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The brevity of life

May 1995 | by Conrad Mbewe

When I was a child, I thought there were three types people in the world – the aged, the young adults and the children. Or to put it in my childish thought-pattern then – our grandparents, our parents and us. To my young mind, things were meant to remain that way for ever. But, of course, reality has since caught up with me. I am no longer making wire cars in the backyard, and I am fast growing past the age when young ladies look at me twice. I have even long given up pulling out the white beard that is fast besieging my chin. The way time flies these days, it rooks as if it will not tee long before I have a hoary head tottering to the grave.

Life is really brief. Yesterday you were planning your wedding; tomorrow you are planning the wedding of your child. It was only yesterday when your parents were all excited that you were being formed in your mother’s womb; tomorrow your friends will be mourning your demise as they return home from your grave-side. Yesterday, the world did not know that you would ever exist; tomorrow, the world will forget that you ever existed. How true are the words of Isaac Watts:

 

Time, like an ever rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away;

They fly forgotten as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

The brevity of life is a stubborn and undeniable fact. Often, we think about the uncertainty of life – the fact that any of us may die today or tomorrow – but life is not just uncertain, it is also very brief. Even if God were to allow you to live until you were one hundred years old, life would still be very, very brief. Job says, ‘Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He springs up like a flower and withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure … Man’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed. So look away from him and let him alone, till he has put in his time like a hired man’ (Job 14:1-6). Or, to borrow the words of Moses, the man of God, ‘The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away’ (Psalm 90:10).

Do you remember as a child your days were so long? You would go out to play until you were dog tired, but the day was still far from yielding to the night. That is no longer the case now! As you retire to bed each night, you feel as if it were only a few minutes ago that you were getting out of bed. I am sure that you have not infrequently wished that a day had forty eight hours. Days are no longer as long as they once were -at least, so it seems: ‘They quickly pass, and we fly away.’ The stubborn and undeniable fact, therefore, is that soon – and very, very soon – you and I will be dead and buried.

The fact of the brevity of life is a disturbingly perplexing fact. How do you feel about the fact that soon you will die, never more to tread the paths you have become so familiar with?

Listen to Job again: ‘At least there is hope for a tree; if it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail… But man dies and is laid low; he breathes his last and is no more’ (Job 14:7-10). How do you feel about that? Such thoughts can be quite unsettling. To realize that one day you will be as much part of history as the nameless skeletons being unearthed in archaeological sites can be quite perturbing. It causes you to ask, ‘What is life? Was I born just to pour a few cups of weary years of pain and trouble into the never ending river of human existence?’

When a person begins to ask himself such questions, then the fact of the brevity of life is beginning to have a maturing effect on him. A person who has not yet come to terms with the fact that he is making a brief and passing visit on planet Earth is still a child. He may be ten feet tall and weigh ten tons, but he is still a baby not yet ready to be weaned from his mother’s breast. Pity the person who thinks he is an adult, but lives as if he will never die. Such a person is not just childish, he is a fool – at least, that is what God called one of his kind in the Scriptures (Luke 12:20).

The realization that yours is a very, very brief life tends to have a very sobering effect on you. It smokes out those false notions that you are the primary purpose of human existence. As your semi-deliriousness comes to an end, you realize that life does not revolve around your comforts and your joys. If it did, then history would wind up the moment you breathed your last. But, as water soon covers up the place where some of it is scooped out, so will life normalize and go on very well even after you are dead and buried. Once the sentimental tears have dried up, it will be ‘business as usual’ . What a humbling and sobering thought!

Once your search for life’s meaning goes beyond your little life, you are left with one inescapable fact: life revolves around God! He alone is eternal – without beginning or end. Whereas you may live longer than a cockroach, the duration of your earthly sojourn pales into insignificance when placed side by side with him who is from everlasting to everlasting.

Moses captures this contrast when he prays, ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night’ (Psalm 90:1-4).

Life, then, is like a relay race. God is the team manager. He has put the team together as he sees best, and in his sovereign good pleasure has placed you in the third position. The race begins. For the first two runs, no one is thinking about you. Then, your turn comes and all eyes are on you as you snatch the baton from the second runnier and sprint with all your might towards the fourth runner. Finally, you hand over the baton and you are as good as forgotten by the spectators as their attention is now glued upon your successor. They do not notice the team manager who comes running to you, throws his arms around you in a warm hug, saying, ‘Well done! Well done!’ When the whole race is over and your team has won, the team manager gathers his whole team together and throws a party for you.

To change the illustration: life is like a stage play with many acts. God is the play director. He has put his team of actors together, and the play is now on. You are off-stage until Act 5 and your part only lasts until Act 8. Act 5 arrives and for the first time the audience sees you. For the next three acts you do your best to play your part according to the director’s instructions. The audience may want you on stage a little longer, but you reach Act 8 and you are ‘killed’. The play continues, and soon the audience forget about you as they are transfixed by the unfolding drama of the play. But what they do not know is that no sooner were you out of their sight than the director threw his arms around you in a warm embrace, whispering, ‘Well done! Well done!’ When the whole play is over, he gets the whole team together and throws a party for you.

From these two illustrations, as imperfect as they might be, we can at least see two truths. Firstly, although life is brief, it can have meaning and be fulfilling. The stage actor may not be before the public eye throughout the duration of the play, but he finds his brief participation very meaningful and fulfilling. In the same way, the fact that your life does not span from the patriarchs, through the prophets and the apostles, to the present day, does not make it meaningless. No! You can be very fulfilled even though your role ‘on stage’ only occupies half a century in a ‘play’ that is forty centuries long.

Secondly, and most importantly, meaning and fulfilment f or your brief earthly life can only be found as you seek to obey, love and serve God. I cannot see it otherwise. A life lived without reference to God is as senseless as a runner in a relay race who; upon getting the baton, goes off to see his girlfriend. Yes, to live your life outside the context of the worship of God is as ridiculous as an actor who is supposed to be Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar but who, upon getting on stage, decides to be Mark Anthony. Such a runner or actor not only spoils everything, but he also deserves to get the boot!

On the other hand, when ‘whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, [you] do it all for the glory of God’ (I Corinthians 10:31), you find meaning and fulfilment in life that far exceeds the runner on the field or the actor on the stage. Oh, the peace and joy that floods the soul of a Christian who knows he is doing what God wants him to do! No wonder Paul could exclaim, ‘I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace’ (Acts 20:24).

In this way, when your brief earthly life comes to an end, you do not begrudge God for not adding an extra century to your short sojourn on this planet; rather, you feel privileged that your life counted towards the building of God’s eternal kingdom. As you pass on the baton to the next generation, you can say with Paul, ‘The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day’ (2 Timothy 4:6-8). Yes, as you breathe your last and people wail over your death, you will only be going backstage where God will give you a warm embrace, saying, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’