An Ancient Christian Discipline

Today I want you to ponder with me a new/old Spiritual Discipline that I recently encountered in Athanasius:  train yourselves to think Biblically about death; or to “prepare to die” (best heard in the voice of Inigo Montoya).  

What is it, to prepare for death?  Have you ever pondered how martyrs have faced their death these past 2,000 years?  The endurance promised and poured out through the indwelling Spirit cannot be fully explained, but we are certainly witness to this reality as we read their stories. As Athanasius discusses this, it is something he notices in men, women, and children–so this is certainly not something we in our age should shelter children from thinking about.  

On The Incarnation  

When I first read “On the Incarnation” by Athanasius in 2018, I knew I would be reading it often.  This summer was my fourth reading, and it remains encouraging, challenging, and delightful.  The first time I read through, I made a note near a portion saying “Can this be read at my funeral?”  Seems odd, perhaps, but hear me out.  

Several years prior I had attended the memorial service of a woman I had learned from, fellowshipped with.  This was the first memorial service I attended that was preplanned by the person being celebrated.  I have not forgotten that day, or the idea that I too might want to have my own memorial service be a time of worship, rather than merely people milling around feeling awkward (the ethos of many other services I can remember).  

What did Athanasius write that I want in my funeral service?  Speaking of Jesus Christ, the second Person in the Trinity:

“For by the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection…Now, therefore, when we die we no longer do so as men condemned to death, but as those who are even now in process of rising we await the general resurrection of all, which in its own times He shall show (1 Timothy 6:15), even God Who wrought it and bestowed it on us.”

Good Books Must be Re-Read

Upon reading this work again this summer, I was struck by the idea that in the early church, Christians prepared for death.  Not only in thought, but in bodily discipline.  This is not something that has been mentioned in mainstream books on Spiritual Disciplines; I wonder when this discipline fell out of the rhythms of grace handed down, the doctrines handed down, the tradition handed down.  

I don’t know if I’ll find that answer.  But I can ponder these ideas, and remember that God does not separate mind from matter as we Westerns try to; and grow into this idea that we can prepare for death, mentally and bodily.  As holistic beings, all that we do internally, in our inner man, impacts our outer man, and vice versa.  So here I offer a few thoughts on that holistic preparation.  Yet we know we are not promised tomorrow, and must face each day as a gift, without fear, and truly crying out with the Holy Spirit “Come Lord Jesus! Come!”

“But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live in deed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection…men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior’s resurrection from it.  Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it…[they] mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength…the marvel of marvels is that he who is enfolded in the faith of the cross despises this natural fear [of death] and for the sake of the cross is no longer cowardly in face of it.”

How Then Do We Prepare?

The first question I had of this idea, is “how?”  How did these people train themselves bodily to meet death?  It cannot be asceticism–it cannot be that we no longer steward our bodily health.  But perhaps this has something to do with no longer idolizing our bodies, or pursuing only temporal benefits.  

I do not know how they trained, but living in this generation, we know that our personhood cannot be segmented.  We are not a collection of separate parts.  My body or outer man is interconnected with my heart-mind-soul or inner man.  All of our Spiritual Disciplines will impact all aspects of our being–our physical health is improved with prayer, with Scriptural meditation; our mental health is greatly improved by those, as well as by true Biblical fellowship (which is not coffee hour, or shared hobbies, or game nights…) in sharing life under the Word.  So too, I think this training for death will include mainly “inner man” exercises that can be felt in our bodily reactions toward death.  Death loses its sting, its ability to fill us with anxiety, or make us stoic.  

Would my heart race and my body temperature change if I were arrested for being a Christian in a socialist country?  Would my answer to that question change if I trained myself to meet death as Athenasius described?

A Few Suggestions

Scripture Meditation

Athenasius mentions that one who marvels at all this should come to Jesus’ teachings to learn, and to embrace the faith.  I would say too, that believers who yet fear death have not meditated long enough on God’s Word.  We must come to Him, seek His teaching on this.  How often did Jesus direct His disciples to be ready for His coming back?  Those parables are a good place to start.  The Epistles teach a great many wonderful things to set our minds on as well.

Read Biographies

As you ponder the work of the Spirit in the lives of those who have gone before, you will come to see how amazing His power is, and to believe more firmly that He can work that way in you.  It is a good practice to read at least two biographies a year, or to read through books that share short biographies of martyrs. 

Pray and Sing

Pray through your fears, lay them down at His feet.  Do not cling to them as part of your identity, those fears are not truly who you are, He chases away all our fears.  We do not have to fear death, or to fear what will happen to others when we die.  Christ is holding all things together, and will continue to do so when I die.  God is working all things together for His glory and the good of His people, and will continue to do so when I die.  We can say as Paul did that we long to depart and to be with Jesus.  (See Philippians 1:23)  

As you look through a hymnal you should notice that many great hymns reference what God has done, Who He is, the greatness of His salvation, and the future hope He has promised.  Singing helps our attitude, our memory, our ability to pray; sing of our hope!   For All the Saints is one such hymn that will help you set your mind on future things without fear, you can see it here.

Scripture Memory

The Truth will set you free, and will guard your heart.  When we meditate on the Scriptures, the Spirit does great work in inner man, bearing fruit–making us more like Jesus, that we would trust the Father with the same trust Jesus displayed in the years of His earthly ministry.  He will make us endure, give us perseverance, and even the grace that we need to face the inevitability of death.  We can look to Him with faith, as Stephen did in Acts 6-7, even if our death is not in martyrdom.  We must ponder the hope of the resurrection, to which almost all the epistles bear witness.   

A few passages to consider that will have you pondering your future and preparing for death include John 11, Acts 2:22-24, Acts 6-7, Philippians 3, Romans 8, 2 Corinthians 4-5, Titus 2:11-3:7, Hebrews 12:18-13:14, 1 John 3:1-3, Revelation 1:17-20; 2:7, 11, 17, 26-29; 3:5, 11-13, 21-22; 12:10-11; 22:7.  On average, with a few minutes here and there every day, you could memorize 50 verses a year.  

Imagine Your Funeral

Many years ago, I had taken very seriously the lessons I learned from a secular book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.  As you work through the book, he has you create your own personal mission statement.  In so doing, you picture what the people who you love and who know you the best would say about you at your funeral.  For many, this is not your immediate family, your neighbors, your co-workers.  For me, it is sisters in Christ, it is my husband, and someday my children, it is people I have co-labored with in ministry, it is my mentor from college days, my pastor, those to whom I turn to in times of need.  Live now working towards what you want to hear them say, without fearing the inevitability of death.


So often, we merely trudge through our days.  We ought rather to face each day as a gift, desiring to live each moment for His glory.  Like Paul, we can desire most to depart and be with Christ–yet since we are here, we live in that Spirit of “power, and sound mind, and love” mentioned in 2 Timothy.  We cling to our hope, and persevere.  We do not give up, or become lazy.  

When we are weary we are glad for our community that will help us endure.  We are told to be afraid lest any in our community should fall short of true faith.  We are commanded to encourage one another all the more as the end draws near.  (Hebrews 3 & 10)  There will be days when you need the encouragement, and days wherein you encourage others.  Jesus is building His church with this encouragement in mind!  

We follow Paul’s example of beating our body into submission–so the various bodily temptations that we face, we meet them head on and train our bodies rather than giving in (1 Corinthians 9).  I want doughnuts every day, and tea-time treats every afternoon; I will subject these desires to Christ and persevere in eating healthy, and planning treats so that they are not the core of my diet.  I want to sit down too often, when my body was made for physical work; I must commit to stewarding this body every day while it is still called ‘today.’  Pursue the health of your body for the sake of living and stewarding this day to His glory.

While we await His coming again, we will do the things that refresh us.  This includes getting sufficient time outdoors, enjoying sunshine and fresh air, woodland walks, and barefoot ‘earthing.’  This also includes drinking enough water, and cutting back on those beverages that actually deteriorate your bodily health.  Stretching muscles and tendons, walking, weight-bearing exercises, using all your joints…your body was not meant to waste away, you were created for more!  Wean your body off of pharmaceuticals that suppress rather than heal.  Do not seek quick fixes, but real solutions that let your body, fearfully and wonderfully made, heal. 

Be an actual part of His Body.  Taking your mind off of your individualistic existence, view yourself as the Scriptures do: corporately.  Family, Church Community, you are not your true self all alone.  You will meet death best if surrounded by the loving arms of His Body.  In studying 1 Thessalonians you will note that personal growth does not happen in isolation; and healing from stress and trauma and everyday draining circumstances happens more rapidly and fully when experienced in the presence of community–seeing the love of Christ in the facial expressions of a brother or sister-in-Christ.  

Make Time

When we ponder Jesus’ teachings about resurrection, Life, our true home, and His return; when we memorize promises found in the Scriptures; when we consider ourselves as whole beings–and seek Him with all our heart, soul, and strength; when we eagerly await Him and groan with the Spirit; when we turn our thoughts from time to time toward His victory over death, and how He removed the agony of it–then we will be built up in His perseverance, we will be brave, and in the words of Athenasius:  death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live in deed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection.

O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law;  but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ. 

1 Corinthians 15:55-57

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