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Living, leading lives of significance

Unpacking the academic year theme

Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? What difference does my life make? How is it significant? It seems that human beings, since time immemorial, have occupied themselves with these questions. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BC) is said to have defined humanity along those terms: “Man is a being in search of meaning.” He must have been right, for even today, thousands of books are available on Amazon with the title, or very close to this, “a life of significance,” and, if you Google it, depending on the search terms you use, you are likely to come up with close to a billion results. Yes, 1 billion!

Contemporary philosophers and psychologists have analyzed the significance of life and whether it even exists from many angles. Is there such a thing as meaning and purpose if there is no Creator? How do people construct meaning in their lives? Are people searching for an illusion? One recent article from Psychology Today suggests that it is better and healthier to give up on the quest for an ultimate purpose in life, especially one that is based on a purpose originating in a notion of a divine being. The author concludes, “And so the meaning of life, of our life, is that which we choose to give it.”

Much of what is published on the subject of leading a life of significance is in the category of “self-help” resources. It’s not all bad in terms of the possible lifestyle choices one makes and the self-talk that one employs to guide one’s life. It is quite logical that if you take certain steps toward healthier living or make “good choices,” in general your life may improve. Yet, in many cases, the plethora of advice on how to lead a life of significance directs you back to yourself, to the steps you must take or changes you must make, to lead a more rewarding, fruitful and significant life.
Much of the advice has titles such as, “Seven steps toward a life of significance,” or “The five habits toward creating a life of significance,” with sage advice such as “change your thoughts, change your life,” or “assess your dreams, and work toward them.” The problem is that such advice, in and of itself, can lead to despair and even hopelessness. It is not always that simple, as if one can simply make up his or her mind to change and bring it about through sheer force of will. As the great Apostle Paul said about his own experience, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:19 ESV). King David made some pretty bad choices, but eventually he knew that if he were going to change, it would be God’s doing: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10 ESV). He recognized that he was powerless to transform his life by his own power and strength.

“Leading a life of significance is something that comes from outside of ourselves — it is a gift of God.”
–Douglas L. Rutt

And so, when we established this year’s theme for Concordia Seminary — “Grace. Mercy. Peace. Lives of Significance.” — we did so with a clear understanding that our lives have significance because they are significant to God. Each and every human being born into this world is created by God, loved by God, redeemed by God’s Son and therefore is a significant life in and of itself. We should never lose sight of that. Leading a life of significance is something that comes from outside of ourselves — it is a gift of God.   
That is why the preface to our theme includes how or why we can lead lives of significance. It is because of God’s grace, mercy and peace. The significant life is possible because of God’s grace — His loving kindness toward all humanity. And that grace is offered to us because of His mercy — His compassion toward those of us who, apart from His grace, are “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36 ESV). Peace is what we can then experience in our quest for significance. Our lives are significant because they are significant to God. We can rest in Him and stop striving after our own pride, on the one hand, or wallowing in despair over our failures, on the other. 

Sometimes we can be tempted to believe that leading a life of significance means prestige, recognition and perhaps fame. We may think that, while we make contributions toward the greater good, they are not that significant. Nobody even cares. But that is to look in the wrong place for significance. As the psalmist said,  

“For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor” (Ps. 84:10-11a ESV).

To be a doorkeeper in the context of this psalm is to be in one of the lowest places of servitude. And the implication of being in the “tents of wickedness” is to be in a place of ease and worldly recognition. But the psalmist recognizes that the life of significance comes from the Lord Himself, for it is He who “bestows favor and honor.”  
While a life of significance is a life of faith in Christ, our significance also should be seen in relationship to others. Every person, in his or her own vocation — as a mother, father, employer, employee, teacher, student, etc. — is significant to those around him or her. Some say that the chief purpose in man is “to glorify God.” Yet, we remember that, as Gustaf Wingren has said, “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.” Perhaps a more accurate way to put it is that what God calls us to is love — love toward Him and love toward our neighbor. To love our neighbor is to lead a life of significance.   
As we begin the new academic year at Concordia Seminary, one of the greatest pleasures of being associated with our community is to see the amazing enthusiasm and commitment that our 600-plus students have toward their Lord Jesus and His Word. They have left many things behind to study at the Seminary. Many could have other career opportunities. Many could find more high-paying jobs. They are not seeking fame or fortune — that would not be a life of true significance. Yet they want to lead a life of significance. They know that our significance comes from God, but their sincere desire is to make known to others that a life of significance can be theirs too. They know that to teach, proclaim and live out the love of God — His grace, His mercy and His peace — is a highly significant way of expressing love toward our neighbor, and is a highly significant way of, well, living a life of significance.

Dr. Douglas L. Rutt is provost and professor of Practical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.