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How Can Life Have Meaning?
By Pastor John Partridge
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 Luke 12:13-21 Colossians 3:1-11
What is your “why”?
At some point, most of us discover that our lives need a “why,” we need a purpose, we need something that gives our lives meaning. For some people it’s writing, or painting, or other kinds of creative endeavors. For others it’s building things or helping people. But if we don’t find something that gives our lives meaning, it can cause us to struggle emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. A life without meaning is a lot like planning a trip without having a destination, we wander from place to place, from one interesting thing, one shiny object to another, without knowing where we are going or why we are going there. It might be fun, it might be interesting, and it can consume the waking hours of our lives, but before long, we begin to wonder why we’re doing it.
When I was an engineer, I really liked my work. I liked the challenge, I (mostly) liked the people, I liked designing and building things, and it brought a great sense of accomplishment when I could go out on the loading dock and see us shipping out a machine that had once only existed in our imaginations and then only on paper but now was built, operational, and on its way to its installation. But at some point, in large part after 9-11, I began to ask myself if that was enough. We had built this great machine, but it was replacing another great machine that another engineer had imagined and built, thirty years earlier. And I didn’t have any trouble imagining that in another thirty years, everything that we had done, everything that we were so impressed with and proud of, would likewise be torn out, cut up, and sent to the scrap yard.
This place of reflection and self-doubt where we question the purpose of our lives is not unique to us in the twenty-first century and it is not unique to those of us in the post-renaissance or post-modern eras who have sought to be “self-actualized.” This human struggle to find meaning and purpose is at least as old as recorded history. In Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 we read the words of King Solomon, the richest, most influential, and most powerful king that ever lived. And in these words, we hear Solomon thinking about his “why.” What is his purpose? What is it that gives this man of wealth, power, and influence a life of meaning? Solomon says:
2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21 For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22 What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? 23 All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.
Solomon had it all. He had hundreds of wives who were some of the best looking, most intelligent, and fun to be with people that his kingdom had to offer, he had more money than he could spend, he led an economy and a military that influenced much of the known world, he had servants and subjects who could do almost anything that he asked, and by most definitions he had it all. And yet, he begins the book of Ecclesiastes by saying that everything is meaningless.
He studied academics, he learned wisdom, and found no meaning in it. He had seen foreign countries, met dignitaries from around the world, and accumulated more of life’s experiences than anyone living, and found no more meaning than chasing the wind. He worked to accumulate possessions, wealth, and power but knowing that one day all of it would be left to someone who hadn’t worked for it, found those things to be meaningless also.
So, if we don’t find meaning in the pursuit of wisdom and academic knowledge, or in sex and pleasure of all kinds, or in money, power, possessions, experiences, or influence, then what is it that can give our lives meaning and purpose?
This is the same question, and the same problem, that Jesus highlights in Luke 12:13-21 when someone asks him to help them settle a family dispute over their father’s estate.
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Jesus listens to this request and then makes two statements. First that he is not the judge appointed to make such a ruling, nor does he desire to be, and second, that such a request is rooted in basic human greed. Jesus also warns that all kinds of human greed afflict us, and the accumulation of possessions and money is not how we are to build a meaningful life. Next, Jesus tells the crowd a parable about a wealthy man whose only focus was on becoming wealthier. But, just as Solomon pointed out, all that accumulated wealth would soon be left to someone else. The point of Jesus’ story is this conclusion: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” Jesus says that it is hopeless to build a life on the selfish accumulation of things if we are not rich toward God. It is hopeless to accumulate wealth or possessions, power or influence, wisdom or knowledge, sex, pleasure, or experiences, or anything else if God is not an integral part of our “why.”
But what is it then upon which we should build a life? What will give our lives meaning and purpose? And as we consider those questions, we find that this is exactly what Paul is considering in Colossians 3:1-11 as he expands on the teaching that we saw in the story of Jesus in Luke 12. Paul says:
3:1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is yourlife, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Paul says that now, since you have put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ, have chosen to follow him, and he has raised us from death to life with him, then it matters what you do with your life. Aim is important. Where you point your life is important. The meaning and the purpose of your life is important. And to aim your life in the right direction, Paul says, we must point our hearts and minds on things above and not on earthly things like sexual immorality, impurity, evil desires, and greed. If we are to follow Jesus, then God calls us to get rid of things like anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language, and to stop lying to one another so that we begin to increasingly resemble God and not our old self.
In the kingdom of God, there are none of the divisions that turn humanity against itself. There is no longer a difference between Gentiles and Jews, between those who are circumcised and those who are not, between slaves and free peoples, or between the sophisticated, cultured, and civilized people of the developed world and those who are referred to as uncivilized barbarians from less developed nations. Those differences are all erased because Jesus Christ is everything that we have, and we can find Jesus Christ in every person that we meet.
Finding a life of meaning and purpose is all about focus. If we focus our lives on ourselves, our needs, wants, desires, and aim ourselves at selfishly fulfilling them, we won’t ever feel as if we have a fulfilling, meaningful life of purpose. Instead of focusing on today or tomorrow, we must shift our focus to eternity. Instead of putting ourselves in the center of the bullseye, we must put Jesus in the center and focus on the needs of others and not on self.
Solomon begins the book of Ecclesiastes in a place of hopelessness as he mourns the meaningless of life, but as we read the rest of the book, he repeatedly encourages his readers to enjoy life and to be content with what they have. And he concludes by reminding everyone to keep God in the center of their lives, to “fear God and keep his commandments” because in the end, “God will bring every good deed into judgement, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” Solomon wasn’t dumb. He knew that selfishness emptied life of meaning and purpose. It is only when we keep God in the center of our lives, and focus on the needs of others, that we can point our lives at a place of meaning and purpose.
Before we can discover our “why” we must first remember that Jesus Christ is everything that we have.
Our search for a life of meaning and purpose must begin by remembering that that we can find Jesus in every person that we meet.
If you want to find your “why,” you must start with Jesus.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.