We often hear human idealism expressed in phrases like these: “I want to make the world a better place,” “I want to change the world,” or “I want to make a difference.” As noble and lofty as these expressions sound, they do not rise to the level of a Christian understanding of life. Not that our labor to improve living conditions or to advance science or to save the planet or promote social justice is of no value at all. It can be. But not in the humanistic way it is usually understood.
I want my life and work to make lasting difference. I am passionate about it! But I have come to realize that no matter hard I try I cannot accomplish this goal apart from one condition over which I have no control. The little word “lasting” in the phrase “to make a lasting difference” is all important. Who cares about making a difference that does not last! Who gets excited about making a temporary difference? But it is not within my power to make “a lasting” difference.
And here is why: One day—only God knows when—I’m going to die. Hence, nothing I do that presupposes that I am alive can have lasting value. Fame, pleasure, money, and professional success matter only if you are alive to enjoy them. They have no relevance beyond that point. One day—God alone knows when—the last person on earth who knew me will die. Nothing I accomplish that presupposes someone will remember it has value beyond that date.
One day—God knows when—the last remaining copy of anything I’ve written and every mention of my name will be destroyed. No one alive will have heard of me. Hence nothing I do for the purpose of being remembered by a living human being has lasting value. One day, given the natural course of things—God alone knows when—the last human being in the whole universe will draw her or his last breath. Hence nothing I can do that presupposes the continuing existence of human family possesses everlasting significance.
One day—only God knows when—our home Earth will be engulfed by our expanding Sun as it turns into a red giant. All remaining plants, animals, and even bacteria will be roasted in temperatures of 2,000 to 3,000 degrees. One day—God alone knows when—all the stars will die, the universe will be the same temperature in every place, so that nothing can happen. What then will become of all I have done?
If there is no God or anything like God, if there is no eternal mental or spiritual reality and mindless matter is the only thing that lasts forever, then neither our lives nor those we love have any lasting significance. Beauty, meaning, love and every quality or experience that makes life enjoyable is just a passing phase of the material world. Human beings are freaks and flukes of nature. Our wretchedness and greatness, our suffering and joy reveal nothing about the meaning of reality. Our lives will pass and there is no one to remember them. The work we have done to save the planet, to advance medical science, and to promote social justice will be forever lost.
My hope that I can do some lasting good, the driving force of my life, rests solely in my belief that there is a God who lives eternally and knows, understands, and remembers who I am, what I have suffered, and what I have done. My hope is that God does not wish to live forever without me, without you. I believe that by helping others on their journey toward God and by faithfully doing what God has assigned me to do I can do something lasting, even everlasting, something well worth my time. My life simply does not make sense to me otherwise.
Hence our labor to improve living conditions, to patch roofs, to advance science, to share a cup of cold water, to save the planet or promote social justice can be of lasting value…if God assigns it to be done, if we do it in service to Christ, and if God remembers it. Otherwise it will make no difference in the end.
Ron, I still remember a talk you gave on giving just a cup of cold water if that is what you have to give….You’ve made an everlasting difference in my life, just so you know. Thank you for investing in me.
Thank you for remembering that! What an amazing paradox that, apart from God’s gracious will to remember, even the greatest deeds shall be forgotten but because of God’s love not a bird falls or a flower dies without God taking note. Hence my post is in the end very optimistic! We need not do great deeds (in the eyes of history) to make a lasting difference. Perhaps everything turns on the smallest of acts that no one but God notices! After all, according to the Bible, God seems to love to show his strength by using human weakness to accomplish great things. We can work with joy even in the corner knowing our “labor will not be in vain.” God knows and God will remember! And what God remembers he can resurrect.
As a teacher, you have the additional legacy of influencing the liges of students who will then go on to craft their own legacies, possibly impacting others in turn. This grants more staying power for your impact quotient than publishing books and articles or giving keynote speakers. In the end, it is impacting lives that matters most rather than vague abstracta like becoming a “major figure” in human history or a “household name.” However, it still does nothing to alleviate the heat death of the universe, naturally. As one of my Music Theory professors said, “The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty… And that’s certainly killing me.”
I’m also musing on the Secular Humanist diction of “creating our own” meaning in our lives and actions. We cannot do anything to grant the kind of grand cosmic impact that Theists might like, says Shelley Kagan, but that is not to say that we cannot truly have meaning by imparting meaning into our actions. As an artist, I am constantly confronted by issues of imparting and conveying meaning (propositional in this case). Certainly, an artist can ascribe meaning to his or her work–nonetheless, it must be justified in the makeup of work itself. Similarly, a viewer may glean meaning from an artwork, but it too must be grounded in the characteristics of the artwork. Thus, even in art, one cannot rightly ascribe meaning independently of the substance of the work itself. To apply this to our lives, our temporary existence cannot have lasting meaning independently of other continuing factors to carry it on.
One other important lesson that I think can be gained from the artwork analogy: it is the Maker who can truly ascribe meaning to what is made through crafting the creation. It is not the artwork itself that makes its own meaning nor the other viewers around. So this is perhaps another reason to be skeptical of self-assigned assessments of meaning from human beings themselves.
I try to make this point in my classes by asking my students if they know their parents, then grandparent, then great grandparents, and finally great-great grandparents. Some have had the privilege of knowing a couple of generations, but virtually no student knows their own families past 2-3 generations. Then I challenge them by asking if they realize that not even their own families will remember their names (much less anything they did) in just 3-4 generations. Usually that is a pretty sobering thought that leads them to ask how or what, then, will make our lives meaningful and we have a fruitful discussion. Occasionally, however, I have a student who responds with basically, “So what?” They are so distracted by the immediate ‘now’ they are seemingly unable to grasp the consequences of living a life that has no lasting impact or the lack of meaning associated with a worldview that does not include God.
That is my experience as well. Thank you.
What a humbling reminder. Particularly for all the students who read this, we can often forget (especially in the face of finals) that none of this really matters. The only work that truly matters is the work we do for God because only he can make our lives and work have lasting meaning. Hopefully, we are pursuing and will use our degrees to help us better serve God and prepare for the kingdom, because if we don’t, as you say, it will all pass away, and it will all be for nothing.
This post strongly alludes to Ecclesiastes. Everything under the sun is meaningless unless we have a relationship with God. Even then, none of it really matters except as it pertains to our relationship with God. I, like everyone, get caught up in my own life and business, and I need reminders like this. Thank you.
See my reply to Libby German above. Note the paradox. Without God, the ‘greatest” accomplishment fades into nothingness. With God, the smallest act can become the fulcrum that moves the world and changes it forever!
Like we talked about in class, this is also what concerns me about true atheism. Without a god, I find it very difficult to find any meeting in life whatsoever, which leads to very dark conclusions about how we ought to spend our life, if we can even say we ought to do anything. Only in death is there any escape from it all, but even there, can we really find any meaning? I find it hard to believe that non-existence or the ceasing to exist is better than existing at all, no matter the state. It is precisely those moments when we experience even a fleeting experience of something good or joyful or pleasurable that convince me there must be something more than just this. It is very dark indeed when the only thing worth seeking is death. I am grateful that that is not the case.
Very thoughtful. Thank you, Davis.