Sunday, 4 January 2015

Encouragement from Karl Barth on the Occasion of My Fortieth Birthday

Today is my fortieth birthday. Unlike other milestone birthdays, this one feels morosely significant for me – not because I mind reaching forty (I don’t), but because I don’t feel that I’ve done that much in the four decades I’ve been alive. Maybe it’s a question that every person occasionally asks of her- or himself: Have I wasted my time, my life? I’ve asked this question before, but somehow it seems more poignant and more relevant now. (Or perhaps I’m just being melodramatic. . .)

I should retain some perspective here, of course. Looking back, I’ve done quite a lot and achieved quite a bit. Without going into any details, my life has, for the most part, been satisfying, and more than one of my ambitions have been fulfilled. There are things I’ve done, things I’ve achieved, that should be celebrated. But I also have many regrets, mainly targets at which I intended to aim but didn’t. And why didn’t I? It would be too much like hard work to train myself to hit those targets! It’s not that I don’t have time to train, but that my time is often given over to other activities – such as sleeping, or watching television. And so my regrets outweigh my achievements, and the realisation that my regrets are largely down to poor choices burdens me.

And so I still have questions about my life – about its expression, and about its direction. My forty years have been full of anger; anger sometimes justified, oftentimes not. They’ve been hampered by an inability on my part to distinguish between my different emotional states and to communicate my feelings responsibly. And they’ve been bogged down under the weight of expectation, that is, the weight of trying to be what I perceive others expect me to be, or want me to be, rather than living as the person I am, and living as the person I will be and already am in Christ. After forty years of living in this world, I feel that only now am I figuring out what it means to be human. But now I need to aim for something, and that’s the problem. I have eschatological hope, but daily life is often monotonous and little more than something to be endured.

Time is a funny thing, really. I’ve been alive for forty years, but I may not be around for another forty. The span of our years is not in our hands; God gives us life, and God gives us a specific amount of time to enjoy the life God gives. It’s not for us to have unlimited life if by this is meant a life that persists or endures forever. From this perspective, it matters little if I live forty years, forty-hundred years, or forty-thousand years. The issues about fulfilment and direction will persist for as long as I live. This is why the fulfilment and direction of our lives cannot be about attainment, end products, or meeting goals, for opportunities for these will never cease to appear. Now, after forty years, perhaps I’m ready to seek – and not just to seek, but also to expect, and to find, to really find – true fulfilment, true purpose, true direction, in God in Christ for the sake of finding these in God in Christ alone. If God grants me another forty years, then I hope they’re characterised by ever-increasing gratitude to God for my life, and so by an ever-increasing Christlikeness. And if I’m granted only one more day (to be honest, I do hope for more than one, not least because I plan to go to my local Lego shop tomorrow), then may the quality of my life with God be the defining feature of that day.

Let me disperse the clouds of melancholy by quoting from Karl Barth on the length of our lives. This quotation seems particularly apposite in the light of what I’ve written, and I receive this as a birthday gift of encouragement from one of the great cloud of witnesses to move beyond whatever regrets I hold. And I hope you find the quotation inspiring, too.

[We] have no option but to take what we are given—a limited life in an allotted span of time. And this simply brings us back to the starting-point. Does life really have to be like this? And when we raise this question again we again shake what we think are our prison bars and angrily or anxiously contrast our determination with the conditions under which we are forced to live. And the question itself is still unresolved. We still do not see why things have to be as they are, and not otherwise. The whole picture changes, however, if we are not concerned abstractly and generally with the limitation of our life, but with the God who limits it; if we are not concerned abstractly and generally with our allotted time, but with the reality of the God who allots it. In both cases, of course, we are concerned with the same thing. But the same thing now becomes quite different. It becomes so different that—if we really count on the reality of God—we are not merely confronted by the convincing and definitive answer to our question, but the question itself is resolved. . . . Therefore the question of our Whence? and Whither?, of the duration and perfection of our life, cannot lead into the void, like a broken bridge in a sea of mist, but always to Him.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, translation editors G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957–1975, III/2, p. 564


  1. Good piece; as a nearly-70-year-old what you say applies just as much...!