The Shortness of Life

Weekly | Oct 06 2020
The Shortness of Life
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We have a very clear conviction that others will die, but as to ourselves, we put far from us the evil day. Yes, we admit that we shall die, but not so soon as to make it a pressing matter; we imagine that we are not within measurable distance of the tomb. Brethren, in this we are not wise; death will not spare us because we avoid him. 

A solemn reflection upon the shortness of life, and the certainty of death, may prove to be important, and even invaluable, if it be allowed to penetrate our hearts, and influence our lives. Luther in his younger days, walking with his friend Alexis, saw him struck to the ground by a flash of lightning, and became thenceforward prepared in heart for that deep work of grace through which he learned the doctrine of justification by faith, and rose to be the liberator of Europe from Papal bondage.  

Men have been helped to live by remembering that they must die. God has given us memory that we may look backward, and it were well if we used our memories better for remembrance, reflection, and repentance, but God has given us no eyes wherewith to pry into the future. He unveils the past to our penitence; but He veils the future from our curiosity. Dark days may be near at hand for some of us, but we do not perceive them. Let us be thankful that we do not, for we might multiply our afflictions by the foresight of them, and the prospect of evil to come might cast a gloom over pleasure near at hand. As we may feel a thousand deaths in fearing one, so may we faint under a thousand lashes in dreading a single stroke.

It is good also that our God conceals from us our earthly joys until the time for their arrival. Great prosperity may await you, and a considerable enlargement of your temporal comfort, but you do not know it; and it is as well that you should not, for you might be none the better for the prospect. Earth’s goods are like bird-lime, and are fearfully apt to glue us down to things below, and prevent our soaring towards heaven. If then we could know all the pleasurable events that may happen to us we might become more worldly and more earthbound than we are. 

We cannot even reckon upon another day. Even in the morning we cannot make sure of the eventide, nor in the evening can we reckon upon the morning. James puts the matter strongly when he asks: “What is your life?” You do not know what is going to happen on the morrow, for you do not know your own life. What is it?” and an instructive answer: “It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”  So unstable is our life that the apostle says, What is it?  So frail, so fragile is it, that he does not call it a flower of the field, or the snuff of a candle, but asks. It is as if he had said — Is it anything? 

St. Augustine used to say he did not know whether to call it a dying life or a living death, and I leave you the choice between those two expressions. Nothing but a continuous miracle keeps any one of us from the sepulchre. Were Omnipotence to stay its power but for a moment, earth would return to earth, and ashes to ashes. It is a dying life: and equally true is it that it is a living death. We are always dying. The more years we count in our life, the fewer remain in which we shall behold the light of day. 

THE LESSONS WHICH LIE WITHIN THIS TRUTH. First, If this life be unsubstantial as a vapour, let us regard it as such, and let us seek for something substantial elsewhere. This is a poor withering life at the best, for we all do fade as a leaf. Unless we purposely live with a view to the next world, we cannot make much out of our present existence. 

At the same time, do not be frightened at the unhandsome form in which this life at times appears: it is after all but a vapour; and who will be alarmed at it? Children may be pleased with the bubbles which they blow by the aid of an old pipe and a piece of soap; but as for men who have put away childish things, they ought not to be greatly moved by the things of this life, for they are but bubbles of less brilliance and less substance than those which delight the boy. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity.” Let the lower lights burn dimly before your eye; they are mere sparks, they are quenched fall soon. Let us grip the eternal, and sit loose by the temporal. The jewels of eternity will glitter in our crowns when all things pass away; but the trifles of this life are as the flowers which children pluck in the meadows, which wither in their hands before they can carry them home. 

Next, Is life most uncertain?  We know it is: no one attempts to deny it. It is certain that life will come to an end; but it is most uncertain when it will come to that end. Then let us not delay. I would to God I could whisper this wisdom into every procrastinator’s ear. Why dost thou halt and hesitate? 

Christian, serve thy God while the opportunity is given thee: be diligent to-day to do those works which perfect saints above and holy angels cannot do. Thou wilt soon be where thou canst no more give alms to the poor, nor instruct the ignorant, nor visit the fatherless and the widow. Thou shalt have no opportunities for speaking to men about their souls, or winning them for Christ, when once this shadowy life has vanished away. How earnest every worker ought to be to do his work well while he has the opportunity! 

If thou wishest to honour thy Lord whilst thou art here, thou canst not afford to waste a moment, for thou hast much to do, and very little time to do it in. Help us, O Spirit of the Lord! If life be short, it is wisdom to have no fallows, but to sow every foot of ground while we can. It will be prudent to pack our little space as full as possible. Let us put plenty of life into our existence, plenty of work into our life, plenty of heart into our work, and plenty of warmth into our heart, Oh, may God give us to live while we live! May we not only live but be all alive. 

There is a thriftiness which we all ought to exercise; but there is no justification for laying up treasure which will never be used. Ants do not store up grain for storing’s sake: they do but divide over the whole year the harvest of a month. To hoard up endless gold is a species of insanity. If I were going a day’s voyage, I should not wish to take with me enough biscuit and salt beef to last for three years; it would only cumber the boat. One walking-stick is an admirable help, as I often find; but to carry a bundle of them when going on a journey would be a superfluity of absurdity. Alas, how many load themselves as if life’s journey would last a thousand years, at the least! 

Is time so short?  Then do not let us fret about its troubles and discomforts. A man is on a journey, and puts up at an inn, and when he is fairly in the hostelry, he perceives that it is a poor place, with scant food, and a hard bed. “Well, well,” says he, “I am off the first thing to-morrow morning, and so it does not matter.” This world is an inn, and if there are certain discomforts in it, let us remember that we are not tenants for years, but only guests for a day. Let us make the best we can of the temporary accommodation which this poor shanty of a world affords.  A shepherd who has to watch the sheep for a short time does not set to work to build a granite palace, or a brick house: he is satisfied with a reed hut, and does not complain of its scant space and slender strength. So let it be with us

Must life vanish away? We know it must. What then? That vanishing is the end of one life and the beginning of another. Dear friends, may I recommend you to remember that death is the end of this life? Do not leave this life to be ravelled out at the end. I would like to have a well-hemmed life, with a finish about it. I would like to have my life enclosed with a ring-fence of completeness. Too many leave life’s business in such a way that they leave endless trouble for their families: lawyers devour their substance, and their children are impoverished. See that your will is made, your debts paid, your charities distributed, and all your affairs are arranged. Set your house in order: it is your duty as a citizen; it is your higher duty as a Christian. Do all that you would like to have done if you knew you would die to-morrow. I like Mr. Whitefield’s order; for he could not go to bed comfortably if his gloves were not in his hat ready for the morning. He felt that he could not tell when he would be called away; but he wished to have everything in its place whenever the summons should come. 

Let me get ready for the inevitable. Ungodly men cannot bear to think of being called away. This morning they feel very uncomfortable while I am treating upon this troublesome subject. I hope they will not soon recover their composure, but will remain uncomfortable till they yield to Divine love, and trust in the living Saviour. Death is an awful thing to those who have their all in this world. If they could but live here for ever, they would be at peace; but it cannot be so. They must die. They cannot avoid the grave. 

To the Christian it is an angel beckoning him onward and upward. It is the supreme delight of the man who runs the race that is set before him that that course concludes with the winning-post, and so comes to an end. We are not of those who voyage the sea of this life for the sake of it: we ask not for ever to sail over this rough ocean, we long for land. It is our delight to think of the port ahead, our joy to see the snow-white cliffs of our heavenly Albion. We do not desire to live here always. Why should we? Banished from our God, liable to sin, subject to temptation, vexed with infirmities, struggling with corruptions, O Lord, what wait we for?

Beloved, instead of fearing death, we would be willing rather to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better. 

It is a blessed thing to be able to go through the world thanking God for this life, but blessing Him yet more that it will land us at His right hand. Death is thus stripped of all dread; the curse is turned into a blessing. 

God grant us so to live and die that we may live to die no more, for Christ’s sake. Amen. 

Excerpted from the sermon titled “What is your life?”  (James 4:14) by CH Spurgeon dated 30 March 1884. You are encouraged to read the full text of the sermon at