I last saw Christine’s dad in October. Pete always made it a point to visit us, and other members of his extended family around the country, every year. Besides some unexplained back pain and a touch more fatigue than usual, he seemed perfectly normal, enjoying a hike with us at the Morton Arboretum to see the pumpkins and a whimsical exhibit of artistic trolls.
But a week before Christmas, Pete died of a rare and aggressive form of cancer at the age of 78. My pastor was surprised, saying Pete was “so young.”
Actually, he wasn’t. According to Statistica, the average life expectancy for an American male born last year is 77. Now, that number includes all those who will die in infancy or via accident, so most of us can expect to do a little better. The Social Security Administration’s 2015 actuarial life table predicted that Pete, then 75, likely would live until age 86. Yet, Pete died at about the same age as most American males, as painful and unexpected as his death was.
What do the numbers look like for me? Well, I celebrated my 57th birthday last August, and I thought that I was just beginning to enter the final third of my life. The fact is, however, that if I live as long as the average American male, to age 77, I only have about 25 percent of my life ahead—a mere fourth! There is some solace in the actuarial life table, which suggests that I may have 24 years left—or nearly 30 percent of my life yet to be lived. But that’s still less than a third. And when you’re as old as I am, every percentage point counts!
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not afraid of death (though dying might be another matter). I am firmly convinced that Jesus Christ died and rose on my behalf so that I could be forgiven of all my sins and receive His gift of eternal life, and thus my future is secure—in this life and the next (Rom. 5:1-12).
But I am afraid of not living in a way that glorifies and points others to Him in my remaining days. The Puritans sometimes placed a memento mori—perhaps the image of a human skull—on their tombstones as a reminder to the living of the brevity of life. I need a memento mori.
As Psalm 90:12 soberly reminds me:
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Here’s the point. No matter how young I may feel (or not), I have already lived most of the earthly life that God has for me. Good or bad, most of my choices have been made. Most of my achievements (and failures, of which I have more than a few) are in the rearview mirror. Oh, I may still have another book (or three) in me. I may yet get that job I’ve always dreamed about. There may be (and likely are) some unforeseen challenges and encouragements ahead. I don’t intend to “go gentle into that good night.” I believe I still have a lot left in the tank for the Lord (see Phil. 3:12-14).
But the fact is, the end is in sight—my end. That’s why New Year’s resolutions, as helpful as they may be, are no longer enough. I’ve made many good resolutions over the years—read more books, get a new job, watch less TV, get more exercise, etc.—and I’ve even kept some of them. Right now, though, such goals seem inadequate.
Instead of making more New Year’s resolutions, perhaps it’s time for some new life resolutions. Some have helpfully advocated that we instead create our own Rule of Life, like the monastics. I suggest something similar. Understanding that God has been seeking all along to transform me “into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), I want to cooperate with Him in His soul-transformation process—my own, and those of all the precious image-bearers in my life. I want our hearts to be renewed day by day.
Jesus said that our words flow from the abundance of our hearts (Matt. 12:34). So rather than penning just another well-intended to-do list of New Year’s resolutions, let me share some words with you that I hope you’ll be hearing from my lips in the coming decades (if God so wills):
“I love you.” The fragility of life has become especially evident to me as I have traveled well into my sixth decade. Increased numbers of loved ones have passed into the next life via illness and accident. Most of these transitions were unexpected. Almost all were unexpectedly painful. While I can, I’m going to tell my friends and family that I love them.
“I’m sorry.” I’ve hurt others, sometimes by accident, and sometimes on purpose. Once death intervenes, the relational fissures become permanent. I’m going to apologize as soon as I’m aware of my fault and do what I can to make it right, before it’s too late.
“I forgive you.” I’m going to forgive those who’ve hurt me, whether they acknowledge what they’ve done or not. If I simply cannot, I’m going to seek God’s help and try to discover the reason for the blockage. If necessary, I’ll get counseling. I’ll no longer try to justify myself but will leave the matter in God’s hands, seeking His best for the other person. Author Malachy McCourt reportedly said, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” I will refuse the poison of unforgiveness.
“Thank you.” I seldom go a day now without sincerely thanking Christine for marrying me, and for being the person she is. And the more I praise her, the more I love her. The same goes with God. As I’ve written elsewhere, gratitude opens us up to God and His best for our lives.
If we want more of his blessings, we must praise him for those we already have. A thankful heart always leads to more blessings, even if … we seemingly don’t have a lot to be thankful for. The blessings may come quietly, unexpectedly, or in disguise, but come they will. But we must choose gratitude to receive them, for our own good.
“For everyone who has,” Jesus said, “will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” God’s blessings are available to us, if we will but take them, with thanksgiving.
“God loves you.” These are probably the three most important words in the world. I’ve said them too rarely to the people I love—and, more importantly, the people God loves (John 3:16). That’s going to change.
There are probably other things I could say as evidence of my new life resolutions. But given the limited number of days I have left, this list is a pretty good start.
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us.