45th Birthday

by Matthew W. Bassford

Today is my 45th birthday, a time for reflection if ever there was one. From an earthly perspective, this is a grim milestone indeed. It is almost certainly the last birthday I will ever celebrate.

When I was in elementary school, I learned about Huntingdon’s chorea, what they call Huntingdon’s disease these days. It is another genetic disease that causes death in middle age. I well remember the thrill of horror that went through me at the thought of dying so untimely.

Ironic, that.

Indeed, from that same worldly perspective, my life must appear blighted, even cursed. How awful it must be to be deprived of the decades that on some level, all of us believe are our birthright! How unfair!

Actually, I feel none of those things. Even though ALS is not the only disaster that has overtaken me, I have lived a life rich with joy and meaning. I am satisfied with my 45 years.

I attribute this entirely to the grace of God and to my decision to seek Him throughout my life. As every Christian feels compelled to note, I have not done so perfectly. Nonetheless, I have spent my life sowing to the Spirit instead of to the flesh, seeking to love God and others above myself.

Even now, some of the fruits of this decision have become obvious. I frequently find myself astonished by the depth of the love that others express toward me. There are even a few people who say of me that I saved their lives. I have had my enemies, it is true, but they are far outnumbered by my devoted brethren and friends. I can say with confidence that if one must die at 45, this is the best way to spend those 45 years.

In fact, I detect another proof of the existence of God here. Self-sacrificing love is not merely a behavioral quirk that runs counter to the selfish imperatives of evolution. Rather, it is the way that we are designed to live. Fish are designed to swim, birds are designed to fly, and humans are designed to love.

Despite our steadfast efforts to find fulfillment in anything and everything but love, the endless variations of human existence bear witness to this truth. People never find enduring contentment and happiness by putting themselves first. Instead, the happiest are those who put others above themselves, and this is true even outside a Christian context. Love is not always love, but agape is always agape.

In a random, pitiless universe, why would this be? What natural force would create creatures that find their highest expression in surrendering themselves for others? The enduring greatness of love must point us to God.

All of this is not only the way that I have lived successfully. It is the way that all of you must live if you want to live successfully. Yes, it is possible for the atheist humanitarian to find a measure of fulfillment, but their lives are always an uncompleted equation, a 2+2 endlessly crying out for 4. If love, therefore God. If God, therefore the hope of resurrection and an eternity of love.

Complete the equation. If you’re the kind of Christian who goes to church and keeps your nose clean, it’s time to become something more. It’s time to get down into the muck and start serving and loving others, even when it’s hard, even when you don’t find them lovable.

If you are in a season in which you are bearing the burdens of love, perhaps as you care for someone like me, do not grow weary! I have been through such seasons in my own life, when each new day seemed unendurable. They do not last, but the bone-deep joy of having served does.

If you aren’t living this way at all, I think that probably you have sensed the emptiness of your life already. No amount of earthly success and honor can fill the vacancy where God intended love to dwell. I would imagine that it is hard to dedicate yourself to agape if you are not used to the habit already. It’s like trying to learn to ride a bike as an adult—lots of fear, clumsiness, and crashes.

However, someday you will be where I am, and in that day, either you will have a life of the love of Christ to look back on, or you won’t. The former makes even death endurable. The latter makes even life unbearable.

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