A consequential question, to be sure. But, first, another: what is meaning?
What does meaning mean?
Who’s to say what the answer is to either of these queries? Or, for that matter, to any query of consequence? Who decides what meaning means and what life’s meaning ought to be? There cannot be many answers: either it is me, individually, us, corporately, or God, transcendently.
For many and diverse reasons which lay outside of the scope of this particular essay, I am roundly persuaded the answer is the latter.
What, now, follows from this?
If God is, then He holds the answers to all our queries, the one at the title of this essay not excepted.
What is the meaning of life? To love and be loved.
Happily, we are not left orphaned to grope and grasp for an answer. It lies pregnant, nucleic even, in an ancient three-word phrase, a phrase that, if true, is the most revealing, and thus the most determinative, truth of all. That phrase?
God is love. 1
Not merely loving, mind you, but love itself. This is no modest claim. It is as grand and incomparable a claim as can be imagined. Again, if true, the grandest of all.
If God is, then the answer to our present query is His to give, and if God is love then the answer to our present query is easily apprehended.
What is the meaning of life? To love and be loved.
Surely, the reader will hear the ring of truth in this answer. Surely, there is something deeply resonant here with our innermost soul and personhood. Do we not long to love and be loved? Do we not sense that reality itself is charged with social energy and meaning? Zuckerberg has made his billions by crafting a venue which taps into this reality. No one believes that he created the reality, only that he gave us a modern and meaningful way to access it. The reality is there, and always has been.
Because reality itself is relational.
And if God is, then all ultimate reality statements are ultimately statements about Him.
What is He? We do not know, and will likely never know, the chasm between the created and the Creator being incalculably and incomprehensibly wide. And yet there is an incandescent glimmer of revelation contained in Scripture’s grammatical and theological equivalence that, “God is love.”
“Love,” Paul averred, “does not seek its own”. 2
What, then, is it seeking?
Others’ best good, others’ needs, others’ wants and hopes. Love cannot be contained within itself; it must extend, give, communicate, and cherish. This is God’s own essence—to give. In the words of Ellen White, “Godliness is diffusive and communicative.” 3
We are most godly when we are most loving.
All of this echoes Jesus’ own axiom of love, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” 4
So love not only extends, it extends at the expense of itself. It is given in the truest and noblest sense, not with attachments or conditions. Like the rain and the sun, announced Jesus, it is intended for all, the appreciative and the apathetic alike. 5
Jesus gave Himself. This is a phrase––“gave Himself”––which Paul, seemingly, could not resist. 6
Not surprisingly, He repeatedly employed it as a grammatical and theological equivalence to love:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” 7
“Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” 8
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.” 9
To love, says the apostle, is to give. More than this, it is to give oneself.
Note Ephesians 5:1, 2, the second passage above, where the reader is exhorted to imitate God. One can almost feel Paul’s thinking here; the moment he entreats the church to imitate God, his thoughts turn naturally and even necessarily to that quality that is most godly: love. How does he instinctively modify his exhortation? What comes first to his active apostolic mind? “And walk in love.”
So for Jesus, for Paul, and for Ellen White, we are most godly when we are most loving. We are most godly when we are giving ourselves without expectation or even hope of return. We are most godly when we are diffusive and communicative. This is because love places us in harmony with the nature of reality itself, and, as we have already noted, reality is relational.
The essential and native plurality within the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is no abstruse and dusty theological frippery. It is a window into the very heart of God, and thus into ourselves as fashioned in His image.
“‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness… So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’” 10
So God is an eternal family, an eternal relationship. Author Ty Gibson perspicaciously draws back the curtain on this divine mystery:
“Three is the essential numeric value of love. Where there is only one person, love cannot occur. Where there are two, each is the sole recipient of the other’s attention, giving place for self-absorption. But the moment there are three, each recipient of any one’s love must also humbly defer attention to the third party, and each is the third party to the other two. Pure selflessness can now occur by virtue of the fact that each one must love and be loved with both an exclusive and a divided interest. The pure biblical genius of identifying God as a triune fellowship rather than as an absolute singularity or even as a dualism, is convincing evidence that Bible is, in fact, the revelation of the one and only true God, whose essential nature is love.” 11
And Millard J. Erickson also captures this underpinning reality profoundly when he writes, “If reality is fundamentally physical, then the primary force binding it together is electromagnetic. If, however, reality is fundamentally social, then the most powerful constituting force is that which binds persons together, namely, love.” 12
That there is a physical component to life and reality, no one denies. And that there is a social imperative and beauty in life, no one can safely deny. Life is more than biology and reality is more than atoms. This can be denied, but not safely, and, what’s more, this denial cannot be lived.
As a pastor, I have been to many hospitals, bedsides, and funerals. I have heard many confessions and regrets aired in life’s last conscious, gasping moments, and yet I have never heard anyone confess to me that their great regret in life was that they spent altogether too much time with their family and friends.
Oh no, but I have heard, and more often than I’d care to remember, the opposite.
Because when the chips are down––when life’s remaining breaths can be numbered, when the gadgets and toys are seen for the meaningless things that they always were, when tomorrow’s NASDAQ numbers matter not at all, when the office has seen its last late night or long weekend, it always comes back to relationships.
Dying men tend to be honest men. Not always, sure, but more often than their healthy counterparts. This being the case, we do well to hear them. 13
And no dying man was more honest or important than Jesus the Christ. Were His parched lips laden with regret? No indeed.
See Jesus, pouring out His life for others, giving Himself, loving. A dying Man and an honest Man. A Man who looked death square in the eye without a pixel of regret over social opportunities lost and neglected. Quite the opposite, actually. He gave Himself so that a larger, better, and eternal social reality might be created. “Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross.”
You are that joy. So am I.
Joy flows from love, its truest source. And peace flows from these two.
Love. Joy. Peace.
So if these three words are true: God is love, then the answer to the question of life’s meaning is these five words: to love and be loved.
In what might be considered a strange “command,” Jesus iterated His timeless words, “‘And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’”
It is better to seek to truly love and yet fail than to succeed at anything else.
- 1 John 4:8
- 1 Corinthians 13:5
- Review and Herald, June 22, 1886
- John 15:13
- Matthew 5:45
- In addition to the three passages cited here, see also Galatians 1:4, 1Timothy 2:6, and Titus 2:14
- Galatians 2:20, emphasis mine
- Ephesians 5:1, 2, emphasis mine
- Ephesians 5:25, emphasis mine
- Genesis 1:26-28, note especially the plural pronouns “us”, “our”, “them”
- From a personal email conversation dated May 9, 2012
- Millard J. Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2000), page 58
- Along these lines, I highly recommend Dr. Herbert Lockyer’s fascinating book, Last Words of Sinners and Saints.
- Hebrews 12:2
- Mark 12:30, 31
Originally written for Adventist Today.