Mortality and Humility
What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. James 4:14
Ancient scholars Jerome and Tertullian referenced stories of how in ancient Rome, after a general triumphed in an epic victory, he would be paraded atop a gleaming chariot down the capital’s central thoroughfares from dawn to sunset. The crowd would roar. The general would bask in the adoration, reveling in the greatest honor of his life. However, legend has it that a servant stood behind the general the entire day, whispering into his ear, Memento mori (“Remember you will die”). Amid all the adulation, the general desperately needed the humility that came with remembering that he was mortal.
James wrote to a community infected with prideful desires and an inflated sense of self-sufficiency. Confronting their arrogance, he spoke a piercing word: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6). What they needed was to “humble [themselves] before the Lord” (v. 10). And how would they embrace this humility? Like Roman generals, they needed to remember that they would die. “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow,” James insisted. “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v. 14). And owning their frailty freed them to live under the solidity of the “Lord’s will” rather than their own fading efforts (v. 15).
When we forget that our days are numbered, it can lead to pride. But when we’re humbled by our mortality, we see every breath and every moment as grace. Memento mori.
By Winn Collier
REFLECT & PRAY
What does this story of the Roman generals and the phrase Memento mori say to you? Why do you need to remember your mortality?
God, I like to think that my life is in my control. I sometimes act as though I’ll live forever. Humble me. Help me find life only in You.
Several men in the New Testament are named James, including the son of Zebedee/brother of John (Matthew 4:21; Acts 12:2) and the son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3). The James who authored the book of James was the half-brother of Jesus (13:55). While early in Jesus’ ministry James didn’t believe in Him, after he saw the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:7), he moved from unbelief to belief. In Acts 1:14, James appears to be present in the upper room after Jesus’ ascension and became a leader in the Jerusalem church (12:17; 15:13).