Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints (Psalm 116:15).
“Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and the common circumstances which attend death” ~ Jonathan Edwards
They say gray hair is a sign of wisdom. If so, I received such wisdom from an older, gray-haired pastor last week. He said, “Life is like the Hebrew alphabet. You can only read it backwards.” Those insightful words spurred me to contemplate the shape of my life. As I reflected, I distinctly recalled how although God drew me to himself at age fifteen, I also saw how he put me on the path toward following Christ and the road to pastoral ministry earlier in my life. For example, I began contemplating death at an early age. The first impression came when I was about seven years old, sitting in a brown rocking chair in my family’s living room.
Transfixed by the thought of death, I wondered: What happens when you die? Do we simply fade into a dark oblivion of nothingness, with no memories of our former existence? While I tried to push such thoughts out of mind, they returned with some frequency.
While some imagine contemplating death as morbid, the Bible regards it as healthy. Solomon counsels, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Eccl. 7:2). Why? Because contemplating our end is the path to the good life. This is why David prayed, “O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” (Ps. 39:4). Additionally, Moses petitions, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).
Contemplating death often motivates us to change our lives—to set aside negative character traits that we know need attention. Put differently, coming to grips with our own mortality propels us into self-examination—and that’s a good thing.
If you think self-examination is nothing more than narcissistic navel-gazing, please consider that the Christian tradition (specifically the Desert Fathers) urged other Christians to practice what they called memento mori—an exercise of reflecting on one’s death with the aim of leading to more intentional living.
Give it a try.
Close your eyes and picture your funeral. What does the venue look like? Who is there? As people gather in circles to discuss your life, how will they remember you? What will they say? What aspects of your character will they highlight? Will they speak of your generosity, kindness, humility, or love? Will they speak of your anger, bad temper, pessimistic attitude, or hurtful comments you made to them? Will they speak of your stubbornness, bitterness, and unforgiving nature?
What memories will they share? What will your eulogy sound like? What will the dominant theme of your life be?
Now write down what you wish people at your funeral will say about you. How do you aspire for people to remember you? What negative qualities would you prefer they not highlight? How do you want to be remembered?
The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that there’s a gap in each of our lives between who we are and who we’d like to be. Identifying your flaws through the exercise of self-examination motivates self-discipline, leading (by God’s grace) to a change in our behavior.
I dare you to try it.