Reformation Trust has recently released a revised and expanded version of R.C. Sproul’s Surprised by Suffering: The Role of Pain and Death in The Christian Life. Dr. Sproul was kind enough to respond to a few questions about this book. I submitted them via e-mail and Mr. John Duncan presented them verbally to Dr. Sproul.
I posted part 1 of our exchange last week. Part 2 appears below.
QUESTION: How can Christians prepare to die, and in what ways are we most often neglectful in this regard?
SPROUL: We prepare to die by looking to the promises of God for our future rest and our entrance into glory. We have to keep our eyes on heaven and the reward that has been laid up before us. If we don’t, the interruption of our earthly pilgrimage will throw us for a loop, and we’ll be caught unprepared and unawares. We are to keep our minds on heaven, immersing ourselves in the Word of God and focusing our mind on what lays ahead for us. We’re to forget those things that are behind and look ahead, pressing towards the mark, which is the high calling that we have in Christ.
QUESTION: Why do you think Christians are so afraid to think about that? We do sort of ignore the reality.
SPROUL: I think it is human nature to be afraid of death. Shakespeare said it well in Hamlet. We’d rather bear with those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of, and thus conscience does make cowards of us all. It’s a place we’ve never been before, and so it’s somewhat frightening.
QUESTION: What year was your mild stroke that you had?
SPROUL: It was six years ago.
QUESTION: Did that shape or reshape your thinking about death at all?
SPROUL: No. What the stroke did was that it left me some ongoing issues with vertigo, and with an eye weakness, but the biggest problem was the loss of 65% of my brain energy. It didn’t affect my cogitative thinking or my memory, but just the energy. So that if I concentrate for any period of time, I have to take a nap and get my batteries re-charged. But as far as my mortality is concerned, I was already completely aware that I was mortal, and it didn’t frighten me.
QUESTION: In Philippians 1:21 and 22, Paul says that he was hard pressed between a continued fruitful labor in the flesh and desiring to depart and be with Christ. How should Christians, particularly those who are infirm or frail due to age or illness, balance this tension between God-honoring longing and opportunities here in this life.
SPROUL: When my mentor, John Gerstner, was in his seventies, he expressed to me an intensification of his desire to serve Christ in whatever time he had left. Even though he looked forward to entering into his heavenly bliss, he felt pressed at the end of his life to double his efforts in the service of Christ. That puzzled me at the time, and yet I have found the same kind of thoughts coming into my mind. We started our church, Saint Andrew’s, 12 years ago, and I wish it would have been 40 years ago, because I know that I don’t have that many more years ahead. I want to make sure that I can do as much as I possibly can for the kingdom in the days ahead. At the same time, I’ve had those feelings Paul expresses of being torn between two things – the desire to depart and be with Christ. I mean that’s a tremendous, tremendous thing to look forward to. Then there are times when I really get tired and have had enough of the conflict that goes with the ministry, so there’s my ambivalence there.
QUESTION: What are your thoughts on Christians and retirement?
SPROUL: I don’t think about retirement a lot in terms of the ethical implications of it. I know that we have been created to work, and that work in and of itself is not a curse. It’s a blessing. The curse, that is added to labor as a result of the fall, is the curse that makes our toil difficult with the sweat and the thorns and the thistles that struggle against us. But in an ultimate sense, in creation, work is a blessing whereby we are able to mirror and reflect the character of God because God is a working God. God rests, but He never retires. I’ve always thought, particularly in the ministry, that as long as I have strength and health to continue to be productive, that it’s not a question of “ought to” for me, it’s a question of “want to.” I mean, I want to keep involved. I’ve often said that I’ll retire when they pry my cold, dead fingers off of my Bible. But of course, health may change that. But in any case, I don’t look askance at people who do retire.
My sincere thanks to Dr. Sproul for making himself available for this interview. To read part 1 of our exchange, go here.