This is certainly one of those questions that I don’t remember us discussing in Seminary, but with older members in our congregation, I have heard many ask this question aloud to God or to me, their Pastor, searching for meaning towards their later years in life. Unfortunately, they didn’t give us the answer to this question in Seminary, but I did learn that pretending to understand isn’t helpful either. And so, at thirty years old and in relatively good health (my hip has been keeping me from running recently, but that is surely a minor and temporary inconvenience at most), I can’t pretend to be in the same time and space as some of the older saints in our congregation who have blurted out this question, often in frustration and angst. I’m not the last living in my family, mourning life without a beloved spouse, or waking up each day in constant pain or confusion, and so, I don’t get it. But, I do know this: I have been personally encouraged and uplifted by the intense and fervent faith of many of those who have asked this question.
Whether we are faithful or faithless, I believe we search for meaning in life, some of us consciously and purposefully and others of us unknowingly. As Christians, we find our purpose in Christ – in service to him – and this often motivates us to pray, to take care of others, to volunteer to serve other people, and to give financially to the church or other faith-based organizations. And if we’re really doing it right – we are motivated to share Jesus and our faith life with others who haven’t yet found meaning in their life in the same way.
But, if we are really honest, quite often we do not find this meaning simply in being faithful to Christ in all the postures I described above. Instead, we find real meaning or purpose only when we see or realize the power of Christ in action. Is it meaningful to have prayed desperately for physical healing for someone you love if the end result is their earthy death? Is your purpose secured and your life fulfilled if you serve a meal to someone and they resent you for doing so? And how is your faith confirmed if you give thousands of dollars to an organization that you one day discover to be embezzling funds rather than distributing your hard earned and prayerfully designated money to those promised the financial benefits?
Or what if you are no longer physically able to leave your home, have exhausted your resources to pay for caretakers, and lack the stamina or mental capacity to focus on anything more than the basic survival needs of life? How then do you experience the power of Christ and/or find meaning?
I think it is a very human need to make meaning and likewise, at times, to even assign meaning for others. I experienced a broken engagement, almost ten years ago now, and following that disappointment, I walked through a time where it seemed that everyone around me was desperate to understand why God had allowed this sad event to occur. People I knew well, people I did not know so well, Christians, and non-Christians, seemed to want to explain the situation to me – as if my pain would be less if there was some purpose for my suffering. I have never been able to make meaning out of that sadness, and I don’t feel the burden to do so. I don’t know why it happened, what God was doing (or not doing). I have had several people try to turn it into, “You probably would not have gone to Seminary and become a Pastor if that relationship would have worked out.” But, my ex was always extremely supportive of my involvement in the church (and even joined me) so I’m not sure where they would draw that conclusion from. Or people like to suggest that this past suffering makes me more empathetic in ministry; perhaps, but perhaps not.
My point here is that we often confuse our role in this world as we serve God. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that we have been tasked with understanding everything that happens in our life (or the lives of others) and finding meaning in it (or meaning for others). In fact, you could argue that it says the opposite recalling 1 Corinthians 13:9-10,
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, 10 but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. (NET)
And so, back to the question from those elderly church members, “Why is God keeping me here?” I almost always respond with, “I don’t know.” Often, this answer seems pathetic and deficient, but most often, it is the truth. It is not at all wrong to ask the question; in fact, I think it is a faithful, genuine, and legitimate question to ask God. But, I sometimes hear the Holy Spirit whispering back, “How are you/can you being/be faithful with this puzzling additional time you’ve been given?”
In a week, I’ll be preaching on Psalm 16 and the second verse of that psalm reads,
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”
It is a psalm of confident commitment to God that leads to confidence and joy in resting in God. If we search for meaning in our devotion/faithfulness to God, perhaps we can have confidence even amidst confusion and only knowing in part.
I don’t know if I will ask God that question (Why am I still here?) during my lifetime or not. Certainly it is not just a question for older people, because there are many circumstances that could prompt me to ask this of God or a Pastor (and prompt others as well). But I hope, even if I do or if I don’t, that I do ask myself that other question, “How am I being faithful with the time I have been given?” And how can I be confidently committed to God and be confident resting in the Eternal One?
I haven’t yet figured out how to turn the first question into the second, but I’m working on it. And I think it is the ultimate challenge to live in this world but refuse to use the measurements of success of this world to calculate meaning and purpose. And furthermore, I firmly believe, like Abraham (with descendants as numerous as the stars (Gen 26:4)), we won’t see all that God will accomplish through us (or with us) within our lifetime (meaning God is before, during, and after our lifetime AND that God weaves such an interconnected web that we are most often so unaware of – such that something that the Holy Spirit speaks through us can change the course for a complete stranger without our knowledge).
Because of this, I think we all need to do better. We don’t need to struggle to create meaning for each other, but we do need to affirm the faithful (see bold quote above). We are often lazy or negligent to call attention to the Holy Spirit in each other. Our affirmation may not explain why someone is here, but it could provide a piece to the puzzle. We forget the power we have to encourage and give joy to each other, like the Toby Mac song, Speak Life. “Speak life” isn’t my favorite phrase for this, because life is not all encouragement, affirmation, nor joy, but while not called to define meaning, Christian community often does help us find meaning and purpose.
Maybe I can’t or you can’t answer the title question in this blog post for yourself or another, but maybe you can encourage a follow up question about faithfulness despite not having the answer. And perhaps you can boldly share some words of the meaning or purpose you have found by sharing life with the person searching for meaning.
It’s as if we are all trying to put together our own puzzle, but we aren’t making any progress because we have pieces from our own puzzle and lots of other puzzles too, mixed up in our box. Well, since we only know in part in this life, our puzzles may never get completed, but since each of us puts our puzzle together one piece at a time, we can at least hand over some of the pieces that might help someone else finish theirs in the meantime. We don’t need to try and put them in their puzzle for them, because we don’t know what theirs is supposed to look like anyhow, so we might get it wrong. But, surely he/she needs their pieces back to get closer to the whole. And maybe all the edges of our puzzles aren’t really edges at all … maybe they fit together too?