The Meaning of Life

A Meditation on Thanksgiving Day, 2016

      It’s always a surprise to clean the closets, especially closets that haven’t been cleaned in years. You never know what you’ll find hidden under layers of dust. I was surprised Monday at what I found in the church office. As our work crew dug through old boxes of envelopes and pencils and staplers of every size, I discovered a box of audio college courses. I knew immediately where they came from. Years ago I introduced Ray Griffin to an organization called the Teaching Company. The Teaching Company seeks out popular college professors and records their lectures. They then sell the recordings, making it possible for a wider audience beyond a university classroom to learn from the world’s best professors. I often listen to these lectures while driving to and from the church. My narrow interests are limited to New Testament studies and theology. But being a true Renaissance man, Ray had really gotten into this. He ordered multiple courses on a wide range of subjects, taking an interest in everything from the works of C.S. Lewis, to a history of the Bible, to Bach’s music, to Gothic Cathedrals, to Italian Renaissance art. Rummaging thru that dusty old box made me miss Ray. He was one of those guys of whom the saying holds true, “Still waters run deep”. He had a wide range of interests, and he clearly kept an interest in learning right up to the end of his life.

      The reason I mention this is not to promote the Teaching Company, although they do good work. I mention it because on Thanksgiving Day when we count our blessings, I count one of my blessings that I knew Ray. I miss him as all of us who loved him do. My larger point is this: as we count our blessings today, isn’t it really the people whom we love and those who have loved us for whom we are most thankful? Good food and the comforts of temporal prosperity are, like a wind, transient; but it’s the relationships with people, especially those who have been good to us, who have given to us from the treasure of their hearts kindness and generosity, gentleness and empathy, patience and understanding, who in the end mean everything to us. It’s our relationships that give our lives meaning. The better and more genuinely loving those relationships are, the more we feel that our life has meaning. In other words, when we count our blessings, it’s the spiritual gifts more than the material comforts that mean the most to us. And so we give thanks for those who have touched us on the level of spirit, who have connected with us not as consumers or as customers but as living souls, immortal beings who drink alike from the living water of divine grace. It is love received and given for which we are by nature most thankful because we are creatures made to give and receive love.

      But coming back to our brother Ray and that box of college courses that he bequeathed to us, there was one course that especially caught my attention. He had ordered a course of thirty lectures called simply enough: “The Meaning of Life.” Looking over the contents of the course, it sounded very interesting to me. It included lectures on the teachings of everyone from the Buddha and Aristotle, Confucius and Lao Tzu, to Tolstoy and Nietzsche. It was a kind of survey of world philosophy and religion, covering of a wide range of sages from all corners of the earth, exploring the teachings of those who have thought very deeply about the meaning of life. Who wouldn’t be interested in that?

       But the more I looked at it the more I realized that the most important name of all was absent from the list. Jesus Christ was not there. How can you discuss the meaning of life and leave out him whose miraculous life, prophetic death, and glorious resurrection incarnate and reveal that meaning? The very significance of calling Jesus the “Christ” is that he is the one in whom God has revealed the meaning of life. He was not simply another wisdom teacher, a cool dude who passed along to his devoted students a message of good counsel. He is the one in whom we encounter the wisdom God face to face. He is the meaning of life. To organize a course called “the meaning of life” and leave Jesus Christ out of it is like a doctor teaching his students heart surgery without showing them what a human heart is. The absence of any discussion of Jesus in that audio course reveals of the root cause of the decline of our culture. Ray should have asked for his money back.

         The phrase “the meaning of life” begs the question: does life have meaning? Does your life or mine life have purpose, worth, and transcendent value? Do we as individuals really count, or is our hope of glory just a fleeting dream, an invention of our vanity? This is the question that Darwin put front and center to the modern age. Is a human being just a random collocation of atoms? Are we freaks of nature who have just happened upon this earth, beings complex and wonderful but beings no more transcendent than algae on a pond’s surface? Or does the soul really exist and is that soul implanted in us by our Creator? Does human life lived in relationship to our Creator, therefore, serve a higher purpose?

       Christianity answers that question in the affirmative. Jesus Christ has revealed to us that life has transcendent meaning, because each one of us means everything to HIm. God, who cares for the sparrow that falls to the ground, cares for you and me even more. It’s our relationship to Him that makes all the difference between a life filled with meaning and an absurd existence spent groping in the dark waiting for Godot. 

     It is Thanksgiving Day; we have turkeys in the oven and relatives to greet; we are constrained to keep it short and sweet. So the point is simply this: we live in society of Christians who send their children off to institutions of higher learning and paying tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of having them taught that life has no ultimate meaning other than whatever value or purpose you may choose to impose on it. Our colleges have become centers of mass confusion where faith is lost in a vortex of existentialist revolution that will embrace the wisdom of anyone and everyone other than the author of the gospel, who signed his eternal masterpiece in his own blood, shed on a cross. It’s the sad fact of modern life that in order to hold fast to the Christian faith we have to first unlearn and see through the indoctrination in secular humanism that we receive day in and day out from a culture that has reduced “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) to nothing more than a personal opinion held by a stubborn few.

        But the good news is this: God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ that we are more than the sum of our parts; we are living souls, creatures of God whom God loves and cares for deeply and we are in this world for one ultimate reason: to prove ourselves worthy of His love.

       Those Puritans of old sitting down to say grace before the feast hadn’t been to college but they knew about life. They understood that love of God and faith in the gospel is the key that unlocks the meaning of life. When we sit down with family and friends today let us count our blessings. And as we do let us count knowing Him, who in baptism united us to Himself, as first and last on that list. Life is never easy and the meaning of life is often elusive, but if we remember Jesus Christ, who on the night before he died took bread and gave thanks to God before giving it to his friends as a pledge of his transcendent love and a promise of salvation, our souls will bask in the light of the central truth that gives everlasting purpose and worth to human life. Jesus Christ is for us all the way: that is the one thing above all things for which those who are truly wise are eternally grateful.