“Death is very likely the single best invention of life.”
We don’t know what Steve Jobs’ final words were. But after his recent passing, the world was quickly acquainted with his commencement speech at Stanford, in which he transparently described his own diagnosis of cancer and the place death had in his thinking. “Remembering that you are going to die,” he told students, “is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Jobs knew in a way that I do not the difference between facing death as a “purely intellectual construct” and the unflinching, unyielding reality of the impending end of one’s own life. Yet despite the difference, over the past decade I have often taken seasons of my life to reflect on my demise, to remember that my relatively healthy body, having now been in the world for some 29 years, will someday return to the dust from which we have all been made.
There was that time, for instance, that I turned 25 and went through what I called a “third-life crisis.” I joked about it publicly, but the struggle was no less real for it. I spent the early mornings examining where I had gripped the world, afraid to lose it even though it would never be mine. “What does a man profit if he gains the world but loses his soul?” Reflecting on my mortality brought the question into sharp relief.
There is a unique glory, a special bloom that happens in the prime of youth. The body is full of life and the future full of possibilities. All death is tragic, but we mourn the death of a youth differently, feeling the extra weight of the lost future. But the irony is that youthfulness is only preserved by letting it go, by recognizing that the moment we turn our youth into an idol we begin to grow old. In a fallen world, the path to the eternal youth of God necessarily leads through the cross.
There is an easy reductionism when we begin thinking about our mortality, a reductionism that those of us who haven’t yet been faced with the reality of death often fall into. The brevity of each passing moment is reduced to a cliché, and subsequently scribbled on the yearbook. “Live every day like it’s your last, man.” Right. And we’ll be friends forever and ever. And yes, I did it too.
The clichés around death and time are (ironically) nearly innumerable, though none is more popular these days than the notion that our time is the most “precious asset we have.” Steve Jobs sounded a similar note in his speech, reminding us that our “time is limited.” The shadow of death takes many forms, and these days the persistent reminders of the brevity of time are its most visible.
Yet there are few more pernicious lies, few more ways of trapping people in the slavish striving of endless work, than the idea that our time is fleeting, that the moments that glide into the past are beyond the boundaries of redemption. It feeds us the bread of anxious toil, prompting us to rise early and return late in our manic pursuit of meaning. Goaded on by the incessant, hollowed drumbeat that our time is running out, leisure is reduced to a decadent luxury, something only suited to the class of those whose fortunes have bought their legacies. For the rest of us, there is only the striving. It was Alan Jacobs who pointed it out, but it’s easy to forget that the price we will pay to become Steve Jobs is high.
And yet: “Of all things, time is the cheapest.” It was George MacDonald who said it, and MacDonald was a man who knew things. As Christians, we believe death is not the end, but only the moment of silence before the new beginning. And in the providence of God—which is the only place things can be—that new beginning has no end.
As Christians, we reflect on our mortality not to teach us of the preciousness of time, but to be confronted by the brokenness of the world and the heaviness of God’s wrath. “Teach me,” the Psalmist writes, “to number my days, that I may get a heart of wisdom.” But how different his counting than our own: “For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.” Death may be, as Steve Jobs put it, “life’s greatest change agent.” But it was never an “invention of life.” It is a disruption, a tragic tearing of the fabric of creation, a power to be defeated by the deeper magic of God. As we reflect on our mortality, we stare at the judgment of God in order to see therein the mercy of God, for both are at work in the death of Christ. And it is in Christ’s death and resurrection where our own lives find their meaning and permanence, not in the (un)natural counting of our days.
Moses gets around to something similar in Psalm 90, which has become something of a model for me for the seasons of reflection upon my death. The prayer opens by reminding us that it is the Lord who is our dwelling place, and that He is God “from everlasting to everlasting.” The permanence of God is contrasted with the fragility and transience of humanity, a fragility that is inextricable from our sin.
But the prayer culminates with a plea that God would return and show His work to His servants. Like all the works of God, this one would doubtlessly endure to eternity. The cry that closes the Psalm is not one of despair at the vanity of life, but one grounded in the optimistic confidence that the Lord who has been the Israelites’ dwelling place from generation to generation will not let them down now: “Let the favor of the Lord God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!”
The preciousness of our lives does not depend upon whether we live them for an hour or a hundred years, but upon the one who gives that life to us. All our work is as transient as our days, and only if the Lord establishes it will it remain until the end. But it is enough for us to say, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice, and be glad in it,” for all that the Lord makes is good. We should embrace G.K. Chesterton’s childlike wonder and take so much joy at the sun’s rising that we eagerly say, “Do it again!” But we will also work, not because we may die this day, but because our diligence is the grateful response to the recognition that our lives and time are not our own. And because as George MacDonald put it, “Those who are diligent will soon be cheerful.”
The contemplation of our mortality as Christians is not a morbid practice, where we muck about depressed at the thought of oblivion or feverishly strive to leave behind a legacy. Like the cross, it is a path to discovering hope, of learning to pray amidst the darkness, Come, Lord Jesus! We look at death not in isolation, but from the standpoint of the resurrection, knowing that while we must walk through the fires, they can no longer harm us. And yet we must learn to look, for only through considering our mortality will we learn the song of joy that the Apostle Paul could not keep in: “Oh death, where is thy victory? Oh grave, where is thy sting?”
Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why our Bodies Matter to our Faith. He writes at Mere Orthodoxy. You can disagree with him on Twitter.