Spiritual Growth

Ash Wednesday: How Remembering that We Will Die Can Teach Us How to Live

When we fail to remember that we will die, it’s easy to believe that we’re in control . . . But our powerlessness to escape death reminds us that every day and every breath is a gift from God.

By Christine McParland

Why does that customer have dirt on her forehead? I wondered as I scanned the aisles of the health food store where I worked. I spotted another dirt-smudged customer before remembering it was Ash Wednesday. My small Bible church didn’t observe Lent, and secretly I was glad to be spared from wearing ash on my face for an entire day. The imposition of ashes—and the observance of Lent, for that matter—seemed like an empty, even legalistic ritual, and I doubted whether it had any spiritual impact on those who practiced it.

Those doubts dissipated after the loss of a loved one compelled me to consider my own mortality. The following year, I found myself receiving ashes at the nondenominational church I’d been recently attending. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the pastor spoke as he gently smudged an ashen cross on my brow. As I took those words to heart, I wondered why there was only one day in the church calendar set aside to remember the sin-wrought reality that befalls each of us: death.

It may seem morbid to dwell on death, even for a single day. As Christians, aren’t we supposed to focus on resurrection hope? But that’s the point: contemplating our own mortality prepares us to celebrate eternal life in Christ. And remembering that we will die can teach us how to live. How? Let’s look to Psalm 90 for some insight into this mystery.

Remembering that we will die reminds us that we are not God.

Before the mountains were born, before you gave birth to the earth and the world, from beginning to end, you are God. You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals!”

Psalm 90:2-3, NLT

While the Psalmist paints an intimidating picture of God commanding mortals to return to dust, this poetic illustration simply points out that everything—including our very lives—belongs to God. And because they belong to him, he can give and take as he wishes. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21, CSB)

When we fail to remember that we will die, it’s easy to believe that we’re in control. We can be tempted to think that we’re God (at least over our own lives). But our powerlessness to escape death reminds us that every day and every breath is a gift from the Lord.

Remembering that we will die teaches us that our lifetime is limited.

You sweep people away like dreams that disappear. They are like grass the springs up in the morning. In the morning it blooms and flourishes, but by evening it is dry and withered.

Psalm 90:5-6, NLT

Regardless of how young or old we are, how healthy we are or are not, none of us can take a single day for granted. It’s responsible stewardship to plan for the future; however, we must hold our plans lightly, realizing they will only come to pass if God wills it.

The Apostle James reminds us, “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” (James 4:14-15 NIV; see also the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21.)

Our lives are limited; our days are numbered. But rather than be cause for despair, this reality should help us receive each day as a gift to treasure and steward. When we live without the end in mind, we’re more likely to waste the life we’ve been given.

Remembering that we will die rightly orients our perspective on life.

Seventy years are given to us! Some even live to eighty. But even the best years are filled with pain and trouble; soon they disappear, and we fly away. . . Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.

Psalm 90:10, 12 NLT

Life is hard, and the realization that it will end is actually good news! Those who trust in Christ know that an eternity free from suffering awaits them. And when times are good, the brevity of life reminds us not to cling to the things of this earth but look forward to eternal life with Christ in the new heaven and earth (see Revelation 21:1-8).

So whether “time flies when you’re having fun” or each day feels agonizingly long, knowing that our days are numbered can both sober and comfort us.

Then how are we to live?

The Scriptures say much more about this topic, from the wisdom literature of the Old Testament to the epistles of the New. But a biblical perspective on how we should live is beautifully summarized in the psalmist’s prayer:

Oh, satisfy us early with Your mercy,

That we may rejoice and be glad all our days!

Make us glad according to the days in which You have afflicted us,

The years in which we have seen evil.

Let Your work appear to Your servants,

And Your glory to their children.

And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,

And establish the work of our hands for us;

Yes, establish the work of our hands.

Psalm 90:14-17, NKJV

Especially as war and violence flood the news streams, may we daily receive God’s mercy as the source of our joy. May we trust God to work good in all things and redeem even the hard and painful days. And may we ask God to bring eternal fruit from our earthly trials, seeking the beauty of the Lord today until we behold him face to face forever.

Come back each Wednesday in March for another post in our Lent Demystified series!

Christine loves how stories open our imaginations to God and His work in our lives. As a marketing coordinator at Tyndale, she is excited to help readers connect to life-changing stories through books, Bibles, and blog articles. In her free time, Christine enjoys reading multiple books simultaneously, exploring the forest preserve near her home, and writing about everything she sees and experiences.

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