New Year Thoughts on the Meaning of Life

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A study by LifeWay Research several years ago found that 75% of the general population agreed with the statement, “There is an ultimate purpose and plan for every person’s life.” That number still seems surprisingly high to me. The same study found that 50% of those who never attend church services said there is no purpose or plan for human lives.

Though Christians are usually clear that there is purpose and meaning in life, many seem confused as to what exactly that purpose is. So my aim here is to answer what is really a pretty simple question:

What is the meaning of life?

A good place to research the meaning of life in Scripture is its beginning. When we look to Genesis, we find that our stewardship includes four things.

1. We’re Stewards of Ourselves

We can infer much from the account of the creation of man.

[T]hen the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (ESV, Genesis 2:7)

The intimate act of God’s breathing into the first man to give him life, along with the revelation he was made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26), combine to teach us that were made to provide visible expression of some of what God is. We were made to make Him known.

This is where we see the first hint that we exist for God’s “glory.” His glory is His cavod (Heb.)—His weight, His true character.

God’s glory is first discussed directly in Exodus 14:4 where God informs Moses that He has a plan to “get glory over Pharaoh and all his host.” In Exodus 16:6, after the plagues and departure from Egypt, God promises to reveal glory in response to Israel’s complaints about lack of food: “in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord.” The “glory of the Lord” appears in the cloud that evening (16:10), but what appears in the morning is Manna on the ground (16:15).

What do these references to glory have in common with each other and with Genesis 1:26 and 2:7? They are all instances of God visibly demonstrating aspects of His character. His glory is His transcendent reality made accessible (somewhat) to the senses.

What does this teach us about the meaning of life, with all its joys and sorrows, mysteries and messes? It teaches us that God desires to make His character visible through His creation, and especially through humanity.

In concrete terms, it means the purpose of life is not fun, friends, love, dreams, “self actualization,” personal fulfillment, or any number of other things we might be tempted to make our focus. No, we’re stewards of God’s glory. We can recognize that or try to hide from it, but it will still be true—and it’s what we’ll all give account for.

This supreme responsibility is why the gospel is woven through the whole history of man’s relationship with God. Because we all sin and “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), we’re condemned as failures in the one thing that justifies our existence. Yet, even in this God is glorified, as He reveals His glorious grace so that, for those who believe, death is exchanged for the gift of eternal life (Rom. 6:23).

As a steward, job one is to yield myself to this purpose of God’s glory. This is why immediately after creating Adam, God commands Adam. Believing obedience is the means of fulfilling of our stewardship.

2. We’re Stewards of Our Stuff

Soon after God creates Adam, He gives Adam stuff and tells him to take care of it. In Genesis 2:15-20, Adam receives a garden, the fruit of the trees, and a host of animals. We know from Genesis 1:26 he was to have dominion over them.

Today, we have bias in our thinking about “material things.” We associate “material” with the manufactured output of factories. In our deeply conflicted culture, many devote their lives to manufactured products while many others call for an idea of “simple living” that arbitrarily favors plants, animals and non-manufactured things.

But plants, animals and non-manufactured things are still stuff. They’re made of the same molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and mysterious other.

Whether it’s plants and animals or machines and electronics, the stuff is all for God’s glory, and our relationship to it is one of responsibility as stewards.

3. We’re Stewards of Our Work

Genesis 2:15 includes some important action words: God put man in the garden “to work [abad] it and keep [shamar] it.” Both of these terms emphasize active responsibility.

The New Testament principle fits naturally on top of what we see in Genesis.

Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men ( Col. 3:22–23)

The reality of stewardship and responsibility is intensified by its connection to judgment.

And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear (NKJV, 1 Pet. 1:17)  

Sometimes we get to thinking that “ministry” is for the Lord but work is just work. But as with Adam, all our work is assigned. There’s nothing random about any of it. Considering the case of Joseph, though much of his work seems random, even a tragic waste of talent, we’re directed to see that “God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

4. We’re Stewards of Our Relationships

Genesis 2:20-23 recounts the lack of a help meet (not “helpmate”!) for Adam—that is, a helper appropriate for him. God creates Eve and brings her to him.

There are only two people on the planet, but the two constitute 100% of the human relationships in existence at the time, and their creation speaks to 100% of our relationships today. Family, friends, neighbors, authority figures, fellow citizens, even enemies—we have responsibilities to all. (Note the pattern in Col. 3:18, 20, 21, 22, etc.)

Just as we ourselves, our stuff, and our work do not exist for our own satisfaction and fulfillment, our relationships are for a higher purpose as well. We don’t get to turn our backs on people God has given us to love just because they aren’t making us happy or aren’t giving us what we want. We’re stewards of them for God’s glory.

The Meaning of Life

Whatever else may be confusing in these times, we don’t need to enter into 2017 unclear about who we are, why we’re here, and what life is all about. The meaning of life—or to put another way, life’s purpose—is nothing more and nothing less than stewardship for the glory of God.

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