“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:4 NIV
Big Government is not a modern creation, at least according to the book of Genesis. It first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago. The first Big Government program, as related in Genesis, was the building of the Tower of Babel. The project was undertaken as a means of uniting the people and preventing them from spreading out across the earth. Strength in numbers, I suppose.
The problem is, they had been specifically commanded by G-d to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). So it would seem that the first Big Government was formed, and the first Big Government program was undertaken, as an act of rebellion against…
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” Genesis 1:1-2 KJV
When thinking about the relationship between science and truth, there are so many questions and so few definitive answers. Does science, the practice of it, lead us to truth? I doubt it, but better yet, in the world of science, is there any such thing as truth? Again, I doubt it.
Truth, if it exists, is by definition eternal. Science is the study of the material world, which in our own experience is temporal. Also, truth is terminal, meaning the search for it has an end. Once we find it, we stop looking for it. The scientific method, which defines the practice of science, is open ended. What do I mean by that?
The scientific method is the repeated application of five steps:
Observation: some natural phenomenon is observed
Analysis: the phenomenon is dissected and broken down into it atomic parts
Prediction: based upon analysis of the phenomenon, conclusions are drawn and predictions of future phenomena are made
Experimentation: experiments are conducted that are designed to bring about the predicted phenomena
go to step 1.
Finally, science has an aura of certainty, while truth seems far more elusive. The conclusions we draw from the scientific method are backed up by the observation and analysis we have done. We see, therefore we believe. That is until the next experiment comes along with different results. Truth, on the other hand, can only be known by faith. We don’t see, but we believe anyway.
This “not seeing but believing” is what leads many to think that there is no such thing as truth, but what I would say to that is – without truth, there can be no such thing as science. Why?
Let’s take a closer look at the scientific method. Why does the scientific method work? At its heart, aren’t there certain assumptions, accepted on faith, that make up the foundation upon which it rests? Isn’t the primary assumption being that there is an order to the universe that allows conclusions to be drawn and predictions based upon analysis to be made, and experiments derived that prove or disprove those predictions?
Now, one might argue that we assume this order exists because our experience tells us that it exists, but here we are engaging in circular reasoning. This can be illustrated by postulating a “first scientist”. This first scientist has not been given the scientific method, and therefore must discover it. The problem is, the scientific method requires the assumption of an underlying order for it to work; but how do we know, without faith, that this order exists? We don’t.
One can see this in the history of science itself. It is no coincidence that science and mathematics only began to flourish with the advent and eventual dominance of Judaeo-Christian faith and philosophy. Why? Because it was only there that it made sense to answer a difficult question with G-d!
This ability, often perceived as western science’s greatest weakness, is actually it’s greatest strength. How do we know that a + b = c for all possible values of a and b? Another way of asking the question is, how do we know that we can predict the value of c for any possible numeric values of a and b? Theoretically, there are an infinite number of possible values for a and b. We can not possibly try them all, so how do we know? The answer is G-d.
We know that G-d has created a certain predictable order and that He has given us the power of reasoning and logic to discern and utilize that order and so we can say, based upon our faith in G-d and His created order, that a + b = c.
This brings us to the scripture that opens this article. The bible is not a science book, but it is a book of truth, or so claims its adherents. But, if it is truth, then one would expect that it would at least be consistent with the observable universe. Notice I didn’t say consistent with science, because scientific knowledge, at least when science is practiced correctly, is always in some degree of flux (see scientific method above).
“In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.” Well, we see a heavens and an earth, so that part seems consistent, but what about a beginning. We can’t observe the beginning, it is in the past. This in fact has been one of the greatest and most fundamental controversies of science. While there are variations, there are two basic competing scientific theories for the origins of the universe: the Steady-State theory and the Big Bang theory.
The Steady-State theory suggests that the universe has always existed, that there was no beginning. The Big Bang theory, alternatively, says there was a beginning billions of years ago, when the universe exploded into existence. Which one is true? As scientific theories go, neither; but, the Big Bang seems more consistent with the biblical account. The important thing here is that we cannot know from simple observation whether there was a beginning, and science does not provide a verifiable answer. A beginning, then, is something that we must accept on faith.
Now comes the really hard part. “In the beginning, G-d created…”. In order to keep it short, let’s just say that the existence of G-d cannot be directly observed, nor proven by science, so it must be accepted on faith. Although, there is considerable evidence for the existence of G-d to the discerning eye, not the least of which is our own very existence.
“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” These attributes of the early earth have always been somewhat puzzling to me, particularly the “without form” one. What does it mean to be without form? “Void” is generally understood to mean “without life” and “desolate”. Also, there was apparently no light, and there was something called “the deep”. Not much can be concluded here as to its consistency with what we can observe and it generally must be accepted in faith.
“And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Here it gets really interesting for me because we have a real clue as to what “without form” means. The early earth was made up mostly of water – the deep! Water takes on the shape, or form, of that which contains it. What shape does water have in space? It doesn’t; it is literally without form! Is this consistent with our observable universe? Of course it is! My question is, how did the writer of Genesis know this?
Another interesting observation is this. Water is composed of 2 hydrogen atoms combined with one oxygen atom (H2O). What are the most abundant elements in the universe? Hydrogen (~75%), Helium (~25%) and oxygen (<1%). “OK, what’s your point”, you might ask? “Yes, hydrogen is abundant at 75%, but oxygen composes less than a percent of the mass of the universe.” It is true that in the universe as a whole, oxygen is less than 1%, but oxygen composes about 47% of the mass of the earth!
Throughout the centuries there has been a perceived conflict between science and The Bible. One of these controversies has been the meaning of the word “day.” As we read the Genesis account, we see G-d completing, in stages, the heavens and earth in six days. “And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day,” for example. Is it a literal day, or a symbolic day?
As previously stated, the Bible is not a science book and should not be read as such. It purports to provide eternal truth, not temporal facts. But as also indicated above, it should at least be consistent with observable known facts. So, how long is a day? If you answer 24 hours, you would of course be correct and if we accept this answer and interpret the passages in Genesis literally, then it would seem to indicate that the universe was completed in six 24 hour periods of time.
The only possible escape from this conclusion would seem to be to interpret these passages symbolically and say they indicate some very long eras of undetermined length.
But there is another equally valid definition of the word day, and that is the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis. Using this definition changes things considerably. While it is true that currently the earth takes 24 hours to rotate on its axis one complete turn, that doesn’t mean that it has always been that way, and it probably wasn’t. Why do I say that?
If we go back to the starting verses, the earth was an amorphous mass in space composed primarily of water. Since the following verses indicate a “day,” we can conclude that this mass was spinning, probably very slowly as compared to today (there is a reason for this conclusion which should become clearer as we proceed).
Under this definition, a day could have initially been many thousands of years long and over time become much shorter. It would become shorter due to the law of conservation of angular momentum. This is the simple observation that as a spinning object gets smaller, it spins at a faster rate. Think of a spinning ice skater. So it would have been with the earth. As G-d coalesced the earth into a smaller, denser, rounder object, its rotation would speed up considerably. It is very possible that the first day of creation was much longer than the last day, and the seventh day, the day of rest, may in fact have been the current 24 hour day.
The Bible tells a story. Many believe that the the story is true, that it represents actual history, past, present, and future (called prophecy). If this is the case then the Bible would need to be reconcilable with human experience. The problem is, it often seems not to be. But is the problem with the Bible? Or is it with the reader?
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV
It was a Saturday, late-afternoon and we were hanging out at the “church lot.” The church lot, for all intents and purposes, was our multi-purpose playground. We played baseball there in the spring and summer, we played football in the fall, and when we were doing neither of these things, we would just meet there and “hang out.” This was one of those hang out days.
When we were hanging out at the church lot, we often got into discussions, usually political, as our families were a mixed bunch politically, and sometimes about religion, even though we were mostly Roman Catholic. I enjoyed these discussions very much, whether political or religious, and looked forward to them – and if at times they got a little heated, well, so much the better. We can all benefit from having our beliefs challenged now and then; but, little did we know how challenging this particular day would be.
The church, for which the church lot was named, had a reputation as being one of those “fundamentalist” congregations. The church building itself was relatively new, and was a large, impressive brick structure, with one of the tallest steeples in a town that had about a dozen churches. Not only was the church impressive, but it was part of a complex of buildings that included a K-12 school and a gymnasium.
It was near the gymnasium that we came across several young people who belonged to the church. They were a little older than us, but not by much. There were three of them, two boys and a girl. The girl appeared to be the oldest. They asked us what we were doing. “Just hanging out,” we said.
They asked us what church we went to. We told them. They asked us if we would like to hang out in the gym. “Sure,” we responded. I for one had always wanted to get inside the gym. After all, a church with its own gym? Not common in my youth.
Once we got inside they began to engage us in conversation, which soon turned into a discussion about religion. Ahhhh, so we weren’t the only kids in town who liked to debate. This was too good to be true. A discussion about religion with others who were not our religion. I was enjoying this very much.
The conversation was polite and went very well, but then the young lady said something like, “you know, just living a good life doesn’t get you into heaven.”
A momentary silence ensued as we, the Catholics, tried to figure out what she was trying to say. Finally, one of us asked her. “I mean,” she replied, “that doing good things, going to church, praying a lot, doing those things won’t get you into heaven.”
This sounded ridiculous to me. Doing good, helping people, going to church and praying won’t get you into heaven? This was to much. “Then how do people get to heaven,” I asked?
“By believing in Jesus,” she said. “By putting your faith in Him. He died for your sins.”
Oh, oh, now I was getting it. Of course, being a Catholic, I knew that Jesus died for our sins. But I thought she was a little confused. “You still have to be good, go to church, pray; you still have to be a good person,” I said.
“No,” she said, “You just have to have faith.”
At this point we, my friends and I, decided it was time to leave, and so we amicably parted company with our new found debate opponents. It had been an interesting discussion, and one that I would never forget. But that thing about “being good won’t get you into heaven” – what was that all about?
Sometime later in religion class, I was in parochial school at the time, the topic came up about the seeming conflict between faith and works. There is a passage in the Letter of James which goes “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” James 2:18-20
This, apparently, has been debate between Protestants and Catholics for centuries. Are we saved by faith (Protestant)? Or, are we saved by works (Catholic)? I thought that this was an interesting topic, and I came down firmly on the Catholic side-no surprise there. It wasn’t long after this, though, that I started to explore other, non-Christian beliefs, and I thought little of my debate or the question of faith or works for quite a while.
Years later I would come back to my Christian, and eventually Catholic faith, but when I did, I took a distinctly Protestant route. Of course, the faith/works debate was central to my “re-conversion,” only now, I came down hard on the Protestant side of the argument. I understood what the young lady was trying to say so many years prior and what Paul was saying in Ephesians.
As fervently as I now believed that our good works could not save us, still, that passage from James gnawed at me. “Faith without works is dead faith.” What did that mean?
As time passed, my discomfort over James grew. This was probably due to the fact that although I was a Christian believer, I was not exactly a paragon of Christian behavior. My misbehavior would cause me to question my faith, and this is when the passages from James would start to kick in. “Faith without works is dead...Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
It wasn’t that I was trying to justify my misbehavior with Ephesians, I knew that some of the things I was doing were wrong. But I would take comfort in Ephesians – that is until the passages from James came to mind. No comfort for the back-slidden sinner there, for sure. So, of course, I would avoid James as much as possible.
I was able to do this successfully for quite some time, but it finally got to the point where I just had to come to terms with James. I was getting less and less comfort from Ephesians, and more and more discomfort from James. But I faced a dilemma.
The dilemma was this: Whenever I tried to “be good,” I would be more inclined not to “be good.” Paul describes a similar experience in Romans 7:21: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” So, I thought, the answer was not in trying to be good. Then how do you be good?
Of course, the passages from James, the ones that were causing me so much pain, also held the cure. I started to realize that when my faith was strong, my natural inclination was to “be good.” When my faith was weak, well, my inclinations were otherwise. But according to Ephesians, faith, like salvation is a free gift from G-d. Now my temptation here was to blame G-d.
After all, if faith, like salvation, is a gift from G-d, and if G-d wanted me to be good, he had to give me more faith, right? No, wrong. Faith is faith. OK, I know that this is a tautology, but nevertheless, it is a very meaningful one. Faith is not weak, it is not strong – it just is. And we either have it or we don’t. When G-d gives us faith, and he gives it to all freely, what we then do with it is up to us.
One of the things we can do with faith is act on it, and when we act on our faith in G-d, then by definition, we are doing good. How could it be otherwise? Faith comes from G-d, we act on and out of that faith; would G-d let us do evil? I don’t think that is possible!
The other thing we can do with faith is not act on it. But if we act, and not on faith, then what are we acting on – or out of? We are by default, acting on and out of our own desires, motivations, and (good?) intentions. Uh-oh. What did Paul say again? “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”
So, I learned that it is when the person of faith stops trying to be good, it is then that faith takes over, and we are good. But, faith is very willing to step aside when the person of faith wants to take over for a while. This is when we say our faith is weak; but no, our faith is not weak, we are weak. And when we act out of our weakness and not out of our faith, we are putting our weakness on display and hiding our faith. Again, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
I started to become comfortable with James. I started to use my “good works,” or lack thereof, as a measure, not just of my faith, but of how well I was doing in letting G-d be good in me, so to speak. Whenever I try to do the right thing under my own power, my faith starts to weaken, and I find myself less able to do the right thing that I desire to do.
When I stop trying to do the right thing, and just rely in faith, on G-d, I find that what I do is the right thing. How could it be otherwise?
So who is right in the faith versus works debate? Are the Catholics right? Do our works of faith save us? Or, are the Protestants right? Is faith alone sufficient to save us? The answer to those questions, I believe, is “Yes.”
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV
Songs have been written about it; and poems, short stories and novels. In fact the greatest songs ever sung, and the greatest stories ever told, are all about love. Look at the most popular plays, they are all about love: Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Rent. Rent? Well, you tell me:
One thing I’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have as well, is most love stories have death and dying as a major theme. This is, of course, because love seems to be about sacrifice, and dying for love represents the ultimate sacrifice. Hence all the stories about dying for love. But, what about living for love? What is that and how does it differ from dying for love?
For one thing, dying for love is in a sense easy, because it is so dramatic, and final. You steel yourself for the inevitable, and then it’s done. Living for love, on the other hand, seems very hard because it is not a single tragic moment, but moment to moment, and it never ends. Ever.
Living for love has something in common with dying for love in that it also requires sacrifice. The difference is, the sacrifice that characterizes living for love doesn’t end in one final dramatic event but is something that we live, day by day, day in and day out, like love itself.
The reason this is so is because love requires a certain universality; it applies to everyone, even, according to Jesus, our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). As long as there are others, there is the requirement for love, and so there is also the requirement for sacrifice. To take it even one step further, if we include G-d in those “others,” we can sense the magnitude of the sacrifice that love actually requires of us.
When we look at the above clip from Rent, we notice that it is also about death and dying, but it is not explicitly about dying for love, it is about living for love. It is about Tom Collins’ love for his dying Angel, and the sacrifices he makes out of that love. It’s about Roger’s conflicted love, and conflicted sacrifice, for the HIV positive and drug addicted Mimi and her love for Roger, who is also HIV positive.
While these examples have much of the drama associated with dying for love, they still give us a glimpse at what living for love is about, but what is living for love like, without the drama?
Initially, I thought that I could not come up with an example in the arts of living for love without the drama. Then it hit me, of course there are plenty of examples, one being one of my favorite movies of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life.
In the movie, Jimmy Stewart plays a young man, George Bailey, who has big ideas. He was going to get a college education, an accomplishment achieved by a relative few in those days. He was going to travel the world and build things: bridges, skyscrapers, airports. He was going to be somebody.
However, one circumstance after another arose that forced upon him a choice: does he pursue his dreams, or does he stay for the sake of others? Of course, he stays, and therein lies the story. Due to his Uncle Billy’s mistake, he faces disgrace and jail. At the end of his rope, he contemplates suicide but is saved by an angel, Clarence. Clarence shows him what life would have been like in his hometown had he never been born; this changes his mind, and of course, there is a happy ending.
Now my point here is not that there isn’t plenty of drama in the movie – there is – and humor, and all those things that make up a great movie. But many of the important decisions were, in a sense, rather mundane. Does he stay and help the members of the Building and Loan after his father’s passing, or does he go after his dream? Does he hang on to his college money for when he is able to use it, or does he give it to his brother, with the understanding that his brother will return so George can then pursue college? When his brother graduates and is offered a position in another city, does he hold his brother to their agreement and go off to school himself, or does he give his brother his blessing to take the other job?
Do you see what I mean? Just a man living his life, making decisions similar to ones we all have made with the important distinction of always putting others ahead of himself. One could argue that there is a death here: the slow, painful death of George’s dream, and this is a valid point. But in the end, this turns out to be a good thing, because George realizes that what he has – family, friends, their love for him, and his love for them – is far more valuable than anything he could have achieved as a big shot engineer traveling the world.
The life and death decisions for most people are, thankfully, few, but it’s all of the little decisions that we make in between them that challenge us and define our lives. These are the most important because they occur everyday, many times in the day. What does love require from us when someone cuts us off on the highway? What does love require from us when a friend tells us that they can’t meet an obligation as promised? What does love require from us when a child asks us the same question for the hundredth time? What does love require from us when our spouse is late for a dinner party? I could go on, and on, and on.
There really is no end to the opportunities for us to sacrifice something for love: our pride, our time, our money, our ego; to live for love. We are constantly given opportunities to meet the demands that love places on us. What do we choose? Or more accurately, who do we choose?
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” Hebrews 11:1 NIV
When I was in my self-improvement phase, I came across a book titled “The Power of Positive Thinking“, by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. The basic premise of the book is that in order to accomplish our goals, whatever they may be, we need to believe that we will accomplish them.
It seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, if we do not believe we can accomplish our goal, it is unlikely we are even going to try; and, if we do try, our efforts will be halfhearted, at best. Which, of course, makes success very unlikely. On the other hand, there does seem to be a natural inclination to follow through on those things we believe in, and do what is necessary to bring them about.
Anyway, after I read the book, I would try to get the things I wanted by using the techniques presented there, and in fact, the problem is they didn’t work, at least not for me. I would try to believe, but something would come along that would shake my faith, introduce doubt, and I would fail to achieve my goal. Oh, I would say the prayers, I would recite the scripture, I would try to picture in my mind achievement of the desired end, but it just didn’t work.
To be quite honest, my goals weren’t really the loftiest, but why should that matter? After all, if I just stayed positive, continued to believe, visualized success, I could do anything, right? The answer I got was no, not right.
For some time after that, I would often wonder what went wrong. I assumed there was something wrong with me because this book had sold millions of copies, so the problem had to be me, right? My faith just wasn’t strong enough; I was weak, and I was a failure.
Where did go wrong? It would be years before I got any reasonable answer to that question, but as my knowledge of G-d, scripture, and faith grew, I eventually did come to some understanding, and yes, what we desire does matter, to answer my earlier question. Let’s start there.
What do we want? Years ago, I used to play the horses. I read up on it, studied it, and was actually pretty good. Periodically, I would buy a system for picking winners, and one such system came in a paperback book. On the cover was a picture of the author and creator of the system. He was sitting in the clubhouse of Santa Anita Park, legs crossed, wearing a sports jacket, with an open shirt, and ascot. In one hand was the Daily Racing Form, which he studied intently, and in the other was a pipe. He was the picture of success, exuding class and competence. I wanted to be just like him!
I did try for a time to be that person, but after some effort, I finally gave up. I never did achieve my goal, and to this day I am thankful to G-d I didn’t. Why? Because I started to value other things. I started thinking about the incompatibility of my goal with some of my other goals, such as wanting a family. I wanted to get an education, get a job that had some benefit to others, make a contribution. If I had achieved my gambling goal, it might have been years before I realized what a mistake I had made.
The point is, what we want at some particular time in our lives may not be what is really good for us, and it may not be in G-d’s will for our lives. To be successful at these things would actually be a curse rather than a blessing and could set us back years on the path we should be on.
So this is the first thing I learned: what we want is important to our ultimate success or failure, and very often, failure is a blessing. It is just one way G-d lets us know what is and is not in His plan for us. But, this is where it gets tricky – just because something is hard, or seems impossible, doesn’t mean we should not pursue it.
Later in my life, I decided to go for my masters degree in Computer Science. I was married at this point, with two young children, and I was working full time. In order to get done as soon as possible, I took two classes per semester, at night. This turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I spent long hours away from home either working, in class, or in the computer lab. When I was home, I was very often off away from the family studying. And, just to put some icing on the cake, I was plagued with almost constant doubt and fear of failure.
Yet, somehow, in three years I achieved my goal and received my Master of Science in Computer Science from a prestigious university. How did I do it? You may think that the details are important, but they are not, really. What is important, I learned, is that if you are on the “right” path, G-d will provide you with what you need for success, including the will and the desire, no matter how difficult things are or how improbable success seems to be.
But how, you might ask, do you know if you are on the right path? And my answer to your question is, “you don’t really ‘know’ but more on that later!”
What I did know when I went for my masters was that I was really interested in computers, you might even say I loved computers (still do). I wanted to know how they worked and why they worked, how they were made, and how to better use them. I wanted to know about the hardware, the firmware and the software.
The other thing I knew is I had an aptitude for computers, having earned a B. S. in Business Information Systems, and had worked in the field several years as a programmer/analyst and systems programmer. I already had a good basic understanding of computers and wanted to know more.
I also had some “reverse” incentives, as well. My company would pay 80% of the cost for every course passed with a B or better. Less than a B, and I had to pay for it.. But this wasn’t the worst part, what was worse is that failure would have been humiliating; at work, at home, with family and with friends – failure was just not an option.
This experience was so intense, in fact, that for years after I graduated, I had a recurring nightmare. In the dream, I was one class short of graduation, everything else was done. I just needed to finish the one course with a passing grade, but in the dream, I never did! I would wake up convinced I had failed and never had earned my degree.
Doubt and fear are funny things. We try to avoid them, put them out of our minds, be brave and certain, but they still persist. It seems the more we resist them, the stronger they get! The more we resist them, the more they control and dominate our lives!
So what is the answer? How do we overcome doubt and fear? Simply put, we don’t. What we do is stop trying to overcome them, and, in faith, embrace them! What?!
Once we recognize that doubt and fear are not the enemy, but actually our friends, we start to live in confidence and peace. They are our friends because they tell us there is something that needs to be looked into, issues that need to be resolved. Too often, we let doubt and fear prevent us from fulfilling G-d’s will and plan for our lives, when in actuality, they are G-d’s way of telling us to stop and think, to evaluate, to question, to learn, and thereby continue on, armed with faith, knowledge, and confidence.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example. We want to go to London, and our idea is to build a boat and sail there. We dream of this for years, and finally, we’re in a position to build the boat, so we start right in. We buy the lumber, and some plans, and start building. We are so excited about the prospect of fulfilling our dream that we make great progress, but over time we start to have doubts.
After all what do we know about shipbuilding, or navigation? Nothing, really. So far, we just have this dream and some pent up energy. We could just quit and take a plane to London – maybe we’ll do just that. But no, the dream is to sail with our own boat. So what do we do? Well, in this case, we do some research.
Let’s say we research boat travel and we find that only 1% of the most seaworthy of vessels makes it across the Atlantic intact, all of the rest sink. Not very good odds, to say the least, and so for very good reason, we drop the boat idea, and move on to plan B, take a plane. So doubt was a good thing because it saved us from near certain death.
On the other hand, let’s say we research boat travel and we find that 99.9% of the most seaworthy boats make it across the Atlantic intact. Now, that’s better. Knowing this, we research boat building a little more to determine what makes a boat seaworthy, and we continue with our plan. So here, doubt was a good thing because it caused us to build a better boat and increase our chances of success, and confidence in our plan has been restored.
But, as time goes on, we start to have doubts again, because there is still that .1% chance that the boat will sink, and that’s if we have the skill to build the most seaworthy of boats. And how do we know? Maybe our real chances are only 90%, or 85%, or even 50%. How do we know?
The bottom line is, we don’t know, but that is where true faith comes in because I am talking about faith in G-d, not in our research skills, our shipbuilding skills, or our navigation skills. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need all of those things – we do – it just means that we don’t trust in them, we trust in G-d.
The story of David and Goliath illustrates this point perfectly. G-d told David to go out and face Goliath and He would put victory in David’s hands. David, a young boy, went to the river and picked five smooth stones for his sling. David then went to face Goliath, and we all know what happened. With one of those stones, he felled the giant and then cut off his head with Goliath’s own sword.
I have often wondered why David picked five stones instead of just one. After all, G-d Himself had promised David victory, didn’t He? And David was an expert with a sling, so why five stones?
The answer that I have come to is this: David understood his own limitations, and G-d hadn’t actually told David how He would give him victory, only that He would. As good as David was with a sling, it would have been the height of chutzpah and foolhardiness to go up against a raging giant with only one stone.
Now, all it took was one stone, but if David had gone out with only one stone, do you think it possible doubt would have crept in? That once he got out there, David might have started to think, gee, what if I miss with only this one stone? The time for doubt was before he went out, not after.
Of course, G-d knew that David was humble and smart, that’s why He picked him. He knew that David would prepare himself for battle the best way he knew how.
So it is with our dream of sailing to London in our homemade boat. Not only is faith in G-d necessary to achieve this goal, but we must make the necessary preparations. We may believe that G-d has blessed our undertaking, but there are no shortcuts. Skill and preparation are necessary, otherwise we may be testing G-d, which we are not permitted to do.
No matter what we undertake, we should place the outcome in G-d’s hands in faith, then prepare in every way we need to be successful. When doubt and fear step in, use it as an opportunity to question and evaluate. Perhaps we are on the wrong path, and our reasoning will show this. Or perhaps, we are on the right path – we just need to adjust our plan, learn some new skill, or maybe we have started to put our faith in someone or something other than G-d, including possibly our self. In these cases, just make the adjustment and move on.
The Bible verse that starts this post provides tremendous clues as to how this process works. It seems to be saying that simply having faith is evidence that the thing we hope for is true or will come to pass, even though we cannot see the thing itself. How can this be? Because G-d is the source of all true faith, and He would not mislead us.
When He needs us to make changes, He allows doubt and fear to creep in. When we resolve those doubts and fears through reason and work and make the necessary adjustments, He restores our confidence, and we move on with a stronger faith in Him than before.
It is in this sense that faith is the substance, or raw material, of those things that we hope for.
“then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” Deuteronomy 30:3 NIV
As I begin writing this, it is January 27, 2015, a date that marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. This day is of particular significance to me for a number of reasons, but first a brief review of the history of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was actually a network of concentration, extermination, and labor camps that the German Nazis built and operated in occupied Poland during World War II. Auschwitz I was originally established in 1940 to hold Polish political prisoners. The extermination of the prisoners there began in 1941. By early 1942, Auschwitz II was constructed as part of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”, their plan to exterminate all of the Jews of Europe, and ultimately the world. It is estimated that at least 1.1 million prisoners were executed at Auschwitz; about 90% of them were Jews. Later came Auschwitz III, a labor camp that supplied workers to an IG Farben factory. (Most of this information is from the Wikipedia article “Auschwitz Concentration Camp“)
When I was very young, probably in the range of 5-7 years old, I came across a set of books belonging to my father. They were a five or six volume set, entitled “A Pictorial History of World War II”.
As the name states, the books told the story of the Second World War, mostly with pictures. Some of the pictures were relatively benign: pictures of troops in training, of USO gatherings where coffee and donuts were served, or perhaps a USO sponsored dance, and pictures of Women’s Army Corp (WAC) members dealing with the rigors of life in the field.
Other pictures, though, were taken during battles, of land, sea, and air, and showed up-close ground combat, aerial dogfights, and tremendous naval engagements. As I viewed these pictures, my young heart and mind were awed and made fearful at the same time. What would I have done, if I had been there? Would I have been afraid? Would I have been brave? Would I have come home?
Still other pictures depicted the aftermath of these battles; burned out tanks and sinking ships, the wreckage of planes, the desolation in the wake of the atomic bombs, the fire-bombing of Dresden, and of course, the wounded, the dying, and the dead.
One day, as I paged through a volume, I came across pictures that I had difficulty understanding. They were the pictures of the liberated concentration camps. War, to a degree, I understood, even at that age. There were two sides; they disagreed, they fought, killed, and died, for what they believed in. But the concentration camps were another matter.
At first, I wasn’t even sure of what I was looking at: emaciated survivors with hollowed eyes, crematoriums with half burnt bodies, bodies piled eight feet high awaiting burning or burial, mass open graves with bodies tossed in helter-skelter, where, incredibly, the Nazis had tried to hide their atrocities before the Allied troops arrived but were forced to flee ahead of the advancing armies before their work was done; and, finally the “showers” themselves, where the victims, mostly Jews, were herded and gassed.
This was, to my young mind, incomprehensible. Why had this been done? What had these people done to deserve this? What could anyone possibly do to deserve this? And who were they, the victims of these crimes?
I went to my parents with my questions about the “war” books, and they were a little upset with me that I had been in their room by myself, something I was not supposed to do. But much more than that, they were horrified that I had been exposed to these things at my young age. They made an attempt to explain to me what I had seen, but how do you explain such things to someone so young? How do you explain them to anyone, really?
You can’t, except maybe to simply say that the German Nazis were bad people and, for some reason, they hated the Jewish people. The bottom line though, was that I was absolutely forbidden to look at the books anymore, and in fact, I did not until years later.
But I never forgot them and the impression they made. Over the years, I got answers to my questions, but the answers only raised more questions. For example, to say that the German Nazis considered themselves the “Master Race”, and Jews (and just about everyone else) as inferior; that they were trying to “purify” their nation and their culture explains nothing. It is delusional and insane.
A modern, “civilized” nation, one of the most modern and most civilized, put people in charge that not only held these deranged ideas, but believed them to the point that the they would methodically and systematically go about the task of murdering a people with the same detachment and business-like efficiency of a successful sausage maker.
Of course, though the holocaust may be the worst example, persecution of the Jews did not begin with the Nazis. We should not forget that Israel was born a nation of slaves in Egypt. The Pharaoh tried to wipe them out when they left Egypt. Later, the Assyrians defeated the ten northern tribes of Israel, and scattered them to only G-d knows where – and He does.
When the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were in exile in Babylon, another villain whose name begins with an H, Haman, plotted to induce King Xerxes to destroy them, only to end up plotting his own ignominious execution. In more recent times, the sorrowful, shameful history of most of the nations of Europe, and their relationship with the Jewish people, led up to the holocaust and made it possible.
And of course, unfortunately, the persecution of Israel did not stop with the German Nazis, either. The day in 1948 when, for the first time in almost 1900 years, Israel once again became a nation, the neighboring countries tried to drive them into the sea, and out of existence. This is still the desire of many, if not all of them, to this day.
The most amazing thing, though, about this story of attempted genocides and persecution isn’t that it happened, but that the people of Israel not only survived, but have prospered. This is where the story gets really interesting because all of this was predicted thousands of years ago.
The prophets of the Torah predicted, starting with Moses, that the people of Israel would be scattered and persecuted. They predicted that they would lose their land and reside in the land of strangers, even those hostile to them; but, they also predicted Israel’s restoration and ultimate vindication
The Christian scriptures, which also had Jewish writers, followed in this tradition and spoke of these things. Jesus Himself spoke of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, and the Book of Revelation describes Israel’s restoration in the end times.
So, is the modern state of Israel a fulfillment of these prophecies? Some argue that no, they won’t be fulfilled until the nation is fully restored and the Messiah rules from Jerusalem. My view is that it is a fulfillment of prophecy, but there is still more history to go and more prophecy to be fulfilled. Anyway, there are plenty of books on Bible prophecy, and that is not the purpose of this article, so lets just say for the sake of argument that the state of Israel is at least a partial fulfillment, and the rest is yet to come.
What does all of this have to do with explaining the Holocaust?
I am reminded here of the story of Job. In the beginning of the Book of Job, we find G-d holding court, and in comes Satan from “roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it”. (Job 1:7 NIV)
G-d asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless–a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil”. (Job 1:8 NIV)
Satan replied that, of course Job fears G-d – G-d has protected Job and made him wealthy, but if G-d took everything that Job had, he would curse G-d. G-d then gave Satan permission to take everything from Job, except his health. (Job 1:9-12 NIV).
Satan left G-d’s presence and attacked Job, taking or destroying all of his possessions, and even killing his children, but Job did not curse G-d. (Job 1:13-22 NIV)
Later, G-d was once again holding court and Satan was there. G-d pointed out to Satan that even though Satan had challenged G-d into allowing him to attack Job, Job did not curse G-d. Satan responded that Job still had his health, and if G-d allowed him to take Job’s health from him, then surely Job would curse G-d. G-d then gave him permission to take even Job’s health from him, but not his life. (Job 2:1-6 NIV)
Satan once again left G-d’s presence, and afflicted Job with terrible, painful sores all over his body. He was in such torment, even his wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9 NIV) But Job refused to do so, and in the end, Job’s fortunes were restored and he was given many children. (Job 42:12-17 NIV)
In my narration, I have skipped many chapters, in most of which three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, try to convince Job that he must have done something wrong for G-d to allow him to be treated this way. Job protests his innocence, and at times, questions God’s justice, because He allows the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer.
Job’s friends, while they say many true things about G-d, persist, and even accuse Job of self-righteousness. This is of course wrong, as G-d Himself said at the beginning of the story that Job was righteous in all his ways; and besides, innocent people suffer all the time in this world, a point which Job’s friends seemed to have missed.
One more of Job’s friends speaks up, Elihu, but instead of claiming that Job must have sinned in some way in order to suffer, he addresses Job’s attitude in the present. He asserts G-d’s essential righteousness and tells Job that G-d cannot treat anyone wrongly. He addresses Job’s complaints against G-d, and provides answers to those complaints, but unlike Job’s other friends, he never does accuse Job of unrighteousness.
Finally, G-d speaks up, but rather than try to explain Himself, He challenges Job with a series of questions, just as Job had questioned and challenged Him. Of course, Job is completely unable to answer G-d’s questions but, through these questions, G-d demonstrates to Job His omnipotence and His sovereignty, and Job realizes his folly for questioning G-d, and repents. When G-d is done speaking to him, Job responds:
“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:2-6
But G-d did one more very important thing besides question Job, He fully vindicated him. He told the three friends who had accused Job of unrighteousness that they had done wrong, and they needed to make the appropriate sacrifices in the hope that Job would forgive and pray for them, so they would not be punished for their own folly. Job of course prayed for his friends, and was rewarded with far more wealth than he had before. He was given seven sons, and three daughters who were the most beautiful in all the land, and he saw his children’s children to the fourth generation. (Job 42:12-17)
There are many lessons that can be learned from the Book of Job, but one that stands out for me and is most relevant here is that, according to the scriptures, there is a war going on in the spiritual realm. It is a war between good and evil, between G-d and Satan. The war began when the angel Lucifer, the most beautiful and intelligent of G-d’s creation, let pride enter his heart and determined to make himself god in G-d’s place. One of his strategies is to demonstrate that G-d is not sovereign, that He is a liar, and unfit to be G-d.
As part of this war, Satan enlisted man on his side through cleverness and deception. G-d, out of love for man, developed a plan, His own strategy to win the war, and to win man back. G-d could have made other choices, such as to simply destroy Satan and the angels that followed him, as well as man, and started over; but, what would that have proven? In a creation where G-d has given created beings the ability to choose, brute force solves nothing, and persuasion, diplomacy, and most important, love, are necessary.
Man, then, has become both a combatant and a battlefield in this war. Satan continues his deception and constantly tries to create doubt in men’s minds about G-d. G-d simply continues to show His love for man, and requires man only to have faith in Him and His plan.
The book of Job teaches many other lessons, one very important one is about our attitude towards those who suffer and how we should treat them. Do we accuse them of sin and unrighteousness, or do we provide them with comfort? Do we tell them that G-d is punishing them, or do we assure them that G-d loves them and cares for them?
Our answers to those questions could very well determine whose side we are on in this great, millenniums long war that we are in.
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” Revelation 21:4 NIV
It was Christmas eve, and the soldier stood in the mess line, shivering a little. It was late, so the line was short. This was a blessing, for the air was bitter cold. His turn came, he got his hot chow and coffee, then looked for a place to sit.
He had just arrived with his unit in this small town in France the day before, December 23, 1944. One day he was relatively warm and safe in England, and the next he was preparing to face combat for the first time. They were moving to the front in the morning, on Christmas Day, to take up positions in the Ardennes Forest and help counter the German offensive that would become known as the the Battle of the Bulge.
Because of the lateness of the hour, there were only a few men in the mess area, but the soldier wanted to be alone, so he walked off a little looking for a place to eat his food, drink his coffee, and think. The soldier had gotten several opportunities to avoid combat, and even the military. When he was first called up and went for his physical, a spot showed on his lungs. The doctor wasn’t sure what it was, but suspected tuberculosis, and was going to fail the recruit because of it.
After some persuasion, the soldier-to-be convinced them not to fail him, but to let him come back in several weeks to retake the physical. During the intervening weeks, he changed his lifestyle, exercised and ate better, and when he returned, the spot had disappeared, and he passed.
Later, after basic training and while still stateside, a Sargent came by asking if anyone had any clerk typist skills. The soldier did and said so. The Sargent then took him to an office to fill in for a day for someone who was out. At the end of his shift, the Sargent told him to report back the next day, but the soldier replied that his unit was going overseas, and that he could not come back. The Sargent told him not to worry about that, he wasn’t going anywhere, the Sargent would see to that; just report back the next day. No, the soldier insisted, he would ship out with his unit, and he did.
He thought about these things, and his new wife he left behind, his mother, and home. After walking a short distance, an unexpected sound caught his attention. He stopped, and listened, and heard it again. It sounded like a baby softly crying, and seemed to be coming from a darkened alcove nearby.
He walked toward the sound, and as he approached the alcove, some light from the street penetrated the darkness, and he could make out a woman and infant, huddled together and wrapped against the cold. He drew nearer, and as he did, it became apparent that the woman was trying to nurse the child; but something else also caught his attention. There was a glow around the mother and child, a halo surrounding them.
Now, the soldier was not a religious man, and in some respects, quite the contrary. It wasn’t that he was a bad man, but he carried in his heart an anger and bitterness, against G-d, and His church, that were founded in the experiences of his childhood, experiences he had never reconciled.
His parents were immigrants who had little, even when his father was alive and working. But when his father died and left his young wife with five small children, things became much worse.
His mother took in laundry, washed floors, and did whatever she could do to feed her family, but it just wasn’t enough. She went to the local parish church for financial assistance. Instead of helping though, they sent her to the welfare office.
The soldier remembered going with his mother as a young boy, to translate for her, because she spoke little English. He remembered her humiliation, and his own, in having to go on public relief, and he didn’t understand why the church would not help. First G-d took his father from them, and now His church turned them away in their time of need.
Later, when barely in his teens, the soldier found himself, along with two of his brothers, in a home for boys. The home was run by an order of Christian Brothers. The Brothers were good men, who provided the boys with the basic necessities: food, shelter, education, and when required, discipline.
There was a problem though, the home was infested with cockroaches and it was the job of the boys to catch the cockroaches, as many as they could. In fact, they had a daily quota, and the Brothers, each evening, would check and count each boy’s collection of insects, to ensure that they had found their fair share. Those who did not had to keep searching until they did.
Sometimes, when the roaches were hard to come by, and a boy was tired and hungry, he would break the bigger ones in half, so they would count as two. This worked fine if he didn’t get caught, but if he did, there was the aforementioned discipline.
Discipline consisted of the offending boy being held face down across a large barrel, and having his behind whipped with a switch. The punishment did little actual damage, aside from a few welts and bruises, but it was extremely painful and the boy’s were terrified of it. They would beg and plead for mercy, to no avail.
Not all offensives merited this painful chastisement, but lying about meeting your cockroach quota did. The soldier had received this it on several occasions, until he learned the secret of how to fix his roaches so that they actually looked liked two whole bugs. The trick was, when he caught a big one, he cut it in half with his thumbnail; then smashed up each half a little bit, just right, and that was it; dinner, and bedtime, were at hand.
The soldier thought of none of these things though, as he peered into the alcove. He was a little surprised by his vision, this picture of a haloed Madonna and Child. Was it the angle of the light, was it only his imagination, or maybe the pressures of facing combat the next day were getting to him?
As he wondered at the sight, he was broken from his reverie by the realization that the woman was motioning to him. It took a few moments, but he soon understood that she was indicating that her breasts had no milk for her child. His wonder turned to pity and sadness. What could he do?
Suddenly, he remembered the canned milk at the mess truck. That would be perfect, he thought. He excitedly told the woman, as best he could, that he would get her milk for her baby.
He hurried back to the mess area, now on a mission. When he arrived in the mess area, the soldier found the crew packing and preparing for the next day’s deployment. He approached the Mess Sargent and quickly explained to him about the hungry child.
The busy Sargent was in no mood for the intrusion, and told the soldier that he could not give him any milk; but the soldier persisted, “C’mon Sarge, just a little milk for the baby?” The Sargent replied that the milk was for American soldiers, for their coffee, not for French civilians.
The soldier was growing anxious, thinking of the hungry child and its pleading mother. Suddenly it came to him, “Ok, Sarge, ok. I have some coffee, how about some milk for my coffee?” The Sargent, to be rid of the annoying pest, relented and gave the soldier the milk “for his coffee”.
The entire negotiation took only a few minutes, and the soldier hurried back to the alcove with the milk. When he arrived though, the mother and child were gone. In fact, there was no sign of anyone, or that anyone had even been there.
The soldier would think about this experience throughout his life. He would relate the story to his wife when he returned home, and later to his children. The story of his visit by the Madonna and Child on a cold Christmas Eve in an alcove in France.
It would be nice to say that the soldier’s anger at G-d would dissipate after his experience, but unfortunately, this would not happen for many decades. Decades of tragedies and triumphs, joy and sorrow that would follow. Near the end though, he did seem to find some peace, but only G-d knows for certain.
So the significance of the story isn’t that the vision immediately healed the soldier’s anger and disappointment, or that it even gave him great comfort, except maybe for a few brief moments. The significance of the story is the significance of Christmas itself.
For the Christmas Story is the story of a promise, a promise of a redemption that is yet to be fulfilled. Yes, Christians will speak in the present tense, and tell you they are redeemed, and it is true, this was accomplished and completed on the cross, and ensured by the Resurrection.
But, in our lives, we still have our tragedies and disappointments, and our anger; and the world is still full of violence and chaos, and of mothers who cannot feed their children. So, it is this part of the promise that is unfulfilled, our physical redemption, and the redemption of this tragic world we live in.
It is a story of hope. Hope for the world, hope for each one of us, even hope for the angry soldier. G-d can deal with anger, because to be angry at G-d is still to believe in G-d and it is to recognize G-d’s sovereignty, over us, our lives, and the world. After all, what would be the point in being angry at a G-d who wasn’t sovereign?
Jesus once told us to be either hot or cold. G-d can warm and soften the coldest, most hardened of hearts; He can temper the most heated and passionate of hearts, but with the lukewarm heart, the indifferent heart, what can He do? What can be done with someone who just doesn’t care?
The Christmas Story is also a story of our own helplessness in the redemptive process, except according to G-d’s will. The soldier, in the end, was unable to help the mother and child, despite his best efforts. Yet redemption came to him that day, even if he did not realize it. He could have simply ignored the mother and child, dismissing them, like the Sargent, as not his problem. After all, what had G-d ever done for him? Instead, he responded with sympathy and compassion. Its not that his simple act of getting the milk was in and of itself redeeming, of course not; but the fact that he would even do so demonstrated the redemption that was already present in his heart, despite his anger and disillusionment.
Finally, there is this. We think we know people. We see what they do, we hear what they say, and we fear for them. We see those who are angry at G-d and man, or who live dissolute lives. We see people who seem to make every bad decision a person can make, and sometimes we may wonder, what hope is there for that person? What we do not know, and only G-d knows, is what redemption may lie in that persons heart. We see the outside, but G-d sees the inside, and only occasionally, if ever, does He give us a glimpse of what is truly there.
We should not fear, for others, or for ourselves, but should always look for the best in each; and when we can’t see that best and fear starts to take hold, think of the Christmas Story and its promise of redemption. After all, who is redemption for, anyway, if not for all of us?
“For the kingdom of G-d is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…” Romans 14:17 NIV
I went on a diet a little over three years ago. I lost some weight, which is good, but what was most astonishing to me was how much better I felt, and within only a few days. But I didn’t just feel better; I felt years-younger better, I felt no-more-heartburn-indigestion-acid-re-flux better, and I felt more-energy-needing-less-sleep better.
The diet is a relatively new, high-protein, low-carb regimen that attracted me initially by its simplicity. No calorie counting, no points to worry about or weighing food; not that there is anything wrong with those kind of diets, it’s just that they’re not for me.
As I progressed in the diet though, an odd thing began to happen. The above verse of scripture began to come to mind, and the better I felt, the more frequently I would think of this verse.
I finally had to face the fact that G-d was trying to tell me something, and after some thought, I realized what was going on. It seems that as I felt better, I was actually beginning to think I was better. That feeling better, because I was eating better, was actually making me a better person.
To be sure, there were improvements in my behavior. Since I needed less sleep and had more energy, I began getting up earlier on weekends and taking on a bigger share of the housework, for example. With far fewer aches and pains, I began exercising more and took up running, something I hadn’t done in years. Also, feeling better physically helps me to feel better emotionally, and I generally have a better attitude and outlook.
The point is, if I wanted to make a case that in fact I was a better person, I could do it. The problem is, I would only be looking at one side of it. While I am not going to list my current personal failures and weaknesses, if for no other reason that I don’t have the time or space, I can, in an honest moment, admit that I am still the same person I was before the diet. I am sure my family would attest to that, as well!
OK, I lost weight, I feel better, I have a better quality of life, so what’s the problem? So what if I’m not intrinsically a better person, what’s the big deal? Honestly, there is really no issue here, is there? I’m not perfect, I should just get over it!
But, of course, for me things are never that simple. Earlier in life, and for a number of years, I had gone on a self-improvement binge. I read all the self-help, self-improvement, pop-psychology books I could get my hands on. Some of them were pretty good, others, not so much, but they all seemed to have one thing in common, they all required that you take control of your life and change it in some way, and by doing so you could achieve health, wealth, happiness, long life, etc., etc., etc.
Sounds great, right? Do this, do that, and voila, the new you! Now, some would tell you – look, this isn’t going to be easy, but you can do it, anyone can, and here’s how. Just a little effort, a little willpower, and you’ve got it made.
Oops, what’s that? Effort, willpower? Uh-oh! This could be a problem.
Let’s take a look at effort first. Effort requires motivation. People are simply unwilling to exert any effort whatsoever, for anything, without motivation. But what does motivation require? Motivation requires a need. Oh, what’s that, you want to eat? Well then, you’ll have to work. Now that’s motivation!
Willpower, on the other hand is a little harder to define, and I think the reason for that is that there really is no such thing, at least not in the popular sense. You may disagree, and I have had this argument before, but I just do not believe that there is any such thing as willpower as the term is commonly applied.
Let’s break it down: will – powerofchoosingone’sownactions; power – ability todooract;capabilityofdoingoraccomplishingsomething. For the record, the definitions are from dictionary. com, and were chosen from the many definitions for each word to fit the present context.
Both words imply action, but “will” is about choosing to act and “power” is about the ability to act. Willpower, it would then seem, is the ability to choose and to act upon one’s choices.
So far, so good. Everybody can make choices, and everybody can act on those choices – or can they? If I choose to walk from point A to point B, but I am incapable of walking, then I can’t act on that choice. I may have other options for getting from A to B, but walking isn’t one of them. Will power has nothing do with it and in fact it would be more than a little cruel to suggest to me that if only my willpower was stronger, I could walk from point A to point B.
The above illustration begs the question: If it would be cruel to suggest to a person with a disability that they could walk if only they had the willpower, why do we think it is OK to suggest to a smoker, for example, that they could quit smoking if only they had more willpower? Or to suggest to an obese person that they could lose weight if only they had more willpower? Might this be just as cruel?
One might point out that the person who can’t walk has a physical disability that prevents them from walking, but the person who smokes or who eats too much is choosing to do so, and that would be correct, but let’s expand our illustration a little.
The disabled person wants to walk from point A to point B, but they can’t, so they lift themselves into a wheelchair, and wheel themselves from A to B. They have accomplished their goal, albeit not by walking; and again, willpower has nothing to do with it.
Now, what about the person who smokes, for example? I have had experience in this area, having smoked for 23 years. I stopped, by the grace of G-d, over 26 years ago, but not after a long struggle in “trying” to quit. In fact, the more I “tried” to quit, the more I smoked. Right before I stopped, I was smoking 3 packs a day, and had been for some time.
So what happened? Before I answer that, let’s take a quick look at human nature. People, in general, don’t do anything without a reason. The reason may be rational, or irrational, but they have to have a reason. Secondly, they require motivation. A reason, and motivation are related, but in the end very different.
Let’s look at the reasons for quitting smoking: smoking shortens lifespan, smoking degrades the quality of life, smoking can harm others, smoking costs a lot of money, and you could probably list others. I had all of these reasons to quit, yet could (would?) not. Why? Because none of those reasons were enough to counteract the fact that I enjoyed smoking, and in fact, rightly or wrongly, I believed I was actually getting some benefit out of smoking.
Therefore, none of the listed reasons motivated me to want to quit. I enjoyed smoking and I was willing to take the risks. The problem, however, is that I have a wife who wanted me to quit, and society in general was bringing more and more pressure on smokers to quit, and still is.
So what to do? This is where “trying” to quit smoking comes in. Let’s face it, if you’re trying to do something, you’re not doing it, but to others, it looks like you’re doing it, right? At least you’re trying.
“Where’s Bill?”, someone might ask.
“He ran out to have a smoke.”
“Yeah, but he’s trying to quit.”
“Oh, well at least he’s trying.”
I’m not saying that my efforts were deliberately insincere, but as I said, when you’re trying to do something, you’re not doing it, you’re just trying. At best though, I was deluding myself into thinking I was quitting smoking when I was really just trying.
So reasons do not, in and of themselves, provide motivation to quit. And honestly, having someone nagging you to do it or being pressured from society only makes things worse. Our fallen human nature automatically rebels against any pressure to do anything, let alone something we have no good reason to do.
What I’m getting at here is that we human beings do not do anything unless we want to do it. This is much more profound than it may appear. It is profound because it is so simple. When we want to do something, like the person who can’t walk from A to B, we just do it, we don’t try to do it, we do it!
So this was my dilemma: I enjoyed smoking, but I was under pressure from my family and society to quit. The more I viewed things in this way, the worse things got. Periodically, I would try to quit, not because I thought quitting would be beneficial to me, but because of the pressure to do so.
The problem is, each time I tried to quit, I would end up smoking more. At least the pressure to quit would let up somewhat, and as an added benefit, each time I tried and failed, I got a certain amount of sympathy. “Poor Bill, he’s really trying to quit [I was], but he just can’t seem to do it”.
But I did quit, eventually, so how did I do it?
As a Christian, I believe that all things ultimately come from G-d, including the ability to quit smoking. In one of my more objective and honest moments, I said to Him, “Look, I know that I should quit smoking, but I just don’t want to [this insight also came from Him], so I’m going to have to turn this over to You because it’s just not going to happen if left up to me.”
I would like to say that at that moment I quit and never picked up another cigarette, but alas, that is not what happened. The reason is that I still wanted to smoke, and G-d will not directly interfere with our will. Whenever Jesus cured someone, He would often say “Your faith has healed you,” and there is at least one passage that refers to the fact that Jesus could only perform a few miracles because of the relative lack of faith of the people in that particular area.
What did happen though is that things just kept getting worse until I was, as I said earlier, smoking three packs a day. As things got worse though, some other things began to happen: like the commercial said, I was “smoking more and enjoying it less”. Even those times when I normally enjoyed smoking, I was not. I also started to see just how destructive smoking could be, and not just to my health, but potentially to my family. After all, I was an example, and I really did not want my children to smoke.
There was the financial damage. I had a wife and two children, with one on the way, and I was spending almost $100 a month on cigarettes. That does not seem like much now, but in 1988 it was almost a car payment! What was I thinking?
Also very important, I started to realize that my rebellion was misplaced. Instead of rebelling against G-d and man, I should rebel against smoking and my desire to smoke because that is what enslaved me, not G-d and my family or society.
What was happening over a period of months, is that my heart and my mind were being remade in a way that, in the end, I wanted to quit smoking, and I finally said to the Lord, sincerely and from my heart, “I want to quit smoking.” It was from that moment on that I have not smoked another cigarette.
I still get uncomfortable, to this day, when people hear that I quit smoking after 23 years, and they say “Wow, how did you do it”? The fact is, I didn’t do it, I just put it in the Lord’s hands and He did it.
And willpower had nothing to do with it.
So, what are the lessons I learned from my smoking and diet experiences? First, it all starts with G-d. Any power we have to do anything comes from Him. Even that act of turning to Him in faith comes from Him.
Second, we have to have faith that G-d can address our problems, if He chooses to do so. When He chooses not to for a time, we have to have faith that He has His reasons for not doing so. This faith also comes from G-d.
Third, we have to want to resolve the problem. This is a statement, or assertion of will, not a passing fancy or simple desire. Wanting to resolve the problem also comes from G-d.
The fourth step is relatively easy because once we want to do it, we don’t try to do it, we just do it. Does this guarantee success? No, because the outcome is in G-d’s hands; but we still, in faith, do all of the things necessary to accomplish our goal.
As for being a better person, simply quitting smoking or losing weight does not make us better people, but it even goes further than this. None of our efforts can make us intrinsically better people; but G-d, when He chooses, and in response to our faith, can not only make us better, He can and will, in His time, make us perfect.
““For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.” Isaiah 55:8 NIV
I enlisted in the Army in the early 1970’s. My basic training company was one of the last to be trained under what was referred to as the old “Brown Boot” Army. After us, the rules and regulations of the new “All Volunteer” force would kick in.
The new way of training appeared to be a somewhat “kinder, gentler” basic training. At least this is what it seemed to me as I observed the unit training several weeks behind mine, which trained under the new way. Less running through the sand at Fort Dix, maybe a little less in your face.
For some reason, I’m glad I went the old way, maybe even a little bit proud of that fact. I think that I just would not have had quite the same sense of accomplishment, and one experience, among many memorable ones, has always stood out in my mind.
After several days of being processed in, I found myself standing in formation outside the brick barracks that would be my “home away from home” for the next eight weeks. There, the Senior Drill Sargent, Sargent First Class Hatcher, informed me and my fellow recruits of what would be expected of us over the course of our training.
While I can remember little of what he actually said, one thing he did say that I’ll never forget is, “In the Army, there are four ways of doing things, my way, your way, the right way, and the Army way, but while you’re here in this unit, you’ll do things…”
Now here I have to say that, at that moment, I knew what he was going to say. I was so sure that I started to smile a little, this was too easy, I thought, he was going to say “the Army way”, I just knew it.
“…my way”, he finished. See, I told you, he said… what?
Why wouldn’t we do things the Army way? This didn’t make sense.
And so we spent the next eight weeks doing things Senior Drill Sargent Hatcher’s way; not the Army way, not even the right way, and certainly not our way. Now the purpose of basic training is to turn sorry-*ss civilians into soldiers, and you can imagine, this is no easy task; but, Sargent Hatcher and his associates were certainly more than up to it.
The first thing that needed to be done was to teach the trainees that everything they knew up to that point in life was wrong. Not just some things, not just most things, but everything. This was absolutely necessary because the relative lack in civilian life – of discipline, of commitment, of fortitude, of, well just about everything necessary for success in military life – meant that you pretty much had to start over with a blank slate, tabula rasa, as they say.
Once the “purging” was complete, the next step was for the Army to remake us in its image, or I should say, Senior Drill Sargent Hatcher’s image. To say that this entire process was painful would be a great understatement, at least initially; but, after a while a surprising thing happened – we started to “get it”, at least most of us.
The more we “got it”, the less we resisted our extreme makeover, and the less we resisted, the less painful the training became. Now, “getting it” wasn’t just things like learning to follow lawful orders, or learning how to fire a weapon or throw a grenade. And there was much more to it than just the physical, mental, and emotional conditioning that was required. These things were all absolutely necessary, but really don’t come close to comprising the “it” I’m referring to.
It wasn’t just thinking like a soldier or acting like a soldier, but it required a change of heart and mind, a reorientation of our focus and attitude. What it ultimately came down to was really just being a soldier. It was just being a soldier.
I have found that most big changes in our lives require this kind of “re-making” experience. The one really big change that readily comes to my mind that most people experience is marriage.
It seems that no matter how well your parents teach you (the “Army” way), or how many books you read (the “right” way), or how much you think you know (“your” way), the way you really learn about marriage is through your spouse (the “Drill Sargent’s” way).
Now, I am really not comparing your husband or wife to a Drill Sargent, but I think your spouse does fulfill a similar training role in marriage in that while your parents, the “book”, and your own experience and knowledge are all good for preparing you for your married life, no one or nothing can prepare you like your spouse.
The point here is that in both cases, one really doesn’t get to do things his or her own way, or some theoretical “right” way, but the way of the person best in the position to know how things should be done.
In the military, that’s the Drill Sargent. In marriage, it’s your spouse.
Who better than a knowledgeable and experienced Sargent to teach recruits what they need to know to succeed, and survive, in the military? And, who better than the spouse to teach their partner what they need to know to succeed, and survive, in a marriage with them?
I think there is a general principle here, which is actually very simple, and it is that the best source to learn something from is the person most experienced in the subject matter at hand who has a vested interest in you learning it. Books are great, advice is often valuable, and your own experience and knowledge certainly plays a large role, but nothing beats learning from a true expert in the field, who is motivated to see that you learn, and has some means to compel you.
If we look at these items one at a time we can see why this is so. Books, for example, have the great advantage of being neutral and dispassionate. They also have the great disadvantage of being neutral and dispassionate. The book is not intimidating, and can be read at your leisure, but the book doesn’t care if you learn what it has to teach, or even whether you finish it. The book has no real vested interest in whether you learn it or not, and no means to compel you.
Advice from family and friends is limited by their experience and while they may have an interest in you learning, they have no way of compelling you to learn either, in most cases.
As for you, while you may be a very knowledgeable and experienced person, your objectivity, when it comes to you, is almost non-existent. Left to ourselves for motivation, we often let ourselves down.
Fast forward from Basic Training about two years. I was doing well in the Army, making rank, and more than just getting by. To be sure, I had made my share of mistakes, some big ones, but I had also met my fair share of success as well, and I liked being a soldier.
I was a paratrooper stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. At that time, there were frequent outdoor concerts out in the country, usually in the woods. Mostly Bluegrass and Southern Rock or Blues, and being the music lover that I am, I attended as many as I could. Few things can compare to sitting out in the woods on a warm summer day, in the shade of the trees, listening to the Earl Scruggs Revue, or the James Gang, and maybe passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels, to take your mind off of things.
It was at one of these concerts, after parking in a grass field, that – little did I know at the time – an event occurred that would change my life forever.
My friend and I had just locked up the car and had turned toward the area of the concert stage when we were confronted by a hairy individual in cutoff jeans and t-shirt – a “Jesus freak”, as we called them then. He stuck his hand out toward us, and in it was a small booklet. My friend declined, but I was never one to pass up on a free book, so I accepted it gladly, thanked the hirsute fellow, stuck it in my back pocket, and moved on to the concert.
When I grabbed the publication, I glanced at the cover before slipping it into my pocket. It read “The Gospel of John”.
I quickly forgot about the whole thing, and then months later, I was sitting in my apartment in Fayetteville and had probably just finished reading the local paper when I glanced down at the table next to my chair. There was this little booklet from the concert. I still don’t know for certain how it made its way to that table.
Now, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the gospels, having been raised a Catholic. But as I have mentioned in previous posts, I had gone on a journey, a quest, to find the truth, and during this quest the Jewish and Christian scripture was the one place I hadn’t really looked.
So, I opened the booklet and it was in this context that I began to read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-1:5 NIV).
As I read these words, a very uncomfortable thought entered my mind and my heart, and it was that what I was reading was true. But that just could not be. Why?
Well, for one thing, I understood the Bible well enough to know that if this were true, then the entire Bible was true. If John 1:1 was true, then so was Genesis 1:1.
But even more disturbing to me was that if this were true, then everything I knew and had learned up to that point in my search, and my life, was wrong! And I just could not accept that.
There is an old and wise saying, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it”. This was the dilemma I found myself in. I began thinking of all the reasons why this was not the truth, but again, something or someone spoke to my heart and said “There are answers to all your questions, all your reasons, you just have to make the commitment to finding them”. I distinctly remember standing in the center of my living room, my heart and mind in turmoil, arguing with… who? myself? Well, no, I don’t think so.
Searching people who consider themselves open minded – if they are sincere – will always experience a certain amount of distress when they finally find what they are looking for; in particular, when the object of their search is something life-changing and profound, like The Truth. One reason this is so is because once they find the truth, they can no longer be open minded, at least not in the same way as before they find it.
Before, I could consider every thought and philosophy, as possible. After though? The funny thing about the truth, it is very exclusive. I knew this instinctively, and this is why I fought and struggled so hard against believing what I was reading. But I also knew I was being challenged to be, ironically, open-minded enough to at least consider this to be true, as I would any other viewpoint or fact.
In the end, I had to cave to the spirit of open-mindedness that I had embraced for so long, and make the commitment that was being thrust upon me to at least consider the Jewish and Christian scriptures to be true. But to whom was I making this commitment? To myself?
Well, once again, I don’t think so. Then to whom? Well, to the G-d that I still wasn’t quite sure I believed in. I asked Him, if He existed, to help me know the truth.
From that point on, my life began to change. The change wasn’t instantaneous by any means, and in fact, it is still going on. For one thing, I began reading everything “Bible” I could get my hands on; bible history, bible prophecy, apologetics, science and the bible, bible hermeneutics, anti-bible, pro-bible, bible neutral, bible commentary. Anything and everything bible.
Another change began to happen as well, even more life-altering than my insatiable thirst for knowledge. Little by little and piece by piece, my world was being torn down and disassembled. Everything I had learned and thought I knew up to that point in my life was fair game to be questioned, deconstructed, and discarded. I often had the feeling that I was “walking on air” with nothing firm under me for support. Like Nino the Mind Bender from the Firesign Theater, I began to believe that everything I knew was wrong, and that was the one thing I was absolutely right about.
And more than that, I began to get the distinct impression that there was nothing random about the re-learning process that I was experiencing, that there was a plan and an intelligence behind it.
I would ask a question and the answer would come, in one form or another. Maybe it was a book I would come across, or an article. Maybe it would come in the form of a person that I would meet, seemingly by chance, or a television or radio program, or an ad in the mail. Sometimes the answer would come sooner, sometimes it would come later, and sometimes the answer was, in fact, no answer.
What’s more, there was a deja vu familiarity about my experience, like I had done this before. This thought nagged at me for some time until it finally occurred to me: I was back in Basic Training! This training was much more thorough, though, and reached much deeper than my military training. It left no thought undisturbed, no idea unexamined, no opinion undissected.
As my spiritual “basic training” wore on, I began to realize some things. First, while it may be true that in the Army there are four ways of doing things, in life there are really only two: G-d’s way, and the world’s way. Second, my training, as with my military training and later, my marriage training, consisted first of being torn down and then rebuilt.
In this case, the tearing down was being disabused of the world’s way of thinking and doing things, and the building up was being reformed into G-d’s way of thinking and doing things.
What is G-d’s way of doing things? I’ll give just one example, but its a big one.
The world wants you to focus on man and his efforts. The world says trust in yourself and your own efforts, or of some other person or group. Believe in man.
G-d, in His scriptures, says to focus on him. G-d says to trust Him in everything you think, say, and do. Believe in G-d. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.” Isaiah 26:3 KJV
Recently, I was challenged to have a bucket of ice water poured on my head and make a monetary donation to a good cause. I took up the challenge, and it was cold! But I did it.
I am not going to list any more differences between G-d’s way and the world’s way, because I have a challenge for the reader. The challenge is to make a commitment to know the truth.
Don’t make it to yourself – that will never work – but make it to G-d, as best you conceive Him to be. If you’re not sure you even believe in G-d, then make the commitment to this G-d of which you’re uncertain, this “unknown” G-d, as the Greeks referred to Him.
If you take up the challenge, do it with an open heart and open mind, but with the understanding that as you learn the truth, most of what you think you already know will have to be discarded. That is just the nature of things.
So what are you going to do? Are you going to take up the challenge and make the commitment? I can assure you, if you do, your life will never be the same.
“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.