Of the Meaning of Life and the Purpose of Love

Does life have meaning? If so, what is that meaning? The answer, to be valid, must discover meaning for lives lived 70 years and longer as well as those lived for 70 minutes or fewer. That is to say, that it must reveal meaning for all members of the family of Adam and Eve. I have to admit that I cannot fathom an answer that life offers meaning only for some people but not for others, that the others are just stage props for those fortunate humans for whom life really matters.

I would also posit that in order for life to have meaning for man, then man’s existence cannot end with the end of mortality, that life must have an eternal character for there to be meaning to it. Temporary meaning is no meaning in the end. If there is an end, then in the end what does it matter?

I will add that, if there is eternal existence, that whispers to me a strong intuition of the existence of God, the existence of a being who has it all figured out, who has used eternity well. I do not offer this point as a proof at this moment, but rather as a likelihood. There are other proofs that I know and could offer for the existence of God, for God has not hidden Himself from His children who want to know Him. He sent us here to find out which of His children really want to know Him: that is one of the purposes of this life, closely related to the central purpose of life. The process of coming to know God is an individual work that necessitates the personal development of what is also God’s defining characteristic. That development involves the process of living in this life on earth.

That is to say that one way of describing the central purpose and meaning of life is this: for each individual to develop an ever greater capacity to love. That may sound sentimental and trite, but it is nonetheless true. Good fiction draws its vitality from important themes of reality. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series climaxes with the discovery that the most powerful “magic” in the world is love, belittled and scorned by the arch villain of the series even as he is destroyed by its strength.

Love, particularly the love of God, is the central theme of scripture. The scriptures taken altogether are an unfolding exposition of God’s love operating among His children and either embraced or rejected by them. The scriptures describe the deepest and most complete form of love as charity, “the pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:47), the greatest of all the gifts of God (see 1 Corinthians 13:13).

Elsewhere the scriptures name “eternal life” as “the greatest of all the gifts of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 14:7). This is not a contradiction, as eternal life and charity are coincidental. To possess one is to possess the other. Consider these passages of scripture together. The first is how God describes His work, what He does, which must therefore be very closely related to His meaning, His purpose:

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

The second is how the ancient Israelite prophet Lehi described man’s purpose to his family:

men are that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2:25)

This means that immortality, eternal life, and joy are all connected. Jesus taught that they are united in the personal development of the divine trait of love. During the Savior’s preaching in Jerusalem in the last week of His mortality, the legalistic Pharisees sought to trip the Savior up with a question that to them must have been a real poser, undoubtedly a favorite debate topic:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Conceptually this is just another way to introduce our topic about the meaning of life, for surely the commandments of God and the meaning of life are closely related, God’s commandments designed to lead His children through a life of meaning and fulfillment. The answer of Christ, who before His birth had given the commandments to the prophets, silenced for a time His tempters; at least, no rejoinder is mentioned in the record, perhaps because Jesus was referencing what He had given in the laws He revealed to Moses (see Deuteronomy 6:4,5, and Leviticus 19:18).

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

All the rest of the gospel is elaboration of these two commandments. That is the purpose of life, to develop charity, the pure love of Christ, the complete soul-filled love of God, which manifests itself in loving our neighbors as ourselves. How do we do that? As Jesus said, that is the purpose of the law and the prophets. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

As the ancient American prophet Mormon taught,

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified as he is pure. Amen. (Moroni 7:48)

Mormon’s people nearly all rejected his counsel and descended into a hatred that devoured their civilization in pointless dissolution.

Life has meaning because it has choices with real consequences. We feel and see and live them everyday. Amidst the easy-to-see evils of the world, there are plenty who choose to do good, to love their fellows and increase in their love of God. There are and have been those who live life to its fullest, growing in the greatest of all gifts and the mightiest of all powers by being true followers of Jesus Christ, increasing in the love by which they become like Him and by which they will know Him.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. (1 John 4:7,8)

Let us love, that when at last we see God, as we all will, we will recognize Him, because we will have become like Him in the most meaningful way.

Of Men and Women

I hope and have every confidence that at some future day my posterity and yours will look upon the popular efforts of our popular culture, working mightily to smooth out the differences between men and women, and conclude, “Huh?” The differences are real, profound, and obvious.

You have to work very hard to convince young children that men and women, boys and girls, are pretty much the same. The differences are to them an unremarkable truth. And so they remain, despite efforts to pretend they are otherwise. And so, I believe, the differences between man and woman will persist, with unhappiness and poverty the rewards for efforts to obliterate them.

Not that it has not been tried before. It has always come to grief. One story comes from the French Revolution. A leader of the National Assembly proclaimed that the new government had almost completely eliminated all differences between the sexes, when a voice from the back softly retorted, “Vive la différence!”

I, too, embrace the differences and am glad of them. Having been married more than three decades I can testify from long experiment that the many differences between husband and wife, man and woman, have played a central role in our happiness. Even as a youth I often mused upon how my life had been enriched by the influence of women. That was not a new discovery for mankind even if it was for me. Benjamin Disraeli said as much in the 1800s: “There is no mortification however keen, no misery however desperate, which the spirit of woman cannot in some degree lighten or alleviate.” (Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, p.311) I am not aware of any exception to that maxim.

This variety is eternal, built into human nature from the very beginning:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. (Genesis 1:27)

This was no accident of nature. Together man and woman, male and female, are the image of God.

My children have always noticed the difference and profited from it. When they phone, they rarely ask for “Dad.” If Dad answers, they will sweetly and briefly chat and then ask, “Is Mom there?” With Mom they will then talk for a long while, hours sometimes.

On the other hand, while growing up, when they wanted permission to do this or that, more often than not, they went to Dad. To guard against this clever maneuver, my wife and I early made a pact that we would not openly disagree regarding the denial or approval of a child’s request and would seek to consult to get a parental consensus if a matter of consequence were involved. That worked well, but the children still knew where to go first to make their pitch.

The paradigm was similar when it came to bugs, vermin, and fixing broken things, unclogging drains, moving the rubbish—all jobs usually given to Dad and faced with trepidation when Dad was not available. As the boys got older, these jobs increasingly found their way to them, too. The flip side was that all illnesses and injuries were brought to the attention of Doctor Mom. They still are, no matter how far away the child may be.

These patterns have been successful for peace and harmony in the home. Life would be harder if my wife and I struggled against the differences that gave us distinct skills, insights, and abilities, related to being a woman and being a man. One of the greatest blessings of marriage has been to enlist an undying union with the owner of a wealthy supply of talents not easily possessed by the other.

My conversation with friends and colleagues have shown this pattern to be too common to be attributable merely to differences of personality. The differences between man and woman are real and enriching. I thank my God for making man and woman in His image, together.

Vive la différence!

Of Jesus Christ and Revolutionary Doctrines

There are several key doctrines of the gospel of Christ revolutionary to the general world. I do not include the existence of God, since belief in God is as old as human thought. The first man and woman believed in God, and that belief has continued—with much variation—among their children to our present day. Belief in God is not exceptional. It comes easily to the human mind. Disbelief seems to be more artificial.

Without an attempt to list the revolutionary doctrines of Christ by order of importance, I nevertheless will begin with the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and in His divinity He walked among mankind for some 34 years. Through word and deed Jesus proclaimed His relationship to the Father. That being true, and it is, all non-Christian religions are human inventions, however well-meaning they might be. Christ being a God, what He said was true, what He taught was true, what He did had divine approval and purpose. There is peril of the highest order in disregarding any of that.

Next I would turn to the revolutionary import of the resurrection, beginning with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Savior’s resurrection was as sure as His death. Jesus made significant effort to demonstrate the physical nature of the resurrection. When He appeared to His disciples in their shut up room on the evening of that first new day He had them touch the wounds in His hands and feet and the wound in His side inflicted by the executioners to make certain of His death, assuring the disciples that, “a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:39) When the disciples for joy yet doubted their own senses, Jesus emphasized the reality by eating some broiled fish and honeycomb to demonstrate the tangible nature of it all (Luke 24:41-43). The disciples even felt His breath on them (see John 20:22). In the Americas, shortly afterwards, thousands more beheld the resurrected Christ and personally felt the wounds of His execution (see 3 Nephi 11).

In this mortal world, death is as common as birth. The resurrection, already begun, will become as common as death, and will overcome death, making death as temporary as mortal life. Hence the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that, because of the resurrection, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54) That very physical resurrection rescues from oblivion all done in this very physical world, endowing it all with lasting meaning, nothing of value lost.

The fact that we each and all existed before we were born, in another sphere and in the presence of God, our Father, is another revolutionary doctrine of Christ. Jesus taught that His Father was also our Father, the literal Father of our spirits. On the morning of His resurrection, Jesus commanded Mary Magdalene to tell His disciples, “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father” (John 20:17). The Apostle Paul, who taught that we should obey “the Father of spirits, and live” (Hebrews 12:9), wrote to the Romans, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16, 17).

As His spirit children, we lived in the presence of our Eternal Father before this creation. The earth was purposely made for us, designed for our growth and development in our brief mortality. Not only did Christ’s resurrection preserve meaning and purpose for this mortal existence, but that purpose preceded the beginning of mortality. Among the many consequences of that revolutionary truth is the reality that all members of the human race are more than figuratively brothers and sisters. The children born to mortal parents existed before their birth, and they come from the same eternal home as did their parents. There is a deep-rooted respect that is due in both directions between parent and child.

In that context it is appropriate to recognize the revolutionary import of the Christian doctrine of the eternal nature of the marriage relationship. If we come from an eternal family that was formed before the earth was, then it becomes natural to recognize that life’s closest relationship, between husband and wife, is not a temporary arrangement. Love is the highest virtue of the highest heaven. Love finds its deepest manifestation in the marriage union. God, who preserves all good things, could not mean for that relationship to end with death. As Christ paved the way for us to live on through the eternities, so He prepared the way for a loving marriage to last forever for those who desire it enough.

Perhaps on another day I will more than touch upon other Christian doctrines that revolutionize the world and human relations. Among these would be the opportunity to talk with God and receive direct, personal revelation; the ability to change human nature, for better or for worse; the reality of individual freedom, such that God is not responsible for our personal decisions, we own them; and the continuing, unfinished canon of divine scripture, from ancient time into the modern era (scriptures were always revealed in a modern era to those who first received them).

These revolutionary doctrines of Christ are eternal, connecting us to an eternal universe, which makes them revolutionary to a mortal world where endings seem to prevail. They are rejuvenating to mind and spirit. When Christ taught them to the people of the ancient Americas, He declared that “all things have become new.” (3 Nephi 12:47) They make things new today.

Of Life and Resurrection

Recently I had some quiet time to enjoy a beautiful day, the kind of day that makes Spring famous. As I sat on my backyard patio, the sun was bright, the temperature cool. There was a gentle breeze. The air was fresh and alive. The early Spring flowers were blooming, the daffodils and the jonquils.

In the neighborhood the cherry trees and pear trees were in full bloom. Almost all the other trees were budding with the tender Spring green of their new leaves. The mix of scents from the trees, plants, and grass was pleasant and lively. The grass was greening from the Winter brown. I could hear the sounds of the songbirds as they seemed to vie with each other for lead solo in the wildlife choir. All was pleasant, charming, lively, as I sat taking it in while munching on some strawberries.

I should hate to give it up—the whole experience, the sight, the sound, the smell, the taste, the touch, not just the strawberries.

We live in a very physical world. God intended it that way. God went to a lot of trouble to create a very physical world. He took great pains to make it beautiful and lovely. As the Lord revealed to Moses, “And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. (Moses 3:9) . . . And I, God, saw everything that I had made, and behold, all things which I had made were very good” (Moses 2:31).

In the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 59, we read,

Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;

Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.

And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used. . . (Doctrine and Covenants 59:18-20).

I am reminded of a song that was sung at our wedding reception, sung by one of my wife’s college friends. Written and made famous by John Denver, it is called “Annie’s Song,” and it says in part,

You fill up my senses
Like a night in the forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean

The Lord meant to fill up our senses, and He called it very good.

Did God make all these things, all the beauties of this earth, to be used by us only for life’s short day, to be laid aside forever when our bodies are placed in the grave? Once we die, are our senses never to be filled again? Is John Denver never to sing again? Will Helen Keller never see a sunset or hear a waterfall? Will little children who die in their infancy never run in the grass?

Apparently so, were we to rely for our light upon the religions of man. In the teachings of the religions of the world, the things of this physical world are temporary at best, frauds, a distraction from reality. In not a few teachings, this physical world is the sign of evil itself, wherein all things embodied are evil, and life is a quest to cast aside all things material and physical. For in the teachings of the world, God Himself is supposed to be without body, parts, or passions, a great nothingness to which we should all aspire.

Alone and apart from the religions of men and of the world, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims that God was not lying when He declared that His creation and all things He made “were very good.” As members of the Church of Christ, we announce that all that God does is eternal.

It would seem odd, indeed, for God to spend so much time and effort to create the world and the worlds—and all of their details and beauties—if they were not very important. In fact, the Lord emphasized just how important the material world is when He explained in the Doctrine and Covenants something about Himself and physical elements. God declared that, “The elements are the tabernacle of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:35), something that young Joseph Smith saw for himself with his own eyes, when the Father and the Son appeared to him in that First Vision in 1820.

Through the Prophet Joseph Smith the Lord further revealed, “The elements are eternal, and spirit and element inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33, 34) So it was that the Lord explained to Lehi, the prophet, “men are that they might have joy. And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men” (2 Nephi 2:25, 26).

It is true that we shall all die, that we shall not only be touched by death but shall experience it, personally. A couple of years ago my son and I drove by a cemetery with what seemed to me an unusual sight. Lined up along the back were dozens of burial vaults, all waiting for their occupants, some day, sooner or later. Not one of us knows who will be the next occupant, but we cannot deny that we all will go there. There’s a place for us. But it is not the final place.

Those of us who have placed a loved one in the tomb, and have faced this one of life’s most real experiences, know that as we have faced this experience with the bright testimony of the Savior’s resurrection, the sting of death is removed. The sadness is one of parting, not the hopeless despair of irretrievable loss. With the Apostle Paul, we proclaim, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? . . . Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55, 57)

The resurrection and all the good things of life that come with it are real. It is death that is temporary and fleeting.

So, for baseball games and walks in the woods, for ice cream and for spaghetti, for flying through the air and swimming in the sea, for symphonies and chirping birds, for soft warm blankets and cool smooth silk, for fast cars and slow buggies, for fireworks and handshakes, for the scents of the sea and the perfumes of the gardens I thank the Risen Lord and praise my Savior, for making all of these available forever.

We sing praise with the hymnist, Folliott S. Pierpoint:

For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies,

For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flow’r,
Sun and moon, and stars of light,

For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above,
For all gentle thoughts and mild,

Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.
(Hymn 92)

To which I add my own witness of the Living Christ. I have stood in the tomb. It was empty, for Christ is risen, as He said. And all good things by and through Him are saved.

(First published April 12, 2009)

Of Mountains and Forever

They say that the mountains of the East are far older than the mountains of the West and at one time were just as lofty. Over ages and ages the Appalachian Mountains have been worn down by wind and rain and the other engines of change, their substance contributing to much of the land on which many of the people of the southeastern United States today live and where generations before them cleared the land, built their homes, and at length departed.

The sugary white beach sands of Florida’s Emerald Coast are said to be uncountable grains of quartz eroded from the mountains far to the north. The cities of Wilmington, Delaware; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Macon, Georgia; Montgomery, Alabama; and numerous others are outposts along the “Fall Line” of the eastern seaboard, marking where the ocean once met the land and where eons later waterfalls and rapids set the limit that colonial ships could travel up the rivers. All of the land between these cities and today’s coast was created from the rocks of the timelessly ancient Appalachians.

And yet these mountains are still majestic for all of that wear and tear. The clouds ever cling to the Smoky Mountains, while in Virginia, as the Blue Ridge, the mountains rise as the rocky fence that for the early colonists divided the new land between what they called east and west.

I recently spent a week in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on the western side of the Smokies. In the morning the view of Mt. LeConte and other towering peaks greeted me, and at night they fed evening reverie.

Each evening of the week the family gathered for a devotional on a wide porch with that marvelous view as our backdrop. Each adult family member, often helped by a younger participant, took a turn leading us in song, prayer, scripture study, and a spiritual message. Spiritual thoughts came easy in that setting. On one evening in full twilight I called upon the setting for my visual aid.

The mountains of the East are distinguished by being blanketed in forest framing the occasional meadow, with very infrequent exposed rock. I drew attention to the forest covering, noting that among the woodland growth there were a fair number of trees shorn of every leaf—long dead. I remarked that all of the living trees that we saw would die in turn, and that the mountains themselves were steadily disappearing, imperceptibly wearing away. We live in a world that of itself is a world of steady decay, with no earthly exceptions.

And then the point of the message (with little ones in attendance you have to reach the point soon enough): each one of us is older than the mountains before us. Our Heavenly Father told us long before time all about this world and His plan for us here while we lived in His presence in His eternal home that preexisted the earth. From that eternal world we were sent to a world where all was change and where decay prevailed. This temporary world is our learning, growing, and testing ground, where we have full freedom to choose who and what we want to become.

Into this world of death and decay Jesus Christ was sent by His Father and our Father to redeem every good thing, including (most of all) those who would choose to rely upon His power and grace to become good and be brought back into the eternal worlds of the Father’s presence. All good, all beauty, all loveliness of this world would be saved by Christ and amplified where moth and rust do not corrupt. That was the power that Christ the Redeemer won by His atoning sacrifice. As beautiful and great as the view before us, Christ came that we might rise above and lay claim forever to it all, losing nothing worth keeping. Most of all, that included especially all of us gathered on that porch and our eternal relationship as family.

And that was the lesson of the mountains and the forests before us, presented in fewer words. But the truth of the message lingers and will not wear away.

(First published June 25, 2013)

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