Numbering Our Days
J. R. Miller, 1912
"Teach us to number our days aright—that we may gain a heart of wisdom." Psalm 90:12
"They are slipping away—
these sweet, swift years;
Like a leaf on the current cast,
With never a break in the rapid flow;
We watch them as one by one they go
Into the beautiful past."
What have we put upon the little white pages of the days of another year—as one by one they were opened for us to write "our word or two" on them? What has the past year brought to us? What have we given it to keep? If we had it to live over again—would we live it differently? What would we do—that we have not done? What would we not do—that we have done? What has our past year taught us? What lessons are we going to carry over into our next year's life?
This ninetieth Psalm is called a prayer of Moses. It is the oldest of the Psalms. Remember the wilderness wanderings. Forty years the Israelites tarried in the wilderness, before they entered the Promised Land. It was because of their unbelief. They were at the gate—and were about to be led into possession. But spies were sent, and their fearful story frightened the people. They dreaded to meet the giants, and refused to go over the border. History was set back forty years. Unbelief is costly.
Moses looked back over these forty lost years. He saw six thousand graves strewn along the path. No wonder a sad tone runs through his Psalm. He was one of the last survivors of the generation that had left Egypt. He thought of the disappointment that had broken so many brave men's hearts. On himself, too, part of the curse had fallen. He must die outside of the land of promise. You remember how he pleaded to be permitted to cross over Jordan.
But the saddest thing of all—was that the people themselves were to blame for their disappointment. Those graves in the wilderness, sin had dug. It seemed but a little sin that Moses had committed. He was terribly tried by the people's rebelliousness, lost his patience and self-control, and spoke unadvisedly. And his slip—cost him his entrance into the Promised Land. We cannot tell what a moment's loss of self-control may cost us. In this Psalm, Moses looks back and everywhere he sees sin's ruin and hurt. "We are consumed by your anger." "By your wrath are we troubled." "You have set our iniquities before you." "All our days are passed away in your wrath."
What has been the effect on you—of the experiences of the past year's life? Have they hurt you? Have they left wounds on your soul? The problem of true living—is to get good and blessing out of every experience.
You had sorrow. Did your sorrow leave your heart sweeter and purer? Did it make you gentler, more patient, more compassionate, more mindful of others? Did it bring you nearer to God? Or did the sorrow hurt you, leaving your peace broken, your trust in God impaired, your spirit vexed and troubled?
Or you had temptation. Did your temptation make you stronger as you resisted it, and overcame the tempter? That is the way we may make our temptations blessings, to make even Satan help to build up our spiritual life. An evil thought resisted and mastered, leaves us not only unhurt—but stronger in the fiber of our being. But temptations parleyed with, and yielded to—hurt our life. What has been the effect of the year's temptations on your life? Have you come out of them unhurt, with no smell of fire on your garments?
Or take the year's business or occupation. How has it affected your spiritual life? Business is not sinful, unless it be a sinful business. A right occupation ought always to be a means of grace. What has been the effect of your secular business—on your spiritual life? Has it been helpful, strengthening, ennobling?
Or take your companionships and friendships; what have they done for you in the year that is gone? Have you been helped Godward and heavenward by them? Have they been full of sweet and good inspirations for you? Have they made a summer atmosphere for your heart, a weather in which all spiritual fruits and all beautiful things have grown and flourished?
What marks has the old year left on your life? Are you carrying hurts and scars from its experiences? Or have they helped to build up a truer, stronger, holier manhood or womanhood in you? We ought to be ever growing in whatever things are lovely. That is what life is meant to do for us.
"Teach us to number our days." What is it to number our days? One way is to keep a careful record of them. That is a mathematical numbering. Some people keep diaries and put down everything they do—where they go, what they see, whom they meet, the books they read. But mere adding of days is not the numbering that was in the thought of the Psalmist.
There are days in some lives—that add nothing to life's treasures, and that leave nothing in the world which will make it better or richer. There are people who live year after year—and might as well never have lived at all! Simply adding days—is not living! If that is all you are going to do with the new year—you will only pile up an added burden of guilt.
Why do people not think of the sin of wasting life?
If you saw a man standing by the sea—and flinging diamonds into the water—you would say he was insane. Yet some of us are standing by the sea—and flinging the diamond days, one by one, into its dark floods! Mere eating and sleeping, and reading the papers, and going about the streets, and putting in the time—is not living!
Another way of numbering our days, is illustrated by the story of a prisoner who when he entered his cell, put a mark on the wall, for each of the days he would be incarcerated. Then each evening he would rub off one of these marks—he had one day less to stay in prison.
Some people seem to live much in this way. Each evening—they have on day less to live. Another day is gone, with its opportunities, its privileges, its responsibilities and its tasks—gone beyond recall.
Now, if the day has been filled with duty and love and service—its page written all over with pure, white thoughts and records of gentle deeds—then it is well; its passing need not be mourned over. But merely to have to rub it off at the setting of the sun, leaving in it nothing but a story of idleness, uselessness, selfishness, and lost opportunities, is a sad numbering!
What is the true way of numbering our days? The prayer tells us, "Teach us to number our days aright—that we may gain a heart of wisdom." That is, we are so to live—that we shall get some new wisdom out of each day to carry on with us.
Life's lessons cannot all be learned from books. The lessons may be set down in books—but it is only in actual living—that we can really learn them.
For example, patience. You may learn all about patience from a sermon, from a teacher, or from a book, even from the Bible. But that will not make you patient. You can get the patience—only by long practice of the lesson, in life's experiences.
Or take gentleness. You can read in a few paragraphs what gentleness is, how it lives. But that will not make you gentle.
Take thoughtfulness. You can learn in a short lesson what it is and how beautiful it is. But you will not be thoughtful, the moment you have learned the definition. It will probably take you several years—to get the beautiful lesson learned.
We talk of learning from the experience of others. It would seem that we ought to learn much in this way. An old man who has passed through many years can tell you, a young man, what he has learned in living—but you cannot really learn from his experience. You may think that you can learn, too, from books. But after all, the great lessons of life—we must learn for ourselves, by our own failings, stumblings, tryings, sufferings; by our own mistakes and the enduring of their consequences.
The thought in the prayer is—that out of the experience of our days—we may gain a heart of wisdom. Some people never do. Solomon said, "Though you grind a fool in a mortar, grinding him like grain with a pestle, you will not remove his folly from him." There are plenty of such fools still! They make the same mistake over and over, suffering always from it, in the same way—yet never learning wisdom from the experience. Why should we not learn? We should put our experiences to the test. What has been the effect upon us—of this habit, of this kind of reading, of this amusement, of this friendship, of this method of business?
There is another way of getting a heart of wisdom, from the passing days. Paul taught us the lesson of moving forward and onward—by oblivion of the past. A great truth lies in his words. We are not to stay in our past as one would stay in a prison—but should be ever leaving it and going into new fields. We are not to stay by our past—as if it held all that is precious for us of life, sitting down by its graves and weeping inconsolably there. We are to turn our faces ever to the future, because there new things wait for us—new duties, new joys, new hopes. Our past should be to us a seed-plot in which grow a thousand beautiful things planted in the experience of by-gone days. Our today—is always the harvest of all our yesterdays. We never can cut off our past and leave it behind us; its consequences will always follow us and cling to us and live in us.
We are not to forget the things that are past, in any but a wise and good sense. Progress is the law of true living. Everything beautiful in our past—we are to keep and carry forward with us. We leave childhood behind us when we go forward to manhood or womanhood; but all that is lovely and good in childhood and all its lessons and impressions and visions—we keep in our maturer life.
We cannot forget the sorrow which the year brought, nor leave it behind—it is too sacred and too much a part of our life—ever to be outgrown; but the memory of the sorrow should stay in our heart as a blessing, sweetening our life—no longer bitter—but accepted in love and trust—and enriching us by its holy influence.
So nothing beautiful that faded or vanished in our past year—is really lost to us. If we have numbered our days aright, the old year's experiences will manifest themselves on all our future years—and will make them all richer, sweeter, truer; fuller of life and holiness.