A motivational speaker was lecturing on the power of positive thinking. In one of his question and answer sessions, a woman stood up and asked, “How should I respond when my husband tells me he’s too sick to go to work?” The speaker told her, “Tell him he’s merely under the impression that he’s sick.” “Oh, I must remember that. In fact, I’ll go home and try it tonight.” At the next day’s session, the speaker saw the woman and asked, “And how is your husband today?” “Well,” she replied, “he’s under the impression that he’s dead.”
We’ve all heard it said that it’s all in how you look at things; and to some extent this is accurate. But it’s important that the decisions about how we will look at things are grounded in reality and are true.
The word “paradigm” has existed in the English language for centuries; however it was popularized by Thomas Kuhn in a book that came out in 1962 called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Since then, it has become part of our vernacular, signifying an implicit or explicit set of rules that molds a person’s perspectives, affects the way he sees and shapes his view of the world.
All Christian people must make a fundamental paradigm choice: the decision between what is and what seems to be, the eternal and the temporal. This choice is examined repeatedly in Scripture. Jesus spoke more about the temporal versus the eternal than any other topic. We often hear that he spoke more about money; but this may only be because the subject of money demonstrates which of the two paradigms we’ve chosen. The choice we make is between that which God says will endure, and that which he says will not. We want to be a people who treasure the things God says are lasting treasure.
To do this, we must shift from a cultural way of seeing life to a biblical way of seeing life. We are constantly under pressure to cave in to a cultural view, because it’s so ambient, so present, so constant, inviting us to see things from this present darkness, rather than from God’s perspective. But God can use the experience and growing awareness of our mortality to help us transfer our hope from the seen to the unseen, from what is visible to what is invisible. This same awareness can cause us to realize the preciousness of present opportunity. Embracing a biblical perspective, we move toward the wisdom that will help us understand our present, fleeting opportunities in the context of eternity.
Let’s look at an example. Suppose you go in for a routine physical examination, and you’re told by your doctor that you actually have an illness which is not palpable, not manifest to you but will be terminal. You’ve got about a year (or maybe less) to live. You go to two other physicians, and they confirm the diagnosis. There won’t be any really obvious effects until the disease reaches its final stages, but you will surely die within a year.
Now, ask yourself these questions:
Clearly, such a realization that we have so little time could have a huge impact on us. But hear this: the degree to which it would alter your present perspective and practice is the degree to which your current view of life and the biblical view of life diverge. The distance between your current view of life and the biblical view of life is the degree to which you would expect this announcement to have changed your whole perspective and practice in the world. Your vision of life ought to be the same, whether you have one day or 30 years to live.
Second, how would it change your view of your roles? Are you living in such a way that you regard relationships and treat people as if this could be the last time you’ll ever see them?
And third, how are you investing your money and time? If there has to be a radical adjustment, you have to ask yourself why. If you are already spending your money and time for God’s purposes, you shouldn’t need much adjustment.
Frankly, none of us know that we have even a year. We can’t presume on the future. We can’t control one day. And so we would be prudent to live in such a way that we treasure the opportunities of the present, that we enhance the roles which we play by serving other people and that we invest our money and time wisely and well, regarding our service to the people in our lives as service to Christ himself.
So how do we invest our time, our most precious asset, in a way that will have lasting impact? How can we invest the remaining days of our sojourn on this planet in such a way that it will have optimal impact, lasting consequences on the lives of other people? We know that only two things will last forever, God’s Word, and people. When we invest one of these two things into the other, we, like the steward in Luke 16, are leveraging the wealth of this world for eternal gain. From an eternal perspective, we can see that how we serve our spouse, our neighbor, our kids, our relatives, our co-workers, will last long after we are gone.
The temporal perspective typically denies the immanence of death, allowing us to believe that we might live forever. We don’t want to think about or deal with the idea of death. Doing so would be to launch an assault against our own perspective and acknowledge our lack of control and the brevity of our life. And the cultural value system will treat the temporal as though it were the eternal. Really, seeking to avoid God, the only time people in our culture are confronted with the reality of their mortality is at a funeral. A funeral is a window of reality, a time of vulnerability. Why? Because it causes us to question our own mortality.
It’s rather striking that we have failed to see what’s right in front of us. We have incredible mechanisms in place which help us to avoid the things that are critical in our lives. We dress up cadavers and make them comfy. We put them in cushioned little beds, as if it’s going to matter to them. Will it matter, really, whether they have silk in there, a nice little pillow? We put them in a little suit, and fix them up. And when we go into the funeral home, they won’t talk about death. The word “death” will not be used. They’ll talk about “the departed” or some other euphemism.
In Ecclesiastes 7, Solomon says it is “better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart.” What he means is that we must be realistic. A house of mourning is more realistic than a house of feasting, because in a house of feasting, we distract ourselves from what is obviously around us. We are a strange culture of people who seek to avoid what is obvious before us. People die around us all the time, yet we continue to act as if we’re going to live forever. We always think that death is something that will happen to another person. We rarely relate it to ourselves.
I’ve had a lot of near-death encounters, a lot of near brushes. I don’t know why I’ve had so many. And they’ve happened in a variety of contexts, some of which were so serious that I was absolutely sure it was the last. At these times, I really did have flashbacks of my life, and then this thought: “I’m not ready yet; something still has to be done.” So God would somehow pull me out of there. Disease, an accident, a near-drowning - somehow, he’d give me more time. I realize now that I’m on borrowed time. Frankly, we all are. Every breath we draw, every beat of our hearts is something given by God. We don’t control our time on this planet.
The first stanza of Isaac Watts’ hymn, Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past is based on an allusion to Psalm 90.
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away. They fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day. The busy tribes of flesh and blood with all their cares and fears are carried downward like a flood and lost in following years.”
At first that sounds rather depressing, but what Isaac Watts is really meditating on in that verse is Moses’ observation of the radical difference between God’s eternality and the brevity of our earthly sojourn. The Psalm begins:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were born and you gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God. You turn man back to dust saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight like a day that has just gone by or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning - though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
Verse 12 is the key to this Psalm and tells us what we should do if we would be prudent: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” A Hebrew professor I had took this to heart. He combined this passage with the scripture that says, “As the days of our life, they contain 70 years, or if due to strength 80 years.... Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; for soon it is gone, and we fly away.” So my professor said, “Suppose I am given 70 years. How many days would I have left from today?” And then he’d write that number minus one more each day on his calendar. You might think that sounds rather morbid, but that’s what the ancients called a momento morti. A momento morti is a reminder of your death. It’s like the Ash Wednesday service, when they give you the sign of the cross on your forehead with the ashes. And what do they say? “Remember that dust thou art and to dust thou will return.” It serves as a reminder to use our time wisely and well, because our time on this earth is very brief.
The idea of treasuring time is also seen in Psalm 39:4-7, where David prays:
Lord, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; let me know how transient I am. Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my lifetime as nothing in Your sight; surely every man at his best is a mere breath. Surely every man walks about as a phantom; surely they make an uproar for nothing; he amasses riches and does not know who will gather them.
Things haven’t changed much. We’re dealing with a text that is 3,000 years old, but the wisdom hasn’t changed. We don’t know why we’re driven to amass wealth. And we do not know what life is about. We walk about like moving phantoms with regard to eternity.
Isaiah 40:11-14 uses a metaphor similar to the one we saw in Psalm 90, again developing a radical contrast between the temporal and the eternal:
All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
And then James adds this sobering thought: “You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow,” (James 4:14). “You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”
Why do you suppose there are so many texts (and there are more than these) that invite us to recognize our mortality and the fleeting nature of our earthly sojourn? Is it to make us depressed? Is it necessary? Denial, rationalization and indifference are big factors in our lives. We long for eternal life, but it’s difficult for us. And frequently, we’re doing what Bob Dylan said, “mistaking paradise for that home across the road.”1 We confuse now with then. God has wired us with a longing for eternity; but we often mistakenly believe that the eternal realm is here. And we treat earth as if it were heaven.
Long ago, when life was tougher than it is for us, people understood this better. But we are the most affluent and comfortable people who have ever lived on this planet. We have more pleasures than kings once knew. We can control our climate with a thermostat. We can go wherever we choose by a variety of different methods. We can command all the great orchestras of the world to play whatever we want at any given moment by our CD players and through the internet. We have a variety of foods kings never even dreamt about and options and opportunities that no king ever even conceived of.
We live with great wealth, affluence and comfort. The unfortunate consequence of this, however, is that we are among a generation that might really come to believe this is paradise, home. And this is a terrible mistake, because when we do that, we live an illusion.
I think the biblical illustrations are here as a reminder that our stay on this planet is briefer than most of us would be inclined to think. Some may think this a pessimistic and morbid way of looking at human life, but I believe it is the most realistic and hopeful approach a person can take. If we believe the Bible, we can all agree that it’s realistic. But we might have missed why this paradigm is also hopeful, and I want to stress that it is hopeful, that it relates to human desires and aspirations.
The older I get, the faster the years seem to whiz by, and now I can see all the decades of my life almost simultaneously. It’s rather odd. I can recollect memories from when I was 10 years old as easily as those from when I was 30 years old. And the memories I have from last month are no more vivid than the memories I have of something that happened 30 years ago. I can still see myself at the age of 19 at the Phi Kappa Alpha fraternity house talking with a couple of my buddies and saying, “Hey guys, we’re at the prime, but it’ll all be downhill from here.” We actually made a covenant. We said, “Let’s remember this moment...30 years from now.” And darned if I don’t remember it. I can see where we were standing by the stairs and then coming to the realization, even at 19, of how fleeting life would be. My memory of it is so clear, it could have happened yesterday.
Maybe this is a hint of how God sees things. I look back on my life, and I can see my life almost as a seamless whole, because it’s an identity that’s been shaped by experience. And we each have a self that is a continuity of the experiences it takes on. The odd thing is that we can look at time not as a series of events, but as a complete unified whole. We can see our whole life in a glance, as if we were looking at a still-life. For God, there is no passing of time. He sees all things in the present tense. We come to see in this way a little bit as we accumulate our own experiences and as the years go by.
It’s always better to know things as they are than to believe things as they seem. Our culture invites us to believe things as they seem, but Scripture encourages us to know things as they are. And therein lies a great difference. The culture would seduce us into believing that the things it presents us are true; but they are not. The siren call of culture will constantly give us these illusions.
It does not require divine revelation to realize that, as George Bernard Shaw put it, “the statistics on death are impressive; one out of one dies.” The only people that have ever escaped death were Enoch and Elijah, and we shouldn’t count on joining in their fate. Everyone else who has ever lived on the planet has died.
I love what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: “I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep.” That is a mystery. Those who are alive when Christ returns will never see death; but they will be transformed instantly from a mortal body to a resurrected body. That’s why I pray, “Maranatha, O Lord, Come.” It would be a nice thought for that to happen to us. But unless it does, our few decades on earth last no longer than the flower of the field in relationship to the generations of coming days.
My wife’s garden is marvelous to see. But even at its peak, I see the petals of her rose bushes falling. The bushes climb our garage and meet together in these blooms. But already, there are pink petals on the driveway. And again, I realize how brief, how ephemeral, how short. In fact, every day I go on a garden walk. I take a slow prayer journey through my wife’s garden, because I’m stunned by the beauty and diversity in the created order. Every day, something’s different. If one thing is fading out, another new thing comes up to replace it. This is a metaphor for the earthly sojourn, the flower of the field.
It comes as no surprise that this biblical perspective is realistic. But how can we say that this view, instead of being morbid, is actually hopeful? That’s what I want you to think about.
I believe it’s hopeful one reason: it informs us that there’s more to life than what we presently see. A biblical perspective assures us that our longing for more than this world can offer isn’t simply a dream. It comes from something real inside of us. The biblical vision of God’s invitation to us is not just forgiveness. That’s only part of the bargain. What is important is what that forgiveness means. It means that his life can now be in us; we have a new life in Christ.
“This is eternal life that they believe in you and in Jesus Christ whom you’ve sent.” Eternal life is not just endless life; it is a new quality of life that is ours now. We have a new quality of relational life that will never fade or perish.
We are not defined by our past if we are followers of Jesus. Instead, we are defined by our unbounded future. Your past is bounded and very, very brief. All the past you’ll have on this earth will be a few decades. The future, on the other hand, is boundless. You are defined by an open future, one that will go on and on, where every chapter will be better than the one before. And there will be an infinite and continual changing process, in which we have new insights and new relationships. It’s going to be not static but a dynamic process. So I understand that I have a glorious destiny, and that contextualizes my present tense.
Freud would say that all you’ve got is your past. This is deterministic. All we are is just mechanisms that are defined by our nature and our nurture, and we are very brief. His is a naturalistic philosophy. A biblical perspective contradicts this.
When we drag our past into our present, we make it our future. A lot of men are driven by future prospects, and they live from product to product. So they feel that when they have achieved this or accomplished that, they’ll either be happy or have enough time to do the things they want to do. But what often happens is that these people get to the end of the journey and find nothing but memories behind them, and not the memories they had hoped to create. Then they do a bizarre thing. They make a second shift. Instead of living in the future, they go back to nostalgiaville. They live in the past. The strange result of this is that they spend their entire life never living in the now, in the present tense, never enjoying what they have, which is a precious gift.
We must take all that we can out of each day and relish it. All we have is the present tense. What would it be like if we looked at each person in front of us as if we would never see them again, as if this were the most important moment on earth? What if, during our lunch meetings with someone, instead of letting our minds wander to what we will have to accomplish when we get back to the office, we esteemed the person we were with as the most important person in the world? What if we focused on that moment? The truth is, that’s all we’ve really got anyway. The afternoon will take care of itself.
The biblical vision of God’s invitation is not only forgiveness but also newness of life and a transcendent hope, a hope that tells us that the something in us that longs for eternity is real. A lot of us suppose that the future will make up for our present lack. That’s a serious mistake. We cannot count on this. If we’re not content with what we have, we won’t be content when we get the things we want. We must not sacrifice the opportunity of today on the altar of future prospects. That’s a terrible mistake to make. Many people sacrifice the opportunities of the now. But Scripture tells us, “Behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Bob Dylan, and then later the Byrds, popularized a song written by Pete Seeger called Turn Turn Turn. It was a huge hit based on what I want to leave you with from Ecclesiastes 3. Many of us know the scripture from the song: a time to weep, a time to laugh, a time to mourn, a time to dance, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war, a time for peace.... In Ecclesiastes 3, Solomon says, “I have seen the task that God has given to the sons of men with which to occupy themselves.” (And here is the key verse.) “He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning to the end.”2 We don’t get to see the whole picture now.
But here’s the thing I want to leave you with. You have been hard-wired by God to have eternity in your heart, and you cannot eradicate that longing, no matter how hard you may try. You may try to suppress it, but you can never eradicate it. You have something in yourself that will not be satisfied by this present world. Admit it, and then you may realize that God is using this time, this earthly sojourn to prepare you for your eternal citizenship in heaven.
1 Dylan, B. (1967). The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, On John Wesley Harding, [record]. :Dwarf Music/Columbia
2 Ecclesiastes 3:11