The Meaning of Life

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What is the meaning of life? Are you curious? Would you like to know? Can a single blog post solve this great philosophical and existential puzzle?!?

Well, I object to the premise of the question. An individual life can have meaning, and the things that occur to a person during the course of life can have meaning, but seeking “the” meaning to this vague and amorphous concept of “life” is doomed to non-specificity from the start. Now the purpose of human existence on this earth, or the goal of life we should seek to accomplish… those are different ideas and more answerable.

Now, the reason why God created humanity in the first place and the marching orders he originally gave the species can be and have been addressed elsewhere, but in our post-fall / pre-heaven parenthetical existence, what is the purpose of our ongoing life now? Why this multi-millennium span of human imperfection and suffering as all creation groans under sin, curse, death, and depravity? (see Romans 8:22) This life indeed, as Martin Luther put it, is a vale of tears. If it is within God’s present power and long-term plan of salvation history to right every wrong and wipe away every tear, what’s the hold up? For that matter, why not provide atonement for sin immediately after Adam and Eve initially transgressed and save us all the heartache?

The Purpose of Existence

Let me pose this question: how can free will and a perfect world exist at the same time? In our fallen state, man-made attempts at Utopia routinely end up in despotism. From a spiritual perspective, if free will exists, then a person is always free to choose something other than God’s perfect parameters for creation. Either free will cannot exist (and I hold limited free will to be a self-evident truth) or the risk of an imperfect world must always endure (which is not God’s stated intention per scripture).

The only solution I see is to create a world where free will exists, and then select all those who freely choose to do good and follow God’s design to live in a rebooted world. And more than that, these individuals use their free will to seek to have the nature of their character permanently changed by God! Christians, once awoken, yearn to be free from their corrupted sin nature and to experience the glorious transformation and relational eternity promised in scripture.

Some verses that point to this overall conceptualization:

“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us,” (Acts 17:26-27).

“For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that he may strongly support those whose heart is completely his,” (2 Chronicles 16:9a).

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away. So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous,” (Matthew 13: 47-49).

God seems to be building a family of free-willed image bearers who freely choose enduring loyalty and believing allegiance to him.

The Goal of Life

Such a purpose to existence, although impacting our eternal destiny, might be viewed passively, as set by God and residing external to ourselves. We don’t have to do anything for the purpose to be what it is. But what is the ultimate goal for us? What do we aim at and how do we orient our lives? As Chuck Colson said, how now shall we live?

Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famed Hierarchy of Needs model posited that Self-Actualization was the highest need of man to be achieved. Although never a Christian, Maslow began to critique his own work toward the end of his career and wrote and spoke publicly about the need to add an additional stage to his model: that of Self-Transcendence. This was based on his observations of altruism and varieties of religious experience. As a Christian I would say that Self-Actualization is certainly not man’s highest achievement or goal, and Self-Transcendence, while crucial, is too religiously universal. Also, rather than Self-Transcendence being a stage only reachable after Self-Actualization, I believe the self can be transcended at every point on Maslow’s Hierarchy.

I appreciate a lot of theologian John Hick’s early work, and elements of his soul-building theodicy ring true. God is a master craftsman at work, desiring to improve the souls of all who are his. There is a sense that God is progressively sanctifying us through his Spirit, through Christian teaching, through circumstances and suffering, through pruning and discipline, etc. As much as we allow him to work in our lives and submit to his leading, we will morally progress; others may enter the eternal state with little to show from their time on Earth (1 Corinthians 3:15).

The ultimate goal of all spiritual formation efforts, as Dallas Willard argues in Renovation of the Heart and Larry Crabb does similarly in Effective Biblical Counseling, is the imitation of Christ. Achieving Christlikeness or ‘putting on the character of Christ’ is the guiding light that beckons us down the narrow path, but an accomplishment we will never fully attain this side of the eschaton. It is in heaven alone that we see “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). With soul-building in mind, it is irrelevant that we cannot achieve moral perfection in this life; the love and pursuit of God’s goodness will continuously pay off as long as we are making forward progress toward the destination.

Importantly, this is not based in legalism or motivated by self-righteousness, but obedience to Christ’s call. Jesus challenges his disciples to “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48) and, in the Great Commission, sends them out to, in part, teach others to obey “everything” that he taught (Matthew 28:20). For me, the goal of life can be summed up in eight words. It is my motto, my slogan, my creed, my lodestar.

Fulfill the Law of Christ no matter what

The Law of Christ is understood by me as the ‘two greatest commandments’ discussed by Jesus in all three synoptic gospels:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, see also: Mark 12:29-31 and Luke 10:27).

There you have it. Two rules that fulfill the whole of what was written in 2/3 of the Old Testament, including the 613 civil, ceremonial, and moral laws observed by ethnic Israel’s ancient theocratic society. But now comes the ‘no matter what’ piece, and I can’t emphasize it enough.

If you were born in desperate poverty: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you were born wealthy: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you were born disabled or handicapped: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you were born in perfect health: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you are a high school dropout: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have a PhD in astrophysics: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have been cheated, mistreated, abused, imprisoned, abandoned, or persecuted: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have participated in great criminality in your past: fulfill the Law of Christ. If you have tragically lost everything and everyone in your life: fulfill the Law of Christ.

The call to follow and imitate Jesus, fulfilling the two greatest commandments, is the great equalizer, and every living soul is without excuse or pardon from this sacred charge.

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Finding Your Niche

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In my closet is a giant bundle of purple yarn. I bought it years ago when my wife and I led a small group for High School girls. It was a visual and tactile illustration of a crucial point, and every time I open the closet and see it I am reminded of the central theme of that lesson so many nights ago…

Recently I mentioned how Abraham Maslow reflected later in life on the limitations of his famous Hierarchy of Needs and proposed a final stage of Self-Transcendence above Self-Actualization (I highly recommend reading Koltko-Rivera’s very interesting 2006 journal article on the subject). The more I think about it, Self-Transcendence represents not a further stage on a hierarchy but a jumping off point at every stage of the traditional hierarchy. Self-Transcendence represents a pyramid floating above the surface of Maslow’s original vision, if you will, beckoning pilgrims to make the leap.

From a Christian perspective, Jesus challenges us to transcend our biological needs when he repeats that “Man shall not live by bread alone” and “Do not worry then, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or “What will we wear for clothing?’” Jesus challenges us to transcend our safety needs with “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” Jesus challenges us to transcend our love and belongings needs with “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus calls us to transcend our esteem needs when he says “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” And finally, Jesus calls us to transcend our self-actualization needs by “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…”

But all this is not to say that the concept of Self-Actualization is irrelevant. Back to the purple yarn. A favorite pair of characters in the Bible for me are the somewhat obscure Bezalel and Oholiab. Mentioned repeatedly from Exodus 31 through Exodus 38, these two men were created by God to be great at certain skills. They had literal God-given artistic talents, and they were summoned to use those gifts for the glory of God.

One example in Exodus 35:30-35 (NIV): “Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.”

It struck me that God created and supernaturally imbued a human being with the specific skill to work masterfully with purple yarn, among many other things! Whatever the case, God wants us to do our best with the talents, resources, and opportunities that he gives us, most preferably for his glory. Colossians 3:23 (LEB) says, “Whatever you do, accomplish it from the soul, as to the Lord, and not to people.”

Watching the Rio Olympics has given me some key examples of people who have, for all intents and purposes, achieved Self-Actualization. Kerri Walsh-Jennings and her former Beach Volleyball partner Misty May-Treanor were undefeated champs, winning three consecutive gold medals, the best in the world at their sport. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, specializing and excelling in his sport of swimming. Usain Bolt? Fastest Man on Earth. Ashton Eaton? World’s Greatest Athlete. These are examples of people who practically could not do better in their given field. Looking outside of sports, we find artists such as Dale Chihuly or author Theodor Geisel – people who achieved the highest possible mastery and success in their niche. Of course, how much greater when Self-Actualizers can give the glory to God, as I have been humbled to see time and time again at the Rio games by competitors from around the world, all in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer.

But what about me? What is my area of expertise, my calling, my life’s mission? The skills and interests that God has given me, and the opportunities and pathways that he has led me down have brought me to this focus – psychotheology. The bridging of psychology and Christian theology is the niche that I have chosen to dedicate my life to. How will that be expressed? Certainly by writing. Probably by counseling. Maybe by teaching. I may be just a blip in the history of humanity and a speck in the magnitude of space, but I am an important blip; I am a speck known and loved by God.

And what about you? What is your niche? What is your calling? What is your message? What unique purpose has God created you for? Ask yourself this question: if you could be the undisputed expert or the absolute best in the world at one and only one thing, what would it be? If you could dedicate your life and excel in just one area, what would it be? What contribution to your family, your community, your country, or to human history will you make for the glory of God?