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A Message by R.C. Sproul

Where do you find your meaning? If you are a Christian, then you know it comes from God. Yet many people believe that meaning and purpose do not come from God. So what is their answer to life's deepest questions? How should mankind live in this void of meaninglessness? Attempting to give meaning to a meaningless existence, Friedrich Nietzsche gave the world a philosophy that still haunts us today. Continuing this series on the Consequences of Ideas, Dr. Sproul looks at the life and thought of this nineteenth-century philosopher, Friederich Nietzsche.

From the series: The Consequences of Ideas

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Giving Meaning to Life

  2. article

    A Light in Dark Places

  3. article

    Glorifying God in the Routines

Giving Meaning to Life

The broad question that the writer of Ecclesiastes seeks to answer is, “Is there any meaning to the time that I spend in this world?” We put on a man’s tombstone that he was born on a certain date and that he died on a certain date. Between these two poles of time we live our lives. The basic question is, “Does my life have meaning?”

A common refrain echoed in Ecclesiastes is that there is futility, vanity, and “nothing new under the sun.” If our lives begin under the sun as a cosmic accident, a result of random collisions and mutations of inert matter, and if our ultimate destiny is to return to the dust that bore us, there can be no purpose.

When we cease to look “under the sun” and seek our destiny “under heaven,” we find our purpose. Our origin was not in the primordial soup but in the very hands of God, who shaped us and breathed life into us. Our destiny is not to return to dust, but to give honor and praise to God forever. Under heaven we find purpose. If we have God as our origin and as our destiny, between those poles there is purpose and meaning.

The writer answers the question with a resounding “Yes!” There is a reason for our lives. There is a reason for our suffering and a reason for our pain. There is also a reason for our joy.

A Light in Dark Places

Derek Thomas

"The Holy Spirit has exhorted the faithful to continue clapping their hands for joy until the advent of the promised Redeemer," wrote John Calvin in a comment on Psalm 47:12. Paul would heartily concur! Writing from a prison cell from which he had no certain knowledge of escaping other than to his execution, joy is what came to mind. Joy is what the epistle to the Philippians is all about. So much is Philippians about joy that George B. Duncan once referred to it as "the life of continual rejoicing." The opposite of joy is misery, and miserable is something we are not meant to be. The Reformers caught the centrality of joy in the affections of Christians when they insisted that our chief goal in life is to "glorify God and enjoy Him forever" (WSC, Q. 1).

Christians are tempted, of course, to be discouraged and depressed by the force of overwhelming circumstances. But in such circumstances, we must tell ourselves that we have no right to feel the way we do! Paul, who knew what it was to be in prison, to be beaten and spat upon, to be cold shouldered and ignored, commands us to rejoice, despite what we may feel: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice" (Phil. 4:4).

Joy Portrayed

Paul was never one to ask others to do what he did not do himself. That is why, throughout the record of his life, we can detect his joy even in the most difficult and testing of situations.

Incarcerated for obedience to the Gospel, the apostle is denied his freedom and dignity. He may well be dealing with personal resentment of his circumstances. Certainly, the Philippians were at pains to understand the wisdom of it all: that the most useful servant God had was cooped up in prison. Some were questioning the wisdom or sovereignty of God. Some may have been questioning both!

Paul's feelings may well have dictated that depression, resentment, or anger was the fitting response. Instead, the apostle looks for the good in his circumstances. As a result of his imprisonment there were certain members of Caesar's palace guard who had been exposed to the Gospel. Paul may be in prison but "the word of God is not bound" (2 Tim. 2:9). For the apostle, the evangelism of the praetorian guard was worth any suffering on his part. Despite his difficult predicament, Paul was able to rejoice because he perceived another agenda, one which took into consideration greater motives than his own immediate comfort.

Paul had enemies who were determined to do him wrong. Shockingly, they were fellow preachers of the Gospel who were envious of Paul's success and popularity. They preached so as to aggravate Paul's sufferings, supposing that by their actions they would "afflict me in my imprisonment" (Phil. 1:17). Some were evidently quite pleased to see the apostle receive what they considered to be what he deserved.

Paul was at the mercy of the Roman judiciary. In the very first chapter he had spoken of the possibility of death (Phil. 1:20). Later, he enlarges on it by suggesting, "I am to be poured out as a drink offering" (2:17). It is a realistic acknowledgement on the apostle's part that his toils and suffering could lead to martyrdom. Is the apostle downcast? Is he resentful? Not at all! "I am glad and rejoice with you all," he adds.

Joy Incarnate

Can we define with greater clarity what this joy is from what Paul writes in Philippians? Two theological truths bring the source of joy into focus. First, Joy is the outworking of our union with Christ. God created us, and then re-created us in Christ, so as to form deep and lasting relationships; they are the source of our greatest joys. But no relationship surpasses our fellowship with Jesus Christ in the Gospel. Paul began his letter to the Philippians by reminding his Christian readers of their relationship to Jesus Christ: they were "in Christ" (1:1). By doing so, Paul underlined a fundamental truth. Faith, as Jesus reminded His disciples, is a believing "into" Christ (John 14:12). Faith involves a union in which we totally depend upon the resources of another. This truth was elaborated upon in Jesus' horticultural analogy: He is the vine, we are the branches (John 15). Jesus assures His disciples: "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full" (v. 11). It is not clear whether Jesus meant to say that believers were the recipients of joy or the objects of joy. Both are probably intended. Christ restores to us—who have lost all joy—the joy He finds in us! And as He sees us bearing the kind of fruit we ought to, including, of course, joy (Gal. 5:22), it makes Him joyful too! Perhaps now we see the importance of joy in our lives: for it makes the heart of our Savior glad!

Second, joy flows from the taste of the sweetness of grace. The answer to misery is to remind ourselves of where we would be apart from the grace of God. "Grace, tis a charming sound," wrote Philip Doddridge, thereby echoing what Christians have always felt about God's dealings with us. Grace is the opening and closing salutation of this letter (Phil. 1:2; 4:23). And following the opening salutation he tells the Philippians of how joyful he felt whenever he thought about them, adding that the reason for his joy was that "you are all partakers with me of grace" (1:7). Christians find their joy in the way God has dealt with them.

Joy springs from knowing the value of what God has given us. When Paul became a Christian something happened to him: his assessment of the value he placed on the things of this world changed. The grace of God became the object of his chief delight. By comparison, the world's baubles he reckoned by the Greek word skybala—sensitively rendered rubbish in the English Standard Version, but "dung" is more to the point (3:8). By comparison to what God had given him—a righteousness which is not of his own—Paul is constrained to want to know more and more of this wonderful grace of God (3:7-10).

Joy Commanded

Two things follow: First, in as far as we are able, we must learn to control our feelings. There are various kinds of depression, to be sure, and some are the result of complex physical and psychological disorders. But there are times when we are spiritually depressed for no good reason. There are times when the best thing to do with our feelings is to challenge them: "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God" (Ps. 42:11).

Far too often we spend our days in misery and gloom, all because we are not taking what we know to be true about God and His control over our lives seriously. We must pray and ask God for strength to overcome our depressive, melancholy states. There is such a thing as a will that will not bend to God's. We can become hardened, refusing to see the good hand of God. It is a cancer that will destroy us.

Second, no matter what our circumstances may be, we must seek for the interpretation that forces us to rejoice. We are to "rejoice in our sufferings" too (Rom. 5:3). I think of the story of Horatio Spafford, a businessman in Chicago in 1873 who lost his entire business in the Chicago fires. Sending his wife and four daughters across to England on the SS. Ville de Havre, he was to learn that the vessel struck another (the Lochearn) in the mid-Atlantic with the loss of 261 lives including his four daughters. Mrs. Spafford, who had been rescued, sent him a cable that read: "Survived alone." Boarding the next available ship to meet her, Horatio was to be told by the captain of the vessel of the very spot where his daughters had drowned. It was then that he wrote these lines:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

That is the way God wants us to live. We have no right to expect that our lives are going to be free from trouble. But in every circumstance, if we are the Lord's people, we are assured of God's care and providence. He is working out every detail. There are no mistakes with Him (Rom. 8:32ff.). Every moment of our existence is cause enough for joy: the good and the bad together should integrate to form a hallelujah symphony to the praise of Almighty God.

Glorifying God in the Routines

Gloria Furman

Kiss, hug, monkey blanket, book, pray. That's the summation of my preschool-age son's bedtime routine. His simple bedtime routine must mean the world to him because if I miss a beat or shake up the order, he lets me know that the universe is falling apart. If you want accountability for keeping a disciplined routine, just let preschoolers know of your intentions, and they will tirelessly remind you to stay the course.

Order and predictability go a long way to reassure young children that their world is stable. Routines work the same way in reassuring us big kids, too. Consider how disconcerting your morning would be if the coffeemaker suddenly sputtered sparks onto the countertop and broke.

When Life Seems Boring

Although we can all appreciate the stability that routines bring (Thank you, God, for causing the sun to rise this morning), a life of "all things ordinary" may sound, well . . . boring. We live in the mundane, and life-altering, dramatic moments are, by definition, extraordinary. Whatever your "normal" is, I think we can all agree that that's where we live. Even so, we long for significant work, unique callings, and uncommon opportunities.

It's tempting to view everyday life as a monotonous cycle of making your bed only to lie in it again. Our perspective on the everyday business of our lives is important because when we forget about God's activity in the world, we become functionally hopeless. What's the point of anything if "all is vanity"? Often our view of the ordinary is ruled by the "have-to's": I have to take out the trash; I have to go to work; I have to change another diaper; and so on. We hear Paul's instruction of "whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31) and we wonder how that squares with the "have-to's" of our everyday lives. Grace sheds light on our mundane. Grace can transform the "have-to's" into "get-to's" as we live for His glory.

Here are just three of the ways the grace of God governs the areas of our lives that seem ordinary and unimportant:

1. We get to live outside of the garden. Live. We get to live. Let your heart soar with thankfulness as you consider that God continues to give us life even though we have all sinned against His holiness. Let your mind be blown by the reality that Jesus is currently, intentionally holding our very lives together by the word of His power. The gracious gift of life in spite of our sin is overwhelming. Surely this mercy is cause for unceasing praise to our Creator. Job teaches us that whatever condition our lives are in, God is to be praised. As recipients of such astonishing grace, far be it from us to lament that life is boring. Instead, let us spill over with praise to the Author of Life with our every breath.

2. We get to live forever in Christ. Each of us is just a breath away from meeting the Lord face-to-face. Because of Jesus' atoning death on the cross, we will behold our God and live, and we will live forever in His presence where there is fullness of joy. In the meantime, we are comforted by the indwelling Holy Spirit and we can have fellowship with God even now. God uses ordinary means to conform us to the image of His beloved Son. This is just one way the gospel of grace gives new meaning to the seemingly unimportant routines.

3. We get to participate in God's cosmic plan. The penal substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, His resurrection from the dead, and His subsequent exaltation above every name change how we view our ordinary lives because, indeed, they change everything. In order to experience joy in the work that God has for us, we must seek to understand the mystery of God's will that He purposes "to unite all things in [Christ]" (Eph. 1:9– 10). While we're tempted to fret over arranging our schedules perfectly, Jesus is infallibly putting the cosmos back in order. This big-picture theology of God's cosmic plan sees through the morning commute and the dishes piled up in the sink to scan the horizon of the new heavens and the new earth. What remarkable grace we've been given to participate in God's plan to reconcile all things to Himself (1 Cor. 15:27–28).

Stamp Eternity on Our Eyeballs

An eternal perspective is something you carry around in your heart. With the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know the hope to which God has called you. Look through this lens of eternity when you're tempted to walk by sight. Watch how the grace of God transforms the way you see another business trip, another potty training accident, another afternoon in gridlock traffic, another meeting, another bill, or another load of laundry. Enduring joy can be had in the ordinary stuff of life today because everything you've been given was ordained by Jesus, exists for Jesus, and will testify forever in eternity as a tribute to His glorious grace.

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