As I rode in the passenger seat and we passed by on the bumpy city street, I took the time to observe the scene out my window. There was an old renovated brick building which now housed a fitness club. I could see people running on treadmills and using exercise equipment through the building’s oversized front windows. Light condensation huddled in the windows’ corners, the direct result of the energy released by thousands of muscles in a small space. From my seat, I thought about the men and women in the gym. Perhaps they were exercising before work, lifting weights before lifting their pens. Whatever motivated them to be at the gym so early in the morning, it was clear their trip was a priority and they wanted all the physical, psychological, and emotional benefits their exercise would provide.
My eyes moved to the left of the old brick building. A large cemetery occupied the adjacent lot. Rows and rows of granite tombstones stretched as far as the eye could see. Given the part of town we were in and the deteriorated condition of some of the markers, I knew this cemetery had occupied its space for a long time. As I observed both scenes, the irony hit me like a freight train: I was seeing a snapshot of our existence. This paradox of a fitness club next to a cemetery stamped three ironic impressions onto my consciousness.
1. Life and Death Are Closer Than We Think
They say there’s a thin line between love and hate. Well, there’s an even thinner line between life and death. Only a few yards—maybe even a few moments—seperated people sculpting their bodies from bodies returning to the dust from which they came. Physical life—our journey from birth to death—passes in the blink of an eye. In light of eternity, our lives are mere blips on the universal radar. James 4:14 warns us of the illusion of permanence: “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”
2. Death Is Our Default Setting Until Life Enters In
We were born dead. We grow up as children, teenagers, and adults living as the dead. In fact, many remain dead from the cradle to the grave. They live never experiencing true life. As the apostle Paul tells the church in Ephesus, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1).
This means that without encountering Christ, all of us are spiritually dead, enslaved to our sin nature. Without him, we follow sin’s desires and cravings in rebellion and disobedience to God. We aren’t just “bad people” or even “good dudes” for that matter. We were—and some us still are—dead. Even on our best days, we’re still dead. When we sat in church, we were dead. When we got that promotion, we were dead. When we got married or had children, we were dead. No spiritual pulse. We’re just like those rotten bodies decomposing in that cemetery, void of the breath of life until “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Eph. 2:4). He does this because of his great love for us.
Just as God breathed life into Adam, he breathes spiritual life into all who are saved by his grace through faith in Christ’s work. But he doesn’t stop there. He also gives us the power through his Holy Spirit to grow in holiness, a growth which will culminate when our time on earth expires. Eternal life isn’t just a future address in heaven—it belongs now to those who know God and the one he sent, Jesus (John 17:3). It’s a new sensitivity to sin and a desire to be obedient to Scripture. It’s a yearning to turn away from old habits and live in newness. It’s a freedom to be guided and strengthened by the Spirit. I sometimes forget the depth of love and the great distance Christ walked to bring me into relationship with God. Not only did he forgive my sin, but he woke me up from death and gave me life. And he did this because of his great mercy, not because of my own righteousness or desire for him. As God’s enemy, I deserved to continue in death—but praise God he gave me life.
3. Training for Life Is Better Than Training for Death
As I peered through those windows, I saw myself on those treadmills. How many times have I made working out a priority over reading my Bible? How many times have I been too tired to pray but not to watch my favorite show? How many times have I done something pleasurable for the present, instead of something profitable for others and eternity? I constantly struggle to prioritize the eternal over the temporal even though I know better. Make no mistake, we all have responsibilities and talents to hone, but let’s never feel so alive in the natural that we forget the importance of life in the spiritual. Let’s heed the words Paul gave his young protégé Timothy: “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
With so much focus on ability, appearance, and attainment in our culture, we must intentionally shift our eyes to that which will last. Eventually, we will all transfer memberships from the gym to the grave. When that day comes, what from this life will truly matter? What have we done today to strengthen our spiritual muscles? Like their physical counterparts, the sinews and fibers that lead us to hear the promptings of the Spirit, serve others, share the gospel, and love one another can be built up as well as torn down. Spiritual atrophy leaves us weak and vulnerable to temptation, but vigorous training produces a lifestyle of godliness that benefits us in this life and the next.
Observing this paradox reminded me that each of us must find our place in the vibrant vigor of the gym on the right and the silent sterility of the cemetery on the left. Life passes quickly. One minute we’re alive and well, the next we’re savoring every last moment we have left. While a cemetery, with its raised tombs and synthetic flowers, may seem so conclusive, it’s actually a continuation. Cemetaries are really terminals for departing to our final destinations: one for those made alive in Christ and another for those who stayed dead in their sin. Even as we live our lives now, there are those in earthen plots more alive then us, for they are celebrating and enjoying the presence of the Almighty.
Our Greatest Need
In my exerprience, the gym can be a very deceptive place. Strategically placed mirrors, loud motivating music, and the adrenaline of competition provide a brief escape from the real woes of the day. And in the gym of life, our innate depravity—compounded by the goals we set, the achievements we earn, the failures we try to forget, and the grief we endure—has the same masking effect. It blinds us from identifying our deadly condition and from addressing our greatest need—life in King Jesus. He alone illuminates our world, exposes our darkness, and fulfills our need.
When we realize we are dead and desperately need him, Jesus’s words give us hope: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).