The Quest for Significance

According to the Greek poet Homer, Sisyphus was a tragic figure who had had gotten on the bad side of the gods. As a result, the poor guy was blinded and doomed to push a massive rock up a mountain. He had no choice but to try and fulfill his assignment. He strained and grunted, grinding his heels into the flinty ground for traction. But as soon as he neared the peak, and the accomplishment of his objective, the massive stone would roll back down to the bottom and he would have to start the arduous effort all over again. The cycle played out with numbing repetition. He was doomed always to labor in this fashion, but never to accomplish his task. His life was cursed with futility.

People have resonated with this story for thousands of years, finding in this picture something of their own experience of life. Back in the 1940s, the existential philosopher Albert Camus dusted off the ancient myth of Sisyphus to make it a metaphor for the meaninglessness of modern life. I need to know whether the Christian faith offers a meaningful answer to this profound human dilemma.

As indicated in two previous postings, I’ve been studying the Christian life for some time now. Inspired by the intensity of Vincent Van Gogh, I’ve been trying to get hold of the Christian life at its depth and essence.

I wanted to tap into the strong subterranean currents that have sustained Christians across the full spectrum of churches and through the centuries. Gradually I discerned that Christian spirituality—“the real thing” anyway—involves three basic dynamics. The first two of these have been described in earlier posts. Here I want to emphasize the third—the vocational dynamic. It means that the Christian life is not only about connecting and becoming; it is also about doing.

The vocational dynamic of Christian spirituality is God’s gracious solution to the apparent futility of human existence. It is an incredible gift to be called to purposeful living, and to contribute to a cause greater than ourselves. We discover meaning in life by aligning ourselves with God’s invitation to steward the creation, evangelize the nations, and build his kingdom. A spiritual life, as Evelyn Underhill has explained, is one that is self-given to the greater movement of God’s will. Knowing him in the fullest sense requires a heart that beats in sync with his own, and a willingness to follow it into the world.

A number of years ago our Christian university convinced a talent CEO from a major corporation to resign from his position and join our administrative leadership team—at a considerable reduction in pay, of course. A university spokesperson explained at the time that the newly-hired administrator had decided, career-wise, to trade up from “success” to “significance.” It is common now to make this success-significance distinction, and I took it to mean that this Christian executive had already achieved success according to the canons of his industry (wealth, security, recognition, influence, achievement), and was now looking for a new, fresh way to make an impact in matters that really mattered—even for eternity. And so he hired on with a Christian organization.

If this is how the executive understood the phases of his career, I felt sorry for him. It struck me as most unfortunate that any Christian should have to wait until late in their career to experience significance.

I’ve had the privilege of teaching in a number of Asian seminaries, and read quite a few spiritual autobiographies written by my students. Most of them are variations of a standard two-step testimony—first conversion, and later a call to full-time Christian service (FTCS). For most of them, both are very sobering commitments. In the first, they risk permanent alienation from their unbelieving families. In the second, they in effect submit themselves to a life of financial austerity, incessant demands from their churches, and very controlling supervision from their superiors. But their compensation is that what they are doing is superior to what the Christian businessmen and professionals who support them will achieve in this life. I’ve talked to these businessmen too, with their big houses, numerous servants, and a driver for their sleek black Mercedes, and this is how they understand the trade-off too. They live largely for this world while financially supporting the full-time workers whose efforts alone have lasting significance. These two optional paths are easily recognized by most Buddhists; it’s the way their religion is set up too.

It is an incredible blessing to find a cause greater than our own comfort and security. Few gifts match the blessing of giving our lives to something that matters. But why do so many Christians still assume that it is almost impossible to lead a life of enduring significance unless it is within an ecclesiastical structure, faith-based organization, or institution of Christian higher education? What are we going to do about this sad misunderstanding?

Nevertheless vocation is the third key dynamic of Christian spirituality. Christ, who is with us and in us, also wants to work through us.


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