As two hundred thousand people pass into eternity, and two hundred thousand families feel the sting of loved ones lost, Moses’s uncomfortable prayer presses itself upon us: “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
Teach us, O God, to see in these two hundred thousand deaths a foreshadow of our own. Teach us to feel that our lives, however long, are “like a dream, like grass that . . . fades and withers” (Psalm 90:5–6). And do it so that we may get a heart of wisdom. So that we may give ourselves, while the vapor of life still lingers, to the only work that will enter eternity.
On the other side of the coronavirus, the wisest people will not be those who have diversified their financial portfolios, nor those who have stocked up on masks and toilet paper in preparation for a potential second wave, but those who have learned to say from the heart, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Establish the Work of Our Hands
As creatures who have eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), we are slow to learn the lesson that life is a vapor. Life in the moment feels sturdy and secure, and we often act as if it might go on forever. And so we rarely see the work of our lives in the bracing light of life’s brevity.
But calamities bring death close. The previous months have sharpened the words of Psalm 90 into unpleasant focus: “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’ . . . You sweep them away as with a flood. . . . For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh” (Psalm 90:3, 5, 9). After more than 50,000 deaths in America alone (and in just over one month), C.S. Lewis’s words about World War II hold true today:
The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. (“Learning in War Time,” 49)
We have always lived on the edge of a precipice ready to crumble beneath our feet. The destruction caused by the coronavirus is merely a preview of what will one day happen to us and all we hold dear. Nations and economies, health and relationships will succumb eventually to the ravages of time. Moth and rust will destroy the treasure we thought secure. Life itself, which sprouts green in the morning, will wilt by evening.
No wonder Moses ends his reflections on death with a desperate prayer: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17). Only God can take this dying seed called life and make it bear fruit that lasts for eternity.
Labor in the Lord
When the fullness of time had come, God answered Moses’s prayer. The one “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2) descended into time and robed himself with earth. He tasted the curse of a life cut short, and returned to the dust like all of Adam’s sons.
But then this man rose up as the firstfruits of a new, curse-free creation (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). Now, in Jesus Christ, our lives and our labor are not swept away, but established: “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Outside of the Lord, our most impressive labors are grand nothings — civilizations built on the shores of time, with the tide quickly rising. Careers, bank accounts, reputations, legacies, and families, if built in our name rather than in Christ’s, must vanish in time. They may escape viruses and fires and floods, and perhaps even outlast our little lives, but the day will come when “the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed,” and every work outside of Christ will be “dissolved” (2 Peter 3:10–11).
But in the Lord, no labor is in vain. Our strength may be small, our lives brief, and our reputation of no account, but if we devote our days to living “in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17), then God himself will establish the work of our hands.
What will it mean for us to labor in the Lord? We need to ask this question again and again throughout our lives, not only in the midst of a pandemic. But moments like this one throw into sharp relief the choices in front of us. Our days are numbered, eternity is coming, and the only labor that matters is labor in the Lord. What then shall we do?
Numbering our days will lead many ordinary people to take some radical steps. Perhaps it took the coronavirus to expose just how many trivialities take up our time, and to make us feel the urgency of some good work we have long dreamed of doing. Perhaps now is the time to move toward an adoption, to begin a Bible study for inmates, to loosen ties here in order to move overseas, to get serious about evangelism.
The radical need not wait until life returns to “normal.” What we call “normal life,” remember, is really life on the edge of a precipice, not nearly so different from life now as many of us imagine. Some Christians, with hearts full of wisdom, have given their days to delivering fresh food to neighbors — free of charge. Others have fostered children coming from homes with domestic abuse. Still others have left retirement to return to the ICU, where they are serving the sick and dying.
Life is too short, and eternity too long, not to throw ourselves into something that feels big, risky, and packed with potential to glorify Christ.
But life is also too short, and eternity too long, to waste the ordinary moments of every day. So numbering our days will not only lead ordinary people to take some radical steps, but it will also lead us to take all sorts of ordinary steps radically. Our labor need not be grand to qualify as labor “in the Lord.” The smallest act, done through Christ and for Christ, will by no means lose its reward (Matthew 10:42).
Lewis, in the same address, goes on to say, “The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord’” (55–56). Much of our labor in the Lord will be of the charwoman variety: small, necessary acts of service that fall in line with the callings God has given to us, yet each dedicated to God in faith.
We will cook meals for our families, write letters to friends, keep up with shut-ins in our churches, bless our children before bed: forgotten obedience in forgotten moments in forgotten places. That is, forgotten by us — not by God. “Whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord” (Ephesians 6:8). Under God, even the smallest deed done in the Lord can leave an imprint that lasts longer than the skies.
Eternity in the Present
In matchless grace, God gives us the dignity of establishing the work of our hands. He takes these “fistfuls of mist” (as David Gibson calls them) and creates something far out of the reach of any virus or calamity. Yet only as we live in light of eternity. And that begins with living today in light of eternity.
Numbering our days begins with numbering this day: this unrepeatable, God-given 24 hours, filled with opportunities to labor in the Lord. We have not yet gained a heart of wisdom until eternity presses itself down into the present, teaching us to live today in light of forever. It matters little what kind of work we have ahead of us today — radical or ordinary, pleasant or bitter. What matters is whether we do it in the Lord.
If we do, then God himself will establish the work of our frail and dying hands. Yes, he will establish the work of our hands.