Some of the most significant conversations our family has had took place in a neuro ICU.
Last year, my brother received a cancer diagnosis that laid him in a bed we knew could be his last. I treasure the memory of him holding my hand and reminding me how much he loves me, telling me why he is proud of me, and encouraging me to continue loving God and people with my life. I remember my sister walking away from her own conversation with him in tears because of how much his words meant to her too.
Potentially terminal news, for all its unspeakable sorrow, has a way of prioritizing what we want to say most to those around us while we still have the chance. Some of us will be given time in life’s lingering twilight to relay these crucial messages. But some of us won’t. Death can suddenly snatch away, leaving no opportunity to choose our final words.
So, if today turned out to be our final day on earth, what would we not want left unsaid? If we had our own deathbed moments with those we love, holding their hands and looking into their eyes, what would we want to be sure they knew? And what’s stopping us from speaking those words today while we still have the time?
Affirm Your Love
Given that love is the sum of God’s commandments (Matthew 22:36–40), the greatest of all virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13), and the distinguishing mark of Jesus’s disciples (John 13:35), do the people we love most know how much we do? Do family members know our love for them is more than an obligatory love because they are related to us? Do friends, neighbors, coworkers, and church members know we don’t just appreciate and respect them but love them?
“Some of us will be given time in life’s lingering twilight to relay these crucial messages. But some of us won’t.”
Love isn’t merely a matter of words, of course. By grace, we demonstrate our love for others in deeds and not only in speech as we lay down our lives for their best interests (1 John 3:18; John 15:13; Philippians 2:4). In this way, we imitate God, who proved his love through Christ’s death on our behalf (Romans 5:8). But God has not been slow to communicate his love through the words of Scripture as well (Deuteronomy 7:7–8; Jeremiah 31:3; Malachi 1:2), and we can imitate him by likewise speaking our love — just as Paul often expressed love for fellow Christians and commanded them to do likewise (Romans 16:3–16; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; Philippians 1:8).
If God deemed it worthwhile to repeatedly declare his love for us, those around us may long to hear us speak our love for them too — and not only as a thoughtless instinct, but in deeply sincere moments, perhaps holding their hand, looking them in the eye, and assuring them of what they mean to us, as my brother did for me.
Voice Your Encouragement
God’s love is both broad enough to encompass the world and personal enough to enfold each person he created. He knit us together individually (Psalm 139:13). He sees us uniquely, having equipped each of his people with specific spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:11). He bends low to restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish us (1 Peter 5:10), daily bearing us up (Psalm 68:19), affirming our purpose and value in his kingdom. And he has called us to encourage one another in return (Hebrews 10:25; 1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Have we commended the talents and contributions of those we love with such thoughtful, specific care? Do our mentors know we have applied the wisdom God imparted to us through them to set priorities and make decisions? Have we affirmed the spiritual gifts we perceive to be at work in our friends? Do our siblings realize we have looked to them as godly examples of obedience, humility, or perseverance? Have those we invest in heard us express confidence that God will bring to completion the good work he started in them (Philippians 1:6)?
Everyone we know, in all kinds of circumstances, encounters great troubles. Everyone we know could therefore stand to be encouraged with heartfelt affirmation — not only in a brief moment at the end of our lives, but all along the way. So if we have any words of encouragement for people, let’s speak them (Acts 13:15).
Give (or Request) Your Forgiveness
God works for good what the enemy means for evil, even in death (Genesis 50:20). He does so, in part, by using the brevity of life to expose the futility and triviality of long-held grudges. I have seen diagnoses and critical medical conditions compel people to extend or ask for forgiveness as they realize they should have done so years earlier. Learning from their regrets convicts me to avoid years of unnecessarily delayed reconciliation by extending or requesting that grace today too.
What wrongs have we committed against others for which we’ve never apologized? What guilt do we need to acknowledge for wounds we inflicted by careless words, corrupt motives, or selfish actions? And what healing might be ushered in by finally confessing these sins (James 5:16)?
Likewise, compared to all that God has forgiven us in Christ, and in light of our utter dependence on his mercy as we prepare to stand in judgment before his throne, what right do we have to withhold forgiveness (Colossians 3:13)? Even more severely, how might our own forgiveness be jeopardized by doing so (Matthew 6:15)? If love keeps no record of wrongs, we offer a great proof of love in our forgiveness (1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV).
Impart Important Lessons
Ecclesiastes concludes with the final teaching that our whole duty is to “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). Jesus’s Great Commission is especially significant as his final instruction on earth (Matthew 28:18–20). And I eagerly welcome summarizing conclusions of wisdom from those I esteem as they reflect on life lessons and experiences.
These instructions can be powerful in life’s final days, like a fictional character’s final advice in a climactic death scene. But I want these weighty words to be intentionally imparted (and displayed) all throughout my life too.
Do our unbelieving friends and family know that our greatest desires for their lives are God’s greatest desires for their lives? Have we encouraged them to begin with the fear of the Lord as their trusted source of wisdom, even as it contradicts the wisdom of the world? Have we humbly shared lessons learned from our mistakes in hopes that others avoid the same downfalls? Have our children heard (and seen) us prioritize heavenly treasures over temporary earthly rewards with such confidence and joy that they are compelled to do the same?
Thinking through the final advice we would give on our deathbeds may actually reveal the instruction those around us most need to hear and heed today.
Don’t Save It for Later
By God’s grace, my brother is currently doing well and continuing to recover and heal. Also by God’s grace, the timing and circumstances of his sickness allowed opportunities for those conversations throughout his process of treatments, surgeries, and recovery. But as God teaches me to number my days (Psalm 90:12), his wisdom regularly reminds me that my life will vanish as quickly as a vapor (James 4:14), and that I don’t know how much time I have left to speak. I don’t know how much time others have left to listen either.
“Each day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ let’s speak the words that matter most.”
It may be easy to lose sight of this when we are in the vibrancy of life, when those closest to us seem healthy, and when our road ahead seems to stretch as far as we can see. But every time I hear of a grave diagnosis, an unexpected accident, or a sudden loss, I remind myself that death promises no forewarning before making its claims. We are not guaranteed final bedside moments (or even tomorrow) to say what ought to be said.
So each day, as long as it is called “today,” let’s speak the words of love, encouragement, forgiveness, and instruction that matter most (Hebrews 3:13). Let’s not save them for our deathbed.