The Dying Thoughts of a Godly Man
“Words and actions are transient things, and being once past, are nothing; but the effect of them on an immortal soul may be endless.”
― Richard Baxter, Dying Thoughts
I came across this little book by Richard Baxter when my fiancée and I, along with some friends, decided to go through the Tim Challies 2019 reading challenge.
Though short, it has been a wellspring of encouragement as I dwell on life, death, and days to come.
Baxter was an English Puritan who lived in the 17th century; and he wrote Dying Thoughts at an aged 76. Reflecting on Philippians 1:21 (“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”), Baxter wrote his book after losing many friends to old age, sickness, and martyrdom. In light of his age, and his life, Dying Thoughts makes a powerful read and an insightful look into the mind of a man who wanted to ensure his love for Christ was genuine.
Baxter examines himself, confesses weaknesses, asks forgiveness, and encourages us to do the same while also calling us to find our hope and joy in Christ.
Nothing morbid is to be found in Baxter’s focus on death. There’s neither frivolity nor callous jokes—simply an old preacher dwelling on the implications of “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
And as Baxter’s book lacks morbidity, so does my reading it. His book is a sobering reminder. One day, we all will die, some sooner than others; that much is a guarantee.
“Teach us to number our days,” says the Psalm, “that we may incline our hearts unto wisdom.”
My days on earth are limited. Even while my fiancée and I plan our wedding, search for a house, and feel excitement when we contemplate our future together, I know this: one day either I will stand at her gravestone, or she will stand at mine.
That thought, left to itself, could depress even the most devout. Chastened by the Gospel, however, the thought inspires joy and a needed sobriety and earnestness in taking every thought captive to Christ.
Knowing time with my future wife, family, friends, co-workers, and everyone I meet, is limited, I am constrained to spend it admonishing, encouraging, and in some way, strengthening or furthering Christ’s kingdom.
The particulars of how that may look is anyone’s guess: Christ’s body is made of many and diverse members. It certainly does not mean every time I meet with someone, however precious to me, that our activities only pertain to Scripture reading, prayer, and confession.
However, it does mean the time I spend should be spent on purpose.
“Redeem the time, for the days are evil.”
God is glorified by jokes and time with friends; even the idea of a Sabbath was to relieve people of drudgery and monotony. A day of rest is a day of joy. So, too, is all leisure well spent.
When Solomon wrote that it’s better to go into the house of mourning than mirth—that funerals really are better than frat parties—he meant it as a reminder to number our days so we could appreciate how valuable life is. Meditating on death does not need to be a sorrowful endeavor.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “There is a kind of joy that makes one serious.” That holds true, for true and lasting joy does make one serious about the time spent. God created us to find our supreme and lasting joy in Christ. So time spent trying to find it elsewhere is time wasted. Considering death is certain and life is short, the last thing I want is to waste God’s precious gift of time that I have on this earth.
Instead of focusing on death in and of itself, I think, as Augustine said, “They, then, who are destined to die, need not be careful to inquire what death they are to die, but into what place death will usher them.” And thank God, death is not the end. Though we sorrow because death still stings, we rejoice because Christ is still King. All death will do for the Christian is usher him into His glorious presence.
That is what brings joy to my mortal frame.
This, Baxter reminds me as I read his old pages. My joy, our joy, and every Christian’s joy in Christ through the ages will culminate in perfect love and joy the other side of death. Joy unspeakable and full of glory awaits. Focus, then, on what truly matters. Number your days, so that you can have wisdom by focusing on the supreme and sovereign joy found in Christ alone.
May Baxter’s dying thoughts be my dying thoughts, and the thoughts of all Christians in all times.
Joseph Hamrick serves as a deacon at Commerce Community Church (C3) in Commerce, Texas. He lives in Commerce and writes a weekly column, “Something to Consider,” for the Greenville Herald-Banner newspaper.