On a recent Tuesday, I was on a plane for work. The flight was delayed, so I was concerned about being late to a conference.
And then I got the call: a family member had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Everyone began arranging travel and other plans.
This person isn’t the first deceased family member in my lifetime. I’ve said goodbye to people with whom I was closer. But as I received the news, I realized that I had lost any chance to make up for the unchristian way I had accidentally acted towards that person.
For the first time, I realized that the accountability of death isn’t just about the deceased. It’s also about how the living treated the deceased.
The Accountability of Death
For Christians, the accountability moment that is death brings hope and fear. Will God grant us pardon for our sins and the Grace of Heaven? Or will we be damned to an eternity without His Love?
But sin isn’t just about our Final Destination. Our own deaths stop us from any more chances at repentance, but the accountability of another’s death means that we cannot “make up” or remove sin against him or her.
Moments after I was informed about this family member’s passing, I realized that I had wasted the last several years. Rather than take this person’s obvious quirks and flaws as an opportunity to help both of us come closer to Christ, I had chosen a door towards Hell almost every time.
Our interactions were brief, infrequent, and non-intimate. There’s nothing wrong with that. God does not require that we have a close relationship with every person. What was wrong was judging this person harshly – even dismissively. What was also wrong was mentally and verbally recalling the person’s flaws instead of finding the good when speaking with my wife or others.
And now it’s too late to help this family member. It’s too late to take back what I’ve done, to be more like Christ for this person, myself, and to those whom my sins of gossip, judgment, and dismissal affected.
Death Leading to Life
The sins described above are not just mine. Most of us have pretended we’re “venting” or “just being honest” about someone else. Let’s be honest now with ourselves: we feel good about putting ourselves above others. We do it despite how each time we do it opens another door to becoming a resident of Hell instead of following in the footsteps of the saints.
I can no longer try to be a beacon of God’s Light for my deceased family member. I can no longer try to be the charitable voice when others offered critique, or even claim the minimal moral success of treating the person neutrally.
What I can do is use the floodgate of realization God has opened for me as inspiration to mature. For example, I’ve worked to overcome frustrations with a former friend. Many times, I’ve crossed the line between informing others of necessary facts and gossip. With the wisdom of hindsight, I can see that feeling in my gut as I gossiped and offered half-hearted (if misleadingly forthright) apologies was God urging me to use just a touch of discipline to be the intellectually honest and upright Christian which I desire to be.
Again, we all have this challenge to one degree or another. It it may be work that’s challenging your charity, or a romantic partner. Do you let slip frustrations or concerns to friends and family, but conveniently “forget” to tell your spouse that you are shaming him or her in public? Are the positive characteristics of your spouse, or bosses, or colleagues forgotten because of some perceived or actual slight? When “venting” about a colleague’s or boss’ failings, do you also mention the good they did for you or your company that day?
Any of these can be venial sins or mortal sins, depending upon intentions and knowledge. We need not berate ourselves for failing. We simply must recognize that it is pride driving us towards gossip about, judgment towards, and dismissal of, others. This same pride is also driving us straight into Hell. Turning the car towards Heaven requires recognition of our pride, acknowledgement and repentance towards God and the person(s) we have sinned against, and renewed trust in God.
Until our day of final accountability, we can ask God to forgive our sins. When others die, it may behoove us to search our souls for sins against that person. Were we a bright lamp to guide that person’s soul and others who knew him or her, or did we hide under the basket — avoiding the work which God requires of us?