When Do We Live?

The glory of God is a man fully alive.
-Irenaeus, 2nd century church father

The medieval theologian Bede the Venerable gave a parable where he likened human existence to that of a bird that in the night flies out of the darkness into a dimly lit room of a castle, lights for a moment, and then flies out the opposite window. Bede meant to present human existence as transitory and essentially preparatory for the next. This was the prevailing medieval view of human existence.

Then the Renaissance happened.

With the Renaissance came a new way of looking at life. Human existence came to be viewed as worthwhile. Worthwhile for its own sake.

For medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas, all that mattered was the glory of God. Renaissance thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci emphasized the dignity of man. The mistake we don’t want to make is to think that these views are mutually exclusive. They are not. The dignity of man is that he is called to bear the image of God. And nothing confers greater dignity upon man than the Incarnation — that God could become human and lose none of his divinity.

What does John say in the opening of his gospel?…

The Word was God.
The Word become flesh.
The Word dwelt among us.
And we have seen his glory,
Glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

In what way did John see the glory of God? In the full humanity of Christ. That is astoundingly profound and should not be overlooked.

The full glory of God was expressed in the full humanity of Christ.

Let me say it again. (Read it slow and think about it.)

The full glory of God was expressed in the full humanity of Christ.

Thomas Aquinas and Leonardo da Vinci need not be at odds. They can be reconciled. The glory of God and the dignity of man can and should go together.

(The Bible calls this salvation.)

Much of the evangelical church seems to be experiencing a Christian Renaissance. This is a good thing. We are discovering that human existence is worthwhile. That human existence is not merely preparation for another life to come, and thus lacking intrinsic worth. Human existence is worth living for its own sake.

For me, Fyodor Dostoevsky is to literature what Bob Dylan is to music — he is hands down the greatest novelist ever. It’s hard for me to convey how much I have learned from the great Russian writer. But I’m not the only one. Malcolm Muggeridge, Eugene Peterson, Lewis Smedes and N.T. Wright have all said the same thing. And by common consensus Dostoevsky’s greatest work is The Brothers Karamazov.

One of my favorite characters in all of literature comes from The Brothers Karamazov, the wise and spiritual Father Zossima, who was the spiritual mentor to the young Aloysha Karamazov. As Father Zossima approached his death, Dostoevsky, who was, unknowingly, approaching his own death, had Father Zossima say this…

“My life is ending. But with every day that is left me I feel in touch with a new, infinite, unknown, but approaching life, the nearness of which sets my heart quivering with rapture, my mind glowing, and my heart weeping with joy.”

Father Zossima had the hope of heaven. But the lure of heaven in no way diminished his love for the earth. For he goes on to say to those gathered at his bedside in his monk’s cell…

“Kiss the earth and love it, love it with an unceasing, consuming love. Love all men, love everything. Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears. Don’t be ashamed of that ecstasy. Prize it, for it is a gift of God, and a great one.”

Father Zossima had learned to live in both heaven and earth — in both time and eternity. He had learned to live.

A few years ago I went through a period where I was regularly awakened in the dead of night with this question burning in my mind: When do we live?

I felt that this question was very important and that I had to answer it honestly.

After a considerable period of serious contemplation on this question, I eventually had to admit that my theology and worldview was such that my honest answer was…when we die.

When do we live? When we die.

Eventually I realized this answer is unacceptable and unscriptural. This discovery played a large part in what led me to profoundly rethink my Christianity.

To view life as little more than an entrance exam for another life to come, makes this life little more than a joke, and a cruel joke at that. I cannot believe this is what God intends. I am reminded of the enigmatic conversation between the joker and the thief in Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower

No reason to get excited, the thief he kindly spoke
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late

Let us not think falsely. Life is not a joke. It’s not merely a test either. God intends life to be honestly and fully lived. According to the gospel that Jesus Christ proclaimed, the answer to the question — When do we live? — is not, when we die, but…right now!

Jesus didn’t say, I have come that you might have a ticket to heaven in the sweet bye and bye after you die. He said that he came that we might have life…abundantly…now!

Jesus came to make life livable.
A new way to be human.
The Elevation after the Fall.
The restoration of human dignity.
To the glory of God.

So when should a Christian live? Now and forever.

What should a Christian do? All things that belong to the goodness of human existence.

We should reconcile people to God, we should reconcile people to one another, we should heal the sick, we should elevate the poor, we should set the captive free, we should bring justice to the oppressed, we should do good work, we should play enthusiastically, we should beautify the world, we should work for peace, we should work for prosperity, we should get married, we should raise children, we should compose music, we should write novels, we should paint masterpieces, we should create art, we should educate ourselves and others, we should study God’s creation, we should study the stars, we should study the sand, we should live beautiful lives, we should celebrate human existence, we should climb mountains, we should swim in the ocean, we should love, we should laugh, we should live, we should confer dignity upon one another, we should worship God, we should do all these things to the glory of God.


And what comes next should be the natural sequel to a life well lived.

And so as my Jewish friends like to say,

La chaim!

To life!




Here’s a cool animated YouTube of All Along The Watchtower.