The Bible uses a number of metaphors to describe the Christian life, and among the most prominent is that of runners in a race (e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:24, Hebrews 12:1). The “race” is a vivid image meant to remind us that Christians face competition, need endurance, and require diligence. Life is not a leisurely stroll, but a grueling race. From this metaphor, we also learn that just as each step brings runners closer to the end of their race, each moment brings Christians closer to the end of their life.
Life is fragile and fleeting. We are mortal people living in weak bodies and facing a perilous journey through time. For some, this journey will last only a few years. For others, it will last many decades. But for all, it will some day come to a close. As runners eventually cross the finish line, so Christians eventually close their eyes in death. Until then, their great desire is to grow in conformity to Christ. They do this while racing the clock and maintaining an awareness of their own mortality. They long to grow in conformity to Christ to the greatest degree possible in the short time available to them.
This article carries on our series, “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness.” We have seen that if we wish to grow in godliness, we must trust the means of grace, guard against worldliness, think holy thoughts, and diligently watch for temptation. The fifth rule is this: Ponder the brevity of life.
Consider How Short Life Is
Even the longest life is too short, for we were made to live forever. God promised that sin would bring death, and God always keeps his word (Genesis 2:17). Sure enough, the day Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, death entered the world. It has never left. Our first parents died, as did each of their descendants. So, too, will we. Like the sun that rises sets again, the life that begins must also end. And death always comes too soon.
Aware of death’s inevitability, we must discipline ourselves to ponder just how short our lives will be. Though our hearts are set on immortality, we are heading toward certain mortality (Ecclesiastes 3:11, Hebrews 9:27). Moses says, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10).
David laments the human condition when he prays: “Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding” (1 Chronicles 29:15). A shadow has no substance, it is fleeting and ephemeral, and it cannot be grasped before it fades away. Life, too, is transient, and it will soon fade away to death.
Job compared time to a runner, a skiff, and an eagle: “My days are swifter than a runner; they flee away; they see no good. They go by like skiffs of reed, like an eagle swooping on the prey” (Job 9:25-26). As a man runs on land, and as skiff glides across the water, as an eagle swoops in the air, so time races by. Yet time is different in one essential way. The runner can retrace his steps and go back to the starting line, the skiff can turn and make progress against the flow, the eagle can rise again. But time only goes forward, never back.
Consider How Little Time You Have Left
We should not only consider the brevity of life, but also how much of our short lives have already elapsed. Job says, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle and come to their end without hope” (Job 7:6). Our days race by, each seeming to go faster than the one before. The long, leisurely summer days of youth are soon but a distant memory. The college years fade into the distance behind us. Our babies soon grow into adults and bear babies of their own. Youthful vigor is replaced by the fear and feebleness of old age. We learn, to our surprise, just how short a dash separates the day of birth from the day of death.
We do well to ponder what we have done with the time given to us, as well as the talents, gifts, and opportunities bestowed upon us. Have we redeemed the time by using our talents, by blessing others with our gifts, by making the most of every opportunity? Such reflection must provoke lament and confession for time misspent, talent wasted, gifts neglected, opportunity squandered. Such confession is not meant to lead to hopelessness but to repentance and recommitment. God freely forgives us and sets us back on our way, telling us to make our final days our most significant.
Consider Your Uncertain End
Finally, we do well to consider that we do not know how much time we have left. “So teach us to number our days,” says Moses (Psalm 90:12). Life is short, and we have already lived so much of it. Only God knows whether we have decades remaining or mere moments. “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
With such thoughts fixed firmly in our minds, we must not allow ourselves to waste a moment or to indulge a single sin. What if Christ returns, and we are not prepared? “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning,” says Jesus, “and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks” (Luke 12:35-36). What if death comes before we are ready? Paul says, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). What if the end comes suddenly while we are trapped in habits and patterns of sin? “For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.” (1 Thessalonians 5:5-6).
Such considerations are meant to drive us to quick repentance and to motivate a deep longing for godliness. “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Luke 12:40). Are we ready?
This life is a race, a race against time, a race to become like Christ as we sprint toward Christ. Even the greatest believers will still be laden by sin as they cross the finish and receive their crown. The holiest saints will still be stained with sin, drawn to evil. It is only in the presence of Christ where they will experience final deliverance from the power of sin and final transformation to complete holiness. Yet there is much we can and must accomplish in the meantime, and our usefulness to Christ’s purposes depends upon our holiness. Such holiness demands that we ponder the short time given to us, that we consider what we have done with it, that we commit to making the most of what remains. To grow in godliness, we must diligently ponder the brevity of life.
The “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness” are drawn from the work of Thomas Watson. Here are the words that inspired this article: “Think of your short stay in the world, 1 Chron. xxix. 15. ‘Our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.’ There is but a span between the cradle and the grave: Solomon saith, ‘There is a time to be born, and a time to die,’ Eccl. iii. 2, but mentions no time of living, as if that were so short it were not worth naming; and time, when it is once gone, cannot be recalled; the scripture compares time to a flying eagle, Job ix. 26, yet, herein time differs from the eagle, the eagle flies forward, and then back again, but time hath wings only to flee forward, it never returns back. The serious thoughts of our short abode here would be a great means to promote godliness; what if death should come before we are ready? What if our life should breathe out, before God’s Spirit hath breathed in? He that considers how flitting and winged his life is, will hasten his repentance; when God is about to make a short work, he will not make a long work.”