Kate Bowler had been suffering bouts of debilitating intestinal distress for some time. Eventually a specialist diagnosed her condition as cancer. Stage IV cancer. She was 35 years old. A rising star at Duke. Married to her high school sweetheart. And the mother of their baby boy. You may be familiar with her story. Her writings and her media appearances tell us what it was like to get that wretched news and to undergo the harrowing and successful treatment.
Her book No Cure for Being Human is a candid, vulnerable, sometimes raw account of the fear, the anger, the disappointment, the courage, the grit, and the clarity she experienced as she faced her own impending death. The Psalmist once wrote, “So teach us to count our days/ that we may gain a wise heart.” (Ps. 90:12) We genuinely understand life’s meaning, value, and purpose only once we’ve faced our mortality. Bowler shows us that this is no easy lesson. But it’s the lesson that that teaches us what makes life worth living.
The Psalmist put it this way: “So teach us to count our days/ that we may gain a wise heart.” (Ps. 90:12) To put it another way, we come to understand the meaning, the value, and the purpose of our lives only by honestly facing our mortality.
What a buzzkill that lesson is! Right? Lingering on thoughts of death might sound morbid to you. And you would not be alone. There are industries devoted entirely to the idea of beating back the ravages of time. There are anti-aging supplements to take, creams to slather on our skin, hormones to inject, foods to eat, and exercise routines to follow.
With the right workout and diet and medical interventions we can keep this party going. At the very least, we would be better off avoiding the whole topic of death and focusing on enjoying life while we have it.
But that’s not what the Bible teaches us. Just listen to the author of Ecclesiastes: “It is better to go to the house of mourning/ than to go to the house of feasting;/ for this is the end of everyone,/ and the living will lay it to heart.” (Eccl. 7:2) Bowler echoes the point: “Modernity is a fever dream promising infinite choices and unlimited progress…. But I cannot outwork or outpace or outplay my cancer.” (p. 16, 17) There’s no getting around it. We are finite.
Now it is possible to draw more than one lesson from our mortality. Some have concluded that we should eat, drink, and be merry before we go down to the dirt. Others, like the Stoics, counseled that we should keep the inescapability of death in mind because that awareness motivates us to live honorable lives. History will remember us as having done great deeds, displayed enviable courage, and embodied admirable virtue.
On Ash Wednesday—and throughout the season of Lent—Christian tradition calls us back to the sober acknowledgement that the death rate remains 100%. In a church service a minister may impose ashes on your forehead with the words: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
These words do indeed remind us that we will one day go down to the grave. However, they also indicate a broader theological context from which the most powerful, enduring hope arises.
Yes, I am dust. But I’m an odd sort of dust. A dust that draws breath, that admires the beauty of the earth and gasps at suffering, that loves and mourns, that cries and laughs. Dust cannot supply its own breath. The breath that I breathe is given to me by the God who brought all things into being. Brought me into being. With a love that is infinite and eternal.
And though I will return to the dust from which I came, I will not remain there. Not because I can pull myself out of the grave by my own bootstraps. But because the love that created me is a love that will never give up on me. It is the love that raises the dead to life. A life beyond all death and sorrow and misery.
To be dust is to be a radically contingent kind of being. To be dependent utterly on God. And to remember that we are dust is not simply to linger morbidly on our mortality. It’s to remember in our very marrow that in Jesus God gives mere mortals the extravagant gift of eternal life.