This article is part of the Open Letters series.
You’re young, healthy, and talented. Thank God for that.
You’re driven and ambitious, with big goals and a laser focus on what it will take to get you there. That can be good too. God can use that drive for his kingdom.
But be careful. You may have the wrong idea about what tomorrow will bring, and that could destroy the joy that’s available to you today.
From where you stand, tomorrow may seem like your best friend. You’ve been delaying a lot of gratification. You’ve made sacrifices large and small. You’ve invested so much time and energy, so much of yourself, in what you hope to enjoy down the road.
It’s easy to think about your life as a ladder you’re climbing rung by rung. Finish school. Pay off loans. Find a spouse and have some kids. Buy a home. Then buy a better one. Get tenure. Make partner. You could take it from here. You know what I mean.
When life feels like this to you, tomorrow is everything. It’s full of promise and possibility. Tomorrow is when you arrive.
The certainty of death doesn’t make the things you’re working toward unimportant.
Death puts tomorrow in another perspective entirely. Whatever else tomorrow may bring, it will certainly bring death. From that view, tomorrow is no friend. Tomorrow is my great enemy.
Death has an unmatched ability to reveal the flimsiness of the things we believe give substance to our lives. To borrow an image from Albert Camus, death exposes the things we love and trust with our lives as so many set pieces on a stage. From a distance, at a glance, that may look like a deep-rooted tree or a solid load-bearing wall. But walk off set and you see any substance is an illusion—an appearance of strength that only stands so long as it’s propped up. Death is the push of a finger or the gust of wind that topples them over one by one.
Camus’ warning echoes the perspective of Ecclesiastes, a book written by one who learned his lessons the hard way, so that the young wouldn’t have to. The author, who calls himself the Preacher, spent his life on a quest for something meaningful and lasting, some gain that would come into his life and not pass out of it. He accomplished or acquired or enjoyed pretty much everything he set out after. But looking back from the end of his life, he found it was “all vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:11).
The certainty of death doesn’t make the things you’re working toward unimportant. But it does put those things in a different perspective. They cannot give your life meaning. Whatever else they may be, they cannot do that.
I know this is harsh light. Looking into it hurts our eyes, no question. But this harsh light exposes some good news, news with the power to change how you go about pursuing all those goals for your future.
When your field of view is dominated by all the short-term possibilities, by all the what-ifs that may or may not be, your heart is like a greenhouse for stress and fear and envy and pride and a host of other motives that wear you down and steal your joy. Meanwhile, the promises of Jesus sound like they’re meant for someone else’s life. The fact is he doesn’t offer you that next rung you’re reaching for. If your attention and affection are set on that short-term tomorrow, it will be difficult to see how Jesus is relevant to your life today.
But when certainty of death puts those short-term possibilities in perspective, it clears a path for the promises of Jesus to take their proper place, dominating your field of view for today and for tomorrow.
Remember death so you can remember Jesus. Whatever else may come of what you’re pursuing now, whether you get what you’re hoping for or not, you will lose it all to death. And whatever else may come of what you’re pursuing now, in Christ you already have far more—an inheritance imperishable and undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you.
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