It was a hangover question. Not the kind that gets asked after too much to drink, but the kind that couldn’t get fully addressed in a previous meeting. The setting was a beautiful backyard with tall pines and a bright blue pool. Circled around a patio fireplace were about 30 men, many with beer in hand. Some were familiar with the set up; for others it was something wholly new. It’s a once-a-month kind of gathering, and last month a man, who would fit most men’s definition of success, boldly stated, “I’d just like to know the purpose of life.” Boy, wouldn’t we all?!
As the night’s conversation progressed, it was evident these men had learned enough in life to cross off a few of the more prominent answers to the question: success, achievement, family, wealth, and women. All bring a certain amount of pleasure and sense of self-worth, but all seem to fall short of the purpose of life. As one man put it, “You check the boxes off, but then find out that when you do so it doesn’t really fulfill the soul.”
In gatherings like this, I like to ask lots of questions to understand how others wrestle with the main issue at hand. It was evident though that no one was too clear on what to do with the question: what is the purpose of life? Finally, someone blurted out, “We’ve been talking about this question for a while now, but no one has provided an answer. Are we going to get one?” That was my cue.
Before the conversation, I told the men that somewhere during the evening I’d share a short biblical perspective on the evening’s question with the understanding that they could agree, disagree, or pick it a part piece by piece. Now was the time to offer what I could.
"It seems to me the first thing the Bible tells us when we come to a question regarding the purpose of life is to know that there actually is one. And there is a purpose for our lives because we are not here by accident. Suppose I walk by the kitchen counter and there is an open box of Scrabble that is hanging over the edge. In my carelessness, I knock it over and the pieces fall on the floor. My guess is you would not look down and ask me about the meaning of the letters on the ground. And you wouldn’t ask that because things that are truly accidental don’t have meaning. But suppose instead of seeing random letters strewn about the floor, you see a series of six and seven letter words neatly crisscrossing. Then you would have reason to ask about their meaning. So, it is with us. God says we have purpose because we are not here by accident. He created us.
"Second, the Bible is quite clear in letting us know that meaning in life is found in the Maker, not in the thing that was made. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Instead of Scrabble, think of Monopoly this time. Had you never played the game, you’d see little houses and hotels and wonder what they were all about. You could stare at them all day long in hopes of discovering their purpose, but it would probably do you no good. To know their purpose, you need to see what their maker says about them. So it is with us, we can look inward to find purpose and meaning for our lives, but it will always leave us short. The Bible says that to discover the purpose for our lives we must see what God has to say about it.
"Third, that brings us to the question, 'So what does God say about the purpose of our lives?' When we look to the Bible, I think we see a three-fold purpose to life. I suppose you could put it in different words than I do, but I think what I will share covers the bases. The three-fold purpose goes like this: love God, love people, and tell others to do the same. That’s pretty much it. What I like about this purpose is that it is transferable. What I mean by that is that it works in all seasons of life. Suppose I am a 15-year-old high schooler. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose I finish college and have taken my first demanding job. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose my home is full of kids that need lots of attention. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose the home is quiet again after all the kids have moved out. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose I get transferred in my job, or it’s time to retire. Nothing changes. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Even if I were to be unjustly convicted of a crime and placed in jail, my purpose would not be altered. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same.
"The fourth thing the Bible says about the purpose of life is that to seek it in anything apart from loving God, loving others, and telling others to do the same will sooner or later leave you feeling empty. Or, as was said earlier, it won’t fulfill your soul. There is a book in the Bible written about one man’s quest for meaning. He sought it in wealth and women, in education and achievement. In each case, his efforts fell short. They could not fulfill his deepest longing. His conclusion was that only seeking God’s purpose could do that.
"Finally, I think the Bible is clear on one more thing about the purpose of life. It tells us that when we pursue what God says is life’s purpose, we are building something that will last forever. If you own a home that will not suit you for long, it’s unlikely you will invest much in it. Perhaps you will fix up a thing or two to keep it functional or to get a better price when you sell, but you won’t put in the money and effort to truly make it your home. But that all changes when you find the place you plan to live in the rest of your days. At that point, you are willing to make the home just as you want it and invest in the best quality you can. How great to know, then, that the Bible says when we pursue our God-given purpose of loving God, loving others, and telling others to do the same, we are spending wisely on something that will do us well for the long haul.
"So that is what the Bible says about the purpose of life. You could probably say it in different words or even add a point or two, but I think this gets at the heart of it."
The conversation was far from over. The men wanted to talk about what it means to love God and added stories about their own failures and successes in doing so. Some felt free to share a good deal. Others remained quiet and just listened.
I don’t end gatherings like this with any hoopla, just a simple thank you for coming and contributing. Sometimes that leaves me wondering what kind of imprint the conversation made, but that’s okay. It is not always my business to know. Nice though that the next morning a group email went out from one of the participants. It simply read this way:
1) love God
2) love others
3) tell others to do the same
Ready, break ...
I’ve heard it many times. Maybe you have too. In fact, maybe you have even said it. It starts with these words, “I can’t believe in a God who…” and then is followed with phrases like “lets young children die” or “would let his own Son be crucified” or “sends people to hell.” In most cases, the last few words represent something that bothers our sensitivities. If there is a God like that, we surmise, we want no part of Him.
Now sometimes when people say “I can’t believe in a God who…” they mean only that the God who is portrayed is distasteful, and they prefer to think of Him in another way, such as with a feminine pronoun. Others, however, mean that because the God spoken of is not to their liking, no God exists at all. It seems to me there is a problem with either kind of thinking.
On occasion, I ask people what their least favorite color is. One young man told me it was puke green. That sounds like a solid pick for a disliked color. After he shared with me his choice, I said, “Suppose God showed up, and to your surprise and even disgust, His entire being was a shade of puke green. You might say to yourself, ‘Boy, God is really ugly, I sure don’t like the way He looks.’ But I doubt you would say you can’t believe in a God who is puke green or that God doesn’t exist altogether. In fact, if anything you would believe in God—even a puke green God—more after the encounter.”
I know the scene I set for the young man is rather silly, but I think it makes an important point. And that point is that our likes and dislikes don’t determine whether something exists or whether something exists with certain characteristics. I, for example, might not like Barak Obama or Donald Trump, but that should not lead me to the conclusion that they do not exist or that they don’t have certain unpreferred characteristics.
This all said, it seems to me we must be careful that our beliefs about things are not shaped primarily by our sensitivities and preferences but by the actual characteristics of the object in question. This is true even when it comes to God. That does not mean that everything said about God must be believed. Sometimes what people try to pin on God is faulty and ought to be rejected because it doesn’t accurately portray God and His ways. But it does mean that if God exists there might be some things about Him that at least at first glance are distasteful or uncomfortable.
This makes me think of the biblical story of David. He had just become king and wanted to bring the recently recovered ark of the covenant back to his hometown. Along the way, a priest reached out and touched the ark when it seemed to be falling off an ox-led cart. Immediately, the priest was struck dead by God. David couldn’t believe it. Why would God do such a thing? The Bible even says that David was angry with God and became afraid of Him as a result. What it does not say, however, is that David concluded that God must not be the kind of God who would do such a thing or that God didn’t exist all. Those simply weren’t reasonable options given what David had seen.
Now please don’t read me as saying that if properly understood God will disturb all our sensitivities. I don’t think that to be so. As those made in the image of God, I think there are many things about God which we will probably find very easy to swallow, delightful in fact. But given that we are not God and are probably enamored with plenty that is antithetical to Him, we should not be surprised that as we gain a clearer picture of who God is there will be times when He comes off a bit puke green.
© 2018 John Hopper
Even if you weren’t a baseball fan before 2017, it is likely you became one if you lived in Houston. Who could have guessed (other than one seemingly prophetic Sports Illustrated writer) that a team that was the worst in baseball for years would win the World Series?
With baseball fandom comes familiarization with a plethora of stats common to the sport, including RBI, ERA, and OBP. Try to talk some baseball smack without sprinkling in a few of these acronyms, and you quickly get exposed. One of the more recent stats, and perhaps least understood, is WAR. It stands for Wins Above Replacement, and is a statistic which tries to measure the number of wins a player adds to his team over what a top minor league prospect would add. Apply the stat to the last 100 years of the sport, and you will find the players with the highest career WAR are Hall of Famers like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Ty Cobb.
WAR seems like a pretty intimidating statistic to me. Sure, it might be great if you’re an MVP caliber player like Houston’s Jose Altuve, but what if you’re a run-of-the-mill performer? Do you really want one little statistic publicly declaring how you’d compare against your replacement? I served as a pastor for many years. I wonder what my WAR was. Or how about my WAR as a husband or father? Yikes!
But let’s take this whole discussion a step further by asking the question: What is God’s WAR? How much better is he over his replacement. Of course, if God is anything like what the Bible describes, (omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent) then there really isn’t a comparable replacement. But let’s for the sake of conversation consider a view of the world without God in it.
If our world is one without God, the universe we inhabit would not exist as part of some grand plan, but merely as a product of chance. Our universe would simply be a roulette ball that spilled out of some eternal universe making machine, and our humanity nothing more than the product of blind biological mutation. But this kind of world loses more than just God, it also loses things like reason, free will, love, beauty, justice, and human equality. “How is that?” you might ask.
Take reason, for example. Reason, in a world without God, is simply not reliable. Think it out this way: our reasoning skills in some pre-human formative state were different than they are today, and if evolution continues as it is said to have occurred in the past, our reasoning skills will be different a million years from now. But if reasoning itself is transitory (representing at any time only what helps us survive and not necessarily what is true), can we really trust any conclusions we come to today? Perhaps this is why Charles Darwin wrote: “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.”
Free will also cannot be sustained without God. Best-selling atheist Sam Harris declared so much in his book Free Will. As accidents of the cosmos, we are driven by bodily chemical reactions to the stimuli around us. It might feel like we chose the mocha chocolate ice cream during our last stop at the grocery store, but something in the makeup of our DNA made the choice inevitable. At least, that’s the story in a world without God.
Or consider, love and beauty. There is hardly a day that goes by without me telling my wife that I love her and that she is beautiful. But can love and beauty (in any substantive way) be sustained in a world without God? I don’t think so. Love would simply be the name we give to the chemical reaction we are having in response to the object of our affection, and beauty would fare no better. Rather than love and beauty being richly poetic, a world without God makes them nothing more than fizz in an earth-sized lab.
And then there is justice and human equality. These are the battle cries of secular society, are they not? But can these concepts be grounded in a world without God? We never consider one lion fighting another lion unjust; we only say it is the way of the wild. If we are but creatures of chance, should we not come to the same conclusion when one human kills another? Sure, we could say that our sense of justice is a well-honed evolutionary adaptation missing from other species, but even then it would be but a biological mechanism (better found in some individuals than others) and not some standard to which we have a duty. Furthermore, we must remember that justice often rests on the concept of human equality. But can we sustain human equality in a happenstance world? According to the evolutionary model, aren’t some humans more fit to survive than others?
All this might sound a bit unfair, as though I am painting a picture without God in an unnecessarily negative light. But this is not just my picture, it is one that atheists themselves regularly paint. Consider these words from Cornell University’s William Provine: "Let me summarize my views…There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind . . . There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either." 
This is the world without God. Take God out of the equation and replace him with atheism and we have a mechanistic world in which all we truly treasure is nothing but a mirage of nature.
So back to the original question: what is God’s WAR, at least relative to atheism? I think his Wins Above Replacement is nothing less than reason, free will, love, beauty, justice, and human equality, among other things. Take him out of the line up and I can’t help but think the whole human enterprise would go into a slump of epic proportions.
© 2018 John Hopper
1. “Charles Darwin to W. Graham, Down, July 3, 1881,” in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (1897; repr., Boston: Elibron, 2005), 1:285.
2. “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?: A Debate between William B. Provine and Phillip E. Johnson at Stanford University, April 30, 1994,” Origins Research, vol. 16, no. 1, http://www.arn.org/docs/orpages/or161/ 161main.htm (accessed March 4, 2013).
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.