Many people ignore the grim reality that we will die and be forgotten by our peers and those who come after us. Within just a few decades, we will be a distant memory to our progeny, and within 100 years, few of us will be remembered by anyone. In the end, our vain pursuits to look younger and healthier will fail, and the people about whose opinions we care so much will also die. Stroll through a cemetery to remember what happens to everyone.
Though our death is a certainty, we cloak this fact behind words designed to make death seem like the exception instead of the rule: asking whether a sick friend is going to die—as if we are not all terminal. The only question is when we will die. Operationally, we act immortal, minimally planning for the inevitable, shoving it out of our minds.
Even in this life, our big achievements fade fast. U.S. Senator Dick Stone represented Florida from 1974 to 1980. He later became ambassador-at-large to Central America and ambassador to Denmark. But less than two decades after his prominent service, his name has been virtually erased from public memory. I met him a few years ago and inwardly marveled that I had never even heard of him. That will be the same story for most of us. Our greatest temporal victories will vanish into the mist of history, almost totally forgotten by those we have sought to impress.
But we will never be forgotten by God.
One day, perhaps tomorrow, we will stand before the audience of One, our Creator and our Judge, being called to account for how we spent our time on Earth. It is around this moment that I seek to orient my life. I try to think about my death every day and to live accordingly. Of course, I often forget and live out of fear of others or fear of failure or just plain vanity. But I know that my chief end should be to “glorify God, and enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism).
Glorifying God in all things requires that we master self-denial. Contrary to conventional wisdom, real power lies in the ability to say no to oneself and say yes to God. Counter-intuitively, in denying ourselves we learn to live life to the full. It is the hard work of self-mastery that leads to joy. The more we deny ourselves, the more we have. The more we humble ourselves, the more we are exalted. The last shall be first. The losers will be the winners. The meek will inherit the earth. The power in saying “no” to ourselves frees us to say “yes” to God and find the life for which we were made.
The reason joy begins in self-denial is because we must be freed from the sin in which we were born and which taints every part of us and others. The world is not how it is supposed to be. It is twisted, corrupted, and wrong.
This is not to say that nothing is good in the world. To the contrary, much good remains since Adam and Eve’s fateful decision to rebel. We see God’s beauty in a sunset, his genius in fantastical deep-sea creatures, his love in a mother, his joy in our friends. But these whispers of transcendence are set in the context of the cruelty of an abusive parent, the inhumanity of war, the insanity of the asylum, the destruction of a tornado, the tragedy of melanoma. The evil of our world runs right through our hearts, though we are often too blind to see our own sin and can only recognize it in others.
Learning to say no begins with laying down our lives at the cross and accepting God’s forgiveness. In plunging ourselves into God’s grace in the person of the God-Man Jesus, we simultaneously say no to ourselves and yes to God. In this act, God’s mercy secures us as his own, imputing Christ’s righteousness to us. We are sealed as God’s own, his righteousness covers our unrighteousness, and we are set free to serve our Savior out of gratitude, rather than to try to earn our salvation out of fear or pride.
This first act of saying no to ourselves is followed by countless more acts of self-denial as we seek to be sanctified—made more like God. Although followers of Christ have been ransomed by God, we are still sinful and remain in a sinful world. Denying our natural impulses to sin requires enormous effort and moment-by-moment practice. It takes a lifetime—and the grace of God—to seek to overcome the sin into which we are born. We are called to strive for perfection, and it is hard duty, indeed. Yet it is in the unceasing and wearying effort to reject rebellion that we find joy.
Unfortunately, we will never arrive at perfection this side of death. Our best efforts always fall short, which is why grace carries us from first to last. There is no room for boasting about our efforts, because they will never suffice. The power of salvation is not in our self-denial, but in the power of the cross. We do not preach ourselves, but Christ crucified.