Having a life of meaning available to us is one thing. Living a life of meaning is something else. One can lead to the other, but the connection is not automatic. In this final installment in our series, Finding Meaning, we talk about the secret of not just having, but living a life filled with meaning and purpose. Keep reading to find out as we wrap up this thought-provoking journey.
One of the things I have actively encouraged you guys to be doing is spending daily time in the Scriptures. This is something I’ll keep encouraging and keep encouraging and keep encouraging because of how utterly transformational this practice is to the life of faith. You simply cannot be a consistent, faithful follower of Jesus without regularly engaging with the Word of God. It’s just not how it was designed to work. And so you know that I’m not just saying you should be doing this without actually doing it myself, this past week I was working my way through Genesis 2-3 and I read something there that when I sat down to start working on this message came rushing to the front of my brain. It was one of those cool times when God makes a connection between two different ideas in the Scriptures written by different authors living in different cultures separated by centuries of time that you just wouldn’t have made without Him. The original thought struck me enough that you may have seen it on my blog this past week if you follow me there. All of those entries, by the way, come out of my own quiet time. If you ever want to know what I’m reading at the moment, it’s all right there for you. I just want you to know that I’m in this with you.
In any event, earlier this week I was reading the second story of creation in Genesis 2 again. This is the story where we get an on-the-ground view of what God was doing in chapter 1. Specifically, we get an up-close-and-personal look at how God actually created people. It’s a pretty remarkable thing. Well, just after we’re told how God created the first man, Moses tells us what God did with him. Listen to this from Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree of the garden…’” So good so far, right? That’s a pretty generous command. God basically commanded the man to fully enjoy the fruits of his labors in the garden. But then there’s this other part to the command: “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.”
Now, think about this with me for a minute. I’ve got six different commentaries on the beginning of Genesis in my office. There are a few other books in there dealing with the passage in various ways. For most of the commentaries, when they reach this section, they spend a fair bit of time on it. Their time, however, is pretty uniformly spent trying to make sense out of this idea that if the man ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he would “certainly die.” Not a single one of them, though, gives any attention at all to what I think is a much more intriguing question. Can you guess what it is?
Have you ever been told not to do something and suddenly that was the only thing in the world you wanted to do? Do you have one of those personalities where if you are told, “No,” you’re going to figure out how to do it just to spite the person who told you no? I know at least some of you do. (And if you’re curious who these folks are, they’re the ones chuckling nervously right now because I just exposed them. You’re welcome.) I lost count a long time ago of the number of times we’ve told our boys not to do something, turned around, and found them doing the very thing we had told them not to do. It’ll drive you bananas as a parent. But still, that thing is in us. We don’t like, “No.”
Stay with me here. If God designed us, then He knew that thing was in us, right? So why did He design this beautiful garden, put the man in it to work it and watch over it, give him access to all the trees to enjoy the fruits of his labors, and then tell him not to eat from just one of them? Wasn’t that basically like an invitation to go and have a snack?
I don’t know. We’ll talk about that a bit more here in a little while. But I do know this: This morning finds us in the sixth and final part of our series, Finding Meaning. If this is the first part of the series you are catching, or if you’ve missed a part or two, you can find the previous entries on the church’s website or on my blog, both of which are printed for you there in the bulletin. The big idea for this whole series of conversations, though, has been that we are creatures created for meaning. We have to have something by which we define our lives, something that gives us a clear and compelling sense of purpose. Life becomes a drag very quickly when we don’t have this in place. Well, so I didn’t leave you in any amount of suspense, in the very first part of this series, we established a baseline of how to live a meaning-filled life. The secret is Jesus. Jesus is the key to a meaningful life. Life without Christ is meaningless.
From there, with the wisdom of King Solomon, collected in a document we call Ecclesiastes, we have spent the past four installments looking at various places other than Jesus that we turn to for meaning. We’ve looked at pleasure, wisdom, work, and money. Each of these are pretty potent temptations in terms of being places to turn to find meaning and purpose for our lives. Pleasure is easy and it feels good. Wisdom is held out to us in all kinds of places including the Scriptures as a prize worth claiming whatever the cost. Work is something we were created to do in the beginning by God. In fact, those verses we just looked at from Genesis are our original commission to work. And, like it or not, money can make things happen that seem to be in our favor in ways that just aren’t possible if we don’t have it. And the thing is: None of these categories of things are inherently wrong. They’re not evil as a starting point. God wants us to enjoy His world, He’s the source of real wisdom, He’s always working Himself, and He regularly shares His stuff with us. The problem comes when we pursue any of these as an end unto themselves. Pleasure offers us pleasure, not meaning. Wisdom offers us wisdom, not meaning. Work offers us work, not meaning. Money offers us wealth, not meaning.
Now, at this point in the series, we’re at kind of an interesting place. Usually when we get to the final part of a journey like this one, we’re all waiting for the big answer to whatever the driving question has been. In this case, normally we’d be waiting to be told the real source of meaning in our lives. We’ve looked at all the other options and are waiting for the one that works. But in this case, we already know the answer to that. We just said it: Jesus is the secret to a meaningful life. We’ve come back to that fact again and again as we’ve looked at all these areas that fail. So, what’s left? Why preach one more sermon on this? Haven’t we already beat it into the ground? Let’s just bury it and be done. We would except for this one little thing: How? Sure, we know the secret to meaning, but how do we actually implement it in our lives? Having a life of meaning is awesome, but how do we live a life of meaning? That’s what we’re going to talk about this morning.
Come back to that creation story with me for a minute. Do you know why God created us? The most famous theological answer to that question comes from the Shorter Westminster Catechism, which was a theology teaching tool used for a long time to help kids grow in their understanding and application of the faith. It’s organized as a series of questions and answers. The very first question is this: What is the chief end of man? In other words, why did God create us. The answer? “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? We don’t speak or think in those terms very often today, though, so let’s see if we can put that in a way that makes more sense with how we think today. God created us to be in a relationship with Him. He created us to be in a relationship with Him such that He can enjoy us and we can enjoy Him to the fullest extent possible. That makes a bit more sense, yes? God wants us to enjoy the life He’s given us in the world He’s created for us. It is worth noting that this was a pretty radical idea in the ancient world with how it generally understood the relationship between humans and the gods. Most folks thought that the gods didn’t care about people at all. We were there for their amusement and convenience and they weren’t even remotely concerned with whether or not we got any enjoyment out of life. The God of Israel, though, the One True God, was as different from this as night from day. He made us for a relationship with Him and with the intention of our enjoying that as thoroughly as possible.
Here’s what this means: When we get life right, it should be a lot of fun. It should be thoroughly enjoyable for us. And as Solomon began winding down his reflections on the meaning of life, this was one of the things he made sure to note. Look at this with me in Ecclesiastes 11:7: “Light is sweet, and it is pleasing for the eyes to see the sun. Indeed, if someone lives many years, let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, since they will be many. All that comes is futile. Rejoice, young person, while you are young, and let your heart be glad in the days of your youth. And walk in the ways of your heart and in the desire of your eyes…Remove sorrow from your heart, and put away pain from your flesh, because youth and the prime of life are fleeting.”
Do you follow all of that? He is basically saying this: Enjoy life. If God has given you the gift of many days, relish them. Let the fact that some day you won’t be able to enjoy your days push you to suck the most life out of them you can. Did you ever see the movie, The Bucket List, with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman? It’s about two old guys who find themselves in the same hospital room with terminal diagnoses. Knowing they are both short on time, Nicholson, who plays a billionaire, finances their setting out on this crazy series of adventures to mark everything off their bucket list before they kick it. With those two actors the movie couldn’t not be a ton of fun—which it is—but it is a big screen enaction of what Solomon says here. If you’ve lived many days, don’t turn sour and mourn what you haven’t gotten to experience or old wounds that never healed. Make the decision that you are going to be a blessing to everyone around you and relish your days until they are over.
If you are still in your youth, live life to its fullest. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in sorrow and misery. Get the help you need to patch up your wounds—both on the inside and the outside—and enjoy your days. Whatever it is your heart draws you to do, experience it to the fullest. Don’t pass up on opportunities of a lifetime. Spend the money, use the vacation days, make the appointments, get on with living. It’s just not worth it to do anything else.
But… There’s always a but, isn’t there? Sometimes it feels a bit like we serve the God of the “but.” If you were following along in your own Bible, you know I skipped something when I was reading a second ago. It’s at the end of v. 9. This is the…catch to Solomon’s exhortation to go and enjoy life to its fullest. Here it is: “…but know that for all of these things God will bring you to judgment.” Now, that kind of throws a wrench in things, doesn’t it? I mean, without that little “but”, we were going to be making all kinds of plans. There are some things we wouldn’t be opposed to experiencing—not that we’d say this out loud—which may not be totally on the up and up as far as maintaining a relationship with God in good standing would be concerned. But Solomon said to go for them and enjoy life so…let’s do it. We would have gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for this meddling end of v. 9.
There’s a tension here. We want to live a meaningful life. That’s inherent in all of us. We also, though, want to do what we want. We think those are the same sometimes…until we try it and realize they often are not. We understand God made us for a relationship with Him. But we don’t always want to be tied down to a single place. How do we put all of this together? It seems like something that should be really complex. Indeed, folks have studied it and thought about it and written about it for centuries. Over at the end of chapter 12 Solomon says this: “But beyond these, my [child], be warned: there is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body.”
He said that around 960 BC. That was in the ballpark of 2,400 years before the invention of the printing press. Solomon literally could not have conceived of the number of books in print today. Books were the luxuries of the rich in Solomon’s day. Now we have tens of thousands of them available completely free of charge (or at least paid for by tax dollars) to anyone who lives within a particular library’s district. And a whole lot of those books have pondered this very tension. How do we live a meaningful that’s filled with all the things we want if we have this prospect of judgment hanging over our heads? How do we manage this tension?
Solomon actually suggests it’s pretty straightforward. Look at v. 13 now: “When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity.” Wait, so we’re just supposed to do what God says and that’s it? That’s his concluding advice after all of this? That’s the secret to living a meaning-filled, contented life? Come on. There’s got to be more. There’s got to be more than “do what God says and get over it.” I mean, doesn’t that make you recoil and want to do something other than God says just to show you can still have a meaningful life without locking yourself in such a tiny box? Perhaps, but there really isn’t more to it than that. And as it turns out, this isn’t nearly such a bad thing as it might sound sitting where you are right now.
To understand why, come back to that tree with me. Remember the tree? The one God said not to eat from that would have had us all reaching for a piece of fruit when He turned around just because? That tree. Why’d God put the tree there? Would you believe that I have six commentaries on Genesis on my office and not a single one of them even touch that question? Now, I’m certain I don’t know anything those guys don’t already know about Genesis. They’ve forgotten more about the creation story than I’ve ever known about it. But let me offer this idea to the conversation: God put the tree there and told us not to eat from it because relationships have boundaries. All relationships have boundaries. All of them. Every single one. If there is a relationship, it has boundaries. Period. For some relationships those boundaries are really clear—like marriage. For others, they may be less clear—like the relationship of two best friends. The nature and clarity of boundaries may vary, but their existence does not.
Well, when God put the man in the garden and set him to working and keeping it, our relationship with God didn’t yet seem to have any boundaries. At least, none of them had been clarified. With the tree, God fixed that. And the boundary was this: Our relationship with Him was going to be rooted in obedience. As long as we were willing to live lives of obedience to His commands, the relationship was going to last. And if that idea chafes a little bit, it shouldn’t if you think about it. God created us, not the other way around. He’s God. We’re not. We can’t give Him anything that He doesn’t already have and isn’t, in fact, already His. There is nothing about Him and about us that would suggest any kind of equality between us. He’s smarter than we are, more powerful than we are, bigger than we are, wiser than we are, holier than we are, and the list here could stretch on into eternity. Our relationship with God is not one of equals, but of an authority to a subordinate. And again, that’s because He’s God and we’re not. And there’s really no use trying to argue about whether that situation is as it should be or not because it already is. It’s simply the nature of creation. Which was created by God.
That’s all the hard stuff. Here’s the easier part: the life God has for us within the boundaries of a relationship with Him is a really good one. Remember what the Shorter Westminster Catechism said about it? Our purpose, or the nature of our relationship with God, is to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. God is the source of all goodness in the universe and He wants for us to enjoy that goodness forever. What could be bad about that? What’s more, given that He created us and understands the implications and ramifications of our actions far beyond what we could ever hope to wrap our own little minds around, do you think there’s a chance He might know better than we do what’s in our best interest?
So essentially, then, we have this: God made us for a relationship with Himself. Then, He drew a great big circle around that relationship to show where the boundaries of it lay. Then He said, “I want you to trust that I will always, without fail, have your best interests at heart and remain within these boundaries. If you do, I’ll make sure that your life is filled with hope and joy and peace and love and purpose. But you’ve got to stay within the boundaries.” Now, why is that? Why do we have to stay within the boundaries? Because if we leave the boundaries of the relationship, we don’t get to take part in its benefits. It’s just like for any other relationship. If you move outside the boundary lines, you don’t get to enjoy the benefits of the relationship. God’s not going to change what He does with respect to us if we move outside the lines, but we won’t be able to be a party to it because we’ve moved ourselves outside the lines. It’s like if we’re at a great party at our neighbor’s house, but decide we could have more fun in our own backyard…alone. As soon as we’re in our yard, we realize pretty quickly that it is not in fact more fun. It’s awful. And the party still sounds terrific. We might even vicariously enjoy some of it from a distance, but we’ll miss out on the real heart of it because we’re on the wrong side of the fence.
Listen: Life on your own, apart from God, is not going to be fuller and more meaningful than life with Him will be. It just won’t. Now, maybe you’ve been taught otherwise by the church at some point. You learned through the church that life in the church is awful. It’s restrictive and boring and legalistic and judgmental and a bunch of other terrible things. And it is all those terrible things because having a “good time” is the territory of the devil, and you want to stay as far from that as you can. I want you to know right here and now that whoever taught you that was wrong. They were lying to you. It may have been a well-intentioned lie, and even an unwitting lie, but it was still a lie. The fullest life you will ever know is the life that is found within the boundaries of a relationship with God. Jesus Himself announced boldly that He came so that we might have life and have it to the what? The full. But the only way we can enjoy that full life is if we remain within the boundaries. It’s only if we are willing…here’s the hard word…to obey what God says.
Now, look, we don’t have to do it. He won’t force Himself or His will on us. C. S. Lewis famously said that in the end there will only be two kinds of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.” He’ll let us have what we most want in the end—even if what we decide we most want is to be apart from Him—because He loves us and love never forces itself. But if we want to enjoy the goodness He has planned for us, we’ve got to stay within the lines. We’ve got to practice obedience. And if you’re still struggling with why this is the case, think about it like this: If He really is God, then the only way we can meaningfully resist what He says is if we claim to be God ourselves (a decision that lies at the heart of all sin), because a god can only be meaningfully opposed by another god. When we lodge a counter claim to God’s assertion of His sole divinity, we are setting up a territorial dispute that will keep us separated until either somebody gives (and since He really is the only God, He’s not going to give), or the separation is made permanent. Because, at some point, God’s going to make all decisions final. That’s v. 14: “For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.”
That makes more positive sense now, I hope, if we understand all the rest of this. God’s promised an incredible party that will start as soon as the doors close. He’s just holding the doors until everyone who wants to come has arrived. As some point, though, He’s going to close the doors and there are some folks who will be stuck on the outside because they’ve convinced themselves the real party will be out there. But, just like you found out when you left your neighbor’s awesome party for you own lonely backyard, they’re going to discover they’re wrong. They won’t be able to admit it, though, because of pride. They’ll be the guy shooting baskets all by himself while the party rocks on across the fence, hooting and hollering about how much fun he’s having, when the truth is that he’s miserable.
Don’t be miserable. If you are miserable, don’t stay that way. Life on your own isn’t really life at all. Jesus is the foundation for a meaningful life, but if you want to enjoy that meaning to its fullest, you’ve got to stay within the boundaries. You’ve got to practice faithful, loving obedience. Obedience is the key to a full life. Obedience is the key to a full life. Say that with me: Obedience is the key to a full life. Because God is God and you and I are not, obedience is the key to a full life. Because He is the source of all life and goodness in the universe, obedience is the key to a full life. Because He loves us so much He sent His Son to die in our place so that we can come back within the boundaries of a relationship with Him, obedience is the key to a full life. Obedience is the key to a full life.
Just this and we’re done, but listen closely to me. In fact, if you have a manuscript and you’re following along with me, put it down for a second and look right up here. I want to invite you into obedience this morning. I want to invite you to commit yourself to live a life of obedience and experience the fullness God has planned for you. There will be days that will be really easy. And then there will be days that will be so excruciatingly difficult you can’t even begin to imagine how you’ll manage it. Jesus experienced this. Today we are celebrating His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He received a hero’s welcome and was celebrated wildly by the people. Easy obedience. But in a week’s time, He was arrested, subjected to a sham trial, and hanged on a cross until He died. Hard obedience. And yet, His commitment to obedience paved the way for the resurrection—something whose impact we’ll examine next Sunday; you won’t want to miss that—which resulted in all the fullness of God shining through the Son who now as the name at which every knee will bow and every tongue will ultimately confess His lordship. That fullness and life He wants to share with you. It only takes one thing: Obedience. Obedience is the key to a full life. If you don’t know this full life where you are sitting right now, then this morning you need to do something about that. You need to commit yourself to obedience. Would you do it? Would you do it and come up here and share the exciting news with the rest of us? I’m going to pray for us—I’m going to pray for you—and then as we sing together, I invite you to come up here and share your commitment to receive the full life Christ has for you by walking the path of obedience. Obedience is the key to a full life.