Temporality and Wisdom

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12 (ESV)

At the time of this writing, I’ve been chewing on that verse since about 2009—more than a decade, and I can’t say that I’ve fully understood it or mined it out for all it’s worth.

When I first memorized that verse, I had just started college at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I visited a local church that met in one of SCAD’s theaters. The pastor wore a v-neck t-shirt and hammered on Psalm 90:12 for the entire sermon. He had the congregation say it with him several times while he preached, and as a result, I have it committed to memory.

And now it’s been working on my heart since that time.

A lot has changed in my life since memorizing that verse. I graduated college and got a job designing online courses with SCAD. I got married. We left Savannah and took a quick detour to Denver for seminary, which turned out to not be the right plan. We moved to North Carolina. I started my own business, and now we have two kids.

Then, in a span of two years, three of my immediate family members died. My mother passed May 2020. One of my brothers passed from complications due to COVID in April 2021, and my other brother died from an drug overdose in March 2022. Every single death was unexpected.

With each of these family members, I made the assumption that there was a tomorrow. I had believed that there would be another conversation, another meeting, another time.

I am learning that all we have is today.

When I think about Psalm 90:12, I tend to replace the group pronouns with the singular and then turn it into a personal prayer: “Lord, teach me to number my days that I may gain a heart of wisdom.” And this is a true prayer for me. I do want to consider the finiteness of my life and the fact that there is end to my days. I do want the knowledge of such to produce in me a heart of wisdom. I want both of those things for myself, and I want the Lord to make it so in my, singular, individual life. And so I pray it in the singular.

However, that’s not how it’s written. Psalm 90:12 isn’t about me—it’s about us.

The Psalm is written so that we—collectively—are to number our days, to realize that we have a short time together, to realize that we will in fact die. And we’re asking the Lord to teach us how to do that so that we—together—may gain a heart of wisdom. The implication is that I cannot gain a heart of wisdom without community. I can’t really number my days if I’m not considering the short span of my life within the context of my relationships. In Beyond Smells and Bells Mark Galli writes, “When the individual is our starting point, we find no way to satisfy the basic yearning of the human heart, which has been created for communion.”1Mark Galli, Beyond Smells and Bells (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2008), 101.

Here’s a practical example from my life. When I’m having a bad day, and I’m frustrated with my wife and kids, I try to ask myself the following questions:

  • If I were to die today, is this how I’d want it to end?
  • If any of my family members were to die today, is this how I’d want it to end?

These are of course mildly morbid questions, but when you’ve encountered a lot of death in a short period of time, they are quite reasonable questions to ask. My answer to these questions is always and unequivocally NO. That recognition makes it much easier to confess pride and selfishness to my wife, ask forgiveness, and then get on with the day having a restored relationship. That is what I think it means for us to number our days. We consider the effects our lives have on each other, and wisdom dictates that we choose to act according to Christ-likeness.

Being confronted with death on the news is tragic, but those stories retain a level of distance and abstraction that make the reality of death less impending. When the angel of death flashes his sword over the threshold of your doorway, the prospect of dying suddenly becomes pressing and important.

Prior to the death of my mother and brothers, there were many conversations that I hoped we would have had in the future. Two of the three relationships were in the middle of significant transformation and restoration, and I had great expectations for their future. And then came the full stop.

When that happens, nothing can be added; nothing can be taken away. As the Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes, “What has been is what will be.” (Eccl. 1:9a) I continue to have a relationship with the person through history, blood, and memory, but I cease to have a relationship in terms of fellowship and interaction in the land of the living. There is no Ctrl + Z when a loved one passes.2This is a shortcut for “Undo” that I use all day, every day. All that is left is to piece together what remains, to interpret and reinterpret what has transpired, and to trust that God will make things clear in due time.

During the past months and years, I’ve often wondered why my mother and brothers died when they did and not at some other time. I trust in God’s wisdom and sovereignty, and I recognize that such questions are unanswerable. It’s at those times that God answers as Aslan did to Aravis’s questions in The Horse and His Boy: “Child,” said the Lion, “I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”3C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy (New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1982), 202.

The real question that remains is: How am I going to live with the time I have left?

  • 1
    Mark Galli, Beyond Smells and Bells (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2008), 101.
  • 2
    This is a shortcut for “Undo” that I use all day, every day.
  • 3
    C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy (New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1982), 202.
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