Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.
I have come that people may have life, and that they may have it abundantly.
I have been obsessed with the meaning of life since I was a kid. Early on, I remember reading obituaries in the local newspaper. I noticed that some during their lives had done extraordinary things, accounting for significant advances in science, math, engineering, the arts. Others had led large companies to unprecedented prosperity, providing many jobs and making a lot of money for themselves and others. Yet others lived more modest lives, working hard and raising families. Still others had hard lives marred by poor decisions, struggle, and loss.
There are culturally accepted ways to assign meaning to life and we label and reward accordingly. The “great” person affects humanity and gets public honor: a star named for them (or a star on Hollywood Boulevard), or a monument dedicated to them, or a statue built in their honor, or a street or park named after them An “expert” is widely recognized in their field of expertise and have a wall or a shelf in their home filled with their achievement awards. The “average Jane or Joe” lives a generally nondescript life, invisible to all but those closest to them. About another life we use the word “wasted” or “shameful,” particularly when addiction is involved. If one dies young, then we say their life was “tragically cut short” presumable lamenting that they did not have time to do the things that would have given their life greater meaning.
But even the highest reward for a meaningful life can be fleeting. We have a short collective memory. Have you ever stopped at a statue of a person and wondered who the person was and what they did to have a statue erected for them? I think these questions can be asked of any memorial we come across. I try to stop and read the usual plaque, then say something like, “Hmmmm, that’s interesting” before moving on.
My mom and dad were quite prominent people in our small, midwestern-America town. My dad was mayor for awhile, and when he died there was quite a celebration of his life and accomplishments; the town even named a street after him. Now, thirty years later, I’m sure most people driving down his street wonder who he was. Honestly, if anyone even thinks of him at all it is probably only to wish his street had a shorter name. And I’m sure that now only us, his kids, could find his, or my mom’s, grave site at the local cemetery.
I, too, have accomplished things in my life and have had my own achievement awards; however, even in the midst of the work I always had that small voice chiding me, “One day,” it would say, “this accomplishment will just be a line in your own obituary that will soon be forgotten.”
I am very aware that the day I die my toys and precious belongings will become just troublesome stuff for my kid to dispose of. In two generations, likely no one will know where I am buried. The best I can hope for is that I appear in some future progeny’s web search on an “ancestor” archive.
On my deathbed, if I am able to reflect back on my life, what is it that will have given it meaning? Will I be graded on a scale based on things that can measured, such as philanthropy or adventure or personal achievement? If so, against whose scale will I be judged? And who will grade me? Family? Friends? Society? If no one ultimately remembers me, then why should I really care how I am graded?
So, how does life mean? Wait! That is too big a question. What I really want to know is this: How does my life mean?
This I know: God created humankind—me—to participate in His very life, to be “one” with him and with other Christians. By His graciousness I am invited to become like He is by nature. Therefore, my life’s meaning doesn’t come from a collection of material things or accomplishments but by my movement into relationship with Him. My life begins to have meaning when I am awakened to the Beauty of God and I begin to “come out of myself and move toward Him,” to “run toward God without any regard for myself” (Patitsas)…like lovers do. Here is one way the Bible describes it:
My beloved is a shining and fiery light, Chosen from countless thousands. His head is like refined gold; His locks of hair are shiny and black, Like a raven’s feathers. His eyes are like those of doves Sitting by pools of water, Having eyes bathed in milk and fitly set. His cheeks are like bowls of spices Pouring forth perfumes. His lips are lilies dripping choice myrrh. His hands are like elaborate gold Set with precious stones. (Song of Songs, The Bible)
Isn’t that great imagery! Too often we are hit over the head with the threat of an angry God who is judging our every action and keeping score. That is not really true. It is much more like the paragraph, above. Elsewhere in the Bible it says that God is singing over us. Imagine that…God singing over me, the mess that I am.
To run toward God I have to try to get over myself, specifically to get over my love of myself, so that I might love Him. That is what it means to participate in God’s life.
In my human relationships I know that loving another is never easy for me. I don’t really want to put you first, at least not for very long. Setting aside my desires, my self-love, is often a sacrifice for me, and all too often it is too much of a sacrifice, so I don’t do it. If I’m honest with you, all the evidence in my life points to the fact that I love myself way too much, so that I want any relationship I’m in—with you or with God—to be on my terms.
But, love does require sacrifice. It all sounds so counter-cultural, doesn’t it. And it is, but this is what we were made for: to be in a loving relationship with God and others.
There’s hope for me, mired as I am in self love! Here is the little secret of Christianity that I have discovered: God knows I’ll never do “relationship” very well. Because of how much I want what I want, I’ll spend my life struggling to love you and God more than I love myself. Mostly I will fail at it. And then with God’s help I will get up and try again. And I will fail. And I will try again. And I will fail. And I will try again. For all of my life. With every fall I try to cry out to God Who helps me to get up again. Any successes I have will be entirely God’s doing.
But—and this is the final answer to my question—the only thing that gives my life meaning, eternal meaning, is whether I stayed in the struggle to try and love God and you more than I love myself. There are no monuments or achievement awards given for a life lived like this. There is only eternal life with God…life’s ultimate meaning.
And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
Oh, and that little word, “know” means the knowing God in the same way found only in the most intimate of relationship between lovers. Me knowing God (God already knows me)—it is both the meaning and reward of my life.
So, now when I read an obituary I appreciate the person’s accomplishments, but I also wonder how their life meant to them and to God, and I pray for them as I, too, struggle to live my life as one filled with eternal meaning.