfully in leading a movement and an empire of sorts-- but also, do it while living with such abandon, in the face of it all?
So I sought to discern how this principle worked, and now I want to share what I've learned. Now, I'm the first to say that there is more to be said and that I need to work on how to articulate some of these ideas, but I at least have enough understanding that I want to share what I've come to believe and understand, in hopes it can help someone.
How It Works for Christians
First, I strongly believe that being a devoted follower of Christ makes all the difference in this area. Note that I'm not talking about outwardly-pious religionists-- I'm talking about people who are normal, like you and me, but who happen to wrap their existence around the teachings of Jesus and seek to live consistently with what he said to do.
Why do I think it's different for these people? Predominately because they sense an absolute calm when it comes to the ultimate problem of death and destiny. Because they believe (know) that their eternity is covered, and that the "worse that can happen" is leaving an imperfect world in order to enter a perfect eternal existence-- that lowers the threat level of death immeasurably.
So, in that case, death is not something to be "avoided" per se-- even though it's not something to be 'pursued' either. It is what it is, it happens when it does, and though one might seek to take necessary precautions to avoid stupid (e.g., driving drunk on a motorcycle at 120 mph) or unwise (trying to break the world record for chain smoking) decisions that lead to what might be called a "premature death," otherwise, little concern or thought is given to death as an event.
The only exception might be allowing the sobriety of one's/another's death to raise one's awareness of the importance of living one's life wisely, since time is a gift that, once used, cannot be regained. So death teaches and reminds the devoted Christian believer of the importance of how time should be invested, but otherwise, it's essentially a non-issue.
Other Faiths and Their Solutions
One might ask, "Sure, but what about people of other religions? Isn't it the same with them?" No, not really. Christianity alone offers confidence towards death for the believer. Were Hinduism or Buddhism to be true, the only real 'hope' of those faiths is to re-enter a world of suffering (their words, not mine) and hope, ultimately, to be drawn into the ultimate reality of an impersonal force-- where one's identity and personhood is extinguished (Nirvana or Moksha). This is hardly any real hope, and there is no concept or assurance in those faiths as to if or when this might occur. Similar, but different concepts, are shared by different animistic religions around the world who hold to a "cyclical" view of reality-- unlike Christianity's linear view of truth and time.
One could refer then to Islam or even Judaism. But even in these, there is no sense of absolute certainty as to one's salvation. Though some overtones and similarities exist between Judaism and Christianity, Judaism has no sense of a system of teaching with regard to salvation in the way Christianity does. Their faith is based largely on their own efforts, hoping they are sufficient for making the cut. Islam is even less hopeful. They believe God is a sometimes-capricious deity who may or may not allow the faithful to join Him in His eternal abode.
All of that to say, the beliefs of these religious traditions offer no certainty to their adherents about the probability or certainty of security in eternal life-- and I believe the consciences of those religions' followers also bear witness of this uncertainty. They generally have a fear of death and, as a result, live with reticence. Frank discussions with people of these faiths about these issues easily prove my point.
Now, all of that could be perceived as amounting to 'religious pride' but anyone who knows me knows that's not where I am coming from. First of all, all persons have freedom to acknowledge any (or no) faith, and though I am concerned about those who live without a confident faith-- I am not responsible for their choice of a faith that doesn't provide any confidence or security about the afterlife. That's on them. My obligation is to communicate the truth of Christianity to them, in hopes they will be convinced and acknowledge for themselves what truth is-- and enter into the same peace and eternal security that I enjoy moment by moment.
But back to the main issue-- this idea of living with abandon.
The primary point I was making is that a main pre-condition of living with abandon in life is the undergirding confidence that one's afterlife is secure. That is one great piece of this puzzle. And without that piece in place (feeling secure about the life after this life), I believe that fear and uncertainty and insecurity and a sense of threat is inevitable to every person who seriously thinks about their mortality. What can I say?
What Else Is Required To Live With Abandon?
But then, one may say "I have known Christians who did not have this sense of living with abandon, and were uneasy about death." I have too. This includes people who were close to me-- and that's horrible. I regret and grieve over the fact that they felt insecure in an area that God never intended for them to feel insecure. However, it wasn't that this peace and security I've described were not available to them, but that they failed to understand and practice the other insights that I have gained in this search of mine.
Loving ObedienceI have also found that, when people are not walking (living) in intimate obedience to Christ trying to appropriate his teaching to their lives, they nearly always live fearfully. They live (ironically) in fear that includes feeling threatened in their relationship with God, as ironic as that may sound. But I've been there too, at times. What I mean is that, when people live in obedience to Christ, they know that life is completely in His hands and, because they are fully and completely trusting Him and living consistently in His principles, they do not live fearfully or threatened. But when people are resistant to fully trusting in Christ, because all things (including death) are subject to him, they begin to fear death and all manner of other maladies that could befall them.
Why? This is key. Because when people know they aren't intimate with God, living close to Him, they are naturally uncomfortable with where they stand with them. They know that they have betrayed themselves and violated their consciences. They know that they cannot be trusted-- and as such, they don't trust God, because they know that whatever may come-- their lack of obedience makes them unguarded and the fear of getting what they deserve, and enduring it without the sweet confidence of God's soothing presence and intimacy is too much to bear... So they are naturally afraid. Who wouldn't be? Again, I've been there-- but understanding this is keeping me from going back.
Let me try to wrap this up...
When a person lives in surrendered submission to God, they learn to live with fearless abandon. Fully and cheerfully submitting to the sovereign and benevolent God... regardless of what befalls them. That's because they know that regardless of what befalls them, since He commands and controls every detail of their lives, and (whether directly or indirectly) that nothing can happen outside His ultimate permittance.
And even though people can appear to be carefree, deep within there must be a sense of reservation and uncertainty. We can either try to live in avoidance of our Inner Voice and coax a superficial confidence, but that doesn't protect our hearts and minds from the unguarded moment when our hearts are prone to fear.