To Live is Christ
The generation that led the social-sexual revolution of the 1960s was—and apparently still is—a selfish, narcissistic, hedonistic, and immoral generation. They pursued a path of shameless, unprincipled decadence—some to their literal destruction. Yet while I do not want to minimize the evil and harm that they—or I should say we—introduced into history, a certain aspect of that lost and unredeemed generation puts contemporary society to shame.
Jesus believed that the sinners and social outcasts with whom he dined were “nearer” the Kingdom of God than the respectably religious Pharisees who remained proudly aloof from that rabble. No unredeemed sinner is near the Kingdom of God in any sense ultimately of benefit to him, but some unredeemed sinners have a glimmer of the truth about reality to which other unredeemed sinners are blind. To the extent that some unredeemed sinners can see something of the truth about God’s reality, they are closer to the Kingdom of God than those who cannot see. In that sense the young generation that led us through the sixties was nearer the Kingdom of God than the youth culture and society are today.
Why do I say that? Was the sixties’ generation any less immoral, any less unprincipled, any less self-absorbed than the current generation? I don’t think so, and yet there is an important difference between then and now. For all of our self-centered, decadent hedonism and our self-serving, shortsighted foolishness, most of my generation felt the need to justify our folly in terms of something good and noble. Free love was good and liberating and could save the world from strife and war. In reality, “free love” was just plain old-fashioned fornication engaged in by people of weak character and weak will who were being swept along by the current of their uncontrolled passions. But somehow my generation knew that was neither good nor right, and so we pretended that evil was good. We used noble-sounding language and compelling rhetoric to make our acts of ignoble fornication seem to be acts of glorious liberation.
Where is the virtue in that? It consists in the idea that meaning and purpose in human existence must arise out of something “transcendent.” In the sixties this idea was still alive and well. Almost none in my generation were authentically related to something transcendent; it was all sham and hypocrisy. No less than the current generation, we were living for ourselves. But though our lives were not authentic attempts to realize some grand transcendent moral vision, we talked a good talk. We talked the way someone in pursuit of a transcendent vision ought to talk. We talked about bringing peace and harmony into the world, about putting an end to war, about ending injustice, racism, and persecution. We talked about finding meaning and purpose and putting an end to the lonely emptiness of modern, alienated lives. Discovering who we were, finding our own identity, finding a reason to go on living, filling up the nagging emptiness—these we explicitly acknowledged as our unceasing preoccupations. Exhibit A is a whole decade of angst-filled, unsatisfying movies which failed to entertain, but which reflected our inauthentic search for the transcendent meaning of our lives. We each had to have “our thing.” The radicals’ “thing” was the political and social salvation of mankind in accordance with a false hope defined in Marxist theory. The hippies’ “thing”—when it was not something bizarre or idiosyncratic—was the ideal of LOVE itself. The sixties’ generation was rife with hypocrisy and inauthentic lives, but at least we knew enough to pretend that our lives were given over to something bigger than our own pleasure, comfort, and entertainment. At least we knew that there can be no meaningful purpose to human existence if it is not grounded in something that transcends an individual life.
All that is gone now. I do not miss the pretense, but I miss the ideas. We no longer have the concept that life must have a meaning. We no longer think in terms of life having purpose. We no longer even pretend that life could be defined by something that transcends our individual lives. Instead we have a whole generation who seem incapable of comprehending the notion that one might sacrifice his individual well-being for the sake of his country. Times have certainly changed—and not for the better. We were far from the Kingdom of God in the sixties. We are farther from it in the nineties.
An anecdote captures the essential difference between now and then. While working in a video store, Damian Arlyn, a recent graduate of Gutenberg College, was asked by a college student to recommend a movie. The student quickly added, “But I don’t want a ‘message flick’.” “What do you mean by a ‘message flick’?” Damian asked. The student replied, “You know, one of those movies that tries to get you to think about big questions. You know, like what is the meaning of life and junk like that.” (The student used a more colorful word than “junk,” but I have cleaned it up a bit for prime time.) This student’s comment, it seems to me, captures the essence of the spiritual darkness that has descended on modern culture. I will be the first to admit that the sixties and seventies had a way of trivializing the big questions, of making them look trite and ridiculous. But at least we acknowledged them as valid questions for which we should long to have answers. Contemporary society no longer accepts the big questions as important and vital; they are just so much “junk” that made for not very entertaining movies. Everybody knows how ridiculous it is to worry about ultimate questions. There are no answers; there is no truth. The really important thing is: “What are you doing tomorrow night? Do you want to have some fun?” For precisely this reason, then, the spirit of the current culture is a step away from biblical Christianity. It is a step away from the Kingdom of God.
Biblical Christianity advises us—in no uncertain terms—to seek long and hard for the meaning and purpose of our existence so that we might live our lives in the light of that purpose and meaning. The culture of the sixties was closer to the spirit of philosophical inquiry which biblical Christianity embodies than is the culture of the late nineties. The hippies of 1968 were closer to the Kingdom of God than social security pensioners of 1998 who sit in front of their televisions wishing that people would just leave Bill Clinton alone. Life is a good round of golf. As long as Bill is letting us have a crack at that, what else is there? The same kinds of motives may have driven the hippie back in 1968, but at least he had the decency not to admit it. Contrary to the spirit of contemporary culture, we Christians—of all people—should care to have an answer to the question, What is the meaning of life and the purpose for our existence?
The Bible teaches that our true fulfillment is Life in the eternal Kingdom of God (John 1:4). Our ultimate mission in this lifetime is to absorb the values and character of that coming Kingdom into our character and being, to internalize the values of godliness and righteousness that will make the Kingdom of God what it will be. Our mission, then, is to train ourselves to love God by training ourselves to love what is good. We must teach ourselves to embrace what is true, to value what is right, to like what is godly, to have regard for justice, to care deeply for mercy, and to want more than anything in the world to be a good and loving person. And how do we accomplish this self-training? In the nitty-gritty of everyday life choices, we must persistently—day in and day out—embrace what is good and shun what is evil. This is exactly what God pleads with Israel to do, when He says through the prophet Isaiah (1:16-17), “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
In his letter to the Philippians (1:21), the Apostle Paul captures yet another aspect to the meaning of our life here and now: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” As Paul penned these words, he was facing impending execution because of his activity in spreading the gospel message. Paul is torn. For his own sake, he would be delighted to be executed so that he could begin the final marvelous stage of his ongoing existence in the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, he has a sincerely profound desire to go on living in order that he might persuade more and more people to believe the proclamation of the good news, to repent of their evil, and to learn to love what is good. That’s what he means, I think, when he says “to live is Christ.” Specifically, he means this: “So long as I am alive and functioning in this present physical existence, the purpose and meaning of my life consists in my doing what I can to persuade others to know the truth about Christ and to respond to that truth by repenting of their evil and turning to love what is good.”
At this point, I must raise a question. Have we contemporary Christians lost sight of this aspect of the meaning of human existence? Have we made the proclamation and propagation of the gospel an aspect of the transcendent cause which gives meaning to our lives in the here and now? Or are we just like our neighbors? Perhaps we, too, make the supreme purpose of our lives “to have fun,” existing here and now to own and to enjoy things—as we await our future entrance into the Kingdom of God? Something is wrong with that attitude. It is not the attitude of our Lord. It is not the attitude of the apostles. Their lives were not their own; they were servants of another. They lived not for themselves, but for the accomplishment of God’s purposes. And God’s purposes involve seeking out and raising up a chosen people for Himself. If the radical of the 1960s could strive for and sacrifice for the cause of bringing about the mythical hope of Marxist theory, why can we who are Christians not strive for and sacrifice for the true and inexorable cause of bringing to God a people who love Him and want to know Him? We who claim to be so close to the Kingdom of God, are we further away from it than the godless radicals of 1968? As children of contemporary culture, are we so incurably self-absorbed that we can’t conceive of working for a cause which transcends our little private lives? Are we so much a part of our society that we think Jesus is for us, and not that we are for Jesus?
My sincere and earnest desire is that we at McKenzie Study Center and Gutenberg College can offer an alternative model to the non-transcendent self-absorption of contemporary society. I hope our teaching and our example will teach others to “live for Christ” and not “for themselves.” And I hope that the entire history of our existence will be devoted to training and equipping others to serve God by knowledgeably, intelligently, and righteously proclaiming that truth which finds its crowning conclusion in the declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. That is what McKenzie Study Center should be; and by God’s grace and your encouragement, perhaps that is what we shall be.
Copyright November 1998 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.