How Death Clarifies Life


Le bassin aux nymphéas, Claude Monet (1919).

Aristotle, Althusius, and Donne, each in his own way, teach what a Chinese person knows in his heart to be true: that one man in himself is incomplete. When I think about things I want to accomplish in life, I see how limited a lifetime I have to accomplish things, but I also see how much God can take what he has done through me and make it bear fruit a hundredfold. Indeed, no person’s work is complete, or can be fulfilled, apart from others. Without successors, of blood or of spirit, who can have any legacy beyond living memory, and whose legacy means anything apart from the lives it continues to touch? Knowing that the very meaning of my life is contingent on others also reminds me that, by God’s purpose and according to God’s hidden ways, many of the things that have mattered most to me about my life will continue to unfold in others’ lives beyond my imagining; for from the start the idea was God’s, and the same God who has begun to build will surely finish what he has set out to build. Even if I haven’t planned for my own death within the next decade, if it does happen, then God has planned for it.

When I consider bucket lists, then, I think each of these events, each of these experiences, is a way of exploring a facet of who I am in God’s sight, and who God has been, is now, and will be in my life. But life is always full of surprises, and in each surprise I experience one aspect of dying. No one, dying a natural death, knows exactly when he will die: he knows only that he will die. If God has cut straight through my plans and intentions so many times, and in so doing brought good things I could never have known otherwise, then I think the same is true of death. I do not know, but he knows. This, I think, is how death clarifies life. Each surprise is, in microcosm, like death. It breaks the images we see on the face of the water, and we see that something we were looking at was a mirage. If living an abundant life means being open to surprises and responding to them, then so does dying an abundant death: both require a willingness to trust God – or, for those who do not know God, to at least basically trust that unknown – and to learn. In learning, we learn to know him.

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