In the film “Dead Poet’s Society” Robin Williams plays John Keating, an English professor at a boys’ prep school. He starts the year by leading his class to the hall where the school’s early class members are enshrined. Keating tells them to look closely at the pictures, “They are not that different from you, are they? Same hair cuts, same hormones. Invincible, just like you feel…They believe they are destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope. Did they wait too long to make their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you…Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” It is a powerful scene. The psalmist gives us a similar message, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Life is but a vapour. None of us knows which day will be our last. At the same time, none of us wants to waste our life. We want to know that what we did was “meaningful.” But what is the meaning of life? Which actions matter and which ones don’t?
The secret to life?
The meaning of life is a questioned often pondered by filmmakers. In City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays Mitch, a middle age man facing midlife angst. His buddies take him on a desert cattle drive, led by a leathery, tough-as-burnt-biscuits old cowboy named Curly who commands instant fear and respect. Crystal’s character cautiously develops a bond with Curly.
On a side trip to save a pregnant cow, Curly asks, “Do you know what the secret to life is?” He holds up one finger and says “This. One thing. Just one thing. You stick to this and the rest don’t mean (nothing.)”
Mitch replies, “But what is the one thing?”
Curly cryptically smiles, “That’s what you have to find out.” Unfortunately, Curly keels over, before disclosing any more information. Mitch later has an epiphany while rescuing a calf in a flash flood. He realizes that the “one thing” that gives life meaning is not some universal truth; it is what you decide it is. Mitch decides his ultimate meaning in life is his family.
Whose story is this?
When humanity decided that there was no God and this world was the result of a giant accidental explosion, those who bought this worldview were left in a quandary. They found themselves in a script without an Author. Some responded with despair and chose suicide. Why go on if life is meaningless? We are worm food; it makes no ultimate difference whether we give Grandma a lift or run over Grandma. The universe will eventually die a slow heat loss death and there will be nothing left to remember how we lived or die. This is of course a very bleak picture, and no one can really live like that.
Atheist Woody Allen loves to explore this theme of finding meaning in a universe without meaning. In “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Allen’s character recounts how his suicide attempt failed and in a daze after, he went to a movie. He goes on “I’m watching these people up on the screen and I started getting hooked on the film. I started to feel, how can you even think of killing yourself, I mean isn’t it so stupid? Look at all the people up there on the screen, they’re real funny, and what if the worst is true. What if there is no God and you only go around once and that’s it. Well, ya know, don’t you wanna be part of the experience? … I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts. And after, who knows, I mean maybe there is something, nobody really knows. I know ‘maybe’ is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have. And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.”
We will always have Paris…
In a world of doubt and mistrust of institutions and organized religion, feeling betrayed and sick of being lied to, we don’t know what is real. Life is being reduced to a philosophy of “enjoy life, savor the moment, because today is all we have.” The ancients put it “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
I have often struggled with the bitter taste of doubt, wondering if what I believe about God and Jesus, and heaven and hell is really true. There is a part of me that succumbs to the spirit of the age and says whatever you do, make sure you are enjoying each day. If you find out Christianity is false, at least you can rest assured knowing that you didn’t waste your life in misery. You were duped but you enjoyed it.
Are Christians to be pitied?
The version of Christianity that is often peddled today is very compatible with this hedge-betting. “Jesus makes everything better. God’s plan for your life down here is so much better than whatever else this world has to offer.” There is truth to these ideas and they sound so appealing. Even if it is all false, we Christians still had it better than anyone else, right? From this perspective, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15 are jarring, “If Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
To be a Christian in Paul’s day meant sacrificing much of the pleasures of this life. It often entailed humiliation, beating, shunning, job loss, persecution, and worse. If your goal was to enhance this life because “today is all you have”, then Christianity was not for you.
The sacrifice of fools
As attractive as the calls to “make the most of this life” and to “enjoy it to the fullest” are, it seems to me that they can become a poison to the soul. God’s redemptive purposes for this world often call us to sacrifice our immediate pleasure and gratification for the benefit those around us. We are to seek His kingdom first, not merely maximize our pleasure. Raising little arrows for His glory often requires a mother to give up sleep, comfort, even sanity, to give the children the love they need to become godly men and women. Children are great blessings, but they require sacrifice. If this life is all we have, then the pleasure of the moment is the most precious thing we have, and to sacrifice it is foolishness.
Life is short, eat dessert first
There is a reason advertisers love this theme of “life is short.” It convinces us that we deserve to make the most of each moment, which means splurging on their product. Bound to this earthly short-term perspective, we are putty in Satan’s claws. “Seizing the day” becomes more important than acting wisely with an eye to the future. According to the messages of the culture we breathe, making the most of your life means following your passions. If that involves an affair, go for it! Life is too short to abide by restrictive and oppressive morality. Are the authorities in your life preventing you from following your dreams? Rebel! You owe it to yourself! Conformity kills, self-expression brings life! These are all logical expressions of truth…if there is no God, no moral Lawgiver and no judgement day.
But if life is a gift from God and he requires us to stand before him some day and give an account, then that changes everything. When God walked among us he warned us, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life[f] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” (Matthew 16 24b-27 NIV)
Will it be worth it all?
Our bodies are fading and falling apart, but our souls go on forever. God is more concerned with the health of our souls and our relationship with him, than he is about our immediate gratification. Part of becoming a mature adult is the realization that there can be more pleasure in the future, if we say no to some pleasure in the now. Like saying no to that second plate of pasta so that you don’t feel bloated the rest of evening. Or gritting through the pain of exercise knowing that this pain is leading to satisfaction in the future.
God asks us to do the same thing, to give up some of our immediate pleasure, but He promises that the sacrifice and trials we endure down here will be repaid with something much greater than what we gave up. 2 Cor 4:16 says “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
What do we really want?
God asks us to die daily to our selfish natures and earthly lusts. When he asks for this self-denial it is really an act of love, because we humans don’t really know what we want or what we need. In the book “Stumbling on Happiness” Daniel Gilbert explores the many ways humans pursue happiness and end up disappointed because the thing they thought would make them happy didn’t. We seek what we imagine will fulfill us and avoid what we imagine will hurt us, but our imaginations fail us. We imagine LA to be nothing but year-round lovely weather and beaches, and get there and discover, crime, traffic, and smog, the details our imagination conveniently left out.
The arsenic in the lace
Satan’s deception is prevalent: that the key to happiness is found in selfish gratification, and in owning just a little bit more. He tells us that if we improve our circumstances we will be happy, he just leaves out the part about how we adapt to the bigger house and newer car, what used to thrill us now leaves us numb. His lies have not changed since the beginning, they follow the same themes every time. God can not be trusted, he wants to make us miserable, surrender to God means saying good bye to pleasure. He floods our imaginations with bleak and gory pictures of what that sacrifice will entail and then says, “you don’t want that do you?” And we keep falling for it hook, line, and sinker. We throw caution to the wind and embrace the twisted apple only to find it is mealy and bitter when we wake from the trance.
Carpe Diem and Fear of the Lord
Seize the day, is a biblical truth. Joshua commanded people of Israel to “choose this day” who they would serve. The writer of Hebrews pleads with us to not harden our hearts but choose life because today is the day of Salvation. This moment before us is the only moment we have to work with and we must make the most of it. But we do not live in a cold and meaningless universe. We are not free to choose whatever makes us happy. God did give us free will, but he also gave us his law which is found on our hearts and in His Word. Paul says in 2 Cor 5:10 “9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
Before we can truly make the most of each moment, we must get the fear of God implanted in our soul. Solomon was given the financial opportunity to do whatever he wanted. He adapted to each new thrill and sensual pleasure and ended up in deep despair; feeling like life was meaningless. But by God’s grace his life did not end in suicide, it ended with a fresh realization:” Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecc 12:13-14)
A beautiful Saviour
Because we have a Saviour who has removed our sins far from us, this future judgement day should no longer terrify us with, but it should not make us complacent. This life is precious, we do only have one chance at it before the judgement. We should not let fear or laziness rob us of the rich adventure God has for us. We are to savour each moment with gratitude to God for his love and beauty. God made us to be worshippers, he wants to dazzle us. When we respond with praise, the pleasure will never grow old. We will never adapt to the point where we become bored with God’s endless beauty. He is the inventor of pleasure. He created all five of our senses and filled the world with gifts that pleasure each of these senses, and then he gave us memories to that we could relive the joy. Jesus said in John 10:10 that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Seize the day, but do it by making Jesus Christ the Lord of every area of your life. If Jesus is not your master, you will be enslaved to the forces that want to destroy you. Jesus is worthy of all your devotion. He gave up everything so you could be free, don’t waste his precious gift.