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The meaning of Christian life

Monday 15th October, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

by Reverend Christopher Harrison | tags: , , , ,

Rev’d Christopher Harrison suggests that the Bible can help us to understand the world in which we live

A well-known course in Christian discipleship challenges us to ask ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of life?’ Most of the time we tend to be so preoccupied with the demands of daily life that we ponder on such matters only in moments of crisis, or perhaps at times of change in our lives. It is easy to be carried along so briskly through life by the flow of media stimulation, by the search for pleasure or money, or by the need to be accepted by others, that we always sidestep such questions when they rear their heads.

Different religions will each have their own answer to the question of the purpose of life. All of them, in their own way, however, urge us to go beyond ourselves in the search of something deeper. They invite us to wrestle with the ambiguities of what is right and what is wrong, what it means to be fully human, and what we understand by ‘God’. Why, then, should Christianity have answers which are better than or preferable to those of other faiths?

It is possible to be a Christian without questioning or doubting the various elements of the Christian faith. Most Christians, however, if they are honest with themselves, will find themselves from time to time questioning aspects of what they have been taught. This can be a healthy process – for surely, if God gave us brains and critical faculties, they are intended to be used, even in matters of religious belief. Indeed, as soon as we begin to apply the Bible to our lives, we have to face up to the question of how exactly we are to interpret it. This may mean trying to understand more fully the meaning of the words used in the original texts (Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament). It may involve asking ourselves how Jesus might have acted or spoken in situations in which we find ourselves today. It might be a question of using core Christian principles, as far as we can, in order to help us to decide how to react to the many ethical challenges thrown up by modern life.

By wrestling with such issues, we can get a clearer picture of what the purpose of life is, at least as it is understood by Christians. For the Bible is not a mere rule book or manual of good behaviour; it is, rather, a way of understanding the world, through the lens of Christian faith, which helps and guides us as we seek to make sense of our little corners of the world and to live within them. This is another way of understanding what we mean when we say that Scripture is inspired by God. In particular, it means that the divine and eternal power of Love, expressed and made visible most fully through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, can come to each one of us today, if we seek to know God and to live in accordance with God’s purpose for us.

This is expressed particularly succinctly in Jesus’ words to the disciples at the Last Supper, as described in the gospel of John, when Jesus says, in a prayer to his heavenly Father, ‘Now this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’ (John 17. 3). Eternal life, here, does not mean just life in the hereafter, but also life here on earth – and in both cases is to do with the purpose and meaning of life lived in accordance with God’s will for us. Knowledge of God, however, has to go hand in hand with faith in him, as St Paul emphasises. Together they can be summarised in what is traditionally known as the Golden Rule, originally taught to the people of ancient Israel by Moses, but repeated by Jesus: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, and all your strength and all your mind’, and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Luke 10.27).

The question naturally arises, however, as to how we are to apply such a teaching in practice. Doing so can be the work of a lifetime, as we study the Bible, try to understand it, apply it to our lives, return to in order to apply it to changed circumstances in our lives. If we allow it to do so, the Bible should ask us questions – questions which may well, in the end, help us to understand more fully the purpose of life. One way in which we can enable the Bible to do this is to re-word some of the key texts, so that they are directed to us personally. Can you, for example, recognise the origin of the following?

• Are you patient?
• Are you kind?
• Do you envy?
• Do you boast?
• Are you proud?
• Do you dishonour others?
• Are you self-seeking?
• Are you easily angered?
• Do you keep a record of wrongs?
• Do you delight in evil?
• Do you rejoice with the truth?
• Do you always protect?
• Do you always trust?
• Do you always hope?
• Do you always persevere?

All too often, at a wedding, the profound words about love which are found in chapter 13 of St Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, in Greece, can reassure us with their familiarity, but leave us nonetheless somewhat detached from them. By turning a statement into a question, however, can you hear God speaking more clearly and personally to YOU?

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