Have I Done Enough?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell Uncategorized 18 Comments

The gentle, old saint, with less than 48 hours to live, whispered to me, “I just wonder if I have done enough?”

The question made me sad. I hope I slumped only inwardly. I was disappointed — puzzled and letdown — that a lifelong believer could come to the final hours of life wondering if he had “done enough.” I wasn’t concerned about his eternal destiny, even if he was, at least to some degree. It didn’t feel like the time to give a full-fledged theology lesson.

I tried to craft a response that gently nudged him back to God’s grace in Jesus Christ, rather than correct his heterodoxy.

“It’s really always less about what we’ve done or haven’t done, and more about what Jesus has done for us.” I said.

I left feeling a bit dejected. Qualms about having “done enough” were obviously embedded deep in his soul. Is this really what a faithful member of my congregation has heard and taken in? Nothing there about God’s love? Nothing about God’s immeasurable grace and mercy in Jesus Christ?

“Have I done enough?” Really? Where did he get such a notion?

Encounters like this aren’t frequent, but neither are they altogether rare — unsettledness, lurching questions. And although they are usually presented as intellectual, theological questions in search of answers, really they are wounds of the soul in need of healing. I recall another old person who near death was disquieted because he couldn’t name a time when he had been born again. He hadn’t had a decisive or dramatic turning point in his life. Now it gnawed at him.

In these two cases, I was these persons’ pastor for a relatively short portion of their long lives. In talking this over with a wise mentor, he suggested that we can only guess what people have experienced along the way — from other pastors, from parents, from TV preachers, from who knows where?

“You have no idea, Steve, about the sort of severe, guilt-inducing religion a lot of people heard 70 or 80 years ago. You can’t consider yourself a failure because a parishioner seemed to believe salvation came by doing enough. None of us can fully erase an experience with a shaming Sunday School teacher or the memory of a hell-fire preacher.” My colleague went on to recall the communion liturgy he heard as a young boy and how its warning about “whoremongers” always caused him to lean in, wonder, and tremble.

Over the years, I’ve learned not to blame my pastoral predecessors. When you are still new in a congregation there is a tendency to be critical of the persons you’ve followed. How did this get so far out of hand? Why was this weird tradition allowed flourish? How come this vexing person was given such power and leeway?

But as the years pile up, those questions are slowly answered. You come to see that your “solutions” didn’t work either, and that the issues were more complicated than you originally thought. Maybe you also come to understand that in not too many years some younger pastor, your successor, will silently ask such pointed questions about you and your tenure at the church.

So I’m reluctant to put the blame for my parishioners’ deathbed doubts on some hardnosed preacher from the past. As much as I’d like to point the finger at Baptists and Pentecostals who make life-long Reformed believers, children of the covenant, feel inferior and inadequate by sharing their most recent conversion experience—that’s probably unfair.

What I think instead is that the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is not the stale and trite stuff we often suppose. Rather the Good News is so vast, so counterintuitive, so dynamic, it is hard for the human heart to absorb. Much easier to tally our brownie points and jockey for position. That’s why we repeat the Good News again and again, day by day, week after week. The hope is that we hear it enough, and we start to trust, and it makes a home deep within us. Then, when we are thrown into difficult times, on our deathbeds for instance, we might be a little less prone to ask “Have I done enough?”

Comments 18

  1. I can imagine someone (me?) saying that not in reference to eternal life but about projects incomplete in this life. Is that understandable, or vanity, or…?

    1. A faithful disciple of Christ’s death bed/moment will always have a full in-box full. That’s not vanity – but a testimony to God’s on-going restoration work till the time when Jesus’ returns.

  2. Great ponderings, Steve. Still and all, I wonder if we were in his position, if the thought would cross our minds too? I think it would mine, and not because I don’t believe in grace, or question my salvation. Maybe out of a desire to live a huge life for the huge God we serve, and a growing awareness of the shortness of time?

  3. This is so wonderful! “counterintuitive, hard to absorb” indeed. Today’s devotional in “Tabletalk” is on same theme. Timeless.

  4. Very American to feel we are what we do or don’t do in life. Be all you can be, You can do/be anything, etc. Our vocational Calvinism adds to that too: to whom more (gifts) have been given, more (fruit) is expected. We are told to work not for man or self but for God and for our neighbor’s benefit as well.

  5. I too have been a minister often to people who have cried near death about failed lives. For real comfort, over the years I’ve learned to study god’s action in the Big Bang of Creation, in the order and constructivity of the Standard Model of Quarks, the Periodic Table, and in evolutionary neural molecular physiology. For my Mystical Union with the Power of my Being I prefer the hard realities of Darwin’s Origin of Species and Ernst Renan’s Elan Vital to most of the primitive anthropomorphism of the Bible.

    1. Mea culpa. I got the nationality right but the wrong guy: that Elan Vital was Henri Bergson’s, not Renan’s. And my point is that all anyone needs to trust is the amazing thing that our god has done already from the Creation to each flowering phenotype in our amazing world, and a magnificent divine future triumph of Grace as well, absolutely not a failure of Grace in so much as a lost blade of grass.

  6. When I was a nursing home chaplain, I heard this a lot too. In my view, it is just as likely that they got these ideas from the culture of their childhood home, and as Rowland Van Es said, from the wider culture too. How wonderful that God has the last word, literally!

  7. I had an aged pastor on his death bed say to me, “yes, Marion, I wonder if I shot the arrow straight!” I am not totally sure what he meant but obviously there was doubt in his mind. I believe that this doubting on one’s death bed comes from the final attacks of the devil. And he is no respecter of persons. Our role then is to support our friends with the everlasting love and grace of God. The devil cannot combat that and win.

  8. Reading this on the anniversary of D-Day, I couldn’t help but remember the scene at the end of the film Saving Private Ryan, where the older James Frances Ryan kneels before Captain John Miller’s white cross and says, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. And I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” Frankly, I wrestle with the “enough” question myself. I am deeply grateful for friends like Steve, who remind me that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is more than enough. Thanks, Steve.

  9. Thanks to everyone for your comments and thoughts. Mainly I want to say that I certainly didn’t want to sound denigrating of my friends with some deathbed questions. As many of you pointed out, until we’ve lived through that ourselves, it’s hard to know how we’ll react and what we might think and say. God’s love in Jesus is deep and wide.I hope that will be enough to give me peace.I have noticed that as I age, prayers and songs (hold thou the cross before my closing eyes..) that mention the hour or moment of our death become more meaningful to me.

  10. In such pastoral and liturgical ministry as falls to me as I provide week to week leadership to a little group of international residents of Tainan, Taiwan who constitute what someone named, years ago, “Tainan International Community Church”, I’ve taken to having us pronounce the words of absolution (assurance, comfort, what have you) in unison to each other. I’m hoping that as we get better at assuring each other of God’s forgiveness, we might internalize that for our own times of doubt.

  11. This was good, SMV. Reminds me of what Henk Berkhof wrote somewhere, that the gospel of God’s grace comes to us as news every week, no matter how often we’ve heard it before.

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