A Math Problem We All Struggle With

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One cultural observer noted an unhealthy trait that characterizes our age. He said we tend to trivialize the important and make the important trivial. We prioritize the things that are insignificant while the things that matter most get little consideration.

This seems like a perceptive conclusion.

It’s likely not helped by the fact that we live in an age of tremendous technological advancement. We can do things with our phones that we would never have imagined doing 25 years ago. We can shop, listen to music, communicate with people around the world with video chat, and have access to what seems like limitless information. 

But at the same time, there are some drawbacks. It’s easy to be distracted. We can find it challenging to focus on important things because we are drawn after a million different trivial things. It’s easy to spend hours watching Netflix, but it’s hard to spend five minutes contemplating who God is. We can wade into the shallow end—the infinity pool of social media and entertainment—but can’t manage the deeper waters of significance. 

Moving from the Trivial to Substance

While getting distracted from things that matter is more pronounced today, it’s nothing new. Throughout history, people have been tempted to look away from what is vital to what is temporal. The tradeoff is dangerous.  

It was when Moses wrote the Psalm 90. He likely wrote it in a challenging time in the nation of Israel. You can read about it in Numbers 14. Here’s the summary. God had led the people out of Egypt and was leading them to the promised land. But after spying out the land, the people got afraid and began grumbling against God and even said that they would rather go back to Egypt. This grumbling was intense and loud. They were abandoning God. So God said he would judge them. In this judgment, the generation that would not believe would die in the wilderness. They would experience God’s judgment.

In this psalm, Moses prays to God, “Teach us to number our days so we may grow a heart of wisdom.”

This numbering of the days isn’t easy. People are solving all kinds of complex equations and figuring out a myriad of solutions to various problems, but we have a hard time measuring our days.

Moses is praying for God to give the people an awareness of the shortness of their time.

Why? It’s because we are too easily distracted. We are unable to focus on things of eternal and substantive value, choosing instead be captivated by the trivial. He wants to have the perspective that life is short. We aren’t guaranteed more days so we should live with this realistic perspective.

Realistic Perspective

We should live with this perspective. We should live like we are prepared to die.

Perhaps this is one reason why the author of Ecclesiastes says it is better to go to a funeral than to a party (Eccl. 7:2). The funeral forces you to deal with the reality you’d rather forget, while the party helps you to forget the more uncomfortable aspects of life. There is a popular account on Twitter called “Daily Death Reminder” it tweets the same thing every single day. It says, “You will die someday.” This helps to number your days.

This really is counter-cultural. We try the best we can today to avoid thinking about death. We pretend that we can defeat it in our life with our health and wellness. And when people die, we speak in modified language to lessen the effect of it. But this is not facing reality.

It’s interesting how things have changed. In colonial New England, the topics of death, wrath, and time were not far from view. It was on the table from a very young age. In The New England Primer, the first textbook published for the schooling of American children, the emphasis upon the brevity of life was emphatic.

Teaching children the alphabet with life lessons, each letter had a picture and a phrase to remember.

(G) “As runs the Glass, man’s life doth pass”

(J) “Job feels the rod, and blesses God”

(T) “Time cuts down all, both great and small”

(X) “Xerxes the great did die, and so must you and I.”

(Y) “Youth’s forward slips, death soonest nips.”

Death is coming. And none of us should be surprised.

Instead of wading in the trivial and shallow waters of the infinity pool we’d be well served to push out a bit into the waters of substance and significance. Here we can, with Moses, contemplate the brevity of our own lives in light of the eternality of God (Ps. 90:1-2).

The first step toward numbering our days is to realize that there is a limit to them. Reckoning with this truth would calibrate many things. It certainly has the power to shake us from an unhealthy preoccupation with the trivial.

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