Finding Meaning

Heaven is “some fantasy,” Arnold Schwarzenegger said. “Anyone that tells you something else is a (expletive) liar.” Here’s an immigrant from Austria who arrived in the U.S. in 1968 with little to his name. He reached celebrity status as a body builder, actor, and politician. But success has not brought him hope, and it’s hard to find meaning in life without hope. His words in that same interview reveal frustration and fear. “Who can we blame…that we have to die?” he said.

It is common to the human experience to link thoughts about mortality and the meaning of life. The philosopher Nietzsche observed that people can cope with most things (including death) if they find meaning within them. A full and meaningful life is the antidote to the emptiness of death.

Some regard Leo Tolstoy as the greatest author in history, citing his works “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” But after finding success, Tolstoy came up short on meaning. Before he was fifty, he had health, a wonderful family, a large and growing estate, the respect of his community, and even celebrity. But he was troubled. “Sooner or later my deeds will be forgotten and will no longer exist. It is only possible to go on living while you are intoxicated with life; once sober, it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere trick!”

Schwarzenegger and Tolstoy sound like the Apostle Paul, reflecting on the vanity of success. Paul met all the requirements to be a successful and influential religious leader, even persecuting those who disagreed. Yet, “Whatever things were gain to me,” he writes, “those things I have counted as loss” (Phil. 3:7).

It is so human to pursue meaning in success, possessions, pleasure, and influence. It is also so human to fail in the chase. Where does one find meaning in the brevity of this life, if not in those things? Paul’s answer is, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). His words reflect a great reset. He found meaning not in himself and his successes, but in Christ Jesus, his Creator and Redeemer.

The noted 20th century journalist Malcolm Muggeridge could relate to Paul’s great reset. “I may, I suppose, regard myself as a relatively successful man…Yet, multiply these tiny triumphs by millions, and they are nothing,” he writes. “Indeed, a positive impediment measured against one drop of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.”

My prayer is that Mr. Schwarzenegger and my dear readers would thirst for living water, and not allow other triumphs to be an impediment to finding it. In Christ, life has hope, purpose, and meaning. “In Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 18:28).

Life’s Calling

Bob Buford had it made. He was an entrepreneur in the startup days of cable TV. But financial success did not shield him from tragedy. His tragedy made him rethink his life’s calling.

Buford’s father died when he was a child. In his teens he wanted to become a TV executive. He achieved that goal by the time he was 40. A few years later, tragedy struck. His son, recently graduated from college, drowned trying to swim across the Rio Grande.

As a Christian, Buford eventually realized the tragedy was an opportunity to reflect on what matters, what gives meaning to life. “God, you have given my life into my hands,” he prayed. “I give it back to you. My time, my property, my life itself…I release the cares and concerns of this world, knowing you loved me enough to give your only Son in my behalf.” Buford entered the second half of his life with a new calling.

Ten years after the tragedy, Buford explained what he had learned. His book, Halftime, focuses on finding significance rather than success. He urges readers “to find the one thing that is uniquely yours – the thing that once found, will enable you to make a difference.” That sentiment reflects the calling, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

Buford poses some questions to help clarify your calling, whether you are a student, in mid-career, or contemplating life as a retiree.  His first question strikes at the heart of the matter: “What is your primary loyalty in life?” Money? Career? Leisure? Jesus Christ? You can only put one thing in that box. “If you do not choose the one thing that belongs in the box,” he writes, “life’s inertia will choose it for you.”

Here are some follow up questions. What would you die for? Do you live like that is true, with courage and sacrifice? What do you do so well, you would do it without pay? Do meaningful experiences from your past suggest a new focus for your life? What must you learn or change to re-align your life to what you value? These are urgent questions because what you do with your time is what you do with your life.

What is your life’s calling? For the believer, the answer starts with who’s doing the calling. God “has called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace,” Paul writes. He “was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher” (1 Tim. 1:9,11), but God may call you to be a banker, educator, manager, carpenter, or volunteer. Regardless, your holy calling means, “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Col. 3:24).

Send Me Home

It was a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” story except that in this real-life adventure, Tim Keller goes to New York to shake things up for the better.

He was “perhaps the most gifted communicator of historically orthodox Christian teachings in the country” per The New Yorker.  The New York Times described him as a man who “performed a modern miracle of his own – establishing a theologically orthodox church in Manhattan that attracted thousands of young professional followers.” After serving as pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church from 1989 to 2017, Keller changed his focus to training pastors.

Keller enjoyed engaging skeptics and non-believers in a caring, winsome way. He believed that honest objections to Christianity should be treated with thoughtful respect. That was his approach in his 2008 book, The Reason for God. In this book, he addresses common objections to the ultimate truth claims of Christianity.

One of those objections is, “There can’t be just one true religion.” Keller examines the oft-told story of the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man discovers the elephant is like a snake, tree, or wall, based on where he touches the animal – trunk, leg, or side. Skeptics use the story to illustrate the claim that the various religions of the world only see a part of the same reality. But Keller reveals the flawed logic. “How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?”

You may be a truth seeker, like the blind men. But truth need not be “discovered” because God has revealed all you need to know. “If you continue in My word,” Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). When you come to know the truth, you realize it’s not a concept but a Person. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus said. “No one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). That is the knowledge of spiritual reality you need.

Keller enjoyed repackaging ancient truths for modern ears. His oft-repeated explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is, “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

Among Keller’s last words were, “I’m thankful for the time God has given me, but I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.” For him, this has become true: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

In 2023, Tim Keller left for the land of the living.  He was 72.

It Was Providential

“Everything happens for a reason” is an inarticulate way to express the providence of God. God doesn’t do evil, but He can take a sequence of events and weave something providential out of it. Here’s an example.

This story begins with a noted anthropologist, James Frazer. In 1890, he published a book in which he posits that the legend of a dying and reviving god is central to many ancient mythologies. He scandalized his colleagues and readers by denigrating the history of Jesus as just another myth. His fallacy was to disallow the possibility that God had been preparing humanity for His incarnation, death, and resurrection since the beginning; hence, the anticipation became embedded in the historical human consciousness.

Oxford don T.D. Weldon pondered Frazer’s work. Weldon was a confirmed atheist. But he had considered the evidence for the history of Jesus as recorded in the Bible. In 1926, Weldon visited a colleague’s paneled office near the iconic Magdalen Tower. As they sat near the fire on that cold day, Weldon suggested the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was strong.  “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the dying god. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.”

That comment stunned Weldon’s colleague, who had been struggling to maintain his own denial of God’s existence. That colleague was C.S. Lewis. He wrote, “To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man. If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not–as I would still have put it–“safe”, where could I turn? Was there then no escape?” Lewis sensed the “hound of heaven” in Weldon’s providential comment.

Lewis freely admitted that he didn’t want God to exist, but he became overwhelmed by the evidence. “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed.” Two years later, he placed his faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. He described his conversion as like “when a man, after long sleep…becomes aware that he is now awake.”

Three men. A sequence of events and conversations. An awakening to the joy of faith! That’s how Divine Providence works, weaving the circumstances of life into something vital for your soul. He knows all about you. He loves you and reveals Himself to you. Whether you are seeking or not, your providential encounter awaits. He’s not far.

“He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27).