Loving your neighbor gives life meaning

Published 4:27 pm Thursday, September 1, 2022

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I’ve been thinking a lot about meaning.  When I say a lot, I really mean ‘at every waking moment!’ What exactly gives our lives meaning? What is the meaning, or significance, of our continued existence in an increasingly complicated and complex world?

Not everybody has the luxury of pondering the deeper meaning of human life. There are those among us who have to scrap and hustle just to put food on the table.  It’s difficult to think about the meaning of life when your own life feels threatened by poverty or pain. When your belly is hungry, your mind isn’t thinking about the large black hole at the center of the universe and what that means for the future of the solar system.  On the opposite side, there are those among us whose resources are so vast that there is no room to ponder the meaning of life because every waking moment is held captive by the desire for more.  More stocks. More bonds.  More everything.

The quest for meaning, however, never goes away.  Whether covered over by wanton materialism or ignored because more primary needs are unmet, we never lose the natural human inclination to figure out the purpose of our existence. Carl Jung once said, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” I think we can twist that a bit for our purposes here: “Covered over or ignored, the desire for meaning yet remains.”

For a great many of us, religion has been that which gives us meaning.  Speaking as a Christian, what gives me meaning and purpose can be summed up with a phrase from Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

It is in the connection between loving God and loving our neighbor that I find a purpose.  These two maxims are linked, unable to be broken apart.  Loving God demands a love of neighbor.  Simply put, Christianity doesn’t work when the love of God is prioritized over and against radically loving our neighbors. A Christianity that has divorced loving other from loving God is a bankrupt and deficient Christianity that ought to have its candle snuffed out.

What makes this kind of thinking difficult is that it means our purpose is not totally individual.  What grants meaning to our lives cannot be for our good only.  It must be good for our neighbors, strangers or enemies as they might be.  We have no meaning and purpose if we are not loving our neighbor through the proclamation and enaction of God’s truth, justice, and a better tomorrow.

This is not the only ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ out there, nor is it the only way to interpret Jesus’ mission.  However, my challenge to you, faithful readers, is to really investigate what you consider to be the meaning and purpose of your life.  Examine it.  Put it under a metaphorical microscope.  Then think it through.  Is what you consider to be your meaning or purpose beneficial only for yourself, or are others brought into the light as well?

We have enough self-centered, egomaniacs in this world who only want what’s best for them.  Be different.  See God in the face of your neighbor.  See your own face looking back at you.  Love without reservation and see just how purposeful your life can become.

Chris Adams is the Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.