The Paradox of Self Preservation and the Shadow of Life

The Will to Survive

I often like to sit on the train and observe those around me. I see people on their seats, people in their houses as the train passes by, people standing up looking at their phones and the unlucky person staring right back at me. There’s a woman on on a call reconciling for a better relationship with her spouse. Another girl flicks through Instagram as she imagines what life in Peru is like. And as lights flicker past the train, with flicker at each moment, every person on the train is pursuing and seeking for something…

Some call it happiness, others life, others peace or prosperity and still others, freedom. And there are various ways people pursue them. Some look for more possessions, others fulfilling relationships and some even to spiritual transcendence (all this time it’s been all those unnoticed people sitting with their eyes closed). Whatever the case, it can be captured in the word life according to each person’s vision of the ‘good life’. It’s what Darwin captures in his Evolution of the Species. That what every living being shares in common is the will to survive. It’s what Socrates earnestly questioned his fellow Athenians about: the good life. And it’s what John the apostle recorded of Jesus’ words: “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came so that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

The Paradox of Self-Preservation

“John 12:24–25 (CSB): Truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Yet why is it that the harder we try to grasp at this life the more it slips out of our hands? Like channels of water running through our fingers, we squeeze and all of it is gone. We balance these grains of sand in our palms, desiring and hoping for it to stay but like time and chance it trickles through seams that we didn’t even know were there. No matter how many people we please or corporate musical chairs we play or how much wealth we store up, the questions of how much and how many and how long don’t cease. And rarely is it whispered, ‘too much’.

Chasing Shadows

I’m an unashamed Bruce Lee fan. And one of the ways he used to explain different martial arts techniques was, ‘It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.’ In other ways, all these techniques are different ways of skinning the cat. But what’s important is that you don’t mistake the cat for the dog.

There are so many things that demand to be important in my life. But all the noise makes it harder to know what’s truly meaningful. So one of my greatest fears is that I live my whole life unexamined and realize too late that I never advanced past the kindergarden of wisdom. Yes Socrates, the unexamined life isn’t worth living. But what do we need to examine? Why do so much of our strivings and pursuits seem so futile when we look back?

I think it’s because we’re often chasing the shadows of things rather the things in themselves; their essences. Paul the apostle describes even the Jewish law in this way:

‘Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the reality itself of those things, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year. Otherwise, wouldn’t they have stopped being offered, since the worshipers, purified once and for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?’ Hebrews 10:1–2 (CSB).

What he’s saying is that sacrifices were only signs pointing to the day when one man would die for the guilt of everyone else. But once that day had occurred it would be absurd to go back to sacrifices again. So if getting your ‘forever home’ was really meant to satisfy your longing for security wouldn’t you have ceased to worry after buying it?

The Essence Of the Good Life

Each person sacrifices what’s necessary to grasp what they think is life. For Plato, these were the ideals of beauty, goodness and truth. They existed in an abstract world which we could transcend to if we gave up physical pleasures for the development of our reason. For us…I’m not sure. We seem to be in this weird place of history where our desires are caught between a life lived to maximize pleasure and one lived with responsibility, meaning and transcendence.

John 1:4–5 (CSB): In him was life, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it.

It’s not the smartest who find life. A glance at the intellectual elite show that their lives are just as filled with misery and injustice. Instead I think Jesus expresses best, that the essence of life lies in a person. It is dwelling in the presence of the divine and having fellowship with him. If I think back to the times when I’ve been happiest in my short life it has always been a time when I’ve had the most fulfilling relationships around me.

In Plato’s Republic, he uses the analogy of ‘The Cave’ to illustrate how one awakes to truth. Our natural state is likened to a bunch of prisoners chained to a wall with a fire flickering behind us. Every time objects pass by behind us we see their shadows. But because we’ve only seen shadows our whole lives, we assume that the shadows on the wall are the real thing. Suppose one of these prisoners broke free. He is able to turn around and see the fire. And he sees that there is an exit to the real world outside. But exiting the cave he finds the light blinding at first and only gradually comes to see things aright.

John 1:18 (CSB): No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.

Plato thought this person was one who transcended reality through reason (I assume he included himself as he was now speaking as though he knew the real world). But Christians know the reverse happened. Someone who was born in the light entered the cave. And making himself a prisoner, he set his fellow ones free. By his knowledge they could walk and see and say, ‘we have come to believe that you are the perfect son of God’. And when they come out of that cave they find that all of what they had seen before were flickering shadows passing from one life to the next.

Climate Change: A Loss Of Secular Hope?

Kids say the darndest things. And in 2019, its things like “how dare you” and “I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” We young people are pretty good at grabbing attention. But the attention we often grab paints us as little more than loud mouthed nuisances. I should know, as the person who wouldn’t stop telling others that I would be an NBA player (I’m still waiting for the call up). At the same time, kids have something that adults don’t have – an utter lack of blandish. And no amount of wheedling will convince your child that the sky isn’t blue or that circles aren’t round (I hope). So when climate change protests and groups like Extinction Australia turn out to be comprised mainly of young people what does that mean? I think it can suggest that they’re being manipulated. But I also think its an honest acknowledgement of a problem by a generation that doesn’t quite know what to do. The problem isn’t the climate. It’s far deeper. The protests are a demonstration for life over death. Young people want to live! And they’ve had to come to an honest acknowledgment that being itself is oriented towards death. Honesty is a good thing.

But the loss of hope is not. When I see Greta Thunberg speak, her eyes are fiery, her face is contorted and mouth is aghast. It’s as though she can’t quite believe that the world isn’t taking her seriously, beyond those coddlers in front of her. Honesty without hope only breeds despair. And despair is an ugly black dog. But what do you do if you grow up believing in the imminent end of the world? If that wasn’t bad enough, if you’ve grown up with a secular worldview, then you’ve also believed that this life is all there is. So you stuck between 2 walls. And the walls are closing in. On one side is the climate and on the other is your own mortality. And both are growing increasingly shorter, squeezing the life out of your young body, leaving you trapped and grasping for the air of transcendence which is no longer there. As William Lane Craig paints it, the universe is continuously expanding. And as matter gets further and further apart, life grows colder and colder. Far from the sun, life will cease to be, vacating the premise for decay to set in. Until one day there will be no life in the universe. All galaxies and the stars will be extinguished, leaving only a void that is endlessly expanding outwards on itself. Everyone and everything you have ever loved will be for naught.

I think Dylan Thomas has captured the most popular solution to our demise in our time:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

The end of the world kind of forces you to grow up doesn’t it? Climate change has aged these children as they grapple to deal with matters that one used to do in their death beds. The children rage because they think their time is short. But you will rarely see Christian children or their parents amongst the protesters. And its not because they’re all climate change deniers. Nor do they believe the universe will continue on as it has for infinity. We know the world is ending. But our honesty to face reality has been transposed to the plane of hope. And hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts1. This hope is the hope of a world to come, a world where God has made all things new, a world where a child may pluck an apple from the tree of life and eat and live (does that affect her carbon footprint?). This hope is a physical hope, verified by the resurrection of Jesus, the first fruits of that world. No wonder that it is written “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable2. And Greta and all those Extinction Rebellion kids sure look miserable.

No Dylan Thomas, this is the song we should sing:

God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble.

Therefore we will not be afraid, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas,

though its water roars and foams and the mountains quake with its turmoil.

There is a river—its streams delight the city of God, the holy dwelling place of the Most High.

God is within her; she will not be toppled. God will help her when the morning dawns.

Nations rage, kingdoms topple; the earth melts when he lifts his voice.

The Lord of Armies is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.3

  1. Rom. 5.5
  2. 1 Cor. 15.19-26
  3. Ps. 46. 1-7

Is An Insignificant Life Worth Living?

It has been a busy year so far for my family and I. At the beginning of the year I decided to begin studying my Master of Divinity degree at Christ College because I thought it was a better path to developing what abilities God had given me and how I would best help others. The semester was a hard one. Besides learning a completely new and dead language (Koine Greek) I also began a new role as clinical educator at work and the constant juggling between the 2 responsibilities meant that by June my body was worn out and my mind was absent. I needed a holiday. By July I was in Sabah, Malaysia enjoying the tropical weather and seeing my grandmother whom I had not seen in 13 years. But while the weather was sunny and the waves were calm, a storm in my heart still raged. I experienced a gnawing restlessness that grew each day and fully manifested itself only once I had returned to Sydney and prepared to return to ‘normal life’.

This restlessness of mine which I am prone to experiencing was crippling. Around the same time, I had struggled to know how I ought to rest and what to prioritize in the upcoming semester. Was I even studying the right course? Why was it so hard? How else should I be using my time? From the moment I entered my last clinical note, I think my mind had already begun to consider the alternatives I could be doing with my time and my life despite my constraints. Being open to new possibilities was exhausting, like never ending research for a product you want to buy. In the end, it came down to what I perceived as the absurdity of my life. What was the point of my labors if none of my work will be remembered? This is something that has become increasingly obvious to me. After all, Jean Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion at 26 while Nietzsche only became the youngest professor at the University of Basel at 24. As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’ Accompanying this feeling of insignificance is a feeling of missing out, that there is a life out there where I might be happy, leading everyday that I haven’t realized it to be filled with constant regret and envy at those to appear to have found it (though I haven’t actually met anyone who has yet). It wasn’t until the first day of returning to work at my clinic that I read this an article on restlessness in the Art of Manliness.1

One of the most valuable lessons for the young to learn is that it takes a great man to accomplish a great undertaking, and that both are necessarily few in one generation. If this lesson were learned and heeded half the heartache of our mature years might be avoided. Effort, and high resolve, and noble purpose are excellent qualities of character; but they can never enable a man to lift himself by the boot-straps nor accomplish the unattainable. It is at once the weakness and greatness of some to conceive what they attempt to do of so high a degree of excellence that no human power can reach it. The natural effect of this is a restless desire to accomplish something far beyond what is ordinarily attained even by surpassing talent. When such a desire has taken possession of the heart, the usual achievements of men seem poor indeed. With their broad views and far-sighted stretch of thought, it seems trivial to come down to the common affairs of every-day life. It is to them a small thing to do good and get good in the plain old common-sense way. J. Clinton Ransom, The Successful Man, 1886

Thanks to the technological developments of the last 2 centuries, the accumulation of wealth in the West and the emphasis on self autonomy, we are served a buffet of endless possibilities and enticed by endless temptations and expectations. How can one live in such a world? The solution I think seems to be by a good dose of humility. Just as the writer of Ecclesiastes concluded that there is nothing better for man than to fear God and keep his commandments, so Kierkegaard reminds us that there is little way of knowing if the life we have chosen for ourselves is the best. Often the responsibility of this immense choice can crush us from ever making a decision. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Humility and faith are the keys to enjoying the present and leaving the future to the One who sees all that is under the sun. Complement this with TGC’s article “How Do I Discern If My Ambition is Godly?” 2

Though we shouldn’t be overly introspective—exhaustively questioning the motives of everything we do—it’s helpful to keep a pulse on our ambition. I’ve found one basic principle helpful: Godly ambition requires both hustle and humility.

  1. ## How to Cure Neurasthenia (Restlessness) | The Art of Manliness
    Link
  2. Link

How to Live: Should We Pursue Happiness or Meaning?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Our hearts intuitively seek happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Thomas Jefferson

The founding fathers of the United States of America were one of the few to formally recognize something all humans intuitively strive for: happiness. Though it is seldom spoken of, it is indubitably behind our thoughts and actions like a hidden judge through whom each of life’s problems are presented. Choices like what to wear, what to say, whom to be friends with, what job we should choose are critiqued on what we believe will give us the maximum happiness. But there are numerous problems with living for makes you happy. Here are what I believe are the 3 biggest.

3 problems with living for happiness

  1. Happiness is a superficial high of the moment. We pursue what we believe will bring us the greatest pleasure but it is over as soon as it achieved, a greater let down than a Disney movie ever could be. To deal with that, we become perpetual children, hopping from one pleasure to another, unsure of when the next big hit is.
  2. The birds of happiness leave their nests quickly, for their wings sprout as soon as one attempts to grasp them, leaving us on an endless chase. Happiness is a goal that never quite seems attainable. It is like a hike up a mountain only to realize you’re in the valley of an even greater one.
  3. I believe however, that the biggest problem to living for one’s own happiness is suffering. While it might seem like a viable option to pursue while the grass is green, what will one do when it is scorched by the heat? By nature, happiness cannot flourish in suffering. That means it is dependent on one’s fluctuating and chaotic environment. Happiness then is out of the question for those living in extreme circumstances and restricted only to the fortunate few of mankind. Worse, it leaves us unable to choose it.

Why living for meaning is better

While defining meaning is less easier than happiness, we can understand it better when we see how it is used. We can all think of things that we would or should live for. Things that give our lives a sense of purpose and usefulness tend to be ones that transcend us, where its ends go beyond our own happiness. The propagation of families and nations were historic sources of meaning for most of human history. Meaning then seems to imply an overarching purpose like a story for your life. The benefits of striving to live a meaningful life include being able to rejoice in suffering. The apostle Paul from the Bible captures it when he says, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34). It may seem so distant to us, like the lifestyles portrayed on Instagram, but being able to rejoice in suffering really is possible when we know it is headed towards an even better ending. After all, the biggest question one has when suffering rears its ugly head is “why?” Why. Why. Why. Being able to answer why doesn’t change the reality of our suffering but it allows us the faith to believe that the outcome is worth it, the tongue to taste it, and the strength to endure till we receive it. Aristotle said, “the sum is greater than the parts”, and so it is with happiness. The outcome of living meaningfully produces a joy that is greater and more enduring that any short lived pleasure can be. It even has the possibly to make our suffering seem small (if only we could see it). Living meaningfully is something any person can do in any situation. We are all physically capable of making choices that help us to find meaning in whatever we experience. Meaning after all, is a matter of perspective. But attempting to live a meaningful life isn’t enough so in my next article I’ll be writing about why not all meanings are equal.

Being A Good Person Cannot Make Up For The Wrong We Do: Why I love that God needed to become a man

The weird habit all humans have

We just can’t help ourselves. Like impulsive children, we just can’t help feeling bad whenever we do something wrong. And we can’t stop trying to make up for it. And if we find that we can’t? Well despair sets in like quick cement, our guilty conscience eating away at us like termites underneath timbers. We have a deeply personal knowledge of wrongs, more than just an intellectual assent. When we see wrongs committed against us or others, our hearts cry out for reparation. That’s part of what makes us human. And the reason why it’s a part of being human is because God created humans to be his image, including his justice.

Our weird habit is evidence of a damaged product

Just as every object was created with a purpose, as humans, we were made in the image of God, designed to honor God by obeying and enjoying him forever. But our conscience assures us we have fallen way short of that. We are prone to do what’s wrong, especially when we’re told we can’t do something. The very thought of being prohibited from something itches away at us. Our moral compasses are broken and we’re scrambling around like ants trying to fix it. So when we act selfishly, if we recognize it, we’ll apologize and promise to do better next time, hoping that’ll resolve our guilt. Unfortunately our consciences don’t seem to work that way. Like a bank account, each wrong committed is a withdrawal on our balance, gradually accumulating more and more debt in our account as we age. It is no wonder that old men are some of the most regretful people in the world.

Being good is overrated

But God is a person of infinite beauty and value. Therefore obeying and enjoying him is the highest good. That means every transgression is a cosmic crime of eternal and infinite proportion. It is like choosing to eat your own feces over lobster. If God says not to eat something, we ought not to eat it even at the cost of all the universe and multiple universes more. The penalty for such a crime then is something greater than the whole amount of our obligations. The penalty requires a payment of infinite value because it has been committed against an infinite being. How then can being good absolve our guilt when it is merely being what we were made to be? It seems that the history of ethics has vastly overrated its credit value.

The solution: a bail out by God

Religions are implicitly aware of this, which is why the story of the world’s religions is one in which the debt is attempted to be remedied since they all know the accounts will have to be settled one day. The problem is that with the exception of Christianity, religions rituals, superstitions and self-help practices have worked only to temporarily suppress our guilt. Let’s not kid ourselves. Our selfishness is an enormous crime and if not for God’s restraints, would be hell on earth. No, the only thing that would make reparation for a life lived in defiance of its infinitely valuable giver, is an eternal and infinitely more valuable life than any human being could offer.

If our hope is in ourselves, our will to power, or our ability to create our own meaning with our choices, then we are of all people the most to be pitied. Living the good life by ourselves is the feeble attempt of a toddler to beat his dad in basketball. The dam of our disappointments and guilt will eventually break its banks and crush us with the weight of its condemnation when we realize we cannot live the life we so desperately want to. The end of living for one’s self is despair not freedom. And the end of despair is death, not life.

Only God can give himself something that is more valuable than the whole universe. And there is nothing that is more valuable than all existence but himself. But it is man who owes the debt. So God the author of life, entered life himself as a character – the man Jesus, so that he might pay man’s debt with his own life. It was life that had existed from eternity. And it was life that was infinitely more valuable than anything else. It was a life through whom, to whom and for whom, all things were made. Only the life and death of Jesus could remedy our guilt because only as a human could he represent us, and only as God could his life be of infinite worth. And because he was of infinite worth, his payment is sufficient for every person who desires to have their guilt washed, their conscience cleansed and their life restored – as his eternal image. This is why I love that God had to become man.

Easter Would Shake Us If We Knew What It Really Meant

A Strange Holiday

It seems to me that if a man who had lived in a remote jungle his whole life were to enter Western society at this time of the year, he would find Easter quite puzzling and needless to say, absurd. “What a strange people” he’d remark, “they appear to worship a rabbit as their God and make strange replicas of him using only chocolate. And when they have bought these replicas they encourage their children to devour him!” Yet if one really thinks about how Easter is celebrated in this day and age, it really is quite strange to behold. On Saturday, I had the opportunity to have ‘yum cha’ with Sophia’s grandmother and her family at Mt Pritchard RSL. It was a nice catch up but it was busy, as busy as Mt Pritchard RSL can get on a Friday. As we were leaving, I walked past the cafe section of the club which was now suddenly flooded with children and their parents. The children sat or stood, their eyes transfixed towards the front where a projector screen and a well dressed lady with a mic stood. Scores of Easter eggs and prizes surrounded the front. Instead of older folk, it was like bingo for children, and it seemed a winner was about to be announced. At any other time of the year, things like chocolate eggs, bunnies, hot cross buns, prizes and shows would be everyday items, unfit to be objects of such hype. The commotion for such small things, interrupted by usual thoughts and made me reflect. Why did Easter bring such significance to them? What did the eggs mean and where did the bunny come from?

The True Meaning of Easter

There is a tendency for symbols of cultural significance to be taken out of its context and commercialized in a pluralistic society. Easter is no exception. I believe one reason is to allow everyone to ‘participate’ in a cultural safety zone without being confronted by the deeper meaning behind its rituals. After all who doesn’t love night markets and kebabs after Ramadan? The second is because it’s going to be a pretty good money maker. There is a clearly defined target market and regular, predictable demand because of how deeply entrenched these rituals are in their cultures.

Beyond the food and festivities, celebrations like Christmas and Easter come from an entirely Christian context where the birth, death and resurrection of a man who claimed to be the one true God is celebrated. To the Muslim, I am sure festivals like Ramadan are more than mere fasting and feasting. Think Divali is only about lights? There is much more significance behind these festivals than nutritional choices.

Yet if one is to truly appreciate the meaning of Easter and enjoy it fully, one has to place it back into its context. In its origin, Easter was not a holiday. It was a dark hour, the darkest hour for humanity. A stretch of events led to the death of one man who claimed to be God. But unlike every other death, hope rose from the ashes 3 days later. This man’s death was followed by a resurrection, something unique that had never happened in human history. Even 2000 years later, it continues to confound the most astute scholars because no one knows what to make of it. When someone dies and then comes back to life there are obviously going to be a lot of questions. What did it ultimately mean? If we look at the words given to us by the men who spent the most time with this man, then the answer is this –

”The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:30-31

Before the resurrection, death was the norm. No man had ever died and then come back to life, and for good reason. Sin is treason against God and the wages of sin is death. So every man died because he was guilty, having sought to define his life apart from God. Yet death could not hold this man. Though he was condemned because he bore the sin of humanity as a man, he was resurrected because he was God. More than that, his resurrection was vindication of his complete innocence, and that his death was enough to meet the penalty of sin for ever human who ever lived.

Because of his death, the symbol of Easter is an egg to represent new life in him. But the resurrection only brings new life for those who seek it in him. So Easter also comes with a warning. It is a warning that every human heart knows, from the moment a child first feels the pangs of guilt to the old man’s last regrets – that there is a day in which God will judge the world by the very same man that death could not hold.

Easter Is A Bad Holiday To Gamble On

Remember those game shows you watched growing up like Deal or No Deal or Jeopardy? It was always a good laugh watching people take risks and gamble. Losing was never a big deal and most of the time, people could smile knowing they went home winning at least something. But how would the show be if the contestants found out they were actually playing for their lives? If you’re celebrating Easter you’re doing the same thing – gambling a fun family holiday without any significant meaning in exchange for the risk of ignoring the biggest event in history. The consequences of winning – a more comfortable 4 day vacation, the consequences of losing – eternal life. Knowing the true meaning of Easter should make us consider carefully how we see this holiday. It can be the event that drives us to this man, Jesus to take refuge under his wings or drives us to stand apart from his death and be judged for the very lives we’ve lived. Would you choose to have a morally perfect one or yours? I know which one I’d rather have.

Conclusion

Easter is not so much a holiday about eggs and bunnies but a celebration of new life and a remembrance of the cost it took. Easter is confronting because it forces us to think about life and death in a way we’re not used to. Unlike the Victorians who were obsessed with death, we have shoved death to the fringes of society, reserved only for undertakers, cemeteries and medical services. Death is an unwelcome visitor and when one is confronted by him, he is like an unexpected guest at a wedding, and he leaves us utterly unprepared. In a culture avoidant of death, the meaning of Easter is needed more than ever.