Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.
1 Corinthians 9:24
As a younger man, in my late 30’s or early 40’s, I attended a men’s event at church. There were just a few of us; probably less than 20, but I still remember the exhortation of the pastor to “finish well”. He cited men like David, Solomon, Hezekiah, all of whom saw God use them powerfully for his purpose, but then just drifted. Families and kingdoms imploded as they failed to stay the course.
A little while ago, someone I care about posed a question that I interpreted along the lines of “what is the meaning of life?” I replied with “well done, good and faithful servant.” What follows is adapted from the letter I wrote in response. As I’ve re-read it, I’m encouraged that this is a message worth hearing (and re-hearing). I hope you will find it useful as well.
As important as it is to ask about the meaning of life, it is more important how you ask, or rather how you are prepared to receive the answer. Solomon wrestled with it in the book of Ecclesiastes, and he was the wisest man to ever live.
Some in the world would tell you that “he who dies with the most toys, wins.” However, even the most cursory examination of that philosophy reveals that “he who dies with the most toys still dies”. Chasing after things, pleasure, even “enriching” experiences is ultimately futile. As Solomon noted, “[God] has put eternity into man’s heart…” (Ecc 3:11). We intrinsically know that there must be something “more” than this; some enduring meaning that outlasts our brief span on this earth.
Logic suggests that to find an eternal meaning, you must engage in an eternal purpose. Since there is only one eternal, living God, fulfilling his purposes for me is the most profound, meaningful activity I can engage in. This is what I meant when I answered your question with “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Now we get to the meddling part. Maybe you are hearing “mene mene tekel upharsin” (Dan 5:25), repeating the condemnation to yourself over and over. You sense a futility about your daily activities (Ecc 1:2-3); your goals, hopes, and dreams have not come to pass like you expected them to. Or at least, these are my guesses.
Maybe your pain goes deeper. Maybe you are mired in secret sin that you know is wrong, but can’t gain victory over. The “accuser of the brethren” is standing over your shoulder throwing yellow cards and telling you that you will never succeed, that you’ve gone too far this time, that God could never love you, forgive you, accept you. So you are wondering if there is any consolation prize that can salvage the shipwreck you’ve made of your life.
Whatever your starting point, the search for meaning must be willing to cast off meaninglessness. Maybe there is some truth to whatever accusations you are entertaining about your life. If you are building with wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor 3:12), are you going to keep on doing what you are doing, or will you change your building materials?
As the saying goes, “if you want what you’ve never had, you must do what you’ve never done.” This is the first, non-negotiable prerequisite for change. Change is hard. It requires closing the door on what has been. There is loss. It must be experienced, mourned, embraced. Without the end of what was, there can never be the beginning of what will be. I know this sounds like motivational bumper sticker-ism but that’s doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Simple truth is never simple to implement. It is hard, and we need all the encouragement we can get to persevere with hard things.
The other crucial step is to change who you are listening to. Even if all of the accusations of the enemy about you are true, all of his representations of God are false. Just as in the Garden the serpent misrepresented God, sowing the seeds of doubt and disobedience, you are still being told lies about God.
What then is the truth?
- “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8). If God loved you enough to die for you while you were in your sin, what can you do that will change that love?
- “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8-9). My acceptance has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Jesus’ atonement.
- “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God… For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Heb 10:12,14). The work of Jesus was singular, sufficient, and complete. Just as I cannot add to it by my good works, neither can I detract from it by my evil deeds. Jesus is enough.
- “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1). Why? Because Jesus did everything that the law required, including dying for “the wages of sin”. Therefore, we are released from the transactional “if you do this, then you get that” way of life.
All of which leads to, what does “well done, good and faithful servant” mean? Does it mean that God is sitting on his throne in Heaven waiting to see who has enough gumption to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do what he wanted them to do? I don’t think so. I think it is pretty obvious in scripture that God is never particularly interested in what we bring to the table, beyond our availability. David didn’t defeat Goliath by his superior military skill; Gideon had to have his army decimated before God would use him; the boy on the Judean hillside didn’t bring a catering truck, he brought a sack lunch. God is really much more interested in what we will allow him to do.
- But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9).
I have always longed to have great power, to be able to call down fire from heaven, like Elijah. But I have come to understand that what God wants is for me to be weak so the he can show himself powerful. The horrible thing about that is that I’m still weak. In fact, I think God is about breaking me of all my self-sufficiency until nothing is left but God-sufficiency.
I think the commendation is more “you learned to get out of the way and let me use you” than a “look what a good job you did.” The more I know God, the more persuaded I am of his goodness and redemptive character. When things don’t make sense, I remind myself that God is good and cling to that.
The marvelous thing about the Kingdom of God is that it doesn’t matter how (or when) you start; it only matters how you finish (Matthew 20:8-9). May you run the course set before you in such a way as to win the prize.