Devotional Podcast #29: “Death & the Gospel According to the Beatles”

August 29, 2018

In this episode I challenge us Christians to ask ourselves which gospel we believe: the gospel according the Beatles or the gospel according to Jesus. Don’t answer too quickly! We all know what the “correct” answer is… but what does our heart say?

Devotional Text: Matthew 6:19-21

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Tuesday, August 28, 2018, and this is episode number 29 in my ongoing series of devotional podcasts. You’re listening right now to a song called “Girl,” by the Beatles, which I recorded directly from their 1965 LP Rubber Soul, on Capitol Records.

“Girl” is one of the best Beatles songs from one of their best albums, which means it’s a pretty darn good song! I played a longer portion of the song to introduce this episode than I normally do in these podcasts because I needed to get to the song’s third verse! Listen to these words about the eponymous “girl” to whom the song is directed:

Was she told when she was young
That pain would lead to pleasure?
Did she understand it when they said
That a man must break his back
To earn his day of leisure?
Will she still believe it when he’s dead?

John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine in a 1970 interview that this verse is an attack on the Christian idea that suffering can be good, necessary, and redemptive—that “pain would lead to pleasure,” as the song says—indeed, that living a faithful Christian life is a life of self-denial, but this self-denial is worth it because it leads, ultimately, to lasting happiness and joy—in heaven if not before. As Jesus himself said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”[1]

Did the girl in the song grow up believing this—back when she was young and naive; back when her parents made her go to Sunday school; back before she had a mind of her own or could think for herself? If so, the song says, don’t believe it anymore! It’s not true! 

From the singer’s perspective, pain never leads to pleasure; it’s never good or necessary; pain is an enemy that disrupts or interrupts or otherwise distracts you from living “your best life now”; and death is the greatest enemy of all! The sooner the girl realizes this, the better. 

Besides, from the singer’s perspective, the girl will realize it eventually—when the worst thing happens to her. And the worst thing in the case of the song is the death of this unidentified man—perhaps her father—who obviously believed in Jesus, who “broke his back to earn his day of leisure”—who’s now dead. 

“Will she still believe it when he’s dead?” the singer cynically asks. The answer: “No… no, she won’t.” Whatever comforting Christian convictions, or principles, or—worse—platitudes she grew up with will come crashing down in the light of the harsh, cold reality of death. And when they come crashing down, well… she’ll realize that she needs to live for herself and not for others—and certainly not for God.

So the song is a cautionary tale: you’re going to die some day, too, dear listener… just like this man that the girl loved. Except… here’s the good news: it’s not too late for you to avoid the mistake that he made. You don’t have to end up like him; you don’t have to miss out on life the way he did! 

So… repent while there’s still time, the song says. Turn away from faith in God; turn to yourself; turn to pleasure; turn to getting as much out of life as you can while there’s still time.

That’s the gospel according to the Beatles, at least in 1965, or at least according to John Lennon in 1965. And this gospel promises a kind of freedom—certainly a freedom from all bourgeois cultural restraints, including, among other things, the freedom to enjoy sex and drugs without consequences—never mind that John Lennon himself, the song’s writer, struggled to kick a heroin habit throughout the 1970s, up until the very end of his life. And that for all his libertinism, Lennon found his deepest happiness living a life of relative domestic tranquillity in the late-’70s as a husband to Yoko and father to his young son Sean.

But please notice: the promised freedom of the Beatles’ gospel is not a freedom from the fear of death. In their gospel, as I’ve already indicated, death is the very worst thing that can he happen to you; it is our master; it is the one to whom, in the end, every knee should bow and every tongue should confess that it, death, is our lord.

So my question today is, which gospel do we believe? I mean, really believe. If someone could look into our hearts—and see our hopes, our fears, our allegiances—with which “gospel” is our life most closely aligned? I’m not suggesting that any of us is as openly hedonistic as John Lennon and the other Beatles in 1965—how could we be?—I mean, I know I’m mostly talking to an audience of people who, like me, are professing Christians. I know what we are supposed to believe; but I’m asking what do we actually believe?

Jesus said, 

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[2]

Is our treasure in Christ alone? And is he worth more to us than any treasure that this world can offer? And if so, do we live like we believe it?

Last month, I was deeply moved and inspired by a young woman, and her parents, who do believe that their treasure is not on this earth. The young woman—a 20-year-old named Maggie, a friend of my daughter’s—died last month after a long battle with cancer. Shortly before she died, as she lay unconscious in hospice care, her parents posted the following on their blog about their daughter’s imminent death:

And it is, after all, a transition. We’re walking her home as far as we’re allowed. Her faith is firm and secure. Her mansion is ready. Where would we be without the promises of God? Don’t find yourself on the brink of what the world would say is the worst thing to happen to a parent without a rock hard grip on the promises of His Word. Don’t. We know her healing is close. Closer than any treatment or surgery could ever bring her. Her healing will be complete. Her future secure. Had she found earthly relief from her cancer, each new day on this fallen earth would be full of different risks, pains, and sorrows. When our Father calls her home, she’ll escape the last pull of sin and its consequences. She’ll be free.

Amen! She is free now. She has escaped the last pull of sin and its consequences. 

Her parents rightly understand, in other words, that their daughter’s terminal illness and death—as with all death, as with the fact of death—is a consequence of sin; death is God’s judgment against sin. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And “the wages of sin is death.” And these parents concede that even their daughter—their precious daughter whose life was taken away at such a young age—also deserves death. She is no mere victim. She is also a sinner like the rest of us. That the rest of us, including her parents, continue to have life in this world is nothing but mercy and grace on God’s part; it’s not because the rest of us deserve life.

To say the least, these parents are not sentimental about their daughter’s death. They are realistic.

They say, “We’re walking her home as far as we’re allowed.” As far as they’re allowed. God, in other words, is sovereign over this process of their daughter’s life and death. Whereas death may be unexpected to us, it’s never unexpected to God. Listen to Psalm 139:16: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Therefore, before any of us is conceived in the womb—and by extension, before time existed, for all eternity—God knows exactly how long each of us will live; he knows how we will die; and in his wisdom he at least allows death to happen in the way that it happens—for dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of reasons, the vast majority of which we may never understand on this side of eternity, but God does know, and we can trust that God knows best. As Paul says in Ephesians, God works “all things according to the counsel of his will.”[3]

You may object to this high view of God’s sovereignty—some Christians do—but how can it be otherwise? “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them,” Jesus says, “will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”[4] If the life and death of even a humble, seemingly insignificant creature like a sparrow matters to our Father, Jesus implies, how much more does your own life and death matter to him? 

Indeed, the Bible describes death as an appointment that we have to keep—“just as it is appointed for man to die once,” Hebrews 9:27—and we have to keep this appointment whether we’re ready or willing to keep it or not. Listen to what the apostle James says in James 4: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’… Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’”[5] We continue to have life, James says, so long as the Lord wills. The apostle is speaking, therefore, against our tendency to presume upon the gift of life that God gives us. 

Because make no mistake: God’s Word is clear: life is nothing but a sheer gift from God—every breath we take is a gift; every heartbeat is a gift. We are not entitled to the next breath or the next heartbeat. Therefore when God takes this gift of life away from us—which he will do sooner or later—on what basis can any of us rightly complain—aside from presumptuousness? 

Jesus himself speaks against this kind of presumptuousness in the Parable of the Rich Fool:

The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And he said, “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.[6]

Did you hear that? “This night your soul is required of you.” For all we know, the man died of a heart attack—from perfectly natural causes—yet, God tells him, his soul was required. Required by whom? By God himself.

Death was an unwelcome intruder for this man for one reason only: his treasure was in earthly things rather than God. Don’t be like him, Jesus warns!

Is it not clear? Have I not made my point? 

Life is nothing but pure gift, for however long God chooses to give it to us. Death, even what we perceive as premature or untimely death, is only tragic for those who fail to love and fear the One who gives us this gift, and to live our lives accordingly—which includes, of course, availing ourselves of the gift of eternal life that’s available through Christ. Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[7] Apart from Christ, we are bound for hell, which ought to make us afraid; but in Christ… we have nothing to fear in dying; because we gain everything and lose nothing—nothing of real value, at least.

This was Paul’s point in Philippians 3:7-8: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”

In order hat I may gain Christ. Christ is Paul’s one and only treasure. Everything else—even the treasures that the world values most highly—is rubbish by comparison. Paul was speaking here of his present life in this world. But what happens when we die? Only this: we lose that which in comparison to Christ is rubbish. Garbage. But do we lose Christ? Hardly! In fact, we get more of Christ! More of him than we can possibly experience on this side of death! This is why, in that same letter, Paul says, “To live is Christ and to die is”—what? Gain. “To die is gain.” Philippians 1:21. Paul writes these words as he’s facing possible execution, in prison, and he doesn’t know whether he’ll live or die. Yet it’s no exaggeration—it’s no denial of death—to say that in that first chapter of Philippians Paul is torn, not between life and death, but life and more life. And he tells us which he would prefer, if he had his choice: more life. He would prefer to die. Not because he’s suicidal. Not because he has a death wish. But because he knows where his treasure is, and that’s where he longs to be.

Shouldn’t this be true for all of us Christians? 

Therefore, getting back to that blog post from Maggie’s parents, Maggie’s imminent death was only a transition, as they said… not from life to death, but from life… to more life.

I wish John Lennon understood this before he wrote the words to this song. He asked, “Will she still believe it when he’s dead?” Who knows? Maybe if she’s like Maggie’s parents, she’ll believe it more than ever! Maggie’s parents, after all, are mocking the sentiments of this Beatles song—and I praise God for their witness. Like those early Christian martyrs of the first few centuries, death does not scare them. For example, in the “Letter to Diognetus,” from the second century, the letter writer is writing to a man, Diognetus, who wants to know more about these strange people known as Christians. He writes, “You seek to determine what God they trust in and what type of religion they observe that allows them to look down upon the world and to despise death.” The early Christians despised death, the writer says, which doesn’t mean that they hated death; rather, they didn’t respect death; they had no fear of it. If you don’t respect or fear death, how could any king or emperor manipulate or control you by exploiting that fear? So these early Christians were truly free men and women.

Maggie’s parents, like Maggie herself, are those kinds of Christians. 

I want to be that kind of Christian. Don’t you? 

Do you know that great Beach Boys song from Pet Sounds called “God Only Knows”? It’s a love song. In it the singer says to his beloved, “If you should ever leave me/ Though life would still go on, believe me/ This world could show nothing to me/ So what good would living do me?”

That’s romantic! In comparison to what the singer has experienced in the woman he loves,“the world could show nothing to me.” There’s nothing else in this world that he needs. Nothing else in this world comes close to her. So without her, “What good would living do me?” He has nothing to gain from this world; whatever it offers is rubbish in comparison to this woman he loves. He counts it all loss in comparison to… the one he loves.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? See Philippians 3.

Granted, Carl Wilson, the singer of “God Only Knows,” is talking about merely human love. But how much more true would it be of Christ’s love or our love for Christ? Think about it: If we have Christ right now; and Christ is our only treasure; and when we die, far from losing this treasure, we gain so much more of it; then the world literally has nothing else to show us. It has nothing that we need and nothing that we need to be afraid of losing. “So what good would living do me”—at least living on this side of heaven.

There’s a prayer in the Service of Death and Resurrection in our United Methodist Book of Worship that includes this petition: “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.” How do we live that way? As in the Beach Boys song, we start by falling in love… Falling in love with Jesus! Or falling back in love with Jesus! By letting him be our only treasure! 

Please, God, make it so for me—and everyone else who needs to hear this. Let us all heed the appeal of Maggie’s parents: “Don’t find yourself on the brink of what the world would say is the worst thing to happen… without a firm grip on the promises of His Word. Don’t.”

Amen.

1. Matthew 16:24-25 ESV

2. Matthew 6:19-21 ESV

3. Ephesians 1:11 ESV

4. Matthew 10:29-31 ESV

5. James 4:13, 15 ESV

6. Luke 12:16-21 ESV

7. Matthew 10:28 ESV

4 Responses to “Devotional Podcast #29: “Death & the Gospel According to the Beatles””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    Being a Christian doesn’t mean forsaking happiness in this life. To the contrary, because this life is a gift from God, God wants for us to be happy and to enjoy it fully. We just need to remember that it’s not our final destination nor our primary purpose for being. I love my life. I love my friends and family. But, I also know that it’s all “on loan from God”. Now that I am in the final stretch of my own life I see how precious every moment we have here is. But, when I breathe my last earthly breath, it will only mark the beginning of a eternity of even greater joy. I cannot even imagine how that will be, but I certainly look forward to it with the confidence that I know to whom I belong.

    Some don’t like the Book of Ecclesiastes, but I really believe that it dives deeply into all of this and comes to the only conclusion that makes sense.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Grant, I generally agree that “God gives us all things richly to enjoy.” At the same time, though, Jesus was, according to Isaiah, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” And look at Paul, who says, “If in this life only we have hope in Jesus, we are of all men most miserable.” So I think my “doctrine of competing principles” applies–life is generally good, but against that is the fact that we sometimes have to give up “the good of the moment” in light of the much greater “good” that comes from self-sacrifice when God calls for it, or which we may suffer for living for God, for the purpose of a greater eternal reward. So we must not be like the ungodly Esau, who for a bowl of stew sold his birthright. Rather, “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame.”

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    Sure. I agree. But, I also think that the best Christians are “Happy Warriors”. Spread the good news with joy and suffer life’s slings and arrows in the knowledge that God has a wonderful plan for you. That’s being inspirational instead of playing the victim. “A time to weep; A time to laugh”, right.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      I also generally agree about the “good attitude” we should be displaying when times are tough. I confess to not always demonstrating that.


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