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Seeking the Meaning of Life


Why are we here? What is our purpose? What are we supposed to do with our lives?

smiley-face1These are central questions to life. People offer different answers. American culture’s answer to all three of them is – to be happy. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What more could we need? Happiness often comes as the byproduct of time well spent and energy well used – enjoyment of the people whose relationships matter most; finding satisfaction in a job well done, especially when it is difficult; or passing off a skill or expertise to another by investing in their development. Yet we’ve turned happiness into the thing we seek. No wonder there are so many unhappy people. Happiness is elusive. The thing that just brought happiness five minutes ago can become boring. The shelves sit full of our toys we no longer play with because we have outgrown them. We treat others as objects that are just as easily disposable. We mark our time when the next moment of free time is coming. No wonder so many career paths end at the first sign of trouble, relationships end abruptly, and people seek bigger and more extravagant entertainments to stir up the appetites we have been taught to crave. With our quest to find happiness motivating everything we do – we soon discover that most of our lives seem meaningless. We cannot sustain an endless adrenaline rush.

I wonder if part of the reason there is so much cruelty, greed, and violence around us is due in part to the unsustainability of seeking happiness. People grow bitter, indifferent, and betrayed. They seek vengeance against whoever caused them unhappiness, and often it is the innocent bystanders who pay the price. I’ve noticed a trend among twenty-first century evildoers in America. People describe them as “good kids” gone wrong. The common characteristics of isolation, unrest, anger, and hatred were present at Columbine, Virginia Tech, an Air Force base in Texas, Aurora, Newtown, and is probably true of many other crimes committed every day. Time will tell that story of how we perceive the Boston Marathon bombers. How we help people identify and cope with their emotions before they become violent behaviors is as important as dealing with the consequences.

hebelOur drive to find happiness at every turn fails us. Unless we have endless means to supply endless pleasures we simply cannot sustain it. It is what the author of Ecclesiastes called “hebel” – a puff of smoke we cannot grasp. Hebel gets translated into English often as the word “vanity.” “Vanity, vanity all life is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). But hebel is more impalpable than that. We try to hold onto something that dissipates quickly – exactly like a puff of smoke. Our work is devalued. Our relationships become impersonal. Our focus on satisfying ourselves becomes an ongoing disappointment.

The First Commandment reads, “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” Think of the many things we substitute for God in our quest to be happy. The first essential truth about life is that we are not the center of it. It starts with God. When Martin Luther asked, “What does this mean?” He answered, “We are to fear, love and trust in God above all things.”* So simple an answer; yet so different from our everyday experiences. We cling to false gods all the time, especially “happiness.” Luther, stated it this way,

“To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with our whole heart…This desire we have for wealth clings and sticks to our nature all the way to the grave.  So too, those that boast of great learning, wisdom, power, prestige, family and honor and who trust in them also have a god also, but not the one true God. Notice again how presumptuous, secure and proud people are when they have such possessions and how despondent they are when they lack them or when they are taken away. Therefore, I repeat, to have a god is to have something in which the heart trusts completely.”#

Where do false Gods lead? They lead to hebel. The alternative is to “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” What might that mean?

Fear is simple.

prayer.upWe are already afraid. We fear failure. We fear the unknown. We fear we are not going to be happy. We fear others who are not happy either and threaten to destroy our lives, our loved ones, and our assets. But fear of God? Are we afraid of God anymore? Maybe we are, but more likely we are dismissive of God: “Who is God to tell me how to live my life or prevent me from being happy?” Even if you haven’t shaken your fist at the sky (maybe you have), we’ve all at least thought this at some point – “if God really cared, he’d just leave me alone.” Instead we are taught to “fear God.” Remember the Sunday School lesson where you were taught fear really means respect? We are to respect God. So our prayer becomes, “OK God, I respect you, just keep your distance.” Fear is a better word. We should be afraid of God….really. The God of the scriptures is a jealous God (Exodus 20:4-6). This God created the universe by speaking, formed humanity to have a relationship with us, blessed a people to be a blessing, rescued them from slavery, led them through the wilderness, secured for them a land, promised a new future, reminded them through the prophets of who they were and who they were called to be, and time and again they rejected God to their own demise.  Woe to us for doing the same thing, believing in ourselves, our own goodness and virtue, our own abilities to prosper only to meet disappointment, emptiness. Another tragedy reminds us the only certainty we have is the fear of losing all that we deem precious. Yet fear can be good. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). To fear the Lord is to learn our place – we did not create the world, we did not call ourselves into being, and we do not create our own meaning. To fear God is to reject the lie that we control our own destiny, and to also reject that the purpose of life is to satisfy ourselves at whatever it might cost others.

Love means everything; but costs everything.

jesus-washing-feet-disciplesPaul wrote, “While we still yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus said, “No greater love has one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). John wrote, “We love because he loved us” (1 John 4:19). The story of Jesus is a love story; revealing how far God is willing to go for us – with outstretched arms upon a cross. To those who first encountered him, Jesus was an anathema. The Hebrews dared not speak the name of the Lord – Jesus called him Father. The Greeks distinguished spirit from flesh – Jesus came as the Word made flesh. God is love (1 John 4:8b) Jesus embodied that message. He brought forgiveness to those thought too wretched for society. He healed those too unclean to touch. He ate with those who should not be welcomed. He invited the undeserving to follow him and the unqualified to represent him. He challenged those who judged, excluded, wore titles and looked for qualifications. He died by our hands as we attempt to protect the status quo. Jesus didn’t come so we could be happy. Out of love he came to redeem us from ourselves. We are called in that love to love others. He shows us how by washing our feet.

God so loved the world that he gave his only son. (John 3:16) God destined us not for wrath but for salvation. (1 Thessalonians 5:9) The only thing that counts is faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6b)

Trust is the most difficult.

hiker-silhouetteIn a world that is constantly pursuing its own self-interests, it can be difficult to trust anyone. Yet what God asks of us is nothing less than our complete trust and confidence. Trust requires action. Jesus calls, “follow me” which we cannot do sitting idle. The Biblical story reveals God’s constant hand as one of mercy, reconciliation, and recommitment to using people in the world. People like Noah, Joseph, Moses, Job, and many of the prophets who faced hardship again and again, are ultimately stories of trust. People just like us learned how to trust – like Jonah who ran away, Esther who stood up for her people, and even our friend Ecclesiastes who called everything “hebel.” David sang the songs of doubt as well as many relying on the mercy of God to deliver him in the Psalms. Mary had no logical reason to believe she would bear a child to be a savior, and yet her heart magnified the Lord. Peter abandoned Jesus before he died yet was welcomed back by the risen Jesus to lead a new community of followers. Paul went across the Roman Empire – to be rejected, beaten, jailed, and eventually killed. But he trusted that his roadside meeting with the risen Jesus could change the world. So he pressed on. We press on too. We follow. We go. We catch the wind of the Spirit that is blowing; trusting where God sends us, as we sing our songs along the way, no puffs of smoke in sight.

Why are we here? What is our purpose?  What are we supposed to do with our lives?

Simply put: We are to fear, love and trust in God above all things.



I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:34)


* Martin Luther, The Small Catechism, The Book of Concord. ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], 351.

# Luther, “The Large Catechism,” The Book of Concord, 386-387.

(This article was first posted on  on April 24, 2013 – )

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