You will soon die and, most likely, be forgotten.
“Half of Americans know the name of only one or none of their great-grandparents,” says one survey. If you are remembered at all, it will probably be for one or two generations. This may seem morbid, disillusioning, or perhaps uninteresting to you, but for me it is surprisingly liberating. The common summary of Count Zinzendorf’s advice to Moravian missionaries is a reminder that faithfulness in one’s generation is enough: “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.”
Since I will soon be dead, it does not (ultimately) matter who knows me now. After I am dead, I will not know whether or not I am remembered. While my body is lying still in the grave, awaiting the glorious resurrection, it is in God’s hands to use (or not use) my life’s work as it best promotes His undying glory. In view of death and the eternal enjoyment of God, the fears, infirmities, and anxieties of my life fade from view, and I can gladly accept Paul’s admonition to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
While others scurry about, anxiously trying to prove their worth through fame, wealth, and work — all before the death knell sounds — those who are safe in Christ may abide in sweet rest and blessed assurance, waiting for the grave or the trumpet to usher them into the presence of the Lord. The righteous may stare boldly at death and join in the mocking strain, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).
While the reality of death is liberating, it is also constraining. Saint Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and many others have been depicted in paintings with a skull or hourglass (usually on their desks) as a memento mori — a visual reminder of the certainty of death and the importance of living well. In fact, there is a whole body of historical Christian literature devoted to this subject, “Remember, you must die.”
John Wesley urged, “You have no time to lose; see that you redeem every moment that remains. Remove everything out of the way, be it ever so small… that might anyways obstruct your lowliness and meekness, your seriousness of spirit, your single intention to glorify God, in all your thoughts and words and actions.”
In the canon of Scripture, Ecclesiastes stands as a memento mori, and helps us to wrestle with the fleeting nature of life before it has fled. “For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance,” says Solomon, “seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!” (Ecclesiastes 2:6). He later remarks, “what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 3:19). In view of this inevitable end, “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
Embracing our mortality lifts the fog of life’s complexities and provides a clear line of sight to eternal matters; namely, the conclusion of the whole matter, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). When we anchor our soul in the uncomplicated reality that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27), our monotonous and sometimes distressing existence begins to make sense and assume order. God’s Kingdom is better established in our lives and His will is more fully done.
Eye on The Eternal
With death in view, let us occupy until He comes, hearing, obeying, sowing, and looking for eternal things. “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Peter 1:24-25). When all is said and done, only the gospel will remain. Everything we build apart from His word will be laid bare and dissolved in fire (2 Peter 3:10).
The unsummarized Zinzendorf quote reads, “Remember, you must never use your position to lord it over the heathen. Instead, you must humble yourself and earn their respect through your own quiet faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. The missionary must seek nothing for himself, no seat of honor or hope of fame…. You must be content to suffer, to die, and to be forgotten.”
It is satisfying to know that it is enough to live with humble, respectable, quiet, spiritual faith, then die and be forgotten. While we would all like our churches to be brimming with saints, it is enough to faithfully dispense our gospel ministries and trust God with the results. Our success and legacy are in His hands, for “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). Too much focus on our platform or legacy, even under the banner of Christ, is dangerously close to what the world desires, and easily disrupts our rest. Whatever God has called us to do, it is enough to do it and die.
It is well known that after treating several Methodists, a physician remarked to Charles Wesley, “Most people die for fear of dying; but, I never met with such people as yours. They are none of them afraid of death, but [are] calm, and patient, and resigned to the last.” When we remember that we must die, and live faithfully in our generation, death becomes a welcome friend. When we agree with the Psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25), beyond the door of death lies all of our heart’s desires — eternal happiness with God. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain…having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:21, 23).