- NILS VON KALM
What do you believe will give you life? Most of us, if we're honest, believe that life is short, so we should suck whatever we can out of it now to get the most from it that we can.
This mantra is not a product of our 21st century way of life. St Paul said it 2,000 years ago in his first letter to the Corinthian believers. If there is no resurrection, he said, we may as well "eat and drink, for tomorrow we die".
A FULFILLED LIFE? Nils von Kalm argues that life is too short to be selfish. PICTURE: Lake Mapourika, New Zealand/Nils von Kalm
"What does it profit us if we gain the whole world or have all the experiences we want but lose our very self? There is nothing wrong with experiences; God has given us our senses to enjoy the creation, but if that is all we live for, our lives will be very narrow indeed. Someone said once that a life wrapped up in itself is a very small package."
Humanity needs meaning in life. The older I get, the more I see that life is indeed short and so I want to make the most of it. A former pastor of mine told the story of a man he visited one day. The man had woken up one morning and realised that all of a sudden he was 65-years-old and that his life had rapidly approached its end in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
There are certain truths about life that will help us deal with it on its terms. One of them is that life, society and the planet go on without us when we die. We are not indispensable. In that sense, we are not that important. When you have a sense of your own self-importance you are wasting your life. It reminds me of how convinced I am that Jesus was right when He said that life is found in denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Him.
What does it profit us if we gain the whole world or have all the experiences we want but lose our very self? There is nothing wrong with experiences; God has given us our senses to enjoy the creation, but if that is all we live for, our lives will be very narrow indeed. Someone said once that a life wrapped up in itself is a very small package.
Because our society is fixated on the material, our experiences gear us for addiction. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of Christian men have looked at pornography in the last month. Our temptation to find life in whatever feels good regardless of its moral value reveals the seductive nature of our culture. We are bombarded by literally thousands of advertisements every day, all of them reminding us that we are perpetually unhappy until we have this experience or that product. In a society where we are constantly told that externals will fill the hole within us, it doesn't take long for us to believe it.
We are not very good at sitting with emptiness. Our constant temptation is to medicate it. And in a society where we have increasingly more options open to us, we struggle to find a reason to not medicate. The more we assuage the pain though, the less resilient we become. That's the irony of our affluence. We live in one of the richest countries in the world, at the richest period in history, yet we have some of the worst social statistics in the world. One woman is killed every week due to domestic violence, eight of us kill ourselves every day, loneliness is an epidemic, and the rate of depression in the Western world is 10 times what it was at the end of World War II. Something is not adding up.
The narrative that success is where it's at, that individual freedom will give us what we want, is a terrible lie. It is not working; it never has and it never will.
This is where the wisdom of Jesus is so relevant. In a culture where most of us can make a living but many of us struggle to make a life, Jesus says life does not consist in the abundance of possessions; when we are lonely beyond what we have ever known, He asks us what it will profit us if we gain the whole world but lose our very self.
Jesus’ words point us to Himself as the source of the life we are really after. In Him we realise that because life is short, we can make the most of it by loving our neighbour as ourselves. He tells us that this is so important that the whole of the Old Testament law is summed up in that commandment and the parallel one to love God with all of ourselves.
Life is indeed too short to be selfish. I heard those words during a sermon at a wedding about 30 years ago. They have stuck with me ever since. When we are reminded that life is short, our ingrained thinking tells us to get all we can now before it's over. It doesn't occur to us to do the opposite and do all we can to love before it's over, and further, that living that way gives us the meaning in life we crave. Even more so, the life of meaning that we all crave has significance for eternity, for the life of the age to come. It is not all over once we die; our deeds done in the name of Jesus now count for what is to come. This is the ultimate meaning we gain from a life of service to Jesus.
It's generally not until it's almost too late that we realise what life is about. It has been said that no-one ever lay on their death bed and wished they had spent more time in the office. We all wish we had spent more time with our loved ones, doing the things that matter. But we are distracted by the superficial, or, as Soren Kierkegaard said, we are tranquilised by the trivial. We are entertaining ourselves to death, riding down the river of pleasure, oblivious to the waterfall that we are about to career over the edge of.
We scroll through our Facebook feeds, desperate to not miss out on the latest news, addicted to comparing ourselves to our friends because we can't handle the anxiety of unrealistic expectations. We settle for misery when the life we want is within reach.
With St Peter, though, we can be reminded to cast our anxieties on God because we are cared for. Like St Paul we can learn to be content whatever the circumstances. Our anxieties don't define us and our past mistakes don't have to determine our future.
Socrates was right when he said the unexamined life is not worth living. The only life worth living is that which gives itself away for others, that follows Jesus in His suffering love for neighbours and enemies alike and that does so enabled by the power of His Spirit within.