One of my favorite hymns is the Irish “Be thou my vision”, its words are attributed to Dallan Forgaill in the 6th century and its tune an Irish folk song, “Slane”. The theme is that God alone should be the vision and goal of every Christian, just as He was for Paul in Philippians 3:7-14.
What does it mean to have God for our vision in our purpose for life?
The modern mantra of finding ones purpose for life seems to be “follow your inner star”, “find your dream” or “do your own thing.” The idea is that within each person is something that will guide him or her to meaning and fulfillment in life if only he or she does it. Books, music, and movies parrot this idea relentlessly, and many people simply accept it as truth. Under certain assumptions this could be logical:
- If God does not exist in any form and each individual man is his ultimate personal life force, then is it up to man to find his/her own meaning and fulfillment in life.
- If God exists but He, really It, is only an impersonal “force”, “energy field”, or whatever, then each individual is an ultimate personal life force and is responsible to find his/her own meaning and fulfillment in life.
- If God exists as a person but has no interest in or purpose for the universe, then man’s meaning and fulfillment would have to come from him/her self. This might be the case if God and the Universe were both independent and everlasting.
If, however, a personal God exists and He created the universe, it is hard to imagine that He would create the universe for no reason. His purpose in creating the universe would then dictate the purpose of each element, including each person, in that universe. Each individual would find his or her meaning and fulfillment in life by discovering what role they were to play in God’s universe and playing it to the best of their abilities. If this is true, the mantra might be “follow Christ’s star (Matthew 2:2)”, “find God’s dream for you” or “do your part of His thing.”
The trouble with each person finding his or her own meaning is that life involves great suffering, and that eventually we all die. In the long run the universe, commonly defined as the totality of existence, material existence, or at least life, will be destroyed. There are two possibilities: either our expanding universe has enough mass that it will eventually begin contracting into another singularity and Big Bang, or it does not. If it does not have enough mass to do that it will continue to expand as it is doing now. Unfortunately for us, though, the amount of matter/energy in the universe is finite, and that matter/energy will be diffused over a much greater area. Eventually there will not be enough to support life. Either way the human race will end and all we have done will be for naught.
This means that whatever we accomplish on earth (or anywhere else in the physical universe) will ultimately perish. In the midst of his suffering, Job believed that life was ultimately meaningless (Job 7:1-16). If we are doomed to suffer and die as individuals, and if the universe is likewise doomed, and if nothing exists outside the universe, can anything that we do have meaning? Some people will say “yes”, that happiness, accomplishment, accumulation, or helping others provide ultimate meaning in life. These have been tried before, and have failed:
- “Making myself happy.” One of the most common goals for people in life is to make themselves happy. This usually means seeking pleasure in any and every form. Solomon, one of the richest kings of Israel, tried this in Ecclesiastes 2:1-11. He failed, because happiness cannot be won as a goal in itself; it is a byproduct of serving in a cause that is greater than oneself; one which will endure past our own short lives.
- “Accomplishing great things.” The more ambitious among us may want to gain meaning by accomplishments, either “writing something worth reading or doing something worth writing about (Benjamin Franklin).” This idea places the power to determine who deserves remembering, who has done “great things” in the hands of future writers. As appealing as it may seem, eventually the past is forgotten. Consider the charge of the Light Brigade as described by the famous British poet Lord Alfred Tennyson in a poem of the same name. How many of us have heard of it? How many know what war it describes? How many of us have heard of Lord Tennyson? How many of us care? Finally, when the universe perishes, so will everyone who could potentially remember it, and everything for which the Light Brigade fought. Solomon tried the same, and reached the same conclusion (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, 2:18-23).
- “Accumulating stuff.” This is a version of making oneself happy, with the understanding that possessions make some people happy. Unfortunately, the pursuit of money and possessions to achieve meaning and purpose is hollow, and has been for all of human history.
- “Helping others.” While helping others is commendable, those helped are as perishable as the helper. If there is nothing outside of this life, whatever help any of us provide is limited and cannot fix the main problem, which is death. If some impersonal existence is all that lies beyond the grave, then individuality is as fleeting as bodily life and “helping others” on earth is equally temporary. Only if individual existence extends beyond the grave and outside the universe does helping others have everlasting meaning.
At root, even the quest for meaning and fulfillment in one’s own life is selfish, since it is focused ultimately on oneself. Therefore we are caught in a conundrum; we desperately need meaning in our lives, but to pursue meaning is ultimately a self-focused and innately destructive thing. What can we do?
There is only one way out. Mankind is not the center of this vast universe, but God is. Our best efforts at having meaningful lives end up in vanity, pain, and selfishness. The Bible teaches that God places His Spirit in those who trust Him, gradually turning their focus away from their temporal selves and to His eternal Self. If He were a sinful man as we are, this would be vanity, more reminiscent of the gods of Olympus than the God of Calvary. But since He is God, turning our focus to Him is the most reasonable and logical thing to do. The Lord does not need our attention, He needs nothing from us, but we need to focus on Him.
To have meaning, purpose and fulfillment in life, as intended by the Holy One, the Creator Lord must be our vision.
What does it mean to have God be our vision in the arena of sin and guilt?
Many consider the concept of sin to be passé. If one defines sin as violating the moral rules of God, those who do not believe in God are quite logical in considering sin to be passé. Such people, often referred to as moral relativists, hold that thoughts and actions are not “good” or “bad” in an absolute sense but rather “useful” or “useless” depending upon the situation. Alternatively, “bad” or “good” may be defined by how something affects the greater society. Lying to cover up embezzlement may be “bad” but lying to avoid hurting feelings may be “good”.
However it is hard to find a person, regardless of culture, who believes that bad or good depends entirely on the situation. Most would agree that cruelty, especially to animals or children, is simply evil, regardless of the situation. Torture and murder are almost always considered wrong; even for moral relativists, though they are loathe to use the word “evil”.
It is easy to discuss morality and to believe that there is no absolute moral right or wrong in the abstract and universal, but much harder to do so in the particular and individual. A man’s view of morality between himself and someone else often differs from his view of morality between those he doesn’t know and doesn’t care about. The most vehement opponent of moral absolutes will become absolutely infuriated if someone steals his car or burns his books. The most hardened feminist critic of Biblical teachings on sexual morality will lash back in anger and despair if her lover has an affair against her. Righteous indignation is not unique to those who believe that righteousness exists; and sanctimony is not native to those who those wish to be sanctified.
Morality within the individual is more vexing still. Who of us has not felt sickening guilt for something we have done? Which one of us meets our own expectations perfectly, or even consistently, in our dealings with others? Who among us has never had the queasy sensation that something we have thought or done is wrong, and done our best to suppress that feeling? As much as we wish to believe that right and wrong are social constructs and do not exist outside of our opinions, our very bodies and lives testify to the fallacy of this idea. Right and wrong seem to have a very real existence whether we like it, and whether we agree with it, or not.
When faced with the reality of right and wrong, we must ask ourselves where this reality comes from. A secularist might say that morals evolved to promote the survival of the species, just as life forms evolved to promote the survival of the species. In light of the fact that the latest century was the bloodiest in human history and that judging from history, man’s conduct doesn’t seem any better now than in Early Egypt under Menes, or China in the Nanzhuangtou era. The Christian must answer that right is that which accurately reflects the character of God, and wrong is anything in opposition to Him. Since the character of God determines the moral rules we encounter in our lives, to do wrong is to sin. Therefore all sin, no matter the identity of the aggrieved party, is ultimately against God. King David took advantage of Bathsheba and then had her husband Uriah, one of his greatest and most loyal soldiers (2 Samuel 23:8-39), murdered. His sin against them was great, but was nothing by comparison to his sin against God in this episode (Psalm 51:4). The Western tradition of law acknowledges this fact in that civil offenses are against the individual but criminal ones are against the State, the giver of laws in each society.
God is not only the victim; He is also the Judge and King. If God is the ultimate judge in every sin, then only God can truly and completely forgive. We cannot forgive ourselves and escape punishment any more than a condemned murderer can forgive himself and walk free out of the courtroom. Neither can other people forgive us and free us from punishment. In court even the victim cannot pardon the offender; only the State can. Therefore, those who choose not to believe in God cannot find true forgiveness for their sins.
To have any real forgiveness of sin in life, the Lord who judges and forgives must be our vision.
What does it mean to have God be our vision as we consider science?
The Sumerian civilization was the earliest in history in Mesopotamia. Like other ancient peoples, the Sumerians saw life as a system of great cycles, from birth through fertility through death. Life was not “going anywhere” in the modern sense of the word. Rather it was simply following its circles ordained since time immemorial. The historian Thomas Cahill wrote in his national bestseller, The Gifts of the Jews, that “Development and evolution – words of such importance to us – would have meant little in the timeless culture of Sumer, where everything that was – their city, their fields, their herds – their plows – had always been (p19).” Innovation occurred; writing was probably invented in Sumer, but the idea of technology advancing like we think of it today was unknown.
In addition to being cyclical, the universe to ancient Sumerians lacked order in the modern scientific sense. In the manual of instruction on farming, farmers are told to scare the birds away from their crops, but also to pray to Ninkilim, the goddess of the field mice, so she will keep her small, sharp toothed subjects away from the grain (p 16). The needs of Ninurta, the farmer god, and Ninkasi, the goddess of water and brewing, had to be considered. Farmers, and everyone else in Sumerian society, faced the dangers of nature but also the dangers of capricious gods. Having many gods, all of whom were like overgrown humans with their jealousies, rivalries and weaknesses, made the universe seem unpredictable.
People who don’t see existence as going anywhere and don’t believe that their environment is predictable don’t spend much time trying to discover where the world is going or find the order in it. The Sumerians didn’t. This is one reason that their society changed little over millennia. Other ancient societies were largely the same.
Against this background came the remarkable innovation that there was only one God and that this God was moving towards His purposes in the world. It took millennia to develop, but such thinking changed the way that man looked at his reality. No longer did he have to contend with the vagaries and rivalries of many gods, in addition to those of nature. He had only one God, and that One revealed Himself in an orderly creation and historical revelation.
The scientific method, in which one formulates a question, generates a hypothesis, predicts the result, tests the hypothesis and analyzes the results, requires belief in an orderly universe. Any of these steps would have seemed ridiculous to a Sumerian. From the beginning, modern science was built on the scientific method. Modern science, and the technology that goes with it, would not have developed without it. Christians would generally argue that all order comes from God and that the order in the universe is but a pale reflection of the order within the Lord.
To understand the root of science, the foundational role of God in our understanding of the universe, the Lord Creator and Sustainer must be our vision.
What does it mean to have God be our vision as we face suffering and death?
We have seen how the specter of suffering and death influences and even determines what we do in every area of life. The greatest king in the Babylonian pantheon, Gilgamesh, was obsessed by his fear of the grave. Though we usually succeed in putting it out of our minds, so are we. Why shouldn’t we be, since death makes a mockery of every attempt to find meaning and fulfillment in life? Even more than birth, death is the supreme fact in human existence, because to never have existed on earth is far less terrifying to mortal man than to face the imminent reality of ceasing to exist.
Against this ghastly reality, how can man face suffering and death? For most of our lives, we try to ignore it. In generations past death usually occurred at home and affected all age groups, often without warning. An accident or infection would snuff out the flame of the youngest and healthiest, and even the joy of childbirth held mortal peril. Death could not be ignored. In the developed world today, people die in hospitals rather than at home, and we convince ourselves that the specter of the grave can be held at bay.
Some, like the British atheist Christopher Hitchens, try to “stare death in the eye”, as though it were one more adversary to defeat. Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a similar opinion, boasting “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” Most flee, bargain, deny, and rage before they finally succumb. Even some who consider themselves religious seem to have no more hope of an afterlife than those who do not. Other responses are beyond the power of mortal man. If there is no life after death and if nothing exists outside the physical universe, terror and despair are the only reasonable responses. As Man Faces Death provides more examples.
Yet there are some, a remarkable few, who face suffering and death with a different spirit. The Old Testament saints met death with courage (Moses – Deuteronomy 34:1-6, Elisha – 2 Kings 13:14-21, David – 1 Kings 2:2, 10). Stephen was undaunted in the face of martyrdom (Acts 7:54-60). The Apostle Paul felt that “to live is Christ and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21-24).” The surviving disciples of Jesus, hiding in terror in locked rooms after His crucifixion, became fearless almost all died a martyr’s death after His resurrection. Why do so many cower and so few tower in the face of death?
Every religion deals with death, some by denying that it exists, others by positing reincarnation, others by suggesting a spiritual (non-physical) existence in a different place, and a few by suggesting some form of physical life after death. Christianity deals with the pain of death by revealing that God became a man, Jesus Christ, and dwelt among us. He lived a perfect life, died for our sins, and then physically rose from the dead. Because Jesus rose from the dead, and because He promised that those who follow Him will too, Christians believe that they will physically rise from the dead like Christ did.
Like the Athenians (Acts 17:32), many scoff at the idea of a physical resurrection from the dead. Some contend that Jesus’ resurrection is merely a myth, just like those found in other religious traditions. For more information on the resurrection of Jesus, please see On the Physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christianity deals with death in a truly unique way, and makes the astounding claim that its followers will eventually escape the chains of death because its founder, Jesus Christ, did. No non-Christian religion, not Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, or any other makes this claim. If Jesus Christ is not alive today, Christianity is worthless (1 Corinthians 15). Those who truly believe in Christ, therefore, have certainty of salvation in the face of death.
To face suffering and death with the courage and hope of future resurrection, the Resurrected Lord must be our vision.
What does it mean to have God be our vision as we consider gratitude?
In 1994 I visited the Tower of London and waited in long lines to see the Crown Jewels. They were resplendent, but I felt a little let down. Compared to the magnificent sunrises I had seen in Western Washington, the late afternoon colors of the sun reflecting on the walls of the Grand Canyon, and the vibrant hues of the jungles of Belize, the most valuable set of jewels in the world, costing millions of dollars, were less beautiful and than that which cost nothing. The Crown Jewels were also only available to the few who could see them, but the grandeur of nature is available to everyone, regardless of location, wealth, or any other factor. I was exultant and thanked God, the One who provided both the gems and also the sun.
Have you ever admired a sunset, a flower, or a mountain range? Have you ever thrilled to a bird’s song, the smell of the sea breeze, or the tickle of a cool breeze on an oppressive day? Have you experienced these and then been so overcome with their beauty that you felt the need to express your delight?
Humans seem to have a need for reciprocity; a need to respond when something happens to them. When a stranger says “hello”, a friend gives a compliment or an enemy makes a threat, we have a visceral urge to reply. Even when whatever happens to us is not caused by a person, we need to respond. We may gasp in response to a magnificent vista, we may wonder at the beauty of a flower, or we may quake in response to a haunting howl, but we always respond.
When a person does something for us, whether playing a catchy tune or offering a tasty treat, we usually respond with gratitude; we thank our benefactor. Natural beauty, such as the light from the setting sun reflecting off the rock walls of the Grand Canyon, also fills us with feelings of thankfulness. We can’t help it; gratitude for a benefit rendered just seems to be the natural human reaction.
Thanking a person for a benefit rendered is perfectly normal; in fact it is expected in most societies. But who do we thank for the blessings of nature or for impersonal events? Does a hiker on a hill in a thunderstorm thank the lightning for not hitting him? Rarely. Who do we thank for warm sunshine or a cold mountain spring on a hot day? Even the man who denies the existence of the Biblical God may thank his “lucky stars”, “fate” or some other outside force. Often the force is personalized, such as when a man thanks “Lady Luck” for a gambling win or “Mother Nature” for the beauty of a flower. For centuries soldiers have personalized the weapons that they hoped would save them in battle (Big Bertha, Enola Gay) and thanked them if they do. Children evince an inveterate desire to name things, from the family car to their most beloved toys, and thank them for things done just as they would people. It seems that it is human nature to thank a personal force, not an impersonal force, for whatever good is received.
It is certainly appropriate to thank others for the good that they do for us, but is the individual the only one we should thank? Perhaps in addition to being grateful to a master cellist for a moving performance, we should also reserve some gratitude for his parents, his teachers, his family, and the others who made him into the musical professional we so enjoy. Maybe our thanks should extend to the society in which we all live, because the society plays a large role in what we each experience. At any rate, it is clear that for anything that happens, there is much to be thankful for.
Man is a derivative creature; his very existence depends on something outside of him, such as the natural world. Since man derives his existence from something else (conception and death demonstrate that he is not self-existent), gratitude directed towards any man, or group of men, must also be directed towards the One who gave that man his abilities and the others their ability to contribute. Given man’s innate tendency to thank a personal force, not an impersonal one, it is logical to thank God, the One who created nature, for His blessing.
To have genuine gratitude to the One who is the source of everything worthy of gratitude, the God who provides must be our vision.
Be Thou My Vision is a powerful and beautiful hymn and expresses an undeniable truth – that God, the only God, the one God, must be our vision. A life focused on Him is a life with purpose, a life with forgiveness of sin, a life of progress and order, a life with courage in the face of suffering, and a life of gratitude. Any other vision is a sad substitute. Would that every man would focus on God, and reap the abundant life, here and hereafter, that is the inevitable result.