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What is Human Life?

Johann Gerhard

(Translated by Rev. C. W. Heisler, A.M.)

CONSIDER, O devout soul, the misery and the transitoriness of this present life, that thou mayst lift up thy heart more longingly towards thy heavenly inheritance. Whilst the past of our life here increases, its future decreases; while it is growing in length of years, it is at the same time becoming shorter; whatever is added to it, is at the same time subtracted from it. The life we live is a mere point of time, aye, it is even less than that. While we turn us around, our immortality is upon us. In this life we dwell as in a strange home. Abraham had no spot in the land of Canaan for a dwelling-place, only a sepulcher, where he might bury his dead (Gen. xxiii. 4); so this present life affords us as it were a lodging where we may sojourn for a time, and then a place of burial. As soon as life begins, we begin to die. Like one on board a vessel, who, whether he sits, or stands, or lies down, is always drawing nearer his port, carried thither with the same force with which his ship is driven; so we, sleeping or waking, lying down or walking along, willingly or unwillingly, moment by moment are always being borne along irresistibly towards our end. This life is indeed more like death, for day by day we are dying, since every day we live is for us one day less of life. It is filled with painful regrets for the past, with trying labors in the present, and with dismal fears for the future. We enter upon life’s journey weeping, ushered into the world as an infant in tears, as though foreseeing the ills that shall befall us here. Every step onward is one of weakness, afflicted as we are with many diseases, and distressed with many cares. Our departure hence is fraught with gloomy fears, for we go not alone, but carry with us the burden of all the deeds (Rev. xiv. 13) done in the body, and through death we approach the awful judgment-seat of God (Heb. ix. 27). We are conceived in sin, in misery are we born, our life is a constant pain, and death is a source of distress. We are begotten in uncleanness, we are cherished in darkness, we are brought forth in pain. Before our birth we burden our wretched mothers, and at our birth we lacerate them as with a viper’s fang; we are strangers at our birth, and mere pilgrims and sojourners whilst we live, because in death we are obliged to move on. In the first portion of our life we know not ourselves; in the midst of it we are overwhelmed with cares, and its closing period is oppressed with the burdens of old age. The whole of life is divided into the present, the past and the future. If we consider the present, it is unstable; if the past, it is already become as nothing; if the future, it is uncertain. At our birth we are as a mass of uncleanness; our whole life is but a bubble; and at our death we furnish a repast to worms. We carry earth about with us, we tread upon the earth as we walk, and by and by our bodies will become earth again. The necessity of being born was laid upon us; and so also the misery of living, and the hardship of dying. Our body is an earthly habitation for death and sin, which day by day consume it.

Our whole life is a spiritual warfare (Job vii. 1); above us are demons watching for our destruction; on our right hand and on our left the world is assailing us; and below us and within us the flesh lies in wait to destroy us. Man’s life is a warfare, because “the flesh lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh” (Gal. v. 17). What joy can we therefore find in this life, since there is no certain and secure happiness in it? What delight can we take in the things of the present, when, whilst all else is passing away, that which constantly threatens us does not pass away; when the objects of our love here are so soon ended, and we are constantly approaching nearer that place where pain is never ended? About all we gain from a longer life is that we do more evil, we see more evil, we suffer more evil, and at the last judgment a longer list of accusing sins rises up to condemn us. What is man? Well, he is death’s purchased possession, a transient traveler; his life is lighter than a bubble, briefer than a moment, more worthless than an image, more empty than a sound, more fragile than glass, more changeable than the wind, more fleeting than a shadow, more deceptive than a dream. What is this life? Why, it is a constant looking forward to death, a stage upon which a farce is enacted; a vast sea of miseries, a single little measure of blood, which a slight accident may spill, or a little fever corrupt. The course of life is a labyrinth which we enter at birth, and from which we withdraw by the portals of death. We are but as dust, and dust is nothing but smoke, and smoke is nothing at all, and so we are nothing. This life, like glass, is easily broken; like a river, it flows swiftly along in its course; like a warfare, it is attended with constant misery, and yet to many it appears so very desirable. A nut may outwardly appear good and sound, but open it with a knife and you may find nothing but worms and putridity within. Apples of Sodom may delight us with their exterior beauty, but touch them and they fall into ashes. And so it is with life. Its external promises of happiness enchant us, but come closer, and these promises will prove to be but as smoke and ashes.

Do not, therefore, O beloved soul, devote thy highest thoughts to this life, but rather, in mind, aspire to the joys of that life which is to come. Contrast the very brief space of time allotted us in this life with the infinite and never-ending ages of eternity, and it will sufficiently appear how foolish it is for us to cling to this fleeting life to the neglect of that eternal life. Our life here is transitory, and yet in this brief life we either win or lose eternal life; it is filled with pain and misery, and yet in it we either win or lose the eternal happiness of heaven; it is full of dire calamities, and yet in it we either win or lose eternal joys. If then thou dost aspire to eternal life, desire it with thy whole heart in this fleeting life. Use this world wisely, but, oh, set not thy heart upon it! Carry on thy temporal business in this life, but, oh, let not thy mind be fixed upon this life. Using the things of this world will not harm us, if we set not our hearts upon them. This world is simply thy lodging-place, but heaven is thy fatherland; do not then take such delight in thy daily sojourn in this earthly lodging-place, that thou wilt abate for a moment thy longing desires for the heavenly fatherland. In this life we are sailing on the sea of time to eternity, our port; do not be so charmed with a momentary tranquility on this sea, that thou wilt not ardently long for that haven of rest that is tranquil for ever and ever. This life is like an inconstant lover, and does not keep faith with those that love it, but contrary to their expectation it frequently flees from them; why, then, wouldst thou put thy trust in it? It is very dangerous to promise ourselves the security of even one hour, for very frequently in that one brief hour this fleeting life comes to a sudden end. It is the safest plan to be on the lookout for death every hour, and to prepare for it by serious repentance of our sins. In the gourd whose shade so delighted Jonah, God prepared a worm when the morning rose, and it smote the gourd that it withered (Jonah iv. 7); so in these worldly objects, upon which so many set their hearts, there is no stability, but worms of corruption are bred in them to destroy them. The world has already been wasted and defaced by so many calamities, that it has even lost some of its seductive charms; and as we should heartily praise and commend those who deign not to delight themselves with a delightsome world, so we should strongly reprove and condemn those who take pleasure in perishing with a perishing world.

O blessed Christ, withdraw Thou our hearts from the love of this world, and enkindle in us holy desires for the heavenly kingdom!

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