After so much hustle and bustle, so many frustrations and disappointments, after so many joys and sorrows and ups and downs, after so many unforgettable years, after watching the seasons turn time and again, one has passed the important waymarkers in life without noticing, and in a flash, one finds oneself in one’s twilight years. The marks of time are stamped all over one’s body: One can no longer stand tall, one’s hair turns from dark to white, while eyes once bright and lucid turn dim and cloudy, and smooth, supple skin becomes wrinkled and spotted. One’s hearing weakens, one’s teeth loosen and fall out, one’s reactions become sluggish, one’s movements slow…. At this point, one has bid a final farewell to the passionate years of one’s youth and entered the twilight of one’s life: old age. Next, one will face death, the last juncture in a human life.
1. Only the Creator Holds the Power of Life and Death Over Man
If one’s birth was destined by one’s previous life, then one’s death marks the end of that destiny. If one’s birth is the beginning of one’s mission in this life, then one’s death marks the end of that mission. Since the Creator has determined a fixed set of circumstances for a person’s birth, it goes without saying that He has also arranged a fixed set of circumstances for one’s death. In other words, no one is born by chance, no one’s death arrives abruptly, and both birth and death are necessarily connected with one’s previous and present lives. The circumstances of one’s birth and death are both predetermined by the Creator; this is a person’s destiny, a person’s fate. Since there are many explanations for a person’s birth, it is also true that a person’s death will naturally occur under its own, special set of various circumstances. This is the reason for people’s varying lifespans and the different manners and times of their deaths. Some people are strong and healthy, yet die young; others are weak and sickly, yet live to an old age and pass away peacefully. Some perish of unnatural causes, others die naturally. Some end their lives far from home, others shut their eyes for the final time with their loved ones by their side. Some people die in midair, others beneath the earth. Some sink beneath the water, others are lost in disasters. Some die in the morning, others at night. … Everyone wants an illustrious birth, a brilliant life, and a glorious death, but no one can reach past their own destiny, no one can escape the Creator’s sovereignty. This is human fate. Man can make all kinds of plans for his future, but no one can plan the manner and time of their birth and of their departure from the world. Though people do their best to avoid and resist the coming of death, still, unbeknownst to them, death silently draws near. No one knows when they will perish or how, much less where it will happen. Obviously, it is not humanity that holds the power of life and death, not some being in the natural world, but the Creator, whose authority is unique. Mankind’s life and death are not the product of some law of the natural world, but a consequence of the sovereignty of the Creator’s authority.
2. One Who Does Not Know the Creator’s Sovereignty Will Be Haunted by the Fear of Death
When one enters old age, the challenge one faces is not providing for a family or establishing one’s grand ambitions in life, but how to bid farewell to one’s life, how to meet the end of one’s life, how to put a period at the end of the sentence of one’s life. Though on the surface, it seems that people pay little attention to death, no one can avoid exploring the subject, for no one knows whether another world lies on the far side of death, a world that humans cannot perceive or feel, that they know nothing about. This makes people afraid to face death head-on, afraid to confront it as they ought; instead, they do their best to avoid the subject. And so it fills every person with dread about death, and adds a veil of mystery to this inevitable fact of life, casting a persistent shadow over every person’s heart.
When one feels one’s body deteriorating, when one senses that one is drawing nearer to death, one feels a vague dread, an inexpressible fear. Fear of death makes one feel ever lonelier and more helpless, and at this point, one asks oneself: Where did man come from? Where is man going? Is this how man dies, with his life having rushed past him? Is this the period that marks the end of man’s life? What, in the end, is the meaning of life? What is life worth, after all? Is it about fame and fortune? Is it about raising a family? … Regardless of whether one has thought about these specific questions, regardless of how deeply one fears death, in the depths of every person’s heart there is always a desire to probe the mysteries, a feeling of incomprehension about life, and mixed in with these, sentimentality about the world, a reluctance to leave. Perhaps no one can clearly articulate what it is that man fears, what it is that man seeks, what it is that he is sentimental about and what he is reluctant to leave behind …
Because they fear death, people have so many worries; because they fear death, people have so much they cannot let go of. When they are about to die, some people fret about this or that; they worry about their children, their loved ones, their wealth, as if by worrying, they can erase the suffering and dread that death brings, as if by maintaining a kind of intimacy with the living, they can escape the helplessness and loneliness that accompany death. In the depths of the human heart there lies a vague fear, a fear of being parted from one’s loved ones, of never again laying eyes upon the blue sky, of never again looking upon the material world. A lonely soul, accustomed to the company of its loved ones, is reluctant to release its grip and depart, all alone, for a world that is unknown and unfamiliar.
3. A Life Spent Seeking Fame and Fortune Leaves One at a Loss in the Face of Death
Because of the Creator’s sovereignty and predestination, a lonely soul that started out with nothing to its name gains parents and a family, the chance to become a member of the human race, the chance to experience human life and see the world. This soul also gains the chance to experience the Creator’s sovereignty, to know the marvelousness of the Creator’s creation, and more than that, to know and become subject to the Creator’s authority. Yet most people do not really seize this rare and fleeting opportunity. One exhausts a lifetime’s worth of energy fighting against fate, spends all of one’s time bustling about, trying to feed one’s family and shuttling back and forth between wealth and status. The things that people treasure are family, money, and fame, and they view these as the most valuable things in life. All people complain about their fates, yet still they push to the back of their minds the issues that are most imperative to examine and understand: why man is alive, how man should live, what the value and meaning of life are. They spend their entire lives, however long they may last, merely rushing about seeking fame and fortune, until their youth has fled and they have become gray and wrinkled. They live in this way until they see that fame and fortune cannot stop their slide toward senility, that money cannot fill the emptiness of the heart, that no one is exempt from the laws of birth, aging, sickness, and death, that no one can escape what fate has in store. Only when they are forced to confront life’s final juncture do they truly grasp that even if one owns vast wealth and extensive assets, even if one is privileged and of high rank, one still cannot escape death and must return to their original position: a solitary soul, with nothing to its name. When people have parents, they believe their parents are everything; when people have property, they think that money is one’s mainstay, that it is the means by which one lives; when people have status, they cling tightly to it and would risk their lives for its sake. Only when people are about to let go of this world do they realize that the things they spent their lives pursuing are nothing but fleeting clouds, none of which they can hold onto, none of which they can take with them, none of which can exempt them from death, none of which can provide company or consolation to a lonely soul on its journey back; least of all, none of these things can save a person and enable them to transcend death. The fame and fortune that one gains in the material world give temporary satisfaction, passing pleasure, a false sense of ease; in the process, they cause one to lose one’s way. And so people, as they thrash about in the vast sea of humanity, craving peace, comfort, and tranquility of heart, are engulfed by wave after wave. When people have yet to figure out the questions that are most crucial to understand—where they come from, why they are alive, where they are going, and so forth—they are seduced by fame and fortune, misled and controlled by them and irrevocably lost. Time flies; years pass in the blink of an eye, and before one realizes it, one has bid farewell to the best years of one’s life. When one is soon to depart from the world, one arrives at the gradual realization that everything in the world is drifting away, that one can no longer hold onto possessions that originally were theirs; then one truly feels that one is like a wailing infant that has just emerged into the world, with nothing yet to their name. At this point, one is compelled to ponder what one has done in life, what being alive is worth, what it means, why one came into the world. And it is at this point that one increasingly wants to know whether there really is a next life, whether Heaven really exists, whether there really is retribution…. The nearer one comes to death, the more one wants to understand what life is really about; the nearer one comes to death, the more one’s heart seems empty; the nearer one comes to death, the more helpless one feels; and so one’s fear of death grows greater by the day. There are two reasons such feelings manifest in people as they approach death: First, they are about to lose the fame and wealth upon which their lives have depended, about to leave behind all that the eye beholds in the world; and second, they are about to confront, all alone, an unfamiliar world, a mysterious, unknown realm where they are afraid to set foot, where they have no loved ones and no means of support. For these two reasons, everyone who faces death feels uneasy, experiences panic and a sense of helplessness such as they have never known before. Only when someone has actually come to this point do they realize that when one sets foot on this earth, the first thing they must understand is where human beings come from, why people are alive, who dictates human fate, and who provides for and has sovereignty over human existence. This knowledge is the true means by which one lives, the essential basis for human survival—not learning how to provide for one’s family or how to achieve fame and wealth, not learning how to stand out from the crowd nor how to live a more affluent life, much less learning how to excel and to compete successfully against others. Though the various survival skills that people spend their lives mastering can offer an abundance of material comforts, they never bring true peace and consolation to one’s heart, but instead make people constantly lose their direction, have difficulty controlling themselves, and miss every opportunity to learn the meaning of life; these survival skills create an undercurrent of anxiety about how to face death properly. People’s lives are ruined in this way. The Creator treats everyone fairly, giving everyone a lifetime’s worth of opportunities to experience and know His sovereignty, yet it is only when death draws near, when its specter looms, that one begins to see the light—and then it is too late!
People spend their lives chasing after money and fame; they clutch at these straws, thinking they are their only means of support, as if by having them they could live on, exempt from death. But only when they are about to die do they realize how distant these things are from them, how weak they are in the face of death, how easily they shatter, how lonely and helpless they are, with nowhere to turn. They realize that life cannot be bought with money or fame, that no matter how wealthy a person may be, no matter how lofty their position, all are equally poor and insignificant in the face of death. They realize that money cannot buy life, that fame cannot erase death, that neither money nor fame can lengthen a person’s life by a single minute, a single second. The more people feel this way, the more they yearn to keep on living; the more people feel this way, the more they dread the approach of death. Only at this point do they truly realize that their lives do not belong to them, are not theirs to control, and that one has no say over whether one lives or dies—that all of this lies outside of one’s control.
Excerpted from “God Himself, the Unique III” in The Word Appears in the Flesh