Henri Nouwen, I believe, once said that we live in the myth of immortality. What I took from that was this: it feels as though what we’re doing today will go on forever. Logically, we know that’s not true, but it often seems that way. And it’s easy to live that way as well – as though the future will stretch on, as it is now, forever.
About four months ago I found out that my mother is dying. The news came out of nowhere. She’s nearly 87, has mostly black hair, and was spry for her age – constantly helping babysit or tending to the needs of others. Then she started losing weight for no apparent reason. X-rays were taken, and cancer spots turned up. Additional tests showed that the cancer had metasized all over her body. All this had happened surreptitiously, during apparently good health and little pain. Now she’s aging visibly and, unless something changes, will probably be gone within the year (she has died since this article was written).
It’s a brutal reminder that life is short. Even what we call a “long life”, say one hundred years old, is still short, in light of human history, and especially from the perspective of eternity. We’re here. We’re gone. “But I was just talking with him yesterday,” we say, “And now he’s not here anymore.” Psalm 103 puts it picturesquely:
15 As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
What can we learn from the brevity of life?
1. We learn that our lives are a gift
We didn’t ask to be born and we don’t choose life’s length. Our span of time here is given to us by the Creator. It comes and leaves at His choosing. Hebrews 9:27 refers to death as God’s “appointment”. He determines life’s duration – which leads to the next point:
2. We learn that the length of our lives is unpredictable
I anticipate, given my family history and good health, that I’ll be around at least twenty more years. In actuality, I may be gone this afternoon. I’m one car wreck away from the casket. Even babies sometimes die. In Luke 12, Jesus speaks a parable about a rich man who gloats about his future luxury. Unfortunately, to quote, 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.”
3. We learn that the opportunities offered by our lives are limited
When the buzzer sounds, the game is over. “Someday” disappears. Whatever we’re going to accomplish is now accomplished. No more second chances or start-overs. No “mulligans”. The only time we have for sure is right now.
It seems crazy, but it’s easy to forget these truths. Despite the fact that we’ve witnessed death’s visit so often, despite the fact that we can sometimes see it just down the road, death still usually leaves us with a bit of a shock. How can someone be here today, and then suddenly be gone? This leads to our second question:
Why is it helpful to remember that life is short?
1. Remembering life’s shortness helps me to take many things less seriously
Do you recall all those concerns that kept you up at night; or those worries which dogged you during the day? Most of them won’t matter after you die. This is not to say that we should shirk our normal responsibilities, or not care about others, it’s just a way of keeping everything in perspective. In light of the big picture, most situations aren’t as big a deal as they seem at the moment. Who cares a hundred years from now, for example, whether or not I had a “successful” career? Who even remembers?
2. Remembering life’s shortness helps me set better priorities
When all is said and done what would you most like to have accomplished? We can’t have it all; not even close. What’s more important – a bigger house or a better marriage, a healthier bank account or a life lived with integrity? And, to put it even more pointedly – which matters more – people or things? Our relationships are the true riches of life, not the stuff we own. We can’t take stuff with us anyway.
3. Remembering life’s shortness teaches me to value each moment
Right now you’re alive. Right now you’re able to be with those you love, to accomplish work, to watch a sunset. This particular moment will come, abruptly disappear, and never return again. What a gift it is to learn to live in the now. Enjoy it for what it is; learn from it what you can. Don’t be constantly looking behind or ahead. Be here. Now. Tomorrow will come soon enough.
4. Remembering life’s shortness gives me more endurance and patience
Whatever you’re facing, if it’s tough, will not last forever. There’s always an end in sight even though, at the moment, that doesn’t seem possible. If what you’re facing can’t be changed, or shouldn’t be, you can live with it a little longer (although a day can seem like an age). And often, even in this life, things do get better; we walk out of a dark periods into lighter ones if we hang on long enough.
5. Remembering life’s shortness teaches me to think past this life
The truth that I’ve been avoiding is that life really isn’t short. Oh, our earthly bodies decay, but the animating part of our being, once it comes into existence, lives on forever. It doesn’t just evaporate when our lungs shut down. The Bible teaches eternal existence; just in a different state. Which leads to our last and most important observation:
6. Remembering life’s shortness reminds me of my accountability to God
I may lose some of you at this point. Perhaps you don’t believe in God, or at least not the God of the Bible. That’s your choice. No one is forced to believe in God or in His ways as taught in Scripture. In fact, the observations given above really won’t mean much a thousand years from now if God does not exist as the Scriptures describe Him. Yes, they will help you be a bit happier and easier to live with for a few short years, but that’s all. On the other hand, if God does exist, your life here matters a great deal. If you ignore Him, in the end, you will find yourself separated from God for eternity. Do you want that? God is the source of everything truly good in this universe. He is love and light and hope. He cares more about you than you can imagine; which is one reason He’s chosen not to force Himself on you. He got a great eternity planned for you.
But Jesus was sent to live, die, and rise again on behalf of our brokenness and sin. He came so that you and I could say “yes” to God, be forgiven, and become part of His family forever. That’s what He prefers for you. If you haven’t done that, will you repent of your sins and reach to Him today? You might even meet my mom there. Or yours.