A Little Subtraction

October 9, 2012 — 1 Comment

“…Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)

There is a difference between counting our age and numbering our days. Most of us know our birth day and birth year, so figuring out “how old we are” is something we learn to do fairly early as children. We arrive at this number by addition — counting the years, months and days we have lived so far and getting a cumulative total which represents our age. By this way of reckoning, as of this writing, I have lived 19,575 days (53 years, 7 months, 2 days).

The Psalmist has a different sort of math in mind, though. Psalm 90:12 is a part of a prayer to God, in which the writer reflects upon the brevity of human life. “We fade away like the grass,” the writer notes (90:5a). In verse 12, he is asks God for something that is far too easy to avoid in the scurry of living. In asking for God’s help to “number our days”, the Psalmist is asking to be reminded that each day is precious. One more day behind us means one less day in front of us.

No, the writer isn’t asking for help with addition. The Psalmist is asking for grace to be able to live with subtraction. There’s an end date for all of us. None of us gets out of this life alive. The difficulty is, of course, that we don’t know when our time will be up! Some of us will live a very long time — outliving our spouses, friends, family members, even our children. Some of us will leave this life much earlier. We just don’t know.

The Psalmist speculates that measure of a human life is seventy years, or perhaps eighty (90:10). My paternal grandfather, a Baptist preacher who lived until just short of his ninetieth birthday, was fond of saying from the time he reached eighty years of age onward, “The Good Book only gives a promise of eighty years. My warranty has expired. I’m on God’s grace clock now.” I think he had not only learned how to “number his days”, but to value them as well.

For the purpose of completing this exercise, I “numbered my days” in accordance to the Psalmist’s observation. Here are my results: 5,993 days remain until I reach age 70 (I get an additional 3,652 more days if I attain age 80). All of a sudden mortality feels much more real. No, I’m not in some sort of an existential funk. Rather, this is a great clarifying exercise. So many people die to their dreams, their plans, their goals, their enthusiasm and their joy long before their funeral. They die to this gift of life because they don’t take the second or two each day to examine the hue of a blue sky, smell a flower, watch a squirrel run up a tree, pet their dog or kiss a loved one.

Chances are, no matter how long we live, we will all face our end sooner than we want. Numbering our days is not about living in the fear of death. Numbering our days is about giving all the living we can to all of the life we’ve got.

One response to A Little Subtraction


    What a great blog!. We just had a simliar discussion at one of my book clubs last night. In the book “The Tiger’s Wife” there is a character who can tell you if you are about to die by looking at coffee dregs in a special cup. We discussed if we would want to know or not know when the end was to be. Of course we all believe we should live every day as it it were our last, but doing that is quite something different.
    Thanks for the reminder

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