The concept of “kicking the bucket” has been around for a while, though its provenance is uncertain. Some believe it refers to the act of putting a noose around one’s neck, standing on a bucket, and then kicking the bucket away, causing death by hanging. Others “suggest that the bucket being kicked is not, as we might imagine, a pail, but a corruption of the Old French word buquet, meaning a balance or beam, from which slaughtered animals were suspended.”
The origin of the related term, “bucket list,” meanwhile, also is unclear, but it burst into the national consciousness in 2007 with the release of a comedy-drama film by the same name. It stars Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two cancer patients who “go skydiving, drive a Shelby Mustang, fly over the North Pole, eat dinner at Chevre d’or in France, visit and praise the beauty and history of Taj Mahal, India, ride motorcycles on the Great Wall of China, attend a lion safari in Tanzania, and visit the base of Mt. Everest in Nepal” before they die.
Google the term and you’ll come up with a plethora of websites and ideas, for example: “Unique Bucket List: 1000+ Ideas,” “Bucket List Ideas: 101 Things To Do Before You Die,” “Bucket List: 100+ Incredible Things to Do Before You Die,” “The Everygirl’s 2018 Bucket List,” “Bucketlist » 10,000 things to do before you die,” and “63 Bucket List Ideas For The Ultimate Backpacker.” Anyone attuned to pop culture cannot avoid the concept’s grinning ubiquity. Yet not everyone is going along.
Writing in The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead says that too often the concept “partakes of a commodification of cultural experience, in which every expedition made, and every artwork encountered, is reduced to an item on a checklist to be got through, rather than being worthy of repeated or extended engagement. Dropping by Stonehenge for ten minutes and then announcing you’ve crossed it off your bucket list suggests that seeing Stonehenge—or beholding the Taj Mahal, or visiting the Louvre, or observing a pride of lions slumbering under a tree in the Maasai Mara—is something that, having been done, can be considered done with.”
Indeed. There is a profound difference between quickly checking an activity off one’s bucket list and actually being present while doing it. One summer day several years ago while on a family vacation to see Mount Rushmore and other sights in South Dakota, we decided to take a quick detour into Wyoming so that we (or was it I?) could cross another state off our “list.”
It was a brutally hot day. When we drove over the dusty state line, almost immediately we caught wind of sweltering cow patties from somewhere nearby in the desolate landscape. The aroma was overpowering, and we quickly made a U-turn back into South Dakota. Did we see the majestic Grand Tetons, or luxurious Jackson Hole, or awe-inspiring Yellowstone National Park? Not at all. So, did we really “see” the Cowboy State? Not really.
But I have another problem with the bucket list—two, actually. First, it seems completely self-centered. The bucket list attempts to answer the question, “What do I want to do with my life before I die?” The Christian knows that it’s not his life, anyway, but His (Gal. 2:20). We have been bought at a price (1 Cor. 6:20, 7:23).
As well, anyone who has lived for more than a few paltry decades on this earth knows in his bones that true happiness comes not in serving self but in serving others. As Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Second, the bucket list lies to us. It tells us that this life is all there is, and that we must therefore fill our shrinking allotment of time with activities and experiences guaranteed to make us “happy.” As the old beer commercial says, “Life’s too short to settle for less, so go for the gusto, or don’t go at all.” This lie comes from the secular worldview that we breathe in without a second thought—eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. It echoes the old philosophy of hedonism, the idea that pleasure is mankind’s greatest pursuit.
Now let me make it clear that I have no problem going on vacation, having fun adventures, or doing new things in this marvelous world that God has created. These are all gifts from our heavenly Father, “who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). They are a part of life, a wonderful part—but only a part.
They are but way stations on the road to our true destination. This life is properly seen not as an ending, but as a beginning. For Christians, there is no need to frantically accumulate experiences before our deaths. Endless life, of which our best experience on this planet is only a dull foretaste, awaits us.
We still need a bucket list, however—one that avoids the poison of self-centered pleasure and the panic of putting aside our inevitable deaths. We get it not on a website, in a book, or from a movie. Instead, it comes from a source who is always reliable, God Himself.
I cannot give you God’s complete bucket list for you, what He wants from you before you die. But we can all prayerfully glean some insights from His Word. Here are some of the things on God’s bucket list for each one of us:
“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:3-4)
God loves you. Christ died to save you from your sins. Have you committed your heart and life to Him? This is the indispensable first step.
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality.” (1 Thess. 4:3).
The body matters. Sex is too precious a gift to be opened anywhere but in a marriage.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18)
Gratitude is the antidote to self-centeredness and fear.
“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph. 5:15-20)
The Christian life is not supposed to be a grim, solitary existence. It is to be lived in loving community, full of wisdom, joy, even singing—which are far more satisfying than what is on most of our bucket lists.
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph. 2:10)
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet. 1:10-11)
Getting where we need to go and being what we need to be in this life, and preparing for the life to come, undeniably involve some “holy sweat”—but the effort will be more than worth it.
No doubt God’s entire bucket list for you will have some specific additions—perhaps a relationship that needs mending, a ministry that needs doing, a character quality that needs refining. So, wait for Him to reveal them to you, and, when He does, do them with all your heart (Col. 3:23).
Life, after all, is too short to do anything else.
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for Christianity Today and for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know.