What, if you could have only one word, would you want on your tombstone?
This “Ask RC” goes back twenty years. It was asked of me by my friend and co-laborer Laurence Windham. Laurence has a preternatural gift of asking what he calls “diagnostic questions,” questions that slip into ordinary conversation that end up, before we know what has happened, exposing our souls. I, having known Laurence for some time, had learned to be on my guard when he asked it. I took a minute or two to think it through and answered this way—“I know what I would want on my tombstone, but I also know what I ought to want on my tombstone.” He gave me liberty to give both. “Well, I said, “were I completely honest, when I consider the kind of reputation I long to have, my answer would be this—I’d like my tombstone to say this of me, ‘Courageous.’ But, a good portion of that desire is born out of my pride. Looking at the question objectively, what I ought to want on my tombstone is this, ‘Righteous.’”
The great thing about Laurence’s diagnostic questions, the real power comes in the hard reality that we’re not on our guard, and we don’t have much time to come up with a pious answer. Instead we usually give an honest one. The second great thing is that they really do get to the heart of the matter, our own hearts. These kinds of questions, however, if we do allow them to percolate, have the potential over time to change our hearts. They reveal our sin in the short term, giving us time to repent and believe in the long term.
Which brings me to my current answer. I still love and long for courage, love and long for righteousness. As time goes on however I come to know more and more how much I fall short. And thus my current answer would be this—repentant. If I could be known for one thing, to friends, family, and even to the broader world, I pray it would be that I am a repentant man. When I die I pray that those who speak good words about me at my funeral would have just this to say about me, “He was a man who was quick, and deep to repent.”
Given that the first time I was asked this Laurence gave me wiggle room to give two answers, one more honest, the other more pious, I want again to plead for a second answer. Right under repentant I would hope I could have another descriptive for my life—grateful. The good news isn’t merely that His Spirit gives us the power to repent, but that if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Repentance is that which brings us to forgiveness, to adoption, which ought, of course, to lead us to gratitude. I don’t repent with a vague hope that I might somehow be forgiven. I repent in the joyous certainty of this faithful and true saying, that Christ came into this world to save sinners, of which I am chief.
My prayer is that insofar as I am remembered in my death, it will be for that which defines my life. I’m a sinner, saved by grace.