The Meaning of Life

Photo credit Ravi Roshan

“Life” is a strange word if you start to pick it apart. 

On the one hand you use it to talk about a quality that belongs to things that are neither dead nor inorganic. This is the biological sense of the word. Things that have the incredible internal ability to grow, metabolize, reproduce themselves, and adapt to their environment have life and are alive. 

“Life” in this sense already inspires a heavy sense of awe. If you have ever watched a documentary like Blue Planet or Planet Earth you have surely felt a powerful sense of reverence and admiration for living things. 

However, there is another sense of “life” that you use on a regular basis. You are using this other sense whenever you say that you want a career or a partner who “brings you life,” or that your favorite hobby is life-giving for you. This is the existential sense of “life.” 

You might realize that this second definition of life appears strange in relation to the first. There seems to be little connection, other than that one sort of living thing – human beings like me and you – seek out this other kind of life. Yet, from a purely biological perspective it is not clear why enjoying your job, being in a loving relation, or having especially interesting and joyful amusements have anything to do with your intrinsic ability to grow by processes of metabolism, reproduction, and environmental adaptation (to repeat the definition). What I just listed are the Darwinian aspects of life, the red-in-tooth-and-claw struggle that all organisms participate in to maintain biological existence. 

Furthermore, just because you have life in the first, biological sense does not mean that you have it in the second, existential sense. You clearly do have it in the first sense: since you are reading this you are clearly alive and not a dead or inanimate object. But I would wager that you don’t always feel fully alive in the second sense. I’m sure there are days when you feel a bit lifeless, where you don’t seem to have motivation or direction. Maybe you don’t feel fully engaged in life sometimes, or perhaps you are suffering from a depression that keeps you from feeling life or joy at all. Some people feel so little “life” that they end up deciding for themselves, tragically, that death is preferable to it. 

All your life long you are seeking ways to truly live. 

Yet, although these two senses of life seem disconnected, I think there truly is a profound connection between them when considered from a Christian perspective. 

Christians have traditionally understood life to be one of God’s attributes. For Christians God is not an impersonal or dead force or logic. He is the Living One! He is Life Itself! God is powerfully and vibrantly brimming over with Life that flows from his own center. From God’s own Life he gives and shares life with all created and living beings. But God’s Life is also radically different than anything we can call life down here on earth. His Life is Uncreated, and because of this, created life down here is only a shadow of the Uncreated Divine Life, which is so much more gloriously potent and beyond our kind of life that ours is closer to unlife, to death, in comparison. But this does not mean that created life, the life that you and I have, is in any way lacking or deficient: God has given us life in a manner appropriate to our finitude, and this is good and beautiful. 

Scripture is replete with references to God’s Life. “For with you is the fountain of life,” writes the Psalmist in Psalm 36:9. Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Later, he even says that he is Life in John 14:6. 

Human beings are the only living creatures whose “life” is not fulfilled in itself. Other creature are not concerned with feeling fully alive or participating in life-giving activities the way we are. Only human life is not fulfilled in the biological sense of the word that I talked about above. Your biological life, the fact that you have blood pumping through your veins and air filling your lungs is not enough. It is not enough to merely metabolize, reproduce, and adapt. Rather, these processes are drawn towards a horizon that lies beyond the material, biological aspect of life – drawn out towards the Infinite, towards Life Itself. This is where the two meanings of life come together, only in humanity, where what is Finite finally consciously reaches out beyond its Finitude where it has no sight, in order to grasp for Infinity. And remarkably that space beyond our sight is not empty, but filled with Presence – the Presence of Someone, the Infinite One – Life – that is, God – reaching back, grasping our hand in his. 

From a Christian perspective, the desire for a fulfilling life, for a life-giving career, to find life in something, somewhere – these are all good, God-given desires. God wants you to feel full of life, brimming over with it, ready to run and bound across the mountain tops. Yet, this desire for fulness of life – it is made to ultimately find its endpoint in God. It can only be fulfilled – filled to the brim – in him. With God is the fountain of life, and when you drink deeply from it, all those desires to be really alive will be fulfilled to a greater capacity than you could have ever imagined. 

So what’s there to wait for? Start living.

Author: Tyler F Nunley

My thoughts on God, the world, and the Bible

2 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life”

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