One of my favorite book genres is the memoir. Because of its combination of good storytelling and sharp analysis of one’s life and experiences, the memoir, it’s the kind of book I find difficult to put down.
But one aspect of this book genre always seems to catch me off-guard: death. Inevitably, the memoirist, in recounting the whole of their life up to that point, will write about their childhood and the pivotal role that their parents or some other adult figure played in their development. And, undoubtedly, the author is forced to narrate that person’s process of aging and, often, their death. Despite my love for the genre, I can never escape the sadness that comes with this narrative. Death is the most unnatural thing in the world.
But here we are, living persistently under the shadow of this last enemy, waiting for it to strike. What are we to do? How are we to proceed? What kind of lives should our experience of mortality compel us to live? As counterintuitive as it may seem, death, by God’s grace, can be instructive for a life well-lived. Here are three ways to use for good what Satan meant for evil.
Reverend John Ames, the narrator and central character in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, said this in a letter to his young son: “Remembering my youth makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it.”
The same could be said of life as a whole; it just zips on by. The apostle James describes our lives as a vapor, here for a little while and then gone (James 4:14). The swiftness with which our lives pass is sort of disorienting, isn’t it? We go to bed as a youngster with dreams and grand aspirations before us, and one day wake up with the aches and pains of middle or old age. As the adage goes, “the days are long, and the years are short.” In the quick blink of an eye, life’s end comes uncomfortably near.
As unnatural and lamentable as death is, Moses, in his prayer in Psalm 90, provides instruction for how to think about the brevity of our lives. He prayed, “Teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.” Instead of shielding our eyes from the reality of death, as our culture is so keen on doing, Moses instructs us to stare death right in the face and “number our days.” Why? For the sake of “developing wisdom in our hearts.”
For the Christian, “numbering our days” begets wisdom. As Solomon said, “Happy is a man who finds wisdom . . . She (wisdom) is a tree of life to those who embrace her, and those who hold on to her are happy” (Prov. 3:13,18).
Looking ahead to our impending death also has a way of rooting us in the present and persuading us to enjoy the life we have been given. The fictional Reverend Ames has more to teach us: “Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”
Life is a wonderful thing, a gracious gift of God. Though death is unnatural, it is real, and its inevitability reorients us to the preciousness of our present life and the characters written into its script. How might we better enjoy the embrace of a spouse, or the laughter of a child, or the colors of a sunset if we recognize the fleeting nature of these moments?
Even in a sobering text like the book of Ecclesiastes, wherein life’s apparent futility seems like the book’s thesis, the Teacher repeatedly directs his reader to enjoy life: “eat your bread with pleasure, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart . . . Enjoy life with the wife you love all the days of your fleeting life” (Eccl.9:7,9). Or, in the words of Reverend Ames again, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
Remember death, not to the point of despair, but to widen your eyes to the gifts of God’s grace before you, and to their enjoyment.
For the Christian, remembering death is ultimately a reminder that despite the tragedy of it, death is a defeated foe. More than that, it will one day be rendered inoperable once it is “thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14). One day death will die.
Death’s plunge into the fiery lake, for Christians, means “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,” as the Apostle’s Creed states. The death of death means that life with God is eternally ongoing. So, to use Wendell Berry’s words, remembering death for the Christian is to “practice resurrection.”
Practicing resurrection means “storing up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20). It is to “proclaim Christ’s death” in the Lord’s Supper “until he comes again” and dines with us around his table (1 Cor. 11:26). Our baptism proclaims our hope — we were buried beneath the waters of death, only to be raised with Christ in the newness of resurrection life. Practicing resurrection means living the already/not yet ethic of the kingdom of God.
In an article titled “You Only Live Forever,” Russell Moore states, “Our lives now are an internship for the eschaton.” Therefore, practicing resurrection means living life today in view of the everlasting life to come, on the other side of death.
He went first
Life in this death-ridden “time between the times” is not easy to reckon with. In our most honest moments, most of us would confess that death remains a frightening reality. It is troubling to imagine the breath of life leaving our bodies. And all this talk about “practicing resurrection” would be a pitiful exercise if it were not for one thing: the resurrected one, Jesus Christ.
My former pastor liked to say that “the only thing unique about Jesus’ resurrection is that he went first.” His point was not to minimize Jesus’ miraculous return from the tomb of death but to highlight the fact that Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). If Jesus has not been raised, then all this talk about remembering death is in vain, and we are to be most pitied. But because Jesus has been raised, we can sing in the face of death, saying “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting” (1 Cor. 15:55)? And, moreover, we can approach the day of our death in faith, using it as a means of developing wisdom, as a reminder to enjoy God’s grace each day, and as an impetus to practice resurrection, to see this life as an internship for the life everlasting.
Death remains our enemy, this much is certain. But what Satan meant for evil, in his whisperings to Eve and in Christ’s agonized cries from the cross, God has turned for our good. The crucified and resurrected one has crushed the head of the serpent, and because “he went first,” our resurrection will soon follow. Death has been defeated, and that’s worth remembering in a way that transforms our lives today.