Is life nothing more than the sum total of our personal experiences? Is there no higher purpose to human existence than to set goals, make them, and rest in the afterglow of our successes? Those are questions that haunt the human soul.
Tom Brady had led the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl victories. And he was only 28. During a 60 Minutes interview, Steve Kroft asked the quarterback to reflect on his accomplishments.
Brady obliged: "Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean maybe a lot of people would say, 'Hey man, this is what it is. I reached my goal, my dream, my life.' Me, I think, 'God, it's got to be more than this.' I mean this can't be what it's all cracked up to be."
"What's the answer?" Kroft pressed.
"I wish I knew. . . . I wish I knew."
One of life’s great disappointments is to set goals that we never attain. But the greater disappointment is to attain them -- whether it is winning three Super Bowls or making a financial fortune -- only to realize that they have no lasting significance. (Young athletes dallying with performance enhancement drugs, take notice.)
On the opening page of The Call, Os Guinness shares this from a troubled businessman:
I’ve made a lot of money . . . far more than I could ever spend, far more than my family needs. . . . To be honest, one of my motives for making so much money was simple -- to have money to hire people to do what I don’t want to do. But there’s one thing I’ve never been able to hire anyone to do for me; find my own sense of purpose and fulfillment. I’d give anything to discover that.
The entrepreneur achieved success that most people only dream about, but it was not success that satisfies. Like Tom Brady, he is emblematic of go-getters who get what they’re after, and discover that what they got has left them with an unfulfilled longing, one that is universal and unique to humankind: the soul-deep desire to know who we are and find our niche, with the satisfaction that we and our labors matter in the grand scheme of things.
From Socrates to Sartre -- indeed, from the beginning of recorded history to the present -- the puzzle of life’s meaning has occupied the minds of philosophers, kings, and common folk alike, including those in the Bible.
God’s servant Job, in the aftermath of his crushing losses, asks plaintively, “What is man that you make so much of him?” With awe and wonder, David, the man after God’s heart, echoes: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” Three times in as many chapters King Solomon, beset in existential angst, inquires, “What does man gain from all his labor?”
Such are the metaphysical questions of man’s nature and purpose. Questions that press upon us, that we can’t escape.
The Human Experience
In the documentary film The Human Experience, 20-year-old Jeffrey Azize and his older brother, Clifford, set out on a philosophical quest. Raised in a broken home with no one to help them wrestle with the great mysteries of life, the brothers decide to immerse themselves in the lives of the least and the last. Their goal: to discover the purpose of life by broadening their “human experience.”
Their journey takes them to New York City, where they spend a week on the streets with the homeless during the coldest week of the year; to Peru, where they volunteer at a hospital for abandoned children; and, finally, to Ghana, Africa, where they live with lepers.
Among the destitute, abandoned, and diseased, the brothers are surprised to find optimism, confidence, and even joy. Individuals tell them that, despite their physical circumstances, they know that they are here for a reason. To a person, they are at a loss to say what that reason is; but that it is, they have no doubt. The unexpected hope and certainty of significance expressed by people on the margins of society leave their impact on the brothers.
At the film’s end, after a poignant reunion with his estranged father, Jeffrey reflects on what the human experience has taught him. Life’s meaning, while still a mystery, is at least one for which he knows there is an answer, an answer that he will continue to pursue. I’d like to recommend that he resume his quest with the book of Ecclesiastes.
Fleshing out the Answer
Solomon, after posing his existential question for the third time, writes: “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” Therein lies a profound teaching about us. Eternity is woven into our design, our desires. We are made for eternity. Eternity is our destiny, the end of our earthly strivings. Of course, that begs the question: What is eternity?
A millennium later, Jesus, in His most eloquent recorded prayer, explained, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
There it is. Our purpose, the point of our earthly existence, is “eternity”; and “eternity” is knowing God. This is not some Gnostic notion of knowledge reserved for the spiritual in-crowd. Neither is it about information transfer nor, foremost, about intellectual understanding. The “knowing” that Jesus is referring to is a relational experience of intimacy and submission.
There is perhaps no more vivid picture of this relationship than in John chapter 15.
In the last of His famous “I am” statements, Jesus tells His disciples: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
In an unhealthy tree, the organic connection between vine and branch has broken down, leading to fruitlessness. But in a healthy tree, there is a region where the branch is in the vine and the vine is in the branch, making it difficult to determine where one stops and the other begins. The organic and seamless bond between the two results in fruit production.
When we are in relationship with Jesus, He is “in us” -- through His divine imprint of heart, mind, and conscience, and by His Indwelling Spirit who teaches, comforts, and gifts us -- and we are “in Him” as members of His Body, the Church, to which He has entrusted the keys of his kingdom with authority to bind and loose.
Built to Last
What this means is that eternity is not reserved for the hereafter, but starts in the here-and-now. Eternal life is loving God and loving neighbor by advancing His kingdom though the Great Commission and Cultural Commission. It is life that aligns with our created purpose and, in the end, satisfies the deepest longings of our heart. It is “life,” Paul tells his spiritual son Timothy, “that is truly life.”
Yet sadly, when people are faced with choosing that life, all too often they temporize (“Lord, first let me go and bury my father”); or, sincerely wanting it, but considering its demands on their already full dance card, decide that they don’t have enough time.
The truth is, they have plenty of time; we all do. There are 24 hours in a day, always have been, always will be. It’s not that overbooked people don’t have enough time; it’s that they don’t have enough eternity. In their frenzied pursuit for success, approval and happiness, they have filled their schedule with lists of have to’s, got to’s, need to’s and want to’s that have all but numbed them to the pangs of eternity, until one-by-one they check off their to-do’s, only to experience a familiar gnawing: God, it’s got to be more than this.
In all of creation human beings are the only things that are “built to last,” as one famous marketing slogan puts it. Is it any wonder, then, that things that aren’t -- whether they be Super Bowl rings, Grammys, Oscars, or a spread in Fortune 500 -- give us a fleeting moment of contentment, then leave us empty?
Every person has a choice between two messages: that of the culture and that of the Cross. The message of the culture is to find yourself, follow your dreams (passions or heart), and, above all, carry American Express. The message of the Cross is to lose (and deny) yourself and follow Christ, carrying your cross and each other’s burdens.
One leads to the life of unsatisfied yearnings, and the other, to life that is truly life.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.