Faith, and What’s Important

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 NIV

When I was a child, I believed in G-d with a very real,  but innocent and naive, faith.   As I grew older, this faith was challenged, and frankly, it did not hold up very well.  One of the problems was my curious nature.

I was always asking questions, and my favorite was, “Why?”  Whenever I asked, “Why?”, and did not get a satisfactory answer, I would have trouble moving past whatever it was I was questioning until I did get an answer.  Over time I became the type of person that would dig and dig for answers to questions that were important to me, and just about all of them were, until I got a satisfactory answer, and I could then move on.

This trait led to a crisis of cynicism at a fairly young age, one that I still experience to some degree to this day.  At a point early on I began asking questions like “Why are we here?”, and “What is the point of everything?”, and I did not get any satisfactory answers to them.

As time went on, and still not getting the answers my obsessive nature demanded, I started questioning my faith.  The more I questioned my faith, the more cynical I became, the more cynical I became, the more I questioned my faith.  I entered a downward spiral, spiritually and emotionally, that seemed to have no end.

Eventually, after considerable fruitless searching and despair I decided that I needed to move on with my life.  Why I decided to move on I will explain below, but I began making decisions, and acting as though what I did had some meaning and purpose, even though in my heart I carried a great sense of futility.   My life went on like this for quite a few years.

Just about everyone has asked themselves similar questions, and have arrived at their own answers, or not.  But, whether one finds an answer or not, this search for meaning, and the results of this search, as filtered through our individual personality types, upbringing, and beliefs, are what drives and motivates us to think and do much of what we think and do.  The answers, or lack thereof, define us.

While the details of the answers that people arrive at to these questions are as varied and different as the people themselves, I believe that the answers fall into a number of broad categories.  There are those who will come to the conclusion that there is no ultimate purpose; those who come to believe that there is a purpose, but just don’t know what that purpose is; and those who attempt to define their own purpose.  There is a fourth category, which I’m saving, for the time being.

Those who fall into the first category, that there is no ultimate purpose, tend to become nihilistic and self-indulgent.  They lack any real belief in anything, and live only to “experience”.  One could say that experience is their purpose.  Existentialists fall into this category, and this was the direction I was heading except for one thing: this answer was simply unacceptable to me.

Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, or maybe it was because I saw purpose in everything around me, except myself, but I just could not accept the idea that there was no purpose except to simply exist for a time and then just slip off into oblivion.  True, the purpose of the things around me were man-centric, and it was man’s purpose I was questioning, but the simple fact that I could even conceive of the thing,  purpose, told me that it existed.

This led me to the idea that there was purpose, I just didn’t know what it was.  This also led me to my decision to live my life as if it had purpose, while continuing to search for that purpose.  The  fact that I was going to live my life anyway, whether I found an answer or not, and that in order to do so I needed food, shelter, companionship, all those things that make up a life, was also highly motivational in my decision to move on.

This leads us to the third option, which is to simply make up a purpose in an otherwise meaningless universe.  One could say that this is what I did, making my purpose to be discovering my purpose, but that would not be correct, since I did not believe that the universe was otherwise meaningless.

The person who adopts the third option accepts the fact the universe is meaningless and without purpose, but are still dissatisfied with the answer, and so provide their own meaning by doing such things as adopting causes, devoting themselves to particular subjects, or particular people or groups, or even simply to themselves.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that everyone who takes up a cause believes life is meaningless, and are simply inventing their own purpose.  On the contrary, I would say that most probably believe that, in fact, the activity or cause they are engaged in, is their purpose.  Since those in category two often, in their search for meaning, engage in similar behaviors as those in category three, it is worth dwelling on this a little more with an example of what is a true category three person.

I once read something about Karl Marx, how, while he was pursuing his socialist utopia, his family lived in abject poverty.  A quick Wikipedia check revealed that Marx had seven children with his wife, but only three lived to adulthood, due at least in part to the extreme poverty they lived in.  One might assume that this is what motivated Marx to write as he did, that he saw the poverty around him, the unfairness of it all, and decided he was going to change things.  The problem with this theory is that Marx himself was the product of a well-to-do middle class upbringing, and his own family’s poverty was not the inspiration for his single-minded pursuit of socialism, but was actually caused by it!

And what of Marx’s legacy?  Surely the deprivation that he and his family endured was somehow worth it, right?  Surely, he left the world a better place, more just, more humane, right?  Well, not exactly.  It is said that when Stalin collectivized the Ukraine, up to 7.5  million people starved to death.  In Communist China, in the late fifties and early sixties, tens of millions of chinese starved to death, as a direct result of the Communist government’s policies.

It is fitting to observe that if Marx had simply minded the wisdom of Solomon, quoted above in Ecclesiastes, the world, and his family, would have been much better off.  Of course, that he was an atheist, made this extremely unlikely.

One thing to note here is the difference between someone devoted to a cause out of love, passion, and a calling; and someone devoted to simply achieving meaning for their own otherwise meaningless existence.  People dedicated out of love, while often extremely self-sacrificing, do not force sacrifice for their cause on others.  They may ask for it, but they never force it.  People motivated by their fear of nothingness and anonymity, while sometimes willing to make their own sacrifices, often are willing to inflict pain and suffering on large numbers of people, for the achievement of their goals.

 This brings us to the fourth category, and that is the answer that provides the true meaning and purpose of our existence.  Different people will come to different conclusions as to what that is.  My conclusions are best illustrated by the story about Jesus, when he was asked, “What is the greatest commandment”?  It is worth relating the entire story, from Mark.

“And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?  And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:  And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.  And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.  And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he:  And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.  And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.”  (Mark 12:28-34 KJV)

It should be noted that Jesus was quoting from the Hebrew scriptures, the books of Deuteronomy (6:4-5, known to Jews as the Sh’ma Yisrael, or simply Sh’ma ) and Leviticus (19:18) when he answered.

 The meaning and purpose of our lives then, is to love.  Love G-d, love each other.  I am not talking about love as a noun, as a feeling, but love as a verb, as action.  Love as positive, creative action.  We have been created in the image and likeness of G-d, and we are told that “G-d is Love” (1 John 4:8, 1 John 4:16).  Aren’t we then meant for love?

Of course, when you truly love someone, there is work involved.  We want to please the object of our love, and have that love returned to us.  How often have the words “I love you, I will do anything for you” been uttered, in one form or another?  Countless.  But, what would those words mean without action behind them? Men and women, for example, in a loving relationship, work hard for one another and their children.  Why?  Because that is what love is and that is what love does.  The words, without action behind them, without sacrifice and the willingness to do so, are completely devoid of meaning.

So, what is important?  Well, love is important, but more than that, loving relationships are important.  Love requires relationships to be fully expressed, and many say that this is why G-d created us, in His image and likeness.  It was so that He could share His boundless love with more beings like Himself.  I would go so far as to say that love is not really possible without relationships to express that love, and that therefore, it is our relationships that ultimately give meaning and purpose to our lives.

First, our relationship to G-d is most important, because He is the source of all love, without whom love of others is not possible.  Whatever love we have, we get from Him.  Our life’s meaning and purpose is derived from Him and defined by Him, by our loving relationship with Him.

Second, our relationship with others is important.  Why?  Because, we return G-d’s love for us to Him by serving others.  We serve Him by serving others, because, let’s face it, what does G-d really need?  He’s G-d!  This service takes many forms, and differs depending on the one with whom we have the relationship.

We serve our spouse differently than we serve our children, and differently than we serve our employer.  We serve our friends differently than we serve the homeless stranger on the street begging for money.  But all of these relationships should have one thing in common, and that is love.  Love should be the motivating force for everything we think, say, and do.  Are we there yet?  Well, I can only speak for myself, and the answer is no, I’m not there yet and I have a long way to go.

At this point you might be wondering “Well, where does faith come in?”.  After all, the title of the post is “Faith, and What’s Important”.

In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul goes into a lengthy discourse on love.  I am not going to repeat it here, but it is very well-known in the Christian faiths, and if you haven’t read it, it is well worth the time.  Paul ends these passages with the famous line “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”.  (1 Corinthians 13:13)

I believe that Paul ordered “faith, hope, and love” in the sequence he did, because he was implying that the former required the latter, so that without faith, one could have no hope, and without hope, one could have no love.  While love is greater than hope, and hope is greater than faith, neither one of them could exist without faith.

This is illustrated by my own example.  If I didn’t have the simple faith that there had to be more to life, I would not have had the hope to move on, without the hope to move on, I would not have been able to find the love to establish the constructive relationships I needed to move on, and do the hard work necessary to maintain those relationships.

This idea of our meaning and purpose being an extension of our loving relationships with G-d and with others was illustrated to me in a profound way with the passing of my mother.  She was a person who loved life, loved a party, and loved  G-d and her family and was completely devoted to them.

I could go on at length about the trials in her life, the good times, and the bad, and how she responded to these things, but I think it is sufficient to say that all I knew of her was love, and the sacrifices she made for her husband, her children, and others, out of that love.

The meaning and purpose of her life became evident at her funeral service, in those who arrived to show their respects.  My family was wondering who would show up, after all, she was 90 years old.  I mentioned that she had a very active life well into her senior years, and had touched many people, but even I was a little surprised at some of those who were there.

The immediate and extended family were there, of course.  And there were others whom she had known in recent years, this was to be expected.  But there were others, such as the former co-worker, who hadn’t seen my mother since she retired over twenty-five years prior.  There was the friend who had gotten out of touch because of her own health issues, who just “had to come”, being pushed in a wheelchair.

There was the childhood friend of my brother and I, neither of us had seen in forty years, who remembered how welcoming my mother was to all of our friends when we were children.  And there was the son of one of my mothers childhood friends, who herself had recently passed, who came to express his sympathy, on behalf of himself and his family.  There were numerous others, family and friends, all whose lives had been touched for the better by knowing Mom.

My mother had few possessions, when she passed, and little money.  Her memories had long faded.  She hadn’t championed any great causes, unless you count being a lifelong Democrat, of which she was very proud.  But what she did leave behind was the lives she had impacted, the loving relationships she had established.  It didn’t matter that many of these people hadn’t been seen in years, relationships grounded in love do not require constant contact to be maintained; once established, they last forever.

In the end, our lives are defined and given meaning by others and our relationships with them, first with G-d, and then with all those we encounter on our journey.  When all else is gone, there remains only love, and there is nothing else.  This, then, is the meaning and purpose of or lives, to be loved and to love.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZwgybGTZ14 (from Moulin Rouge)


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