The Meaning of Life

what-is-the-meaning-of-life-2-15129-1446570090-17_dblbig

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.

Advertisements

What is the Bible, really?

Opening of The Shrine of the book, Israel Museum

I often like to remind my readers that theology is the “science of God.” Scripture, found in the Bible, is the primary data source we analyze in the pursuit of supporting or falsifying theological hypotheses. The normative or binding Special Revelation of the Bible is primary (although it may be bolstered by data gleaned from General Revelation and non-binding Special Revelation). But what is the Bible?

At times our culture takes it for granted. We walk past the sensory-overload of options on the shelves of bookstores, ignore the copies placed by the Gideons in the drawers of hotel rooms, and have long forgot where those pocket-sized, orange New Testaments went that some street evangelist handed us years ago. Believing and unbelieving politicians alike are sworn in on them. They line the backs of church pews and lay open superstitiously in some dusty relative’s house. A hundred different English translations are available online for free at the click of a button.

But what is this book, really?

Well, it is not a book at all. The Bible is a collection of sixty-six different documents (in the Protestant canon most familiar to us), written by no fewer than forty human contributors, across the span of some 1,500 years, in three different languages.

These diverse writings encompass many different genres and forms: creation stories, history, genealogy, narrative, law, covenantal agreements, song lyrics, wisdom literature, prophecy, erotic poetry, apocalyptic, gospel, epistle, and more. Some ‘books’ of the Bible are brief letters written from one individual to another, while another ‘book’ may symbolically and/or literally describe the future end of the entire universe.

Yet these laws, prophecies, and writings are tied together by some crucial factors. First, the collection tends to follow the nation of Israel in general, and more specifically the genealogical family lineage of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) and, later, the effects of his ministry and the actions of his followers. Second, many sections purport to be records of Divine Speech. A writer will often record a supernatural encounter that happened at such-and-such a place, at such-and-such a time, in which the writer will be commanded to “write down these words.”

The Old Testament depends on the testimony of recognized prophets, persons commissioned by God to be his messengers. Likewise, the New Testament rests on the concept of apostolicity, that all of the contributors were eye-witnesses of Jesus Christ. All of these documents were recognized fairly early as authoritative and legitimate by their respective audiences, with other writings being excluded for not passing the sniff test.

Despite the span of geography and time, and the complexity of writing, editing, transmitting, collecting, preserving, and ultimately translating these supernaturally-themed works, Christians recognize the final product now known simply as the Bible as being both a human book and a divine book. There are many terms that can be used, including ‘inspired,’ ‘authoritative,’ ‘inerrant,’ and so on. That may lead to confusion for the uninitiated, because the Bible at times inerrantly quotes from non-inerrant sources, and our best manuscripts might actually have missing pieces (see: 1 Samuel 13:1)!

One concept I like to focus on is that of ‘inscripturation,’ which is to say that our closed canon of scripture contains everything that God wanted it to contain and nothing that God did not want it to contain. The Bible is a collection of literature, the creation of which God superintended, sometimes even having his literal speech recorded word for word. To the extent that we can find the most accurate manuscripts, being closest to the original, ancient-language autographs, and seek to understand them through the best linguistic, archaeological, and cultural study tools available, we have access to an amazingly invaluable resource.

On Revelation – Apocalypse Now

Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Jacob's_ladder_(State_2)

The word ‘revelation’ found in New Testament passages such as Luke 2:32, Romans 2:5, Galatians 1:12, Ephesians 3:3, and Revelation 1:1 (to cite a few examples) is the Greek word apokálypsis. You do not have to be a Greek scholar to recognize the English word ‘apocalypse.’ However, in English we have come to associate apocalypse with the cataclysmic end of the world. In reality, apocalypse means uncovering or unveiling.

Read Paul’s words in Galatians 1:11-12 with a simple translation change, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”

When theologians talk about revelation they are primarily concerned with the following question: how can we know anything about God at all? If God is transcendent, or infinite, or outside of the created cosmos, how can finite, mortal creatures approach him or discover something of his nature?

John the Apostle was fond of pointing out that “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18a; also 1 John 4:12a) and “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). So how can we discern a God that is “invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) to us? The answer is that God has to pull back the veil, let us peek behind the curtain, and reveal a part of himself.

Humanity cannot reach a knowledge of God completely on their own. But what about general revelation and the associated natural theology, in which individuals discern attributes of God from what has been created? We must admit that God has given human beings the ability to sense and perceive as well as minds capable of understanding and reaching conclusions. Therefore, even our most “independent” observations and conclusions are only possible because God first allowed their possibility by the decisions he made when designing and creating us.

Why Christianity?

facesofjesus

In a previous post I discussed how I had arrived at subjective certainty about the existence of God. But in the grand cosmological buffet, there are many “higher powers” that one can choose from: Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, and even the Flying Spaghetti Monster embraced by oppositional-ironic “pastafarians.” How did I personally become convinced that the Christian God, attested to in the Old and New Testaments, is the “One True God” – the interpretation of the Divine that corresponds to reality?

1. To start, there is no denying that my upbringing plays a crucial role. I was raised in a Christian home. But what does that mean? Many who were raised in a “Christian” home and/or grew up “in the Church” have turned away from the Christian religion. And others that have had no exposure to Christianity as children come to believe in the Christian interpretation of God. I must say that I viewed the early Christian influences in my life as trustworthy sources, people who non-hypocritically lived out their faith on a daily basis. Their personal lives and behavior did not contradict what they taught or believed – quite the opposite. I had every reason to believe what they were saying when they testified about supernatural experiences.

2. God most profoundly revealed himself to me during a Christian church service, through a scripture found in the Christian Bible, presented by a Christian pastor. Despite the historical, contextually-bound logos of that passage of scripture, I was directly and personally spoken to as through a rhema. My life dramatically began a process of transformation from that moment. I often have described this experience as an “epiphany,” and it may be compared to the concept of enlightenment or a spiritual awakening. Christians would commonly use vocabulary to describe such an experience as “being born again” or “salvation” or “regeneration.”

3. The inward witness of the Holy Spirit continues to affirm the central truths of Christianity and thus further bolsters my faith. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16) and, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26).

4. The Christian worldview, as expressed (non-systematically) in the Bible, presents a framework for consistently, accurately, and without-contradiction interpreting all of reality, including the existence of and belief in other so-called gods. Christianity accounts for and explains the existence of other religions and even for non-religious persons. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, “Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality — and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth.”

5. Various forms of revelation: ongoing personal experiences, the testimony of trustworthy individuals, and historical evidence all lend additional support to Christianity. The common, shared experiences of Christians around the planet and throughout history attested to in diaries, letters, biographies, sermons, verbal exchanges, and more, provide further grounding. I will seek to address the nature of revelation more in depth in future posts.

If I Were a Superhero

Black Bolt

In the M. Night Shyamalan movie Unbreakable, the concept of superheroes is presented in terms of shared mythology, hieroglyphic language, familiar archetypes, and heightened symbolism that represents actual life events and experiences or common hopes and fears. We’ve all heard the anecdote of the mother who, in a sudden adrenaline-fueled boost of strength, lifted a car off of her trapped son. Many of us have seen footage of Olympic athlete Usain Bolt (aka, the fastest man alive) competing in a race. Most of us are familiar with the Biblical story of Samson who at one time single-handedly slew one thousand enemies in melee combat. Superhuman qualities of strength, speed, and intelligence as well as virtues such as courage, justice, honor and sacrifice resonate with us on a deep level.

Referencing the X-Men, I often joke with my wife that her mutant power is the ability to have an authentic looking smile in every photograph she appears in. A real smile “involves both voluntary and involuntary contraction from two muscles: the zygomatic major (raising the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi (raising the cheeks and producing crow’s feet around the eyes). A fake smile … involves the contraction of just the zygomatic major…” Each type of smile is controlled by a different part of the brain. Somehow my wife can voluntarily activate involuntary muscle contractions in her face, or at least she has the ability to feel genuinely happy about being in every single photograph. In contrast, my ‘mutant power’ is that the more stressed out people around me get, the calmer I become in inverse proportion. This has served me well in my crisis intervention background.

However, let’s take it a step further. Thinking of symbolic representations, what superhero best represents me in my role and God-given gifts? If the question was which superhero do I wish I could be, the answer would be The Flash. If the question was which superhero is my favorite, the answer would be Daredevil. However, the superhero that best represents me is Black Bolt.

According to the Comics Database: “Black Bolt has the ability to unleash great destructive power through the use of his voice, but even the slightest whisper will release his power. At maximum the force is equal to that caused by the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Therefore, for the most part, Black Bolt remains silent.”

Years ago, God showed me a passage of Scripture that applies to my life. You might call it my ‘life verse’ or more accurately, verses. A life verse is “a verse from scripture that speaks to your heart, almost as though it was written for just you. It’s very personal, and usually there is a story behind why we are drawn to that particular Bible verse. Here is a portion of the larger passage: “He has made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he has concealed me…” (Isaiah 49:2a).

Words can have terrible power. James 3:5 says, “the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!”

In my ten years of work in the mental health field, I have in one form or another had the opportunity to counsel over one thousand people. In five and a half years of crisis and suicide intervention work, I have literally used the power of words, and often nothing else, to talk people off of ledges. As an author, blogger, and occasional screenwriter, the use of language is everything. In my current and future ministry work, again, words are the primary tools that I use to impact lives.

But… just as I have talked people off of ledges, I could just as easily have talked people onto ledges, and over the side. As delusion-of-grandeur as it may sound, I actually believe that I could talk somebody into killing themselves. That is a scary thought. This is not an unheard of phenomenon – there have been many tragic examples in the news of teenagers, for example, being goaded into suicide by bullying peers. At the very least, and certainly in my line of work encountering hurting people at rock bottom, my words have the dangerous potential of creating deep psychological wounds, breaking relationships, and even alienating people from the Christian faith.

I have a fallen, sinful nature. Despite my spiritual rebirth twelve years ago and my ongoing dedication to follow Jesus Christ, evil still exists within me. Indeed, the tongue is “a restless evil, and full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). I frequently must ask God to forgive me for being judgmental and hypercritical. I must continue to bring to mind what Jesus said in Matthew 7 about the speck in my brother’s eye and the log in my own. I need to set myself to the discipline of Ephesians 4:29: “Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Sometimes it is better to say nothing at all.
As Spiderman’s Uncle Ben once famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”