2 Wrong (And 1 Right) Response When Confronted with the Shortness of Life

Not long ago, I celebrated another birthday. It was a chance, as it is for many, to not only celebrate, but to also contemplate. I had a great sense of gratitude when I thought about our family, our station in life, and the faithfulness of the Lord inside it all. But I also had a tinge of something else – it’s a “something else” that has been growing louder and louder during these moments of introspection as the years continue to go by. It’s the sense that time is short.

Maybe it’s because we are moving into a new stage with kids going off to college; or maybe it’s just the realization that I’m probably at least halfway done on the earth. For whatever the reason, time just feels short. And in light of that, I’ve spent a lot of time reading, and reading again, the Bible’s reflection on the brevity of life contained in Psalm 90:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
    or you brought forth the whole world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn people back to dust,
    saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
    are like a day that has just gone by,
    or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
    they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
    but by evening it is dry and withered.

We are consumed by your anger
    and terrified by your indignation.
You have set our iniquities before you,
    our secret sins in the light of your presence.
All our days pass away under your wrath;
    we finish our years with a moan.
Our days may come to seventy years,
    or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
    for they quickly pass, and we fly away (Psalm 90:1-10).

Moses, who wrote this psalm, clearly had done some reflecting of his own. He got it; life is short. It’s a breath. It’s like the morning grass that is only here for one day. It’s a vapor that is here one moment and gone the next.

That’s not morbid; it’s reality. No matter how much we, as a society, try to extend life, it’s an empty pursuit. Indeed, part of growing older is not running from that fact, but instead embracing it. But embracing it to what end? It seems to me that there are a couple of different ditches we might fall into when confronted with the reality of life’s shortness, both of them wrong in their own way.

1. Laziness.

Ditch number one is laziness. It’s fatalism. It’s a “why should I put forth any effort at all given the time I have” kind of attitude. And frankly, it’s easy to fall into that ditch because life is not only short; it’s hard. Moses knew that, too, and acknowledged that in our seventy or eighty years of being alive, even the best of those years are filled with hardship and difficulty. 

We know it from our own experience, as life often feels like it’s moving from one trouble to another; indeed, we sometimes divide our lives between sad and painful events, marking it into “before’s” and “after’s” of each one of those circumstances. So given all that, yes, it’s easy to simply bide our time, try and enjoy what we can, but not put forth too much effort.

2. Panic.

Ditch number two is on the other side, and it looks like panic. It’s a frenetic pace that aims to squeeze everything out of every moment because, again, life is short. There is no rest; there is no real enjoyment of life either; there is only one speed, and that’s full go.

And if we live in this ditch, when we get to the end of our lives, we look back on them with an ironic sense of regret. That’s because we will see that, despite our best efforts, so, so many things were left undone. 

Accepting the reality of the shortness of life should not lead us to either ditch, at least not if we are Christians. Instead, it should lead us to the same place that Moses prayed it would lead him:

Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).

This is the right way. This is the middle road. This is the end of not only knowing but accepting the very limited nature of life. It’s not laziness; it’s not panic. It’s wisdom. 

Wisdom to know the best way to spend our time. Wisdom in knowing our own limitations at doing so. Wisdom so as to be good and faithful stewards of our already numbered days. Wisdom so that we aren’t engaged in all kinds of foolish laziness or foolish panic. This is what a person of faith finds once they accept their own mortality.

May it be so for us as we continue to celebrate one birthday after another, that our wisdom is increasing as surely as the number of years we’ve been alive.

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