“Crying out in a loud voice, Jesus said, ‘Father, into your hands I entrust my life.’ After he said this, he breathed for the last time.” (Luke 23:46, Psalm 31:1-5)
The Way We Live is the Way We Die
Here’s my fresh insight into the final words Jesus recalled from the Old Testament. The psalmist’s prayer was not only the way he died; it defined the way he lived. The trust to offer this prayer in the hour of his death was the accumulated confidence of having prayed these words and lived by them throughout his life. His last breath was the final expression of the way he learned to trust God along the way.
Perhaps Mary and Joseph taught Jesus to pray, “Father, into your hands I trust my life” while they were refugees in Egypt, hiding from King Herod’s wrath and not at all sure of what was ahead. Perhaps the prayer took root within him as he heard the psalm repeated in the Nazareth synagogue and as he entered into the discussion of the Hebrew scriptures in the Temple as a teenager.
Perhaps when Jesus was baptized by John, the voice he heard over the water was so familiar to him that his instinctive response was, “Father, I trust my life to you.” Perhaps during the long, lonely days in the wilderness every victory over temptation strengthened Jesus’ confidence in the God to whom he had entrusted his life.
Perhaps by the time Jesus stepped out on the way that would lead inexorably to his suffering and death (Luke 9:51), he had prayed those words so often that they had become the internal compass that would keep him moving toward the True North of God’s saving work through him. Perhaps in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the blood and sweat of his desire to go some other direction, he knew in ways he would never not know that he could rely on the God to whom he had learned to trust his life. The faith in which he died was the result of the faith in which he had lived.
After four decades of pastoral ministry, I’m convinced that people generally die the way they live. If a person has been bitter, self-absorbed, or just plain mean, they will come to the end of life with anger, frustration and denial. But if they have lived with love, joy, humble gratitude for the unexpected and undeserved gifts of life, and a continually maturing relationship with God, that will be the way they face death.
I learned this lesson as a young, inexperienced, and overly self-confident pastor in my first appointment. After visiting a long-time member of the church who was painfully declining with terminal cancer, I told his son that I was sorry about what his father was facing. The son, a man of equally warm-hearted, genuine faith, told me that his father was so grateful for all the good things he had been given in this life, that he figured it was enough to be at peace as he came to the end.
“With a Loud Voice…”
Praying and living in the spirit of the psalm, Jesus’ last words are anything but passive resignation in the face of the incomprehensible evil and injustice that both the cross and the lynching tree represent. This is neither a prayer of overly simplistic piety nor of a fatalistic belief that “God has a reason for everything.” Praying this prayer is not an escape into a spirituality that avoids confrontation with evil powers of personal sin, institutional racism, economic greed, nationalistic jingoism or political partisanship. It is not a denial of our complicity in the same sins that nailed Jesus to a Roman cross, the same sins that left black bodies dangling on lynching trees, or the same sins that continue to plague our racial tensions today.
Jesus’ final shout from a parched throat and sun-blistered lips declares that the way we live and the way we die are held in the arms of a faithful Father whom we have learned to trust with our lives. It is a prayer of uncalculating, unflinching, and almost incorrigible trust that reaches through the suffering and beyond the darkness to take hold of (or be held by) the absolute goodness, faithfulness, and steadfast love of the God who was with Jesus in his most God-forsaken hour. It is a shout of hope that “when the morning wakens, then I will arise.”
Praying and living this prayer means daring to believe that God is with us in the ultimate paradox of the cross; that in ways we may not see, God is able to bring good out of evil, hope out of despair, and life out of death. Living in the spirit of the Psalmist’s prayer challenges us to believe in what Martin Luther King, Jr., called God’s ability to use unmerited suffering as a “creative force…the power of God unto social and individual salvation.” (James M. Washington, editor, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986, p. 41-42)
Dr. King’s confidence in the “creative force” of the cross inspires us to engage in essential practices of spiritual discipline, personal growth, and social justice which, when practiced over time, will enable us to “go from strength to strength” (Psalm 87:4) in a growing assurance that the way Jesus walked and the way he calls us to follow is, in fact, the way that leads to the completion (telios) of God’s transformation of the kingdoms of this world into the Kingdom of God.
Following the way that Jesus walked leads inexorably to our own Golgotha where we learn to pray as John Wesley taught us.
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
Excerpt from Finding Your Bearings: How Words that Guided Jesus through Crisis Can Guide Us, (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2021, p. 81-83)