When Sinners Say Goodbye
Time, Aging, and Our Glorious Hope
I write this knowing that if you’ve gotten this far you’ve probably spent a good deal of time thinking about things you may never have thought about before. Perhaps you feel the same way I do, that we’ve been walking together on some less traveled paths. We’ve walked together up the dizzying inclines of doctrine and into the shadowy depths of self-examination. Our path has taken us into wide open meadows of mercy and grace, and along the unexpectedly rocky terrain of confession and forgiveness. My greatest hope is that, wherever we’ve walked, we’ve never lost sight of the cross—the only sure marker for marriage when sinners say, “I do.” Before we end, I’d like to take you on one more stroll, once again to a place you might not expect.
Cemeteries have always factored into my life in a strange way. As a kid fleeing adult supervision, a nearby graveyard was the place for me and my buddies to lay low while the heat from our shenanigans blew over. Later Kimm and I lived right around the corner from a cemetery. People generally don’t hang out in such places. There’s no picnic area, no playground, no Starbucks. You only go there, well, if you need to. I used to walk with our kids through the big quiet neighborhood cemetery so we could look at the tombstones together. That may sound like an odd way of bonding with one’s offspring, but I wanted to impress upon them that today matters because tomorrow can’t be assumed. Even kids need to learn about the brevity of life.
Sometimes I have come upon a cemetery plot with a matched pair of headstones, one inscribed, the other still blank. That’s when I stop and ponder the marriage story being illustrated there. In my mind’s eye I see a young couple, intoxicated by romance, standing wide-eyed at the altar . . . then holding one newborn baby, and another . . . memories and images of a lifetime together. Now one spouse lies here, the other stands alone.
But hold on—before you toss this book aside, muttering “The other chapters were okay but this one is shaping up to be pretty depressing,” hear me out. Part of living in a fallen world is suffering the ultimate consequence of Adam’s sin: Death. The studies are conclusive. Among those born, all die. There are no special passes and no one is exempt. (Okay, I’m leaving out Enoch and Elijah. But if nobody else—Isaiah, John the Baptist, the twelve Apostles, Paul—got to skip the dying part, you and I aren’t exactly leading candidates.)
Indeed, Scripture sets forth an unfashionable goal for believers: God wants us to die well. This has nothing to do with estate-planning. It speaks of whether, through sanctification, our souls are prepared for the inevitable reality of death. The youth-fixated, pain-averse, escapist nature of western culture is an anomaly in human history. Here, preparation for death seems morbid. But throughout history, and in most of the world today, death has always been part of life and deserving of attention. The Puritans, in their admirable “Let’s bring God into every moment” perspective, saw marriage as not simply a great way to live, but as a training ground for what lay beyond. Pastor Richard Baxter saw one of the goals of marriage as this, “To prepare each other for the approach of death, and comfort each other in the hopes of life eternal.”
Of course, death rarely comes to a husband and wife at the same time. You and your spouse have been joined together, but you probably won’t leave together. As D. A. Carson soberly reminds us, “All we have to do is live long enough, and we will be bereaved.”
He’s got a point there. What about when “death do us part” actually happens? Moses prayed in Psalm 90, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty . . . they are soon gone, and we fly away.” Moses saw that time passes quickly, and with it go husbands, wives, and marriages. Does our view of marriage ignore this inevitability, or assume it?
Sinners Say “I Do” For the Time of Decline
I grew up playing sports. I loved sports too much, really. As I got older, I still ran regularly for years. Now I have a rogue knee and a rebellious back. They’re like a street gang among my members, daring me to make a false move so they can dust me. As much as my pride hates to admit it, this body is on the downhill slide. So now instead of running, I walk (not too much of an athletic feat to brag about around the office). I’m wondering if this whole thing is headed toward crawling for exercise.
I think Paul could relate. He encourages the Corinthians by saying, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). While describing himself, Paul offers a pretty accurate diagnosis for us as well. This inevitable wasting away comes from our forefather Adam, whose turn from God toward self-sufficiency doomed us to the universal physical destiny of ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Life involves bodily decay, folks. The only question is when do we recognize it.
But Paul overlays this cold physical reality with radiant gospel truth. Bodily decay isn’t the only thing going on: We are also being gloriously renewed from within. You see, the new birth, the biblical concept of regeneration, isn’t like the old birth. Under the old, physical birth, we basically start dying as soon as we leave the womb. (Talk about peaking early.) But under the new spiritual birth, the life of God re-animates our sin-dead souls and the process is reversed—we actually get better with time!
What’s going on inside us spiritually is really quite amazing. Our souls are being prepared for eternity with God. This is why Paul tells us not to lose heart. Sure, physically, things aren’t so great. Whatever we may have counted as physical assets are quickly becoming liabilities. Faces are showing lines, hair is graying or falling out, muscles are sagging, and mid-sections are growing. I see it in the mirror every day! Married couples in their early years often talk wistfully of growing old together—trust me, it’s harder than it looks.
So when life comes at you in ways you don’t expect, remember this: Regeneration is the initial burst of spiritual life in our souls. Renewal is that same power working itself out in every facet of who we are, fitting us, as it were, for eternal life with Jesus.