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What Makes Life Worth Living?

by Leroy Garrett

Let me take my chances in the worldly wilderness of sin and suffering. –William James

In teaching philosophy to both high school and college students it was always a ball to place this question on the table for discussion. They had their answers, but they were not what one might expect. They did not name getting a job and making a lot of money – or gaining fame or positions of power. They did name family, friends, character, meaningful employment, and worthwhile goals. Not bad. Most classes in fact scored high marks in dealing with this – one of the weightiest questions we have to face, but one that many people never ask themselves.

I pointed out to them that their answers were more theoretical than practical. If it is family, work, and worthy ambition that makes life worthy, how is one to live – in every day life – to realize these virtues. Are there any rules or maxims to follow? Is there an underlying philosophy?

Religious answers – even Christian ones – may also be more theoretical than practical. There is hardly a better answer to what makes life worth living than our Lord’s dynamic maxim: “Seek first the kingdom of God.” Then there’s “Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul.” But even here the ideas have to find relevance to day to day living. What am I to do – pragmatically – in seeking first God’s kingdom.

The Westminster divines in their Catechism asked this question in different words – What is the chief end of man? Their answer is sublime: “The chief end of man is know God and to glorify him forever.” That gets us off to a good start, but, again – how about the practical? How do I go about knowing and glorifying God?

There was a famous philosopher at Harvard – long before my student days there – who was passionate about this question of what makes life worthwhile. It may even be said that William James committed a substantial part of his academic career in search of the answer – even to the point of emotional and physical fatigue. While through the years he came up with possible answers, none had long term satisfaction. He at last found his answer when he least expected it – when he left Harvard for a vacation, something he apparently seldom did.

James’s colleagues told him of the glorious vacation one could have at the Assembly Grounds at Lake Chautauqua, New York. He went there in the summer of 1899 out of curiosity. He intended to stay but a day, but he settled in for a week. He found it even more sublime than its reputation. He afterwards told of its magnificent music – a chorus of 700 voices – in the most perfect open-air auditorium in the world. There were popular lectures by distinguished speakers. There was sobriety, industry, intelligence, goodness, and prosperity everywhere. There were even religious services of several different sects.

He found no diseases, no poverty, no drunkenness, no crime. There was no police, no suffering, no dark corners. No victims, no tears, no tragedy. He says that at Lake Chautauqua he found culture at its best, a foretaste of what human society might be. He was spell-bound by the charm and ease of it all.

He was in for a surprise once he returned to Harvard – to the real world of problems, difficulties, challenges, sin, suffering. “Ouf! What a relief!” he later wrote, “Now for something primordial and savage to set the balance straight again.” He had at last found his answer as to what makes life worth living. The life at Lake Chautauqua was not worth living – certainly for no more than a few days. It was too tame, too timid, too easy, too uninspiring. There were no challenges, no drama between good and evil.

He came up with the word precipitous – life is to be lived precipitously. That is what makes life worth living! In that word he saw risk, danger, intensity, heroic struggle. To live precipitously is to live out on the edge, to take chances, to live dangerously, to be a fighter for ideals and for what one believes to be right. It means to run the risk of losing in the struggle – maybe even the risk of being wrong.

Is not all this implied in seeking first the kingdom of God? Our Lord also said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 5:11), which is probably a reference to the self-sacrifice and bitter persecution endured by those who enter the kingdom. Grace is free but it is not cheap. Jesus calls for one to “take up his cross daily” if he would be his disciple (Lk. 9:23). In his parables Jesus calls for risk-taking. He disapproved of the man who buried his talents, while he blessed the one who ventured and multiplied his talents. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Even one’s sojourn in the church may be fraught with danger. Paul warned the elders at Ephesus that savage wolves would arise even in their own midst, not sparing the flock (Acts 20:29). Augustine insisted that there are as many wolves within the church as there are sheep without, which may be an overstatement, but it points to a disturbing truth – that it is sometimes the case that our brethren and our enemies are the same. In recounting his troubled life, Paul wrote of “perils among false brethren” (2 Cor. 11:26).

Paul summed it all up with: “I have fought the good fight” (2 Tim. 4:7). He added, “There is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.” The fight and the victory, the cross and the crown. Like the apostle, we must be willing to get our nose bloodied–to live precipitously – that is what makes life worth living.

< Reprinted by Permission >




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If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8