“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” says the author of Ecclesiastes.
Another way to render “vanity” is “meaningless” or “empty”. The authorship of this book has traditionally been attributed to King Solomon, the “wisest man to ever live”. This is a man who had everything. Health, riches, power, peace, good food and drink, and maybe a few too many wives. All this, and he declares that life is meaningless.
What gets you up in the morning? What, if anything gives you reason to say at the end of the day that “this has been a good day”? How can we possibly have meaning when Solomon couldn’t find it?
We Have An Intrinsic Need To Self Actualize
The term “self actualization” was coined by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein. “In Goldstein’s view, it is the organism’s master motive, the only real motive: ‘the tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is the basic drive… the drive of self-actualization.'”
In other words, everyone without exception needs to have a sense of meaning. We need a lasting purpose in life.
Abraham Maslow identified five human needs, starting with our most basic of physiological needs and then continuing on to safety, then love & belonging, then esteem, and at the very top, self actualization. It is very interesting to me that the science of psychology ties together meaning with spirituality. This tells me that there is nothing in the physical realm which in and of itself can provide anyone with real or lasting meaning in life.
Personally, I think that in order for anyone to find any kind of meaning in existence, we need to start to understand the nature of God.
In the 300’s, the Cappadocian fathers were largely responsible for digging into scripture and giving us the non dualistic trinitarian theology that I believe is required for us to understand what God is all about and how we fit into this existence we’ve been thrust into. Though the modern western stream of Christianity largely believes in the basic doctrine of the trinity and gives lip-service to it, we have lost the implications of what this trinitarian God means for us.
In the 400’s Augustine of Hippo infused the dualistic philosophies of Plato and Aristotle into Christianity, and I think we need to go back to the pre-Augustine church in order to see the connection between the trinity and our life’s meaning.
There Is No Separation Between God & Man
The biggest lie heard in the western church today is that we are separated from God. This idea comes from a partial reading of Habbakuk 1:13 which says, “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing” (NRSV).
Does God have such a weak stomach that He cannot look upon the mess His own creation has gotten into?
I have a wife and three daughters. One of our favorite family activities over the years has been to go camping in the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary, Alberta. When we were younger and poorer we used a tent to go camping. Eventually we bought our first small camping trailer. It wasn’t much, but it had beds and a small kitchen, and like the previous tent, no washroom.
Now, campgrounds are all equipped with outhouses for folks like our younger selves who don’t have the luxury of bringing the portable washroom facilities that our older, better established selves now enjoy. As a dad with small children, there was something that always bothered me about the outhouses. The hole was just the right size for a small child to fit through. A thought that always went through my mind was, “What if one of my kids fell down there? What would I do?”
I can tell you with certainty. If one of my kids had fallen into an outhouse, I would not look away claiming that my eyes are too pure to look upon such filth. I would find a way to join my child down there in the filth to rescue her. Nothing would stop me. There would be no hesitation.
The second part of that verse from Habbakuk reads, “WHY DO YOU look upon the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” Yes, God does look upon sin. Jesus is God. God became one of us and “jumped into the outhouse” with us so to speak. Nothing can stop Him from rescuing us. Nothing.
Speaking about Jesus, Colossians 1:15-20 reads:
“15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (NASB)
It’s kind of hard to ignore verse 17. “He is before all things, and IN HIM ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER”. Does “all things” really mean that? Indeed, Paul previously detailed what “all things” includes: things in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, thrones, dominions, rulers, authorities—all things.
What are the implications of this? There is no separation between us and God. All are in Christ, whether they know it or not.
Relationship vs Substance
Aristotle taught us that substance was more important than relationship. One thing I really love about being alive in modern time, is how science is dispelling Neoplatonic and Aristotelian philosophies. There are discoveries constantly being made in the various disciplines of quantum physics which prove what Christendom has known for centuries. We live in exciting times!
We know that an atom, the smallest building block of substance or matter is made of three elements. Electrons, protons and neutrons. None of these things are able to form matter individually. They are held together by a relationship which we do not yet understand. Without this relationship, they cannot be held together. If they cannot be held together, there is no substance.
Therefore, Aristotle was wrong. Relationship is not only of greater importance than substance, it is the very reason substance is able to exist. I think that science will yet discover that this relationship which holds these pieces together is found in verse 17.
Like the atom, the Cappadocian fathers tell us that the Godhead is made of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each one an individual person. All have the same substance or essence. If you take the Father by Himself, you would not have God. Same with the Son or the Holy Spirit. They only form God together, held together by relationship. We know what that relationship is. It is love.
1 John tells us repeatedly that “God is love”. It is not just another characteristic of God, otherwise John would have said, “God loves”. This is the very essence of God. What does this love look like though? How is it expressed? Is it kind of like, “I love camping, or I love my motorcycle?” Or is it something more meaningful?
The greek word for this love is “Agape” which essentially means an “other thinking, unconditional” love. It is a love that no matter what another person does to you or says to you, you accept and love them anyway. You think of them before yourself.
How is this love expressed? The concept of how love is expressed is found throughout scripture, but is best described in Philippians 2:5-7, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but EMPTIED HIMSELF, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men.” (NASB).
The greek word for this is “Kenosis”. The Cappadocian fathers imagined this kenotic love within the trinity to be like a dance. The Father empties Himself of love into the Son, the Son empties Himself of love into the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit empties herself of love into the Father.
Some have objected to the term, “emptying”, like, “how can the Father be empty of love?” The answer to that is that He can’t. Think of the water cycle. Imagine a major river like the Mississippi, for example. It is constantly emptying itself into the ocean. It is never empty, but always in the process of emptying. The ocean likewise is always emptying into the atmosphere and the atmosphere is always emptying back into the river system. It’s like a dance.
They called it “Perichoresis”.
The Divine Dance
God created mankind and wished to include us in this dance.
The two problems were:
- We are created and God is uncreated. We cannot understand God or have a relationship with Him as such.
- We fell short by seeking independence, by choosing to have our own knowledge of good and evil over simple trust and surrender.
God solved problem #1 at the incarnation by becoming human. Jesus the Son is unique in the Godhead as He has hypostatic union in that He is forever 100% divine and also 100% human. He became the meeting place for the created and the uncreated to be together.
Problem number #2 was solved at the cross and through the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 says, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam ALL die, so also in Christ ALL will be made alive.” (NASB).
Somehow Christ took our sinful “life” from us (all humanity, not just believers) at the cross and it died with Him. With the resurrection, Christ took His life, His relationship with the Father and shared it with us. So in Christ we have a meeting place. We have one member of the Trinity who is both human and divine, who shares His life with us.
What does this have to do with our self actualization?
We need to come to grips with the reality that our meaning will never come from our jobs, our social status, how much money we have, etc. These are all things and relationships which can certainly bring satisfaction and joy, but are all in the end—temporal. We were created by One who is love, for the purpose of sharing in this love. We are to live, allowing God to fill us with His love, and we in turn are to unselfishly, thinking of others instead of ourselves, allow that very love to be emptied into the lives of those around us, only to be constantly filled again with Gods unending love.
Might I suggest that this kind of life, engaging in the dance, God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven by us, in a way, is heaven?
Might I also suggest that those who reject God’s love, or maybe take in His love and horde it unselfishly for themselves are living in a kind of hell?
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 says, “If i speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, i have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” (NASB).
Let’s bring this into our everyday lives. If I go to my job and don’t do my best work for the sake of my customer, participating in the flow of love, it is meaningless. If I remain faithful to my wife out of obligation and my own sense of moral pride, but don’t let the love of God flowing through me touch her life, it is meaningless. If I go to a restaurant enjoying top quality service, food and drink, but am rude to the servers, withholding God’s love from their lives, it too becomes meaningless.
Wherever I go, if the lives of others are not better because of my involvement in them in some way, I think that perhaps, I have fallen short of engaging in this dance of God. I love the way Francois DuToit words 1 Cor. 16:14 in the Mirror Bible, “Agape is your genesis. Loving everyone around you is what you are all about. (Our love for one another is awakened by God’s love for us.)”
How do I fix this then when I fall short? Is there a step by step program I can follow to be a better Christian?
The church has too often been guilty of telling us that we need to just obey, spend more time at church, read the Bible more, etc., in order to have a deep relationship with God. That is backwards thinking. God is not after our obedience nor our spiritual busyness. He is after relationship with us. Obedience is simply a natural byproduct of relationship.
With perfect relationship powered by kenotic love, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has no place in our lives. We don’t desire it. We only desire the tree of life. God’s love will indeed flow into the lives of others through us.
There is only one step: surrender.
This is the gospel which Jesus taught. The gospel is not the vapid soteriological escapism which is so prevalent in the western church today. It is not about uttering magic words a.k.a. the “sinners prayer” so that we can be forgiven by a god who’s pretty ticked off with us so that we won’t be tortured forever in the afterlife.
The gospel is knowing that we are already forgiven by a God who scandalously loves us, who has already, objectively included us in the relationship of the trinity. It is about having meaning in the here and now…and also in the afterlife. Our self actualization is found in the great dance. We are meant to live as a child, in complete surrender and dependence upon our loving Abba. We are also meant to participate in spreading that love to everyone around us.
Imagine a world where everyone lives like that with perfect meaning in their lives?
That will be heaven on earth. Let’s start with the world around us!
Ryan Harbidge is the husband to one beautiful woman and a father to three gorgeous young ladies. He lives in the small town of Nanton, Alberta, Canada and owns a painting company. Ryan likes to spend his free time reading, writing, playing music, camping, hiking, riding his motorcycle, growing a large beard and most importantly, basking in the reality of God’s love. It is Ryan’s hope and dream that others will understand and experience God’s love through his writing, music and life.