During the last couple of weeks I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of remarkable teenagers. They were each receiving treatment in the hospital for their cancer. They were each from different walks of life. And they were each wrestling with the same question.
What is the purpose of life?
This questions often springs from lips crying out in the midst of suffering.
It is one thing to espouse a philosophy about the meaning of life; it is a whole other thing to live it out in the battle ground of suffering.
I asked the same question when I was a teenager. The end of my 8th grade year was full of dreams for my future. My parents home-schooled me through 8th grade and I looked forward to enrolling in the IB program at the new public high school in town. I had it all planned out. I would graduate top of my class, go to Stanford University and become an astrophysicist. My stars held something unforeseen—an unexpected supernova in my little world.
My dream of going to Stanford was realized on April 30th, 2000. But, the doctor that walked into the room was not my teacher—he was my oncologist. And the room was not a classroom—it was a patient room at Stanford hospital.
“The results from your bone marrow biopsy came back. You have Leukemia.”
I don’t remember hearing anything else after that. I watched all my dreams and hopes for my future shatter. My new degree plan included two and-a-half years of chemo, 5 additional years of procedures and tests, and a life-time of cancer looking over my shoulder. Plenty of time for me to earn my doctorate. But, doctorate in what?
I grew up in a society that taught me that the ultimate purpose in life was to achieve my dreams and find personal happiness. Well, what was my purpose now that my dreams lay in pieces on the floor and happiness nowhere in sight? I grew up in a home that taught me that my worth was earned through performance. Was I still worthy of love when I could not perform or excel?
I remember lying on my mom’s bed consumed by my tears and I asked her, “What does it all mean? What is the purpose of life?”
She turned to look out the window. When she looked back at me she had tears in her own eyes.
“Relationships. We were made for love—to receive love from God, love Him in return, and love others the way He loves us. I know this is hard but, you are not alone and we will get through this together.”
God is a relational being in His very nature. When He created us in His image, He created us for relationships, for connection. Cancer cracked open my world of isolating perfectionism just enough to let in a little love. With my ability to perform considerably hampered, I started to receive love in a way that I never before experienced.
We all know connection is important and it’s easy to blame society and technology for making us more disconnected. But, technology does nothing but magnify what is already there. Millennia before there were millennials, there was sin.
Wait! We don’t like that word. Self-righteous people hijack that word and throw it around to hide their own shame. I understand. Bear with me. We cannot understand love if we do not understand sin.
Sin is anything that goes against God’s design and destroys our relationship with God or others. The chief culprit? Pride. When my focus is on myself and I am consumed by the drive to control the world around me, then any love that I try to give or receive will be tainted by my selfish desires. Also, if I am “in control” then, I have all the responsibility. I succeed and fail based on my performance. When I fail (which I always do), the aftermath of fear and shame further drive disconnection. I don’t want people to find out that I am not perfect. I don’t want to let people into my world because I am afraid of being seen for who I am and then rejected for it. So, I will hide and push people away until I am nothing but a shell of shame.
Each of us is broken and each of has shame. But, the blood of Christ covers all our shame and restores our broken relationships.
Heaven is love without parting. Heaven is living in perfect communion with God, others, and one’s self. Hell is eternal separation and loneliness. Without love we shrivel up and die.
There is a reason that Jesus said:
‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
Matthew 22:38-39 NLT
In order to experience heaven, my selfish way of being and thinking has to die. My fear and shame has to be replaced with love and faith. I am eternally grateful that God, in His mercy, took me through a fire that cracked open my shell of shame. The hell of my isolation was worse than anything cancer ever brought into my life. I still struggle against the forces that want to lock me back up in my shell and, I daily seek my Savior whose arms provide rest for my striving soul.
If love is the meaning of life, then even suffering has immense value and meaning. Suffering offers an opportunity to connect—our need drives us into the arms of others and to the arms of God. But, only if we let it.
Among them you will make lifelong friends. You will be bound to them with new and wonderful ties, for you will escape disaster together and you will commence shoulder to shoulder your common journey. Then you will know what it means to give of yourself that others may survive and rediscover life. You will learn the full meaning of “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
That quote is from “The Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is one of the most powerful examples of the transformative power of love and community.
All relationships have to have a beginning. Sharing our stories with each other is the first step. However, connection is risky. It feels safer to stay in hiding. Avoiding connection is no risk at all; it is a certainty that leads to hell on earth. When I allowed myself to let go and be vulnerable with others, I learned the depth of God’s love for me. I developed life-giving and lifelong relationships. I received a taste of heaven on earth.
My mom, a fellow recovering perfectionist, was right. The purpose of life is relationships. I spent the last 16 years learning how right she was.
Will we let fear and shame keep us in hiding? Or will we step out in faith and allow ourselves to be known?
Let us bravely give and receive the love that is our birthright as children of God.