We hear it, we say it, we taunt the world with our words, and many of us secretly fear it, but we keep using the expression: “life is short.”
In the same way a skydiver mocks the power of gravity and stubbornly challenges the earth to try and scare her, we say things like, “life is short,” “you aren’t promised tomorrow,” and “only the good die young.” We speak flippantly and with cavalier dismissal about the brevity of existence. More philosophically we read the Roman thinker Seneca with a burn directed toward death:
Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
These taunts against mortality serve the same function as playground insults. They are our way of puffing out our chest and trying to go toe-to-toe with a bigger opponent. We try to convince death and the brief nature of life that we have accepted this battle between between here and gone and that we no longer fear it. The only problem is this bravado does not typically describe reality. We are not really inviting death to take its best shot. Truth be told we are generally running from it at any and all costs.
Like Seneca, David, in the Psalms, did not shy away from speaking of the shortness of life. Perhaps because of the decade of living under the threat of Saul’s sword, David came to both love staying alive while also remaining acutely aware that any moment might be his last. This is why David can write a Psalm like #144, where he begins by saying that the Lord is his rock and steadfast fortress – a statement of stability and heavenly victory – and at the same time suggest that His steadfast fortress might not actually protect him from the brevity of existence:
Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.
David, Psalms 144.4
- How can God be both our “fortress” and at the same time not be the guarantee that we won’t die?
- Is there a contradiction?
- Is David senile?
- Is this Rock not as helpful as David makes out?
I think a significant clue to understanding how David simultaneously holds these two, seemingly incongruent, ideas so confidently is found in the second half of Psalms 144.4.
David not only says that life is brief, but he makes the odd statement that the day-to-day reality of human life is “like a passing shadow.” Shadows have no substance in themselves, they are nothing more than evidences of the existence of something else, something tangible, something real.
So they are brief, and they are passing.
Part of the meaning of the word “passing” in the Hebrew has to do with something that goes in advance. The movement is a precursor, a starting point, a “before picture.” The idea here is that what we experience in this life, regular experiences and not just lofty spiritual moments, shows us something other than the most real part of life and existence.
My shadow on the ground, cast by the evening sun, is a kind of accurate representation of me but it is accurate from a certain perspective. Earlier in the day my shadow is shorter than I actually am, later in the day it is longer than my tangible body. In fact, there are only two times each day when the angle of the sun even has the chance to cast an accurate representation of the body onto the ground – but even in those two moments no one would ever mistake a shadow for the real person.
What gives David the ability to call God his fortress and also hold so loosely to his own mortality? It is the reality that everything David believes God to be – all of the goodness, faithfulness, protection, help and love – is only a shadow of what God actually is. Not only that, but this shadow of God’s true self is interacting with a shadow of David in a world that is itself a land of shadows.
This means at least two important things for us today:
- First, the worst things we will experience today are not the truest things about life. Our headaches, heartaches and hardships are passing shadows; they are the elongated or smooshed images of distorted reality that we are tempted to accept as true. But these troubles will not last forever. In the larger scheme of things, they won’t even last very long: we are “like a breath.”
Keep encouraged that the parts of life that don’t seem right aren’t actually right. The parts of our days that seem to tell a different story than the one Jesus tells us are passing shadows that can catch our eye but cannot actually define the truest realities of God’s goodness and love.
- Second, the best things we will experience today are not the truest things about life. Our victories, laughter and moments of serenity are also passing shadows. Even when the shadow is a perfect representation (those two times each day), they are still nothing more than a shell of what God has actually created.
- We know joy, but not like we will know it one day.
- We know peace, but not like we will know it one day.
- We know love, energy, grace, rest and accomplishment, but not like we will know them one day.
It should also encourage us, even more so, that the best moments we experience in this season of existence will be no match for the depths of pleasure, joy and peace that we will know when the shadows are gone and all is light.
So, it’s okay that life is short. In fact, David encourages us to fully cling to life in this present world, enjoy what can be enjoyed and be faithful in all things. But remember that it will be the brevity of life that will open the door for us to see in fullness. Unless a seed dies it can’t experience the fruit it was created for.