Death as a Compass for Life

Re-posted from August 31, 2021

Recently, I have been asking myself a question: “What percent of my life have I finished?” Am I 35% done? Am I 90% done? There is no way to know how many of my allotted days on earth I’ve completed; but the question still bothers me. Do I have a long way to go or is death close at hand? At most, I could have more than 20,000 days remaining (about 60 years), but what if my days are in the thousands or hundreds? What if I don’t make it to my 90’s, or my 50’s?

Lately, death has been on my mind more than usual. Not in a morbid, joy-killing sort of way. I am incredibly grateful for the life I’ve lived. I look into the faces of my kids each morning, and, when I’m not distracted by the spilled goldfish, I behold them with indescribable thankfulness – these are my precious children. I look back at one of my favorite photos from my and Genae’s wedding, a black-and-white picture where we are both next to a lighthouse and I am staring enraptured into her eyes, and I rejoice – I would do it all again, even the hard seasons. I have led a blessed life, full of family, friends, and Jesus. I want to live many more years, but, if I don’t, I am still so grateful for what I’ve had.

Death has been on my mind, in part, because a little over a month ago my dear sweet mother left this life to be with Jesus. Just a couple of years ago we took it for granted that we would have her for decades, but we didn’t know that her days were few. Even more recently, several of our healthy young friends have faced unexpected diagnoses that shake the firm foundation of youthful immortality. At my work in the Emergency Room, the nearness of death has come into sharper focus. I recently cared for a young mother, not even in her forties, dying of metastatic breast cancer.

There is a problem: talking about death is not popular in our culture. We hide death and we hide from death. To contemplate death is taboo. Whenever our mind wanders to death, we try to shake the thoughts out of our head like awakening from a bad dream. When is the last time you had a real conversation about death? When was the last time you thought about your own death? Death is one of the few certainties of life, but one that we don’t like to talk or think about.

It was not always this way, though. In his book, “On Death”, Timothy Keller points out that in colonial days, families lost on average one out of every three children before adulthood. In 1787, the average lifespan was 38. The specter of death was apparent. Death was not a hidden future reality, it was a present companion.

Thus one question, in particular, has been repeatedly coming into my mind: “How would I live today if I knew that I was already through 90% of my life?” What would I change about my job, my relationships, and my focus if I reckoned with the possibility of a shorter life than I’ve expected? I once heard it said that, at the end of life, people wish they had done more of three things: reflect more, risk more, and do more things that outlast them.

Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Could it be that in forsaking all thoughts of death we have departed from the path of wisdom? When I number my days a few things happen. First, I don’t put-off the things that matter most. I stop saying, “One day when these conditions are met I will finally…” Second, I become more grateful for each day of life. Even the hard days are still a gift. Third, I am more willing to incur risk. Safety is not an ultimate priority when our days are numbered no matter what. I think of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:25, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” Numbering our days takes the enemy called death and employs him for good. Contemplating death serves as a compass for life. I think of Stephen Covey’s wise guidance: “Begin with the end in mind and put first things first.”

As Timothy Keller points out, the secular mind pales before the face of death: “Religion gave people tools to help in facing our most formidable foe, and modern secularism has not come up with anything to compensate for its loss.” But the Christian, though grieved by the intrusion of death, experiences a grief shot-through with hope. “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

How then, would your life change, if you knew you were at 90% instead of 30%?

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Samaritan’s Purse or World Medical Mission. Photos from patients are used with their or their parent’s permission. Names are often changed for the sake of privacy.

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