I have been reading the book “Don’t Waste Your Life” by John Piper these days. I may not completely understand or agree with every point in the book, but I readily accept the thesis of the book. The thesis is this: that the meaning of our life, our existence, can only be found in seeing, enjoying, and displaying the glory of God our Creator. Other ways of life are wasting our life. I think I encountered this thesis before, though in different words, at least twice: first in the RCIA class, and the second time was in one of Tolkien’s letters.
The thesis presents an answer to the question (in fact, the Question): what is the purpose of our life? Those who believe that we are created by a creator may ask: why were we created? So that the creator may have a bunch of creatures continually telling him how great he is?
What follows is what I understand as the answer of the Church. And by the Church I mean the community of people who follow Christ, i.e. the Christians1. Now a caution is necessary. If what follows sound illogical or silly to you, please, do not directly discard the Church (or worst still, Christ) as rubbish. Most likely the blame lies in my understanding, or my wording. Anyway, this is what I believe as the answer to the question above:
There is the Creator from whom the universe has its being. This Creator is full of glory and love. He2 does not need anything or anyone, not even someone to be loved. (Now if you ask how He can love when He does not need anyone to be loved, the Church can introduce you to our faith in the Trinity. But that deserves its own essay, one that I do not dare –yet– to write). And this Creator does not need anything or anyone to sing His praise or glory, as if He were a man with a delusion of grandeur. The Creator is full of glory and love, so much so that His glory and love are overflowing. His glory and love are overflowing, so much so that they can be imparted, shared, given so generously. Creation is an act of giving: the Creator gave, imparted, His glory and love to His creatures.
So what does the Creator expect from His creatures? I do not think our Creator sees us like an engineer sees a machine that he invented. An engineer inventing a machine would expect the machine to perform some tasks for him (though he may have some love for his inventions, but the main idea is for the machine to do something). Now in our case, I think the Creator expect His creatures to simply receive His glory and love, and to be glad. And do you not think that the universe has done exactly that? The glowing stars, are they not glorious? The chirping birds, are they not glad? The heavens are telling the glory of God, and all creation is shouting for joy.
And we do not stop at that. Having received such great glory and love, surely we cannot help responding? I am not talking now about the glowing stars or the chirping birds. I am talking about us, Men, who are endowed with intellect and will. For intellectual creatures like us, what other response can be? When someone much greater, much more honourable than us, who knows us through and through, chooses to share his greatness with us, showers us with favour and love, and it turns out that it is really delightful to be with him, what can be our response but being glad and loving him in return?
So, then, to the question “what is the purpose of our life?”, I would venture to say: to accept, to partake, the glory and love of God our Creator, to receive gratefully His love and to love Him. The idea of love is closely linked with the idea of being one. When two persons love each other, they grow in understanding, they tend to know what the other thinks, their minds approaches a unison, and we often say that they start to become one. Now this idea is also found (in greater depth) in the Christian teaching. Christ prayed, “Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you … I have loved them as much as you loved me …” (John 17: 21 – 23). To be one, to love and to be loved; and it is not a cheap unity or love that we are talking about here. We are talking about the unity, the communion, the love that is within the Trinity. The Communion that has no discord in it, the Love that created the universe, the Love that requires the death of the Lover. And Men are called to enter that communion and love. To return to the question of the purpose of our life, should we not say that the purpose is to be one with God? It may not be far from the mark to say that this idea is similar to the idea of theosis found in the Eastern Orthodox Church. But I will not discuss something that I have not studied.
If we are one with God, if we receive His glory and love, it follows that we will display His glory. Does not the Scripture say that Men are created in the image of God? Now, what does this ideal purpose practically mean? What sort of life one must live if one is to receive, enjoy, and display God’s glory and love? In the RCIA class that I attended, the priest said that that is unique for each one of us. “For me,” he said, pride and joy evident in his voice, “the best way to love God, to be with Him, is to be a priest. For you, it may be to be a lawyer, a doctor, a father … That is something that you need to discern.” That is also what John Piper said in “Don’t Waste Your Life”. That is what my father has always prayed for me: that I may enter fully into God’s plan for me. That is what J.R.R. Tolkien answered when someone asked him in a letter his view on the purpose of life (Letter 310). Tolkien said that the idea of purpose points to the idea of creation and a creator. He wrote, “… the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis: …We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendour.”
And now we come to the best part: to be one with God does not mean an ultra-serious, gloomy, cheerless life. Piper emphasized again and again that our purpose is to enjoy God’s glory. To be with God, he argued, is the only real joy. He is of course not the first person to realize that. Piper cited Jonathan Edwards for this observation in enjoying. St. Francis of Assisi was noted for his cheerfulness. So was Mother Theresa of Calcutta. And most of us are familiar with the words of St. Augustine of Hippo: “You have made us for Yourself, o Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” We are created in that overflowing love and glory, so how can we find joy outside love and glory? Human love and earthly glory may give us a glimpse, a taste of that joy, but they are not the fulfillment. I am young and I have not enough experience to testify to this statement, but this reminds me of my father, who is perhaps the most Christian man that I know personally. My father has a good career, he enjoys his job, he is widely respected, and we are a loving family. But he once told me that work and family alone cannot satisfy a man. “There must be something more than that”, he said, “there must be a deeper meaning in one’s life than raising a family and carving a career.”
To understand that being with God is a joyful experience instead a gloomy one, I think it helps to remember how often the Gospel (and the Old Testament as well) mentioned about banquet. In the Day of the Lord, as the world that we know comes to an end, what does Scripture say we will do? Floating in the air of heaven, experiencing a continual meditation? No! What Scripture says is that we will eat and drink in a banquet, a great feast, the feast of our Lord. Even in today’s reading we found how Isaiah described a banquet of God.
“The Lord of host will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food,” the prophet said, and he went on to describe it, “a banquet of fine wines, of food rich and juicy, of fine strained wines. … He will destroy Death for ever. The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek …” (Isaiah 25: 6-8).
In the Gospel reading we heard how our Lord compared the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. In today’s homily, my parish priest reminded us how we all have often failed to be joyful in the Lord. How often are we excited, happy, because we are loved by God, not because things are going well? In a similar vein, Piper asked us, how often do other people ask the secret of our joy, our hope, in the midst of troubles? Perhaps they never ask so, for we never look joyful or hopeful when troubles come!
I think it is in this way that we may understand the promises found in Scripture that God makes those who walks in His path succeed. Some people interpret those promises as a guarantee that a Christian will be smarter, more successful in career, healthier, and (of course!) wealthier, than the non-Christians surrounding him / her. But I do not think we should take those promises that way. To walk in His path means much more than to be a professing Christian. To walk in His path means to first discern which path we should take, which path should bring us to see and enjoy His glory and love, to love Him, and to display His glory. God can bless our business, of course, but if our business is not the path that He intends for us, why should we expect Him to grant success to it? And did not Christ say plainly that to follow Him means to carry our cross? It is hard to see how a cross translates to financial success.
But there is indeed the promise that we will succeed; that if we decide to follow Him, He will see to it that we have enough strength for the journey, that He himself will walk with us through the journey, that we will succeed in accomplishing His plan for us. As Piper put it, when we choose to live God’s plan for us, we will encounter many difficulties, we may suffer, we may die in the process. But God will give us enough strength to accomplish His plan for us. Our Lord himself died young, at his thirties. He did not have what we would call a great career, He did not die a wealthy man, He did not (!) write a book that left its mark on human history. But He did accomplish what He came for: to die on the Cross.
I should end this article with a confession: I have failed so miserably in all this. Theoretically I know that I am created by God, that He has imparted His glory and love to me, that the only purpose of my life is to love Him and to display His glory. When I read the Scripture, when I sing the hymns and psalms, my heart is filled with warm feelings (I hope that may count as a budding love). But I still do not know what His plan for me is, which path I should take so that I can love Him more. I thought that my vocation is to be a lecturer, to see and to show others how mechanics and mathematics display a glimpse of His brilliance, but now I am not so sure. I am not so sure whether I am good enough in civil engineering to teach, let alone to inspire people to see His brilliance through the knowledge. And about the joy, oh, how I have failed! As I said, when I read the Scripture or sing the hymns I felt so joyful. But it does not take much to make me lose my joy or patience. I become impatient just because of small things such as being in a rush and finding the lock stuck. And I can become so despondent just because I cannot understand my simulation results. Well, what else can I say that I will try to do better every day?
1For those who instinctively ask, “which church?”, my view is shaped by what I learnt in the RCIA (Roman Catholic Initiation for Adults), what I recently read in “Don’t Waste Your Life” (John Piper, I understand, is a pastor in a Reformed-Baptist church), what I read in Tolkien’s letters (J.R.R Tolkien was a Roman Catholic), many other readings (those would be from Roman Catholic, Presbyterian or Evangelical traditions).
2I do not (and the Church certainly does not) imply that this Infinite, Supreme Being is a male – surely the Creator transcends gender and sexuality.