In the 1991 film, What About Bob? (one of the smartest and funniest movies of my lifetime) uber neurotic and unstable Bob Wiley befriends the family of his psychologist, the perfectly smug and superior Leo Marvin. When Bob crashes the Marvin family’s New Hampshire lake vacation, a thunderstorm forces him to spend the night with them against the wishes of Dr. Marvin. In a scene that would make parents of today more than a little uncomfortable, forty-something Bob shares a room with the Marvin’s middle school aged son, Siggy (named after Sigmund Freud, of course). Siggy is a brooding boy who wears all black and has a fixation with death. This late night conversation ensues.
Siggy: “Bob, are you afraid of death?”
Siggy: “Me too, but there’s no way out of it. You’re going to die. I’m going to die. It’s going to happen, and what difference does it make if it’s tomorrow or eighty years … much sooner in your case. Do you know how fast time goes? I was six, like, yesterday.”
Bob: “Me too.”
Siggy: “I’m going to die. You are going to die. What else is there to be afraid of?”
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Siggy Marvin’s perspective healthy, but there is much to be said for the clarity with which he views life. He sees what so many people refuse to: the inevitability of death and the shortness of life. We could all learn from Siggy and come to terms with the fact that “You’re going to die, I’m going to die.” Death is, in fact, our defining earthly reality. And if we embrace the fact of our mortality in the right way, it can actually lead us toward happiness.
So what does that look like? For one thing, death is the backdrop against which every expectation, hope, and choice should be viewed. We do not choose and think and plan in a space of infinite opportunity and a million chances. Our expectations cannot expand out to undefined horizons and possibilities. Our relationships and resources have an endpoint. Everything we do is cast against our pending mortality, and that should shape what we pursue and how we pursue it. It adds urgency and focus to how we prioritize our money and our minutes. It clarifies what and who truly matters in our lives and offers a sharp reminder that every person is on the clock and we should treat them accordingly. Rightly understood, the reality of death bulldozes lethargy and listlessness to give us focus and direction, by motivating us to use the lifespan God has given us for the purposes he prioritizes.
Another way to think about it is that death is the set of borders that contains our lives. Sometimes borders feel like captivity, like a prison wall. Sometimes borders are for our own good, like lane lines on the road. And sometimes borders are just the rules of the game, like a Monopoly or Scrabble board. Death defines the rules of the game of life. It is the statute of limitations on every earthly action and hope and expectation.
This means that to fully live, to fully embrace happiness, we must acknowledge and accept death. Wait, come again. To be happy we must accept death?! Yes, because to be truly happy we must have right expectations and recognize the world both as it is and as God intends it to be. Otherwise we spend our lives pretending and ignoring and deluding ourselves until our final day comes with such a shockwave that everything we have done and built and hoped for crumbles. To ignore death is to create an alternate reality built on false hopes, in which the only happiness is a figment.
Happiness and Death
“But death hurts,” you might be thinking. “It’s stolen away people I love. Death is an enemy we can’t defeat.” Those things are true too. Saying we can only find true happiness in light of death and is not the same as saying we can only find happiness in death or that death makes us happy. We should absolutely hate death—it’s an evil which came about because of sin. But on the other hand, we must accept the reality of death as inevitable and in God’s hands. Only when we accept it can we play by the rules of life, set true expectations, and find the happiness God has for us this side of heaven.
Once we come to terms with the reality of mortality it does something to our perspective. Last chapter we looked at how we live between Christ’s earthly ministry and his return and how we should have an eye to the future and our anchor in the past. Experiencing the loss first hand makes this tension more real for us than any other difficult experience. It forces us to look past the end of life to eternity while making the present moments we have on earth more meaningful. And that is where we can find happiness.
When we live in light of death, especially with an eye toward eternity, we see life as something given to us, not as something to use. In this way death actually increases our gratitude, and gratitude increases our enjoyment. We are able to appreciate and revel in all the good things of earth because death reminds us that now is our time to do so. But we will do so with a different perspective than our unbelieving neighbors. If we’re trying to hide from death, life will be dominated by these good things as distractions or numbing agents or idols. But if we live with the end in mind, we’ll see life as a precious resource—one to be soaked up, shared, and spent in a way that pleases our creator, prepares us for the next life, and brings others with us into that life.
This is in part why we do not, unlike Siggy Marvin, need to fear death. If we have lived with it as an on-call companion, then death’s arrival will not shock or terrify the same way. If we have lived with the end in mind, shaping our expectations and directing our decisions, then we will be as prepared as a mortal can be for the end. But this is not an exercise in positive thinking. Living with the end in mind will only free us for happiness if we’re living with Jesus in mind, and living in Jesus—saved by him, submitting to him, following him, identified as his… and sure to spend eternity with him on the other side of the grave.
The apostle Paul lived and wrote in light of death more clearly than anyone in the Bible other than Jesus himself. He had such a clear vision of the pending glory and joy of death as a Christian that he went as far as to write: “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23). He yearned to die, but not at the expense of living the life God had given him to the fullest, telling the Christians in Philippi that “to remain in the flesh [that is, alive] is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (v 24-25). His whole attitude is summed up in Philippians 1:21: “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” For Christians, to live is to embody Jesus and fulfill the mission of Jesus. To die is to be with Jesus.
When we are defined by Christ, past and future, we live differently. We are released to be happy within the borders of this mortal life because death defines the boundaries but doesn’t finish the game. We are freed and empowered, by the Holy Spirit, to be generous, to serve, to risk, and to face suffering as Jesus did. We can face the end with assurance that what follows will be better than anything this life has held. That’s a profoundly different perspective than one that seeks to fill this life with pleasures to assuage the fear of death, and a profoundly happier one.
This is an excerpt from Hoping for Happiness. A biblical framework for living a grounded, hopeful, and genuinely happy life, this book helps us to throw off both the unrealistic expectations that end in disappointment and the guilty sense that Christians are not meant to have fun.