I used to assume that God owed me a long life—to pursue a vocation and family with full strength, to live long enough to become a grandparent. Then, at 39, I was diagnosed with incurable cancer. The expected storyline of my life was interrupted. Now, as a cancer patient, my expectations have changed. The cancer is likely to cut decades from my life; I experience daily pain and fatigue that drain my strength. While my former expectations of God may seem reasonable, I’ve come to see how I had unwittingly embraced a form of the prosperity gospel. I believed that God owed me a long life.
This assumption is widespread. Among those in the United States who believe in God, 56 percent think that “God will grant good health and relief from sickness to believers who have enough faith,” according to a recent Pew study. In other parts of the world, the percentage of Christians who hold this view is even higher.
In some ways, this belief fits with Old Testament teachings about reaping what we sow. “Trouble pursues the sinner, but the righteous are rewarded with good things,” Proverbs 13:21 says. The prosperity gospel takes nuggets of wisdom like this and combines them with the healing ministry of Jesus in a way that explains illness in a clear axiom: Since God loves us, he doesn’t want us to be sick. So if we don’t have good health, it must be a consequence of personal sin, or at least a lack of faith on our part. One way or another, the ill person is to blame. While many evangelicals would reject this “strong” form of the prosperity gospel, many of us accept a softer version, a corollary: If I’m seeking to obey God and live in faith, I should expect a long life of earthly flourishing and relative comfort.
Recently, a friend told me about her work as a counselor with middle school youth at a Christian summer camp. On a designated day, campers participated in an activity designed to help them develop empathy in some small ways for people living with physical disabilities. Some students were blindfolded, others had their ears covered, and others sat in a wheelchair for the day’s activities.
Partway through the day, one girl ripped off her blindfold and refused to put it back on. “If I became blind, God would heal me,” she said. She had faith in Jesus and was trying to obey God. Like a predictable transaction, she knew that if she did her part, she could count on God to give her a life she considered to be prosperous. If she became blind, God would fix that.
The problem with this approach is not the belief that God can heal and that God loves us. The issue is that the God of Scripture never promises the type of prosperity this camper so confidently expected. Certainly, when healing comes, including through the means of medical treatment, it is a good gift from God. When we feel like we are in a dark “pit,” like the psalmist (Ps. 30:1–3), we can and should lament and petition for deliverance, including in our pain and illness. We rightly ask God for healing, just as we ask the Father for our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. Yet healing, like our daily bread, is ephemeral, passing away. Whether we live only a few years or several decades, Ecclesiastes reminds us that, viewed through a wide-angle lens, “Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart” (5:15).
Every one of us will eventually be struck down by death, a wound that no medicine can heal. Though Proverbs is right to point us to the general wisdom of reaping what we sow, it’s not a divine law of how the universe always works. Job was “blameless and upright” yet suffered great calamity with the loss of his children, his servants, his wealth, and his health
(Job 1:1, 13–19; 2:7–8). The apostle Paul served Christ and the church sacrificially in faith yet was not granted deliverance from his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7–10). When it comes to mortality and the losses that come with it, none of us will be exempt. Although we tend to push away such basic human realities in our daily life, I’ve discovered something surprising: For us as Christians, embracing daily reminders of our mortal limits can refresh our parched souls.
Good News Worth Dying For
Our lifetime is “fleeting,” our days like a “handbreadth” in relation to the eternal God, Psalm 39 reminds us. Until the Lord of creation comes again to make all things new, we join the psalmist in praying:
Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. (vv. 4–5, NRSV)
This prayer contrasts with commonly shared cultural assumptions today. Our tendency to construct tales about ourselves on Facebook and Instagram, for example, is part of a larger cultural liturgy—a set of practices shaping our desires—that subtly leads many of us to assume that we are at the center of the universe and that our story, if not our actual number of years on earth, will never end. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed these assumptions as illusions. The fact that refrigerated trucks were required to gather the bodies of the dead in cities like New York and Detroit is jarring testimony that highly developed nations are not immune to unexpected death. Moreover, as protests about the killing of unarmed black people have disclosed, the assumption that “my storyline will never end” is a culturally privileged one. The black church and other marginalized communities are painfully aware of the fleeting nature of human life. “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,” the Negro spiritual intones. For “I ain’t got long to stay here.”
Our mortality was not so easy to avoid in earlier generations. Beyond the reality that life-threatening communicable disease was an ever-present threat, the culture of death in America was more communal. Funeral services served as consistent reminders of human mortality as whole congregations attended, including children. These services traditionally focused on how we are not our own but belong to Christ in life and in death. In contrast, it is more common now to have personal memorial services tailored to the particular life story of the deceased, with only family and friends attending. We may care about someone else’s death, but only when it’s meaningful for our own story. Our own story counts the most. Death is something that happens to other people.
Psalm 39 cuts through such illusions, yet it is charged with hope. Though we are temporal creatures, we can still find true flourishing by investing our deepest loves in the one who is everlasting, the Lord. Peter Craigie, a particularly insightful commentator on the Psalms, notes how life’s value must be understood in light of its finitude. “Life is extremely short,” Craigie once wrote. “If its meaning is to be found, it must be found in the purpose of God, the giver of all life.” Indeed, recognizing the “transitory nature” of our lives is “a starting point in achieving the sanity of a pilgrim in an otherwise mad world.” Craigie penned these words in 1983, in the first of three planned volumes on the Psalms in a prestigious scholarly commentary series. Two years later he died in a car accident, leaving his commentary series incomplete. He was 47.
Craigie’s life was taken before he and his loved ones expected, before he could accomplish his good and worthy earthly goals. Yet in his transient life, he bore witness to the breathtaking horizon of eternity. He bore witness to how embracing our mortal limits goes hand in hand with offering our mortal bodies to the Lord of life. We’re not heroes of the world, and we can’t do much. But we can love generously, and we can bear witness to the one who is the origin and end of life itself—the everlasting Lord, the Alpha and the Omega, the crucified and risen Savior who has accomplished and will bring about what we could never do ourselves.
The Antidote to Death Denial
Our faith should not be used as a buffer to shield us from the sobering reality of our own mortality. Indeed, this death-denying attitude, so common in the “soft” prosperity gospel today, is unnecessary because of our hope in God for the resurrection of the dead. In the end, a faith unable to cope with our mortal helplessness is not worth having. The apostle Paul admits this openly: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” he says in his famous chapter on Christ’s resurrection. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:14, 19). Daily admitting our impotence before death can be a way of giving ourselves over to the risen Lord rather than depending upon our own attempts to manufacture a “prosperous” earthly life.
Strangely enough, admitting our powerlessness over death in this way can free us from slavery to the fear of death. Sociologists, in a school of thought inspired by Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Denial of Death, have documented how cultures tend to idolize political heroes or national fortunes as a way to deny their mortal limits. When we humans deny our mortality, we become defensive, trusting only our own political tribe or own racial or cultural groups. But living in resurrection hope displaces the need to idolize flawed leaders or whitewash sinful ideological causes. We can openly admit that we cannot defeat death. Instead, we live in trust that on the final day, “when the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’ ” (1 Cor. 15:54). That day has not yet come—we long for it in the coming age, when Christ’s kingdom comes in fullness. Our hope for it, and in God’s purposes rather than our own, makes a great deal of difference in how we live each day now.
In light of resurrection hope, Paul believed that though “outwardly we are wasting away,” our bodily decay will not have the final word (2 Cor. 4:16). Moreover, even our bodily afflictions are incorporated into the reality that holds us: our union with the crucified and risen Lord. “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (v. 11). Whether or not we have sight or mobility, whether we live 5 or 40 or 90 years, our bodies belong to the Lord, and the process of outwardly wasting away can be a testimony to the humble love of our Savior. Amazingly, the Spirit enfolds bodily failings into his work in the world. As we are witnesses to Christ, the very crumbling of our bodies makes it “clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (v. 7, NRSV). In this way, the anchor of our hope is not deliverance from the process of decay but union with the crucified and risen Christ. This union with Christ will fully blossom in the coming resurrection, sharing in “an eternal glory that far outweighs” our present troubles (v. 17).
The Gift of Mortality Reminders
According to Martin Luther, even when our bodies feel vibrant and dying seems to belong to a far country, we should make death a frequent acquaintance. “We should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime,” he wrote in a 1518 sermon, “inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move.” Why does Luther advise this? His reason is not a morbid proclivity but rather the same reason the psalmist refers to life as merely “a few handbreadths” before God: Death punctures our hubris, our sense that the world is a drama in which we are the focal point. Reminders of our death can point to the God of life—the God who put flesh on dry bones—as our only hope, both now and in the age to come. As Luther reminds us, “since everyone must depart, we must turn our eyes to God, to whom the path of death leads and directs us.”
On hard days and easier days, amid joy and pain, I’ve come to embrace mortality reminders as strange but good gifts. They can ground me as a mortal before God. We live in hope that the frailty and decay of our bodies will not be the final measure of our lives. We live in hope that the central drama of the universe is not our own life story. Instead, living as small creatures, we can rejoice in the wonder and drama of God’s love in Christ.
Our present life will end when, like Job, we as creatures are stripped of family and fortune and worldly future. But even in light of this mortal end—indeed, especially in light of it—we can join the apostle Paul in being “convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39).
J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. This article includes material adapted from his latest book, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live.
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