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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Astigmatism and Progressive Sanctification

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When you invite God to work on your character, he obliges. Perhaps you prefer the metaphor of a refining fire or horticultural pruning (sometimes it feels more like an ice sculpture being carved with a chainsaw). Either way, God will faithfully carry out his purposes of progressive sanctification if you allow him. And maybe even if you don’t.

Near the beginning of the year, God gently called me out for my pride and stubbornness. I knew about the pride, but I was unaware of the stubbornness. After the initial transformative burst at the time of my salvation at age 19, God has generally changed my character very gradually, allowing me to be prompted by my own conscience as I grew. My tastes in entertainment, political involvement, and even several core theological beliefs have evolved over the years. This past year God has really challenged me in an accelerated fashion on ecumenicalism, racial attitudes, transparent communication with my wife, and trusting him with my money. However, this past month has ramped up to a whole new level of character formation. God has been teaching me some powerful lessons. Namely, that I need to recognize that I am totally dependent on him. Happy with my good health and strong immune system? Boom! Incapacitated by a bout of pneumonia. Have a plan to get debt free and take control of my finances? Boom! $400 chest x-ray and $530 state tax bill. Truly, apart from him I can do nothing (John 15:5) and in him I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28).

The latest plot twist is that after 32 years of “perfect” eyesight, I am now wearing glasses. Just last month my older brother and I were talking about how neither one of us has ever experienced any vision problems. A week ago I was fine; I went to bed one night with zero concerns and woke up the next day needing glasses. I call it sudden onset astigmatism. There does not seem to be much medical precedent for this, and the optometrist I saw for my first ever eye exam thought it quite strange as well. My sincere belief is that God did it to further humble me. Yesterday I had some clarity on this – needing glasses means I am normal. I am ordinary. If I am honest with myself, ordinary is something I’ve never wanted to be. It is a four letter word.

My favorite movie of all time, Lawrence of Arabia, contains a scene where T.E. Lawrence is meeting with General Allenby after experiencing a major setback. Lawrence is doubting himself and wanting to return home to lead an ordinary life, “Because that’s what I am.” Allenby pressures him, and eventually the façade cracks. “All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?” Lawrence knows he is special and destined for greatness. That is a scene that resonates with me. For a variety of reasons, I have always been an outsider. I have stood apart, never really fit in with the crowd. A self-protective strategy becomes, ‘I don’t fit in because I am different… special… smarter… better than.’ So this concept of being ordinary is something that I need to come to terms with, because thinking of myself as extraordinary sets me apart from the people I am called to love and serve. It is bad old-fashioned pride. Every human being on this planet are like my siblings in the eyes of God. I don’t get special preference. Even as I write these words that is hard for me to grasp. We all are the main characters in our own stories, the centers of our own little universes.

Some of the great men of faith that I admire most – C.G. Bevington, Rees Howells, Brother Yun – were men that had to become completely dependent on God. Reading their memoirs is exhilarating, but terrifying. I’ve never found myself voluntarily or involuntarily placed in a position of true or total dependence on God, but I’m starting to feel it now. He is twisting his divine screws and tinkering at my soul. Thank you, Jesus.