Everyone wants to feel their worth. Everyone hopes to become happy. And everyone longs for significance. But the universe is so big and we are so small. Ages have come and gone before we were born, and the timeline beyond our death stretches out to infinity. Billions of people lived and died before us and others will follow. And even now you and I live among billions of people. Whatever we do and become, most people will never know about it, and the few that do will forget and one day pass into the forgotten past.
Given everything that points to our insignificance are there good reasons to believe that we really are worth something, that our happiness is a real possibility, and that each of us really matters? Some people attempt to create their worth by their individual effort. In my last blog post (December 02, 2017), I wrote about the modern view of the self that sees human worth as the power of freedom to do and become what pleases us. As long as you are feeling this power in action you feel significant. But this strategy will not work in the long run because our wishes and desires are much greater than our powers. Despite our dreams of divinity we are finite, mortal, and small. We cannot make the universe acknowledge our worth or bend to our wills.
Another strategy for securing our significance is to identify with something greater than ourselves. We can forget about our individual smallness, mortality, and weakness by devoting ourselves to a great cause. The greatness of the cause becomes in our minds our own greatness. The great cause most people choose is the state, the most comprehensive and powerful human institution. Politics becomes their all-consuming passion because participating in the greatness of the state is the only way they can feel their worth or believe they matter or create happiness for themselves. But the state is no more divine than individuals are. States are also finite, mortal, and weak. They fail as surely individuals fail. Nor does the good of the state coincide with good of the individual within it. Even for democracies, an individual can be no more than a means to an end. The state’s “greatness” can never really become “my greatness.”
We’ve examined two failed gods, the individual and the state. Is there another way to secure our worth and significance in the face of our smallness, mortality, and weakness? First, we need to specify exactly what we want when we ask for worth, significance, and happiness. We are not satisfied with being worth a little, having limited significance, or experiencing temporary happiness. We want these goods without limit. There are only two possibilities for acquiring what we seek. Either we become God and possess them by nature or God gives them to us by grace. I rejected the first alternative when I rejected the modern view of the self as self-sufficient. And I rejected the state as a substitute God.
God alone can ground our worth, significance, and hope of happiness. God, who knows all things, knows each of us. The Creator of all things decided you should exist here and now. The One who works out his plan for all time and space has assigned you a significant part to play. It does not matter how big the universe is or how many people exist or how long it continues after your death. The infinite and eternal God does not relate to things as big or small or old or young—or even as dead or alive. Our worth to God is not relative to our size or lifespan. To our amazement, God wills us to share in his life and goodness. And if we have God we have all things. So, don’t try to measure your significance by how big a splash you can make in the universe. Measure it by how much love God has demonstrated for you in Jesus Christ.
What do you think of a solution that is like option 2, but transcending the human state: “From stardust we were born, and to stardust we shall return”? The idea is that when we die, our particles return to rhe earth to support other life, and when the earth someday dissolves along with our solar systems, the particles from those will contribute to forming new stars, new planets, new life.
A poetic form of nihilism. The particles that constitute my body are interchangeable with all others in the universe. Why should I care about their travels afterI die? It’s our specific human work that we want to live on. Thanks.
The answer to my question might be embedded in the sentence, “We are not satisfied with being worth a little, having limited significance, or experiencing temporary happiness,” but I thought I’d ask just to clarify: I take it you see immortality as a necessary condition for ultimate significance (certainly not a sufficient one!)? It seems the last paragraph could be read as if immortality were really beside the point, and that existing before God at any point in history were sufficient–maybe like process theism’s ‘objective immortality.’ But I think I remember you reacting very strongly against Hartshorne/Whitehead here, right?
Right. Being remembered by God but having no continuing existence is, I suppose, is a greater source of meaning while we are alive than there being no God or there being a God with no knowledge of the world. Our desire for meaning cannot be fully satisfied by this thought. But our desire is only one aspect of the issue. The nature and identity of God is the deeper question. Hartshorne’s God is not capable of bringing the world to definitive salvation. He is not pure act…and so on. He is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He must not really love us, certainly in the way Jesus taught. He certainly did not send his beloved Son into the world to seek and save the lost. He did not raise Jesus from the dead.
I came to this thread on happiness and worth, via another on forgiveness. But as it happens, and the Lord knowing my heart, my look-up topic was actually happiness all along! Please allow me to back track a little to ‘honour and dignity’ though one agrees that democracy and politics are of no significance here; it was Aristotle who said, honour is not about who accepts it, but more about who bestows it. When a parliamentarian describes a colleague as a “Right Honourable Gentleman” whilst we know he fiddles his taxes, makes fraudulent claims, and consorts with the devil, then what value or ‘worth’ are there in these words?
It upsets me a little to talk about God thusly, viz. divine dignity, even to use the human (Latin based) word of dignity, when we have just seen such an example. Please forgive me. Our Father is so far removed from such things that words sometimes fail. To Him be all Honour and Power.
Aristotle again, thought that happiness began in the home, and then moved into a feeling of security through our useful position in society (or state) etc. But to quote Prof Toynbee’s historical masterpiece, the History of Hellenism (City State Empires), he says in the very last chapter, that the reason why the Hellenists, the Greeks, the Romans and all other like civilations failed, was because they moved from polytheism striaight to self-worship (or worth-ship) without ever thinking about the one true God. Does this sound familiar?
Now finishing – my love of the word places me in the heart of our Lord. And as such, my home may not yet be where my heart is, but I do believe that our happiness should be akin to the mysterious treasure that Jesus spoke of (not so much of this temporal world to quote St Paul) and not like the honour or dignity, or self-worship mentioned above. Happiness not local, if you like. Can I ask the author (Ron Highfield) to try to answer the question in the forgiveness section I referred to before, where he states in parenthesis, let us not consider whether or not there is a type of forgiveness that we must exercise upon ourselves, before we look at divine forgiveness… Please, I beg you. Let’s look at this type of forgiveness. Let us look into the mirror darkly.
It would be my question ” Can grace help us to understand the true nature of forgiveness before we are ourselves forgiven?”. Is it possible to receive forgiveness if you haven’t the first clue what forgiveness is?
Thank you for your thoughtful comments! You requested that I comment on a certain type of forgiveness. I am not altogether clear as to the precise question. However I will say a word or two about your statement, “let us not consider whether or not there is a type of forgiveness that we must exercise upon ourselves, before we look at divine forgiveness.” I see forgiveness as a general concept to mean the refusal to exact revenge for insult or injury in view of a greater good. The forgiving party absorbs the insult or injury and neutralizes it. Indeed we do need to forgive ourselves because we tend to punish ourselves for the real or perceived wrongs we do. But the trick with self-forgiveness is the identity of the one forgiving and the one in need of forgiveness. Who absorbs the insult or injury? Who can neutralize it? As I see it, receiving the forgiveness of another–ultimately God–and forgiving oneself must occur simultaneously. They are two sides of the same coin. I can stop punishing myself because the insult and injury have been absorbed by another. God’s forgiveness is the ground of all other types.