The Two Most Important Things I Have Learned
Adapted from a talk given at Gutenberg College’s 2014 Summer Institute, “What We Have Learned: A Celebration of Gutenberg College’s 20th Anniversary.” Tutors who began the journey with Gutenberg when its doors opened in 1994 shared some of what they had learned along the way.
The task given to us presenters this year was to answer the question, “What have I learned?” Since this is Gutenberg College’s twentieth anniversary, I presume that the point of this question was to ask me to explore what I have learned in the course of the past twenty years, the duration of Gutenberg’s operation and my involvement with it.
Now, in truth, the question of what I have learned is not for me to answer. It is for someone else to answer—notably God. For what a person knows can only finally be determined by what he does and who he is, not by what he believes, understands, and says. I would like to believe that I have learned a lot in the past twenty years. Things that twenty years ago I knew only intellectually and theoretically have been burned into my inner being. I believe that, today, I truly know and understand some of the things that, previously, I only understood intellectually. I trust that those things have begun to shape my choices and desires. But that is not for me to say. You would be a better judge than I. And God would be the best judge of all. It would therefore be somewhat problematic for me to explore what I have truly learned. So, in this paper, I will confine myself to an exploration of how my thinking and understanding have changed.
What has not changed is my commitment to conform my understanding to the teaching and worldview of the Bible. I began Gutenberg College with that commitment, and I am committed to it yet today. Indeed, that has been the primary focus of my intellectual life. The matters I explore in this paper will clearly reflect that focus.
Here, then, are the central questions I shall explore in this paper: How has the way I understand the Bible and its teaching changed in the past twenty years, and what role has Gutenberg played in changing it? I shall discuss the dramatic changes in my perspective with respect to (1) the Christian religion and its origins, (2) the purpose of human existence, (3) what I should desire to get from my existence, and (4) the motivation to participate in human existence. The latter three changes in perspective I will group together under the broader topic of the change in my perspective with regard to the basis for hope. Originally, I was also going to explore the changes in my perspective with respect to how to read, understand, and interpret the Bible. But time will not permit me to include that discussion. So, perhaps some other time.
I. Changes in How I Understand the Bible & Gutenberg’s Role
Two important factors are behind the changes in perspective that I shall discuss in this paper: (1) the education I have received through my role as a tutor at Gutenberg College, and (2) my ongoing study and teaching of the Bible. That my participation in the Gutenberg project has influenced me a great deal is beyond doubt. I cannot even begin to identify all the ways that it has influenced me, but that it has done so is clear. But my ongoing study of the Bible outside the Gutenberg curriculum has made an even more important contribution to what I have learned.
The most important insight that I have gained—and one that has influenced many of the other insights I shall explore—is the inexorable power of culture to shape our ideas, beliefs, and values. We think as we think because our culture has taught us how to think. We believe what we believe because our culture has made those beliefs utterly plausible to us. We value what we value because our culture has made those values seem utterly good and right. Under normal circumstances, our minds and what they produce are, in significant measure, the creation of our culture. It is an extremely rare individual who thinks and reasons in complete independence from his culture.
This result need not be inevitable, however. It is not appropriate that our reasoning and beliefs are the creation of our culture. But it is a social fact, a function of the reality of human existence. In truth, it is a function of human sinfulness. For it is our fear of man that gives culture its power. We take our cues from the culture for we are afraid of being held in contempt by other people.
The follower of Jesus will have to learn a different way. He must learn an independence from his culture that does not come naturally. He must learn to hold in contempt the esteem of other men. He must learn to trust his reason when it has been cut loose from its tether to other men. He must give heed to his intelligence as it receives counsel from the Bible and the Spirit of Truth. He must learn to disregard the contrary dictates and opposition of his culture.
However, if one lacks a fierce independence from whatever culture he is tempted to fear, he will always read his Bible through lenses provided to him by that culture. This fact has been the most important influence on the trajectory of Christian thought throughout history. It is this reality that has shaped and continues to shape Christian understanding throughout the world. In other words, the power of culture is the engine that has driven the history of Christian thought. And it has not driven it toward the truth, I submit; it has driven it away from the truth.
II. Changes in My Perspective on the Nature of Christianity and Its Origins
Twenty years ago, my understanding of the origin of Christianity would have gone something like this:
Jesus, the incarnation of God, came to earth to teach his disciples how to live as God wanted them to live. What God wanted of mankind was that they “do” Christianity. More precisely, that they practice what Christians are to practice, believe what Christians are to believe, value what Christians are to value, and live as Christians are to live. Having instructed his disciples in this Christian faith, Jesus’ disciples (the apostles) then passed on exactly what Jesus taught them to their first converts. These first-generation Christians fashioned their lives to conform to what they had been taught by Jesus through the apostles. They went about “doing” the Christian faith as Jesus had taught it to his original disciples. Within the first couple of generations, these first Christians created the institution of the Church and its practices to reflect and embody the lifestyle and faith that had been imparted to them through Jesus and his apostles. The rest, as they say, is history. Some current Christian traditions have remained faithful to the original church and its beliefs and practices; others have strayed. Our job, if we should decide to accept it, is to determine which traditions are which: which have remained faithful to the original church and which have strayed. Different Christians have different ideas about how to go about making such a determination. Some believe (and twenty years ago this would have been me) that one must judge the faithfulness of a particular tradition to the original church by judging its faithfulness to the teaching of the Bible.
Two critical points stand out as the most important ramifications of this picture: (1) There was a faithful impartation of the Truth from Jesus to his apostles and to the original Christian church; and (2) the revealed Truth that was incorporated in the life of the original Christian church is currently reflected in those universally held doctrines, practices, beliefs, and perspectives of traditional Christianity. Whether it is the Christianity of First Baptist, First Presbyterian, First Assembly of God, First Lutheran, or St. Mary’s Catholic Church, they all derived their essential understanding of Christianity from Jesus through the apostles.
Twenty years later, my thinking has changed. Now, my understanding of the origin of Christianity goes like this:
Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, brought into existence by God, his Father, taught his Jewish disciples the true meaning and significance of what they had already learned as first-century Jews who had been taught the Scriptures in the synagogue. Beyond that, he revealed the truth about the role and significance of the Messiah, a truth that had escaped the Jews throughout their history. Furthermore, Jesus convinced them, through his miracles and resurrection, that he was that promised Messiah. The mainstream Jewish culture of the time largely rejected the understanding and claims of these original Jesus-believers. And it rejected and persecuted them.
One of the most significant persecutors of Jesus-believers was Saul of Tarsus (the man who would eventually be called “Paul,” the apostle). The resurrected Jesus appeared to Paul, and that simple fact completely exploded his belief system. Previously, his understanding of Jewish Scripture and belief had no room for a Messiah who got himself killed. The reality of Jesus’ resurrection—the bare fact that God raised him from the dead—forced Paul to rethink everything he had ever believed. If Jesus was the Messiah and was clearly acceptable to God, then how does one understand God’s purpose in sending him into the world only to be crucified by the Romans? Paul, more than any other apostle we have record of, searched the Scriptures and examined this question. The understanding we now have of the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection comes largely from the thought and effort that Paul put into understanding God’s purposes.
By the end of Paul’s life, those who considered themselves followers of Jesus had largely turned away from this hard-fought understanding that Paul taught (2 Timothy 1:15). Having become interested in a significantly different understanding of the nature and significance of Jesus and what he accomplished, they began to teach a different Jesus and a different gospel. It seems probable that there were, at that time, a number of different, competing alternatives that vied for allegiance. The particular alternative to apostolic belief (specifically, the alternative to Pauline belief) that ultimately prevailed was the ancestor of what we now know as universally-accepted orthodox Christianity. As a consequence, neither Jesus nor Paul is the founder of Christianity. The founding of Christianity arose through teachers and leaders who are mostly unknown to us.
These men invented an entirely new and different religion—a religion distinct from and independent of the decidedly Jewish worldview and gospel that Jesus and Paul had proclaimed. It was a religion created by Gentiles and for Gentiles. And, for the most part, it was believed and embraced by Gentiles. Relatively few Jews persisted in following the Jesus of Paul and the apostles. Even fewer chose to follow the Jesus of third- and fourth-century orthodoxy. Any Jews that did continue to believe in Jesus were, it seems likely, mostly associated with groups like the one that came to be known as the Ebionites. (The Ebionites, it would seem likely, were descendants of those Jews who, in opposition to Paul throughout his days, insisted that followers of Jesus must practice full-blown obedience to the Mosaic Covenant.) Within a relatively short amount of time, the gospel of Jesus and Paul had been transformed into an entirely new religion, largely purged of its Jewish background, heritage, and membership.
Now, remember, the topic I am discussing is what I have learned. If you are dubious with respect to the picture of Christian origins I have drawn, I certainly understand. Most Christians throughout most of history have embraced the old picture. This new picture undermines the authenticity of Christianity as the Truth from God. And if one is committed to the latter—to Christianity’s being the Truth from God—then the picture I have drawn is certainly unacceptable. When my whole life through I have heard that Christianity is the Truth from God, I will not discard such a belief easily. That is the power of culture.
But while I have not rejected the old picture easily, I have, in fact, come to reject it for one fundamental reason. Through the original works of ancient writers, I have became acquainted with the thought forms and tendencies of the Church Fathers at the same time that I have become much more familiar with the worldview and concepts of ancient pagan philosophers. My exposure to the Church Fathers has been sufficient to see the extent to which, generally speaking, they were enamored by and influenced by ancient pagan ideas, especially Platonic ideas. Their intellectual efforts were less an attempt to understand the teaching of the apostles on its own terms—as the teaching of Jewish prophets who were articulating what God had revealed—and much more an attempt to understand Christian doctrine, practices, and religion in terms compatible with Hellenistic paganism. In other words, I came to realize the extent to which the reading of the Bible by the earliest Christians (in contradistinction to the earliest believers) failed to be an accurate exegesis of the biblical texts. Rather, it was the combining of various Hellenistic and pagan ideas with biblical concepts, language, and ideas.
Some Christian traditions attempt to salvage the old picture by making one or both of two critical assertions:
(1) The Platonic concepts and tendencies that found their way into the way the Church Fathers articulated the Christian faith are a part of God’s plan and purpose for revealing his Truth to mankind. God guided Plato and the Greek philosophers to develop their understanding as they did. And God guided the Church Fathers to see in the thought and philosophy of Platonism the Truth that was reflected there. Hence, the Platonic influence does not signal a departure from divine Truth, it advances the articulation of divine Truth.
(2) As a matter of fact, the elements in Christianity that seem to have their genesis in something other than the Bible were a separate stream of the teaching of the apostles. The New Testament is a record of only one stream of the apostolic teaching. There was a second stream as well. As the apostles founded the various churches, they instructed them in all matters concerning the practice of the Christian religion. Many of those things cannot be found in the Bible, precisely because they were never recorded in the Bible. But they are nonetheless an essential part of the apostolic teaching. The church of the Church Fathers faithfully preserves both streams of the apostolic tradition. Accordingly, to be faithful to the Jewish beliefs of the apostles, I need to imitate the life and beliefs of the Christians of the early church. Far from being a Gentile invention, therefore, Christianity is a faithful reflection of the Truth that was taught by Jesus to his apostles, who passed it down to the earliest founders of the Christian church.
Both of these assertions, I submit, are a matter of ad hoc, revisionist history. This is not how history unfolded. It is not even plausible to believe so.
On the one hand, we see already in the pages of the New Testament the tendencies of the earliest Jesus-believers to depart from apostolic teaching. Far from being people who eagerly and willingly embraced the apostolic teaching with utter faithfulness, some of the prominent ones among them were ambitious, imperialistic, glory-mongers who were ready to oppose, obstruct, and detract from the apostolic perspective. It is not an exaggeration to say that, had the earliest believers acceded to the apostolic teaching, we would not have most of our New Testament. The works of the New Testament were written to correct, rebuke, and challenge believers who were departing from the apostolic gospel. So, the New Testament evidence itself suggests how historically implausible it is to picture the early church as a straightforward, faithful embodiment of apostolic teaching.
More importantly, the problem with the beliefs, doctrines, and practices of early Christianity is not the mere fact that they are not explicitly taught in the New Testament. Rather, the problem is that many of them actually contradict and are incompatible with the teaching of the New Testament. The two-streams-of-apostolic-teaching hypothesis disregards this simple fact: The two distinct streams exist in irreconcilable tension with each another. To accept this hypothesis would require that I accept the implausible suggestion that the apostles embraced a set of beliefs that were utterly incoherent and self-contradictory.
All this is to say that I now reject the old picture of the origins of Christianity. I now realize that the earliest form of the Christian church was the creation of Gentile quasi-believers who took the gospel that had spread around the Roman Empire through the proclamations of the apostles and transformed it into a religion cut off from its Jewish and biblical roots. They gave history a religion that had been purged of its Jewish background, given a life of its own, and launched on its own independent path. They gave us Christianity.
What does this mean? It means that, if I am interested in following Jesus and his teaching, I cannot take for granted anything that I have been told to believe about Jesus and what he taught. I need to go all the way back to the original teachers (specifically, Jesus and the apostles) and seek to understand what they taught in its original context and seek to grasp the original meaning of their teaching. In other words, I need to go back to the New Testament and understand the New Testament on its own terms, not as one would read it when he assumes the legitimacy and validity of Christian beliefs and practices. (And, for that matter, not as one would read it when he assumes the legitimacy and validity of Talmudic Judaism.)
The need for this is great. No modern Christian tradition of which I am aware has preserved the original Jewish worldview and message of Jesus and the apostles. Every modern Christian tradition is the heir of Gentile-invented Christianity. And every attempt to restore Jesus to Judaism seems to accept uncritically that Jesus’ Judaism must have been some version of Talmudic Judaism. We need to do better than this.
III. What I Have Learned about the Basis for Hope
Like many Christians before me, I have never really been all that clear about the purpose and meaning of human existence. I have been all too ready to accede to the sentiment that one should follow Jesus in order to give his life meaning. But, like most Christians, I didn’t really know what I meant by that. Does knowing Jesus really give meaning to my existence? Does that mean that people who don’t know Jesus have no meaning to their existence? And, if true, what exactly would that mean? What does it mean, in fact, to have an existence that has meaning?
Most discussions we have about the purpose of human existence (or about what gives life meaning, or about what gives a person significance) are hopelessly muddled and confused because we do not take care to define our terms or clarify the concepts we are using. There are many different senses in which we might speak of “purpose” in human existence. Which one is relevant to the discussion at hand? There are different kinds of significance. What kind counts with respect to our essential question? Human life will have all sorts of different meanings. Which are we inquiring after?
To try to bring clarity to an otherwise muddled subject, let me articulate five questions to which we all want answers:
- Why do I exist rather than not exist?
- What motivation do I have for doing anything? (Why should I get up in the morning and do anything at all? Why should I seek to be productive rather than just sit on my sofa and chill? Why should I work rather than play? Why should I bother to play? Why should I engage in the pursuits that occupy humans’ lives rather than not? Why should I plan for the future? Etc.)
- What benefit can I expect out of my existence in the here and now?
- What must I do to ensure that my existence benefits me ultimately?
- What must I do to ensure that my existence benefits me in the here and now?
Over the course of my life as a Bible teacher, I think I have come to understand how the Bible would address these questions. In this second part of the paper, I want to discuss how biblical truth offers specific, concrete answers to the five questions above.
I will take up each of these questions in turn and attempt to answer them as I believe the Bible would answer them. But before I address these questions directly, I need to lay some groundwork for doing so. I want to articulate five important biblical truths that, I believe, form the basis upon which the Bible would address these questions.
All of the five truths below reflect what is perhaps the most important change that has occurred in my thinking over the past twenty years. When I first came to Eugene more than thirty years ago, I was in the middle of wrestling with the question of how God can be sovereign over all of reality at the same time that we are creatures who freely determine our own existence through free-will choices that we make. As I came to understand how the biblical worldview answered that question, I developed a radically new conception of God and his relationship to created reality—specifically, I came to understand that God was the transcendent Author of created reality. While I realized at the time that this new understanding of God could resolve the free-will/sovereignty dilemma, I didn’t know how powerful my new concept of God was. As I began to fully understand and embrace the new paradigm of God and his relationship to created reality, I came to see, over time, its philosophical power. One by one, I came to see how it answered every vexing philosophical question I had ever struggled with in a way that remained faithful to what the Bible taught. Coming to see that God is the transcendent Author of all reality and coming to grasp the implications of that has been the most philosophically, theologically, and exegetically fruitful thing I have learned in the last twenty years.
To answer the swarm of questions around the purpose of human existence, then, it is important to keep in mind the following five truths, all of which follow directly from the larger truth that God is the transcendent Author of all of reality.
Truth #1: The structure of reality is a narrative.
One of the most important changes in my perspective has been my understanding of the relationship between the Creator and his creation. I had always assumed that created reality existed on the same ontological plane as God. In the same way that a sculpture exists alongside the sculptor on the same ontological plane, created reality exists alongside God. But I have changed my perspective. In the biblical worldview, created reality has the same nature, structure, and logic as a story does. And its relationship to its Creator is the same relationship that pertains between a story and its storyteller. In other words, God’s created reality has the structure of a narrative. More specifically, it has the structure of innumerable interlocking narratives. There are as many individual stories as there are individual creatures. As a consequence, each human being is the center of his own story. And, in reality as a whole, all the individual stories overlap and are interconnected.
Truth #2: God did not create me; he created my story.
I have always tended to believe that God created me, and I, in turn, created my story. I, not God, author the story of my life through the choices I make. God’s part was to bring me into existence. My story results from my free-will choices in conjunction with God’s responding and interacting with those choices. But this understanding is wrong. The essential unit of God’s creative act is not me, my person; it is my story. In and through my existence, God is creating a story within which I am its protagonist; my person and identity are inseparable from this story of which I am at the center. As Alasdair MacIntyre suggests in After Virtue, to understand myself as the character within a story is the most meaningful way to understand the nature of human identity. Who am I? I am the protagonist of the story that constitutes my life. But this has a very important implication: My story is not defined in relation to me; rather, I must be defined in relation to my story. My story, not me, is what God is creating. My human personhood is an essential ingredient within the story that God is choosing to create.
This has an important implication: The question regarding God’s creative purpose should not be asked with respect to me; it must be asked with respect to my story. Why do I exist? It is not helpful to focus on the question of why I, as a creature, was created; I must focus on the question of why my story was created. I can know immediately that I was created to be the protagonist in my story. What is at question is why my story was created in the first place.
Furthermore, if my existence has meaning, significance, and purpose, it is not because I have meaning, significance, and purpose; it is because my story has meaning, significance, and purpose. My significance does not rest in me, in and of myself; it rests in the story of which I am the center.
This, in turn, has a further consequence. The meaning and significance of my life does not reside in what I become, in what I make of myself, or in what I produce. If it resides in the meaning and significance of the story I am in, then it resides in the story as a story. But the significance of a story does not depend primarily upon what its protagonist does, becomes, or produces; it lies in what the story reflects. The significance lies in what truth the story embodies, in what meaning it contains, quite independently of what happens or does not happen in the life of the protagonist. A protagonist might be good or evil. Either way, the story of how he became such can have meaning and significance. A protagonist might succeed or fail. Either way, the story of his success or failure will be meaningful. In other words, the value and meaning of a story is not located in the final outcome to its protagonist. The story is a reality that exists in and of itself, independently of its protagonist’s outcome.
Further still, assuming that the stories God has created have purpose, meaning, and significance, then it follows that every human life has purpose, meaning, and significance because every human life is the center of a story that God is creating. Consequently, there is no such thing as a human existence that lacks meaning, purpose, and significance.
Truth #3: The purpose of my life is designed to benefit God, not me.
The purpose of my existence is not defined by its intended benefit to me; it must be defined by its intended benefit to God. This is perhaps the biggest mistake that human beings make. We begin our inquiry concerning the meaning of life from the assumption that God created us in order that he might benefit us and make it worth our while. So, we are already expecting an answer of the following form: The purpose of my existence is that I might enjoy X. But I have come to see how contrary this assumption is to the biblical teaching. Reality was not created to benefit me; it was created to benefit God, created to serve purposes related to God.
This has a very important consequence: There is no guarantee that my existence will bring benefit to me. As we saw above, every human life has purpose, but not every human life ends well. Not every human being profits by having been given existence. It is sometimes right to say: “It would be better for him if he had never been born.” However meaningful, however purposive, however significant the existence of a human individual is, it does not follow that his existence will profit him in the end. It may very well be a tragic existence rather than a blessed one.
Much confusion exists among Christians as they ponder the meaning of human existence. Betrayed by false assumptions, they adopt the perspective that a tragic existence is a meaningless existence. If an existence does not benefit the creature, they reason, then it has no benefit at all. And if it has no benefit, then clearly it is pointless. But that is not true. Created existence was never intended to benefit the creature. It was always intended to benefit the Creator. God created reality for his purposes, to bring benefit to himself rather than to bring benefit to the creation. So, even if it would have been better for me had I never been born, nonetheless, my story and my existence does have a purpose and a benefit—a benefit to its Author, God.
This may strike us as a rather obnoxious point of view (especially if we are inclined to think of ourselves as every bit as important as God is), but it is, I submit, true nonetheless. And for anyone who has come to recognize that the Creator is more important than the creature, it is an absolutely essential point to grasp.
Truth #4: The purpose of my existence is to be the protagonist in a story that reflects the glory of God.
What then is the purpose of human existence? The purpose of my existence is to be the protagonist in a story that embodies some significant aspect of who its Author is. In other words, the purpose of my existence (as it is of all created reality) is to be the center of a story that reflects something of the wonder, majesty, goodness, and glory of God, its Author. Simply put, that is the purpose for which God created me. And that is why he created my story.
I have already noted one of the important consequences of this truth: the value of a human life is located in the intrinsic significance and meaning of the story that is created. The value of one’s story is not found in any individual element, like, for example, the final outcome. A human existence, like a story, does not have the logic of a means-to-some-end reality. God did not give me my existence as the means to some end he hoped I would attain. Furthermore, God did not shape the events of my life story to be the means to some specific end, for example, the outcome of eternal Life. Rather, the story of my life is an end in itself.
Human existence, like a story, does not have a means-to-some-end logic to it. It has a very different kind of logic to it. Human existence is a narrative-like reality in that it has meaning, significance, and value in and of itself, taken as a whole. The story of my life is intrinsically meaningful and valuable in and of itself, as a story; it is not the means to some end. Regardless of what end or outcome is in store for me, the story is what is important and has meaning and significance. It is the story itself that reflects something of its Author and brings benefit to him.
This has a further important consequence: The purpose of my existence is not contingent upon me succeeding at some goal I have set for myself. The purpose of my existence is not found in something I must create, in something I must accomplish, in something I must attain, or in something I must achieve. The purpose of my existence resides in the particular, individual purposes God had for my story. It resides in what, in particular, of God’s glory he wanted my life story to reflect. He wanted my story to say something in particular about who he, its Author, is. Hence, my purpose does not reside in, nor is it contingent upon, the outcome of my existence. Whether I succeed or fail, my life will still have meaning. Whether I attain something or not, my life will still fulfill its purpose.
A common mistake is to assume that the meaning and purpose of one’s existence is directly related to what he does. If I achieve some kind of success, fame, honor, or impact, then my life will have had meaning and purpose. If I fail to achieve any such thing, then my life will have failed to have any meaning or purpose. This is absolutely not the case. This is the wrong way to think about meaning and purpose. The true meaning and purpose of human existence is not about what I do or do not accomplish.
There is still another implication of the above truth: If the purpose of a human life is to be the protagonist in a story that brings glory to God, then knowing the purpose of my existence does not, in and of itself, supply my motivation for doing something. The purpose of my existence is being achieved no matter what I do and whether I do anything at all. Hence, understanding my created purpose does not provide me with a reason to do any particular thing.
Why is this important? As I have already mentioned, a common misconception of the purpose of human existence is that it will be found in the outcome of a human life. In other words, it is commonly thought that I give meaning and purpose to my life by attaining success or happiness or fame or honor or somehow “make a difference” in history. Under this misconception of human purpose, it makes sense that I would make choices to do things that would help me give meaning and purpose to my existence. By this way of thinking, the particular “purpose” I decide to “give” to my existence will be directly correlated with my motivation for doing particular things. In other words, if I decide to give meaning and purpose to my life by achieving fame as a musician, then it follows that I will be motivated to do the things necessary to achieve my goal (for example, practice my musical skill and work hard to develop it). Under this way of thinking, if I become convinced that fame as a musician is unattainable, then I lose any and all motivation to pursue the things I would otherwise have pursued. In fact, if I believe that fame as a musician is the only thing that can give meaning and purpose to my existence at the same time that I believe that fame as a musician is unattainable to me, then I lose any and all motivation to do anything at all. But, as I have already suggested, this is a completely wrong-headed perspective on what gives meaning and purpose to human existence. I do not give meaning and purpose to my existence by attaining or achieving something. My life has meaning and purpose intrinsically, by virtue of the fact that it exists. My life has meaning and purpose because God, its Author, has invested it with meaning and purpose from the outset. It will have the meaning and significance that God purposes it to have; it cannot fail to have that meaning and significance. Therefore, it is never helpful, when facing a choice or decision in life, to ask whether it will give meaning, significance, and purpose to my life. That is not the right question. My motivation to do what I do should not be in order to give meaning and purpose to my life. I need to find my motivation elsewhere, in some other consideration.
So what can and does serve as the motivation for my doing something? What motivates me to do some particular thing X is my belief that X offers some sort of positive reward that is more attractive to me than any concomitant negative results are unattractive. What I am calling “positive reward” could be a wide range of things: happiness, pleasure, satisfaction, or contentment. Any sort of positive experience whatsoever can make a pursuit interesting to me. What I am calling a “negative result” is equally broad: unhappiness, pain, dissatisfaction, or any sort of negative experience whatsoever.
Now, as we have seen, no positive reward defines the meaning and purpose of human existence. So, by seeking positive reward, I am not seeking to fulfill the purpose of my existence. Rather, I am simply seeking positive reward. My motivation for action need not rise to the level of fulfilling “the purpose of my existence.” To be motivated to do something, I need only be attracted to what I believe is the net positive reward for doing it. Conversely, knowing that something does not rise to the level of “fulfilling the purpose of my existence” does not entail that there can be no motivation to do it. For sufficient motivation to do something, all I need is the expectation of a desirable positive reward. In other words, X does not need to be “meaningful” in order for me to be motivated to do X. It need only be something whose reward motivates me, whatever the nature of that reward.
But it is important to note how common it is for one to be motivated to fulfill his duty, his responsibility, or his obligation to someone or something. This is not in conflict with what I just said above, for doing what has been given me to do is its own satisfaction; it results in its own reward. So, the positive reward that I choose to seek is quite often the satisfaction of having faithfully done what has been given me to do. Often, what motivates me is to perform diligently and/or effectively with respect to what has been given me to do.
What is noteworthy about this motivation is its semi-independence from results or consequences. When I seek the reward of having done my duty, I am not motivated by particular results that I expect to see. I am content to do my duty and let the outcome be what it will be. I can leave the results up to God. My satisfaction will come from having faithfully and diligently done what had been given me to do.
On a brief aside, perhaps this is the biggest lack emerging in modern American culture, the lack of a sense that something has been given me to do. Perhaps this lack, more than any other factor, has to do with the growing paralysis described by younger Americans. They have no sense that something has been given them to do. One cannot be motivated to fulfill his responsibility unless he knows what his responsibility is. To lack a sense that I have a particular calling, a discernible contribution to make, a something given me to do—that is a distinctive kind of purposelessness. And it seems to be rampant in America today.
The fabric of human existence is filled with all sorts of purposes, pursuits, and activities. All of them hold out the possibility of some sort of reward. The fact that something promises a reward does not, in and of itself, provide sufficient reason to do it. There are numerous possibilities for what one might choose to pursue. Many are rewarding. Most are possible. Most are valid. Many of them are morally permissible. In the final analysis, what do we choose to do? We choose those pursuits that, all things considered, seem most interesting and attractive to us. It can be hoped that only morally appropriate things fit that description, but whether or not we confine ourselves to what is morally permissible, we choose what interests us the most. That is the subjective explanation for why we do what we do. That is the subjective explanation for our choices.
Now the objective explanation—the other side of the same coin—is different: We do what is scripted for us in the story that is our life. Objectively speaking, the significance of my life story will not primarily be found in what I do; it will be found in who I am. God is creating me to be something, regardless of what I do. And it is in the drama of how and why I come to be what I come to be that the story that is me unfolds. As we saw earlier, I can be and can become something dramatically significant in the midst of failure and unfulfilled goals just as surely as I can in the midst of success and fulfilled goals. Failure and unreached goals are as much a part of the fabric of human existence as success and achievement.
Finally, there is yet one further implication of the fact that the purpose of human existence is to be the protagonist in a story that reflects the glory of God: namely, the meaning of a human life has as much, if not more, to do with the inner life of the human protagonist as it does with the outer events of his life. The outer events that make up the narrative of a human life are only part of the story. The inner thoughts, desires, struggles, and choices are an equally significant part of the story. It is in the inner life of a human being that the story, in its wholeness, is truly unfolding. This means that the true meaning and significance of any particular human life will ultimately be invisible and unknowable to other human beings. Only God can know the true significance of an individual human life. Where we see absurdity and meaninglessness, there can very well be profound meaning and value. Ultimately, we are in no position to make that judgment because we lack the requisite standpoint and perspective.
Truth #5: I cannot know how my story will unfold.
In most circumstances and in most respects, I do not and cannot know the future. I do not and cannot know how God intends the story of my life to go. The only way I could possibly know anything about the future is if God informs me in advance. In most respects, God has not and does not intend to do so, and so human existence must be lived in ignorance of the future. I do not know my story in advance. I can only see my story unfold in real time, as it happens.
Answers to Five Questions
So, then, in the light of these foundational truths at the core of the biblical worldview, how would the Bible answer the questions that we set out to answer? I will address each of those questions in turn.
Question #1: Why do I exist rather than not exist?
This has already been answered directly by Truth #4 above. The purpose of my existence is to be the protagonist in a story that reflects the glory of God. I exist because God wanted to capture something of who he is in a story, to objectify some aspect of his glory or the truth about some element of his being. I exist to be the protagonist in a particular story that God wants to tell.
Question #2: What motivation do I have for doing anything?
What motivates me subjectively to do something is no real secret or mystery. It is not problematic in real life and practice. Every human being simply chooses to do what, all things considered, he finds himself most interested in doing in view of the fact that he expects some positive reward to follow from it. We get married. We have children. We go to work. We read books. We sit and gaze at the mountains. We do what we want to do when we want to do it. Why? Typically, because we have some positive reward in view.
Why I should do what I do only becomes problematic when I confuse myself philosophically. If I convince myself that nothing is worth doing unless that particular thing, in and of itself, contributes lasting and permanent meaning to my existence, then I will find myself at a loss to find anything that could possibly be worth doing. Nothing in created reality in and of itself has that kind of significance. It is impossible for an element of created reality to contribute transcendent meaning to another element of created reality. Only something transcendent can contribute transcendent meaning to a created reality. Hence, only God can contribute transcendent meaning to his creation. Whether it is me, my life, or any other created thing, only by serving God’s purposes can it have transcendent meaning. Only by being an essential part of a story that reflects the glory of its transcendent Author does any created thing possess real and lasting meaning.
The subjective motivation for acting in human existence is to attain some positive reward. As we noted earlier, sometimes the positive reward that I seek is the satisfaction that comes from doing what has been given me to do, from fulfilling the specific responsibility that I believe is mine. (This is not uncommonly, but misleadingly, labeled “purpose.” In the discussion that follows I will call this sense of what has been given me to do my “purpose in the subjective sense,” or my “subjective purpose.” I will call my true, ultimate purpose, as defined by God, my “ultimate, objective purpose.”) I suggested above that the lack of any subjective purpose seems to be growing in modern America. When one lacks a sense that he has been given something to do—when one lacks a subjective purpose in this sense—he lacks one of the most important things that typically motivates a human being. This leads to another important question: What do I do if I have no sense that something has been given me to do?
The answer, I think, is that I need to find it. I must discover what it is that has been given me to do. No human beings (or, at least, very few) are born with a sense of what it is that they are supposed to do. Anyone who has such a sense discovered it over the course of his life. It is a hard-fought acquisition not easy to come by. Sometimes a person lacks such a subjective purpose simply because he hasn’t made the effort to find it. At least potentially, everyone’s existence places some responsibility upon him; everyone has a contribution that he is equipped to make and was created to make. The question is whether we will recognize this responsibility and be willing to faithfully fulfill it. In a very real sense, the universal task of every human being is to find out what his particular task is, to discover his particular responsibility. If I do not yet know what, in particular, has been given me to do, then my task is to discover what has been given me to do. If everything else fails to motivate me, then, there is at least this: I have been given the task to find out what my task is. I will either fulfill this responsibility, or I will shine it on. The latter would be immoral.
Question #3: What benefit can I expect out of my existence in the here and now?
On the one hand, I have no guarantee that I will benefit one whit from my existence in the here and now. The fact that God brought me into existence does not obligate him to make it worth my while. It does not obligate him at all. He did not give me my existence for me. He gave me my existence for his own purposes. I am not his equal such that he must answer to me for his responsibilities. If God does choose to bless me in this life (or at all), he does so out of the abundance of his mercy and goodness, not because he owes it to me.
But, on the other hand, it is just like God to grant me many blessings in the existence he is creating for me. The fabric of human life and history is full of various positive rewards, and most human beings are blessed with many delightful and rewarding gifts: the joys of friendship, marriage, children, music, beauty, success, glory, honor, respect, love, and pleasure are commonplace in human existence. But, of course, these joys are typically accompanied by pain, sorrow, and grief as well. Life is not all sweetness and light. It is bittersweet. It contains streaks of darkness. Most of us can expect that God will give us this: a life of many blessings mixed with sorrow, disappointment, and grief. This is what God has given to human beings throughout all of human history. But none of the benefit and reward that God might have in store for me has anything to do with the purpose of my existence. I am not here so that God might bless me. I am here to serve the transcendent purposes of God. The fact that he will likely bless me (at the same time that he will ask me to endure hardship) is a separate and independent fact.
Question #4: What must I do to ensure that my existence benefits me ultimately?
God has a final and ultimate blessing in store for some human beings. The Bible calls it “Life”—an ongoing existence in the age to come. Some human beings will continue on into the final chapters of the story, no longer subject to death, evil, and futility. That is the destiny God has promised to those whom he has chosen.
How does one ensure that he is such a person, that his story will not end in death but will continue on into the final chapters? By opening one’s heart to the truth about God, his purposes, his promises, and, especially, to his Son. If we embrace the truth revealed to us by God, then we prove ourselves to be destined for eternal Life. If we remain indifferent and uninterested in the truth from God, then we prove ourselves destined for destruction.
Question #5: What must I do to ensure that my existence benefits me in the here and now?
Nothing I do can ensure that my existence benefits me in the here and now. Generally speaking, of course, living in accordance with wisdom will more likely lead to benefit in this present life than will living foolishly and self-destructively. But there are no guarantees. Wisdom does not ensure anything about the here and now.
I am a fool if I do not pay attention and learn—both from my own experience and from that of others. Through experience I can learn which choices tend to lead to more positive rewards. And I am a fool if I do not realize that goodness, godliness, and righteousness generally are rewarding while evil, sin, and ungodliness generally have negative results. But I am also a fool if I believe that wisdom, godliness, and righteousness protect me and make me immune from suffering and sorrow. That is not how it works. Nothing I do can guarantee that I won’t suffer.
When Normalcy Does Not Prevail
Our discussion thus far has assumed some semblance of normalcy as the context within which we pursue our purpose and understand the meaning and significance of our existence. What happens to our understanding of the meaning, purpose, and significance of our existence when normalcy does not prevail? If turmoil and disorder were to ensue, how would we understand the purpose of our existence then? And how ought we to function as human beings if such conditions were to prevail?
We have already seen that there are two important senses in which we can speak of a person’s “purpose.” On the one hand, we can speak of a person’s ultimate, objective purpose—his purpose from God’s perspective—to be the protagonist in a story that somehow puts the person and glory of God on display. But, on the other hand, we can speak of a person’s subjective purpose—his purpose from his own standpoint—that which provides focus and direction to his choices. His subjective purpose is his perception of what task or responsibility has been given him to do.
Now a person’s objective purpose does not change. No matter what circumstances he finds himself in, his objective purpose remains the same: He is the protagonist of the story centered in him. One’s subjective purpose, however, can be drastically altered if and when life circumstances become drastically altered. In this final section, I want to make some observations about how to think about subjective purpose in the midst of circumstances where normalcy is threatened or destroyed.
So much of human life is lived under the assumption that tomorrow will be much like today. I can know what to expect. I can plan and dream and hope and act, expecting that the orderly reality of today will be the same orderly reality that exists in the future. The moment I allow myself even to imagine that the order of today will dissolve into unpredictable disorder tomorrow, the very foundation of how I live my life crumbles. How can I plan when I don’t know what world and reality I am planning for? How do I dream when I can make no assumptions about what will even be possible? Uncertainty with respect to the future is paralyzing. It brings normal life to a halt. It destroys my ability to live.
With respect to the issue at hand, uncertainty about the future makes it impossible to identify any subjective purpose for my existence. On the one hand, whatever subjective purpose had defined my existence previously would vanish at any point that normalcy is destroyed. At that point, my subjective purpose would be made obsolete and irrelevant. And, on the other hand, because I cannot possibly know the future, it is impossible for me to know what subjective purpose to put in its place. How can I know what role has been given me to play in the future when I have no clue what the future will be? Normalcy is vital to my everyday life precisely because it allows me to make assumptions about the future. Any prospect of the loss of normalcy brings vertigo, paralysis, and fear. It makes knowing my subjective purpose utterly impossible, which, in turn, makes knowing what to do impossible.
Clearly, then, times that destroy normalcy are difficult, disorienting times. But they do occur in human history, and it is not hysteria or paranoia to fear them. If I remember correctly, God has the Old Testament prophets depict Israel as “reeling” when they are faced with the chaos and disorder brought upon them by God’s judgment. To experience the abrupt end to life as we have always known it produces a very unpleasant sort of vertigo. History is full of such episodes. One people group after another has undergone the destruction of normalcy and the end of life as they have known it. We are ignorant if we believe it could never happen to us.
When I contemplate the prospects of such an experience, my first temptation is to engage in denial. I want to respond just as Israel responded to their prophets when they were warned of the divine judgment coming upon them: “No, nothing bad’s gonna happen. Everything will be okay. Life will go on just as it has always gone on. There is really nothing to worry about.”
But denial is shortsighted and ignorant. Human history is filled with divine judgment, the collapse of civilizations, revolutions, and various other chaotic transitions into very different circumstances. To consider the signs of the times in which I live, to heed the pronouncements of any genuine prophets, and generally to be wary of what lies ahead is not a sign of hysteria or paranoia—it is a matter of being awake. Being awake is healthy. Engaging in denial is unhealthy.
Slumber is much more comfortable than wakefulness. While one sleeps, he does not feel fear. The one who is awake must feel his fears and face them. Uncertainty about the future is very disturbing. It is far preferable to close my eyes to any future danger and remain ignorant that it exists. That way, I can go on living my life. To permit myself to fear the future would paralyze me. So, rather than fear the future, I would prefer to deny that any danger exits. Not only is such denial ignorant, it is immoral.
Consider the End of the World
Nothing more dramatically disrupts normalcy than the end of the world. In order to better understand the dramatic effect that the end of normalcy has, let us take a brief detour to consider the extreme case of the end of the world itself.
Whether it is historically accurate or apocryphal, Luther famously is claimed to have said, “If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree today.” His point is either incredibly profound or nonsense, depending upon what he meant.
I seriously doubt that Luther meant this: “If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I know that, as a matter of actual fact, I would find myself motivated to plant a tree today.” That would go against everything we know about the logic and nature of human motivation and action. It makes no sense to suggest that I would do something today for a reward that I know with certainty could never be realized. Specifically, it makes no sense to plant a tree today in order to one day enjoy the beauty and shade of a full grown tree tomorrow, when I know with certainty that that tomorrow will never come.
Rather, I expect that Luther meant something more like this: “So that I might illustrate for you, my students, that the meaning and significance of one’s existence is not located in the outcome of his actions—that it is not located in what one does, accomplishes, achieves, or produces—if I knew that the world was going to end tomorrow, I would go out and plant a tree today.”
I think Luther is absolutely right if that is what he meant. The meaning and significance of my existence is not tied to the success of what I do, nor is it tied to the personal benefit that might follow from what I do. The meaning and significance of my existence is found somewhere else entirely. Namely, it is found in how the story of my life reflects the glory of the Author.
Clearly, then, the objective purpose of my life is not the least bit affected by the prospect of the world coming to an end. The end of the world does not threaten to rob my existence of its objective meaning and significance. Rather, it simply provides the context within which the objective meaning and significance of my life will unfold. But a certain knowledge that the end of the world is coming would have a radical effect on my subjective purpose and on my specific choices and actions.
There is no virtue in ignoring ordinary human rationality when it comes to human choice and action. If a positive reward that I could normally expect to follow from an action were made impossible by the specific circumstances in which I found myself (for example, the world being about to end), then it would be irrational for me to take that action in order to attain that positive reward. Nothing is gained by defying the logic of this; there is no special virtue or righteousness in thinking otherwise. So, in truth, if I knew that the end of the world were coming tomorrow, then there are many things I would no longer be motivated to do, and it would be utterly irrational to think otherwise.
An important point needs to be raised in response to Luther’s interesting thought experiment. We have a tendency to think of the end of the world as more of an end than it actually will be. There are two important ways in which this is so.
First, the end of the world will not be the great negation of everything that has gone before—not, at least, with respect to the purposes of God. Assume for the sake of argument that I am not destined for eternal Life. My destiny is destruction. Even if my existence ends in destruction and I do not live on, my story has been told nonetheless. As we saw earlier, it is my story that counts. My significance as an individual creature is a derived significance. I am significant because I am the protagonist in a significant story. I do not have intrinsic significance in and of myself. And since the meaning and significance of my existence lies in the story that my existence tells, my personal destruction does not nullify nor destroy the significance of my story. My destruction was part of my story. It was my denouement, the resolution of my story. Just as history could never cease to be history, a told story can never become untold. It said what it said, meant what it meant, and had the significance that it had. Its message, meaning, and significance live on, even if I, its protagonist, do not.
Second, if we assume instead that I am one of the elect and that my destiny is eternal Life, then the end of the world is clearly not the end of my story. My existence continues on into a whole new chapter. The end of this present world is not the negation of my history in the present age. To the contrary, it would simply be a transition into the next phase of my story. And there will be continuity from one phase to the next. My existence will not consist of one story coming to an abrupt end and an entirely different, unconnected story beginning from there. My existence is one ongoing coherent story that spans the divide between this present evil age and the eternal age to come.
What Should One Do?
The main point in what I have been saying is this: one’s subjective purpose is dramatically affected by any circumstances that threaten to destroy the normalcy of everyday existence. For those of us who see current happenings as harbingers of danger and change, the threat to normalcy is exactly what we fear right now. Many of you may not be experiencing such fear, so my comments will be strictly theoretical for you. But the issue is an important one nonetheless. Some generation at some point will face the end of normalcy. What is such a generation to do? This is the final question I want to address in this paper—namely, what should one do when he is faced with the destruction of normalcy?
There are three observations that I want to make in response to this question:
This particular question is ultimately unanswerable in principle. In effect, the question comes to this: What should one do when it is impossible to know what to do? It should be obvious that this question is not capable of an answer.
The fact that the future is unknown to me is what gives rise to this question in the first place. The future is always unknown. But under conditions of normalcy, I can plan for the future because normalcy allows me to make reasonable assumptions about that unknown future. But if normalcy goes away, then I have no basis for making any such assumptions, and I am left completely in the dark. The already unknown future then becomes altogether opaque.
In such a situation, when I have lost every possible basis for planning for the future, I desperately want someone to tell me what to do. Normal human reasoning fails me in such a situation. What am I to do when normal human reasoning cannot tell me what to do? I desperately desire for someone or something else to tell me what to do. But no one else can know any better than I. How could he? Unless God has revealed the future to him, he is in exactly the same position that I am in.
Therefore, I must accept the fact that there is no clear and definitive answer to my question. I must acquiesce to the uncertainty that such a fact entails. How do I do that? By keeping in mind the following three things:
(1) The uncertainty that I am being asked to face is not unique. Throughout human history, many have been required to endure uncertainty with the destruction of normalcy. It is one of those things that Paul would include when he comments that “no trial has overtaken you except what is common to man’s experience.” God would not be asking me to endure anything that has not been endured by many others before me. It is part of the fabric of human life, experience, and history as God has willed it.
(2) God, because he has created me to be the protagonist in a story that he has purposed to create, has every right to take me through the discomfort of just such darkness and uncertainty. In the worst case, God may very well reduce the subjective purpose of my existence to nothing but bare survival. That is a terrifying prospect. But God has every right to do it. God does not owe it to me to grant me peace, safety, and an ordered existence. He is fully within his rights, as the Author of my experience, to withhold these things from me. Yet, on the other hand, because every second of my life and every inch of my existence is determined by him, I must understand that not a single hair on my head will face danger unless God himself wills it. I am utterly and completely secure in the hands of God. God’s control of reality does not guarantee comfort to me, but it does guarantee that I will not experience anything that is senseless, meaningless, random, or purposeless. Nothing can befall me that God has not scripted especially for me. The Author of my story never abandons me; he is always on the job, creating every step of my journey and guiding me to the choices and decisions that he wants me to make.
(3) And, finally, the total darkness and complete lack of direction that I might be asked to endure will only be for a brief period, at most. Even in the worst of apocalyptic scenarios, human beings would establish a new order, a new normal, to replace the one that has been destroyed. The tunnel that God takes me through may be dark, but there will always be light at the other end of the tunnel.
When normalcy has fled and I am left clueless about what to do, I must place no greater burden upon myself than to do the best I can. I must do the best I can to perceive what is happening around me. And I must do the best I can to judge what action to take in response. But that is all I can expect myself to do. I can do no more.
My perception of what is happening will likely be wrong. My judgment about what to do will likely be mistaken. I will likely miscalculate my situation and do something that, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have done. But I must do something, and doing the best I can is all I can ask of myself. If I expect more of myself than that, I will be paralyzed. Fear of making a mistake will lead me to do nothing at all. So I must choose a path and follow it, come what may.
Yet I must avoid false confidence. I must remain humble and realistic with respect to my assessment of the future. I cannot really know what is going to happen, and I cannot really know what I should have done. But I had to do something, so I chose the path that, as best I could know, seemed to be the right path at the time. My choice may have been wise, or it may have been foolish. At the moment of decision, I was in no position to know. I could only trust God, the Author, to create my story as he wills.
Finally, no matter what circumstances I find myself in, the most essential task of my existence does not change. The essential task that has been given to me as a human being—the task that is given universally to every human being—is to come to understand God’s purposes—both his purposes in and for history and his particular purposes in and for my own existence. I must come to understand God’s purposes in order that I might learn to know the Creator and Author of my being and thereby come to love him. This, in turn, is so that I might finally be willing to define my life and existence by a commitment to follow his instructions and serve his purposes. No matter what circumstances I find myself in, serving the Creator’s purposes is the most essential thing I must do. Whether I am surrounded by peace and order or cultural chaos, serving his purposes remains the fundamental task of my existence. And since understanding the teaching of the Bible is the most reliable way to understand God’s purposes in and for history (and the best way to be equipped to understand God’s particular purposes for my own existence), then coming to understand the message and teaching of the Bible is one of the most important elements of my task. In good times and in bad, this is what I always must do: I must strive to understand the Bible and its message.
Copyright August 2014 by Gutenberg College, Inc.