So many people spend so much of their time trying to make ‘sense’ of their lives. Indeed, they spend so much time and effort seeking the ‘meaning of life’ that they forget to actually live …
It is the Christian view that life in this world does makes sense and does have meaning. For Christians, life in this world is neither random nor meaningless. But, that does not mean that our lives should be lived in a selfish, smug way. We are not entitled to consider ourselves as pawns in a divine game of chess, who can live a life of self-interest in the certain knowledge that God will bear all the responsibility of sorting out our messes and mistakes for ever.
When we consider God’s role in our lives, we are taking on the challenge of exploring what really matters, what is truly worthwhile. Then, we are called to exert every effort to centre our lives on that ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’.
When I was a teacher I taught both music and philosophy. One of the aims of studying philosophy is to develop a clear and systematic approach to acquiring, interpreting, organising and sharing knowledge. As I introduced this concept to my students, I would often begin my response to their questions and statements with the words: What exactly do you mean by …? or It all depends on what you mean by …! Irritating, I know, but necessary! We all use language in a sloppy and inaccurate way. If we are to come anywhere near grasping any sense of God’s plan for our lives we must begin by being sure of what we are asking, and then developing an acceptance and an awareness that the answer will be challenging.
So often we seek meaning in our lives only when things go wrong. This is generally the worst possible time to ask such a profound question. When we are in despair God wants us to know that he is there to support our doubt and uncertainty. The time to develop our understanding of ‘meaning’ in our lives is when the going is good. That is the moment when we need to challenge our self-centred routines, when we need to shake ourselves out of the belief that we are in control!
When things go wrong, many of us have a habit that is as irritating as my questions to those student philosophers. We desperately try to pass the buck. We try to blame others for our faults and failings. Very often the one we try to blame is God!
The message of Christianity is simple: it focuses on the centrality of love and the awesomeness of life. The story of Jesus’ earthly life, which was certainly not without its challenging moments, shows self-giving, life-giving love at work. Those stories provide the ultimate model for how we should be living out our lives. The self-centredness of so many forms of mental illness illustrates our need to look outwards, thus freeing ourselves from the confining, paralysing power of the self.
Of course, following Jesus’ model of self-giving love, particularly in these times of global challenge, is difficult. It is in these times of uncertainty that we once again find ourselves asking those questions about meaning, about fulfilment, about inner peace. It is in these times that we must cling on to the Christian certainty that life can have ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’. But, we need to understand exactly what we mean by those words.
‘Purposeful’ is the opposite of ‘meaningless’. So, our next question should be what is the ‘purpose’ of our life, and not what is its ‘meaning’. Purpose points us along the path of love and fellowship, and that is the path that will lead us to true life in the embrace of a loving God. Then we will, in God’s good time, come to understand the meaning of the life he gave us in this world.
… all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil, or abuse for abuse … For “Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them speak peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.”
(1 Peter 3:8-12)
Revd Stephen Buckman