The Most Important Things in Life
Life is not what it’s cracked up to be. Sure, it sounds like good, but eventually we all encounter despair, failure, suffering, frustration, the unlovingness of our own hearts and of those around us, and finally death. Experience tells us even the best aspects of life are ultimately unsatisfying. When I was younger, I was not convinced of this perspective. With so many possibilities ahead of me, I thought one of them would be what I was looking for. Jackson Browne wrote in an early song about “the first time I went on my own, when the roads were as many as the places I had dreamed of, and my friends and I were one.” Yet in a later song called “Running on Empty,” he concludes, “I look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through; looking into their eyes, I see them running, too.” Everyone is on a quest for that which truly satisfies, and everyone who lives long enough learns how difficult that quest is.
What can be done about lives like ours? Many years ago I decided what I was going to do: I became a Christian. In fact, I jumped in with such enthusiasm that I eventually went to work in biblical studies at McKenzie Study Center. Now some might question the appropriateness of those choices. Some might say, “Of all the pursuits of man, two of the most irrelevant are religion and scholarship, and you’re in both of them! Why spend your time on such dry and dusty pursuits?” They, of course, are not alone; I have often asked myself the same question. And each time my conclusion has been the same: I am convinced my faith and even my work are directly relevant to life’s hairiest and scariest issues.
THE SEARCH FOR WISDOM
Whether we put it this way or not, what we are all searching for is wisdom. We want to know how life works; we’re tired of being ambushed by reality. We want the magic words that open the doors to the richness of life we suspect is out there somewhere. No one sets out to live stupidly; I know I didn’t. I just seem to have been born into a game where the rules are unclear, the object unknown, and it’s always my turn to play. What I need most is solid, accurate, reliable knowledge about life. Look, reality is all I’ve got; I need it on my side.
KNOWLEDGE VS. WISDOM
No amount of knowledge, however, can claim the title of “wisdom” unless it is not only accurate, but relevant to life’s most fundamental issues. We want to know more than “stuff;” we want to understand our situation in life. There is little point to being yo-yo champion on the Titanic. Yet if we were tested on how deeply we understand the lives we live, most of us would score as “underachievers.” That seems to be Paul’s perspective in I Corinthians 1:20-21: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believed.” Life teaches us all so much, but still we miss the point. We need God, the Creator of life, to come and set us straight. In the Bible He did that very thing.
First of all, to understand life we must face an unpleasant and unpopular idea: we are sinners. Our culture has come to see “sin” as a topic discussed only by the self-righteous (“I may not be much, but at least I’m better than you”) or the religious huckster (“Repent, you sinners! Now let’s pass the offering plate”). But the simple truth is each of us is a sinner; we are all moral failures. By “moral” I don’t mean successfully keeping a series of edicts; rather, I mean the presence or absence of real godliness in our characters. God’s character is reflected in holiness, love, and righteousness. To the extent our lives do not reflect God’s character, we have a moral problem; we are moral failures. Measured by that standard, we all fall pitifully short, and we know it.
FACING MORAL FAILURE
Moral failure is crucially important, because it lies at the heart of all life’s problems. Why do I hurt the ones I love? Why do they hurt me? Where is the satisfaction life should bring? Why can’t I be content? Why death? The brutal fact of sin is behind it all. We are alone, cut off from our Creator. We are not good. And we are going to die. The problem is not just that we made a few mistakes; the problem is we are morally corrupt. Though we may understand the difference between good and evil, and even recognize good is better than evil, still that goodness eludes us. The problem is who we are. How can I escape my problems when I am my problem?
Jesus’ death and resurrection is therefore the central event in human history. I know many people find Christian doctrine the next best thing to irrelevant: A saviour I’ve never met has saved me from a Hell I didn’t even know existed. Now that I know about it I’m glad that I don’t have to go… meanwhile I’ll get back to my real problems. But the gospel is all about my real problems. Moral decay has our world in a death grip, but God in Christ has broken that grip. And that changes everything.
Three concepts are now central to anyone who wants to live wisely: God has forgiven me, God is rescuing me from the corruption of sin, and God asks only that I trust Him to do these things for me (that is, that I “have faith”). Familiar as these ideas are, they have an incalculable impact on how we think about and live our lives. The apostles repeatedly reminded believers of the inescapable implications of the gospel; that is what their letters were all about. Wisdom, a profound understanding of reality, starts by coming to terms with these three simple ideas. I could mention many implications, but let me just recount a few:
- I can view myself with the utter realism wisdom demands, because I have been forgiven. How can any of us ever stand to look deeply into our own hearts, when we can only despair at what we find? But now that I am forgiven, I can look at myself and not be destroyed by the ugly realities I may find there. Although I am not yet a moral success, God is my loving father anyway; he really has forgiven me.
- I want to pursue righteousness and holiness with all my heart, because true life dwells there. Goodness is not boring; it is what life was meant to be about.
- My life now centers around a tremendous hope. It’s stupendous to be forgiven, but I don’t want to remain a forgiven moral wreck forever. Though forgiven, I’m still seemingly as far away from real life as ever. But God has promised to work in my life right now, to lead me into righteous, holy life He intended human life to be.
- I can now understand the difference between self-righteousness and a hunger for righteousness. Having known the sting of sin, I have no basis on which to condemn others. No creep that crosses my path has a moral problem worse than mine. I can speak out against evil because I know it leads only to death; I can speak with compassion because I know if everybody got what they deserved, I’d be lost.
- I can now understand the difference between God-given goodness and hypocritical self-effort. I now long for goodness in a new way because of my faith, but I’m not kidding myself that I can pull it off. God is not waiting to see how good a job I do at being good; that’s already settled-I’m rotten. Becoming holy and righteousness is not something I accomplish for God; becoming holy and righteousness is something God does for me.
- I know I will never get a better offer than God’s offer to make me His son and lead me into His kingdom. Knowing that, I know nothing in life is as valuable as my faith, because faith alone is my ticket into the glories of eternal life. The central struggle in every believer’s life is to embrace the gospel wholeheartedly in the face of the world’s tempting distractions. Fortunately, God has made it His business to teach us day by day what life is about. He even suggests we will learn to welcome suffering, because of the way it causes us to grow in faith and wisdom.
THE WINDOW ON REALITY
In short, God gave us the straight scoop in the Bible, and so I continue to be glad I have made it the center of my life and my work. The Bible is a window on reality, and we who work at the Study Center are just some of the many who work at polishing the glass. None of us mistakes word studies for wisdom; we just see it as our task to strive to clearly understand God’s revelation. Such clarity is not all that makes up wisdom, of course; wisdom must be lived to be learned, and biblical scholars can be as foolish as anyone. Still, God gave us a great gift in the Bible, and we want to be among those who work at “dry” biblical interpretation until God’s truths are clear for everyone to see.
I am firmly convinced that becoming a Christian is the wisest thing a person can do. Nothing is more important; nothing is more relevant to the problems we face. Biblical Christianity is the only worldview that, in the end, can stand up to the acid test of reality. Better still, not only is it true, it is truly good news. One day, when my wisdom is complete, and the mystery of life has been solved, I am going to find that life is better than I could possibly have foreseen.
Copyright September 1987 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.