Do you spend time thinking about your mortality? If you do, does pondering death fill you with gratitude?
If you’re like most modern Christians, you spend as little time as possible thinking about death. Unless you’re an estate planner, pastor, doctor, or mortician, you likely don’t spend a lot of time even thinking about mortality. Our youth-driven culture keeps us in the constant pursuit of life through technology and science.
Todd Billings, a pastor and theologian, found this thought pattern disrupted by a diagnosis of incurable cancer. In his book, The End of the Christian Life, Billings calls us to embrace our mortality in our daily life and faith. He says, “This is the journey of genuine discipleship, following the crucified and resurrected Lord in a world of distraction and false hopes.”
Memento Mori: Remember death
The latin phrase memento mori means to “remember death.” It reminds us that we are mere mortals and to never get too big a view of ourselves. It’s also a tremendous reminder to cherish every moment.
The phrase originated when victorious Roman generals returned from battle. While they walked the streets—receiving the adulation of the crowds—a servant followed the general and whispered, “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” Translated, this means, “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”
Is memento mori biblical?
While most references to death in the Bible point us toward salvation and eternal life, the book of Ecclesiastes reflects on the seeming meaningless of life, encouraging us to “Enjoy every minute of it. Do everything you want to do; take it all in. But remember that you must give an account to God for everything you do” (Eccles. 11:9 NLT). That sounds similar to memento mori.
King David reflected on this,
“Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.—Psalm 39:4-5 NLT
Remind me that my days are numbered—
how fleeting my life is.
You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
at best, each of us is but a breath.”
3 Ways to Remember Death that Lead to Gratitude
Contrary to our modern aversion to discussing death in a meaningful way (outside of dramatized news reports and movies), there is tremendous benefit that comes through thoughtful remembering. Here are three ways:
#1: Remember mortality by reflecting
When’s the last time you went to a funeral or a cemetary?
SIDE NOTE: some of my friends think I spent three years at the cemetery, but it’s actually called seminary. The confusion is deserved—sometimes the studies were so hard and dull it made you think about your mortality. Ha!
The last funeral I attended was my father’s in 2019. That doesn’t mean I don’t know people who died since then, but COVID made it difficult to attend funerals in 2020. But, if I’m honest, I don’t like thinking about death or attending funerals.
Maybe you have a healthier view of your mortality, but I suspect we all can benefit from thinking about the shortness of our lives. It helps us reconsider the decisions we make in relationships, career, investments, and hobbies.
The first church I served after seminary was on Lake Oconee in Georgia. It’s a beautiful retirement community with at least five world class golf courses and a Ritz Carlton. Many people retire there dreaming of playing endless golf and tennis. After a relatively short period of time, some of these retirees realize that’s not how they want to spend the rest of their lives. They reevaluate their priorities and spend more time with family, serving God, and making their lives count.
John Piper wrote the book Don’t Waste Your Life with high school and college graduates in mind, but we can all benefit from thinking about how to make the most of the days God gives us.
#2: Choose life, not death
A great barometer for living could be measured on a sliding scale: does this give life or death? The more life you find in doing something, the higher the score. The more something causes you to die on the inside, the lower the score. Here’s how it might help:
If you’re doing things that make you want to shrivel up, then maybe you need to find more things that make you feel alive. We’re all dying, so we can’t avoid things like trash, taxes, and dishes. But if your workout makes you feel like you’re going through the motions, change it up. If your job feels like a trap, find a way to rethink your work—that might mean finding a new job, but often we can rethink our approach to work.
Let me give an example. I’m highly creative—some call me an “idea factory.” Highly detail-oriented planners don’t appreciate my eleventh hour creative ideas. Knowing this to be true, I sometimes turn off the creative juices prematurely. But after a while I start to wither up inside. What I’ve learned to do is find ways to insert my creative juices across the company when it’s most needed. I also exercise creativity through music and writing.
The choices we make today create new genetic responses in our brain. If we consistently choose life-giving thoughts and actions, we will create life in our brains. And vice versa.
#3: Live today, not tomorrow
Jesus told his disciples, ““So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:34 NLT). The book of Proverbs adds, “A hard worker has plenty of food, but a person who chases fantasies has no sense” (Prov. 12:11 NLT).
Without the benefit of time travel, we will never be able to live in the future. We can make plans, but we still have to live in the present.
Memento mori helps us choose to live today like it’s our only day. We each get 24 hours, but many of us fritter away that time. I’m not suggesting that we sleep less, but instead that we avoid wasted ruminating thoughts and choose gratitude instead.
Gratitude gives life and helps us appreciate each moment for what it is. Gratefulness helps us remember what and who brought us to where we are. Thankfulness makes us more aware of what’s happening right here and now.
Mortality can point us toward heaven
As Larry Crabb approaches the end of his life, he’s become acutely aware of how much more he longs for heaven. And while he physically can’t do all the things he did while younger, he intends to make the most of the days that remain through writing, teaching, and purposeful relationships.
Crabb agrees with Peter when he says,
“Wait! What we want most lies ahead. Demand nothing now. Expect everything then. Receive every good thing that comes to you now. Enjoy each one, with thanks. But realize this life will never fully satisfy your deepest thirst.”—Larry Crabb, Waiting for Heaven
What about you? How are you making the most of the days God has given you?
Walk or drive through a cemetery this week. Allow the experience to help you think about your mortality. What grateful memories come to mind? How can you choose life today?
Father, thank you for making me in your image. I praise you, Jesus, for saving me from the curse of death and giving me the gift of abundant life. I pray, Holy Spirit, that you will increase my joy and delight for each moment you give me. Help me to number my days and remain thankful for each day. Use me. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.