A pastor in my denomination died this month. He preached on Sunday, August 28. He became sick the next Sunday, and passed away on Wednesday, September 14 at the age of 57.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this pastor. I’m grateful for his life and ministry. I’m also grateful for the reminder that our lives are shorter than we think. It’s another reminder of the value of numbering our days.
We Will Die
Scripture repeatedly warns us of the brevity of life.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
…yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. (James 4:14)
O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
Mike Wittmer, who’s written an excellent book on death, says:
You are going to die. Take a moment to let that sink in. You are going to die. One morning the sun will rise and you won’t see it. Birds will greet the dawn and you won’t hear them. Friends and family will gather to celebrate your life, and after you’re buried they’ll return to the church for ham and scalloped potatoes. Soon your job and favorite chair and spot on the team will be filled by someone else. The rest of the world may pause to remember— it will give you a moment of silence if you were rich or well known— but then it will carry on as it did before you arrived. “There is no remembrance of men of old,” observed Solomon, “and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow” (Ecclesiastes 1: 11).
You are going to die. What a crushing, desperate thought. But unless you swallow hard and embrace it, you are not prepared to live.
When Matt Chandler fell ill, his doctor told him, “Nothing’s really changed for you— you just get to be aware that you’re mortal. Everybody is, but they’re just not aware of it. The gift that God’s given you is that you get to be aware of your mortality.”
We need these reminders, because we quickly forget. When we forget that we’ll die, we forget how to live.
Steve Jobs, who was anything but a Christian theologian, was right about death:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Death gives perspective. It reminds us to focus less on the things that don’t matter, and more on the things we do. Death gives us the perspective that we desperately need.
Hope Despite Death
If death was the end, we’d have no hope. But death isn’t the end. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve lost access to the tree of life. In Revelation, God banishes death. “ He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). We’ll again have access to “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2).
John Wesley used to say, “Methodists die well.” I hope it’s not just Methodists. When we grasp the brevity of life, the certainty of death, and the hope we have beyond death, we’ll be prepared to die well too. “All death can do to the Christian is make their lives infinitely better,” says Tim Keller.
I’ve been known to cram for the odd exam. Death is the final and most important exam, and I don’t intend to prepare for it at the last minute. The way to prepare for death is think of death while we live, so that when we die we think not of death but of Jesus. Jesus destroyed death. Our only hope is the one who has already faced and conquered death on our behalf.
Living in Light of Death
When I preached yesterday, I preached with the realization that it could be my last sermon. I preached, as Richard Baxter said, as a dying man to dying men.
When I do my work, I try to do it in light of the brevity of life. “Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live,” said Richard Baxter. We’ve been given a job to do, and time is short.
When I look at my wife, I remind myself that we have, as John Piper said, a momentary marriage. “It is a momentary gift. It may last a lifetime, or it may be snatched away on the honeymoon. Either way, it is short,” he writes. This makes me treasure this gift even more carefully.
Mostly, it makes me look to the one who conquered death. I want to learn to look to Jesus, so that when I face my final test, my eyes won’t be on death but on him.
Do you believe that Jesus swam the sea of death, scattered “the king of terrors” (Job 18: 14), and has now returned for you? Then climb on His back, and He will carry you. Here comes the fight of your life. Prepare to win.
It’s only when we understand death that we’re really prepared to live.