The Meaning of Life

Monday, December 04, 2006

I was thinking about life (and death, if you noticed) when I happen to read this sermon by Edward Increase Bosworth (what a great name!) in Treasury of the World’s Great Sermons edited by Warren Wiersbe, which by the way is a wonderful and treasure of a book – if you happen to need something to read, you will most probably find just what you need here.

I had wanted to put a summary here but I don’t think I will give it justice if I do – and so here’s all of it.

The Meaning of Life
by Edward Increase Bosworth

"If a son, then an heir." - Gal. 4:7.

There is one story that never fails to interest men. It is the story of the real experiences of a human life. If an old man should rise in any audience and describe with absolute frankness the most vitally important experiences of his life, he would hold the attention of his audience to the end. He would describe his earliest recollections of home, parents, brothers and sisters. He would tell of his first boy friend, he would describe the way in which he earned his first dollar. He would tell how he first met, learned to love and asked in marriage her who afterward became his wife. He would speak of the holy sensation of fatherhood that welled up in his heart as he held his first-born in his arms. He would speak of the dumb outcry of his heart as he held the same child in his arms and watched its breathing slowly cease. He would tell the story of the great loves and hates of his life. He would speak of the timid wonder or eager anticipation with which now, in his old age, he looks out upon a near eternity.

God is the supreme inventive genius of the universe. Men are possest of wonderful inventive genius that has exprest itself in all the countless devices of modern civilization. We may say of them in homely phrase that in this particular they simply "take after" their Father, who is Himself the supreme inventive genius. So far as we know, the supreme product of His infinite inventive genius is the situation which we call plain, commonplace daily life. Nothing else is more wonderful than the daily relation of a man to his personal and physical environment, that we call plain daily life.

What is the meaning of this experience, the story of which never fails to interest men? What is the purpose of this situation devised by the infinite ingenuity of God? What is life for? The answer is to be sought from the standpoint of the text – the Fatherhood of God: "If a son, then an heir." God appears as a Father of sons whom He wishes to be His heirs. Human life is a situation devised by the infinite ingenuity of God, in which to train sons for an inheritance of power by teaching them to use power in a friendly spirit.

There are certain things implied in this statement of the purpose of life. it is implied that God is a Father who has vast power to bequeath. The evidences of it are on every side. It is said that if one of the fiery whirlstorms on the sun should occur on the surface of the earth, it would be in the Gulf of Mexico thirty seconds after it had left the St. Lawrence, and everything in its track would be a hot vapor. The words that God left ringing in the ears of men, when he launched the race upon its career, were calculated to arouse expectation of power: "Subdue the earth," "have dominion." The words which Jesus spoke to His fellow men at the close of His life of marvelous manifestation of power were also calculated to make them expect to exercise power. "He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also, and greater works than these shall he do."

It is implied that God is an ambitious Father, ambitious to see His sons make the most of themselves. We sometimes think of God as a Sovereign whose plans are good for the world as a whole, but involve so much of hardship and limitation for the individual that a man may well wish to have the least possible personal connection with them. Such is not Paul's thought. To him God is indeed a Sovereign, but a sovereign Father, ambitious to see His sons become His heirs.

It is implied also that God is a conscientious Father, too conscientious to allow His sons to become His heirs unless they are fit to possess that which he would bequeath. Heirship was once synonymous with license. The heir to the throne was allowed certain exemptions from ordinary obligations. He might gratify his appetites with a disregard of consequences unpardonable in the case of other men. But with advancing ideas of the responsibilities inseparable from the possession of power this idea is largely passing away. He who would inherit must be trained into fitness for the inheritance. It is said that one of the present European sovereigns gave little promise as a child of ever being fit for the inheritance that would naturally come to him. His father, however, was a conscientious man, and systematically set about the process of making his son fit for heirship. He provided for his physical development, gave him military training, educated him in the branches of learning most essential to statesmanship, and in every way so devoted himself to the preparation of his son for the responsibilities of heirship that, finally, when the prince inherited the kingdom, few rulers were better fitted than he for the responsibilities of power.

That human life is a situation devised by the infinite ingenuity of God, in which to teach His sons to use power in a friendly spirit is evident from several considerations: The nature of life as revealed in its two most characteristic features shows that it is intended to serve this purpose. It may seem difficult to determine what features of life ought to be selected as characteristic. We naturally look for something very generally present in life and of fundamental significance. Perhaps, nothing more exactly meets this requirement than the phenomenon of human suffering, and the family.

Suffering is a universal and vitally significant feature of human life. Who escapes it? It begins with the physical pains of infancy. How many thousands lie today suffering in hospitals! How many millions suffer pain outside the merciful ministrations of the hospital! But who is there who lives long without knowing something of the suffering that is keener than bodily pain, the suffering of the soul, in all the violent passion or steady, relentless oppression of sorrow in its manifold forms? We may be unable to form a complete philosophy of suffering, but this much is at once evident: It makes a powerful appeal for the friendly use of power. Especially is this seen to be the case in our day when easy combination and swift transmission of power make it possible for a large number of men, each of whom has a little power, quickly to apply that power in a friendly way to any remote point of need. It is possible for thousands of persons, each with a small amount of personal power represented in his single dollar, to accumulate a sum of money within a few hours in the hands of a reliable central agency that will cable it to the other side of the world and release it there in some form of personal activity that shall be the friendly relief of suffering.

By the side of the phenomenon of suffering stands the family as a great characteristic feature of human life. A large part of the significance of the family consists in the training it affords its members in the friendly use of power. A little child is born into the world, "an appetite and a cry." Very soon an appeal is made to the little soul for love. It is the appeal of the mother's eyes. The appeal of the father is soon made and felt to be different from that of the mother. In time a third appeal is made by the baby brother, and a fourth, different from the other three, by the baby sister. The child becomes a man and loves a woman. The appeal of the wife for love; that is, for the friendly use of power, differs from any that have preceded it. When a baby boy lies in the father's arms a new appeal is made, and the appeal of the baby girl touches a new chord in the father’s heart. The seven-fold appeal of father, mother, brother, sister, wife, son, daughter, which is experienced in the fully developed family relationship, constitutes an appeal for the friendly use of power that can be matched by no creation of the imagination. When one looks, therefore, into the nature of human life as exprest in its two characteristic features, human suffering and the family, he is constrained to regard it as a situation devised by the infinite ingenuity of God in which to teach his children to use power in a friendly spirit, arid presumably with reference to giving them larger bequests of power.

The truth of this proposition also becomes evident when we recognize that this conception underlay Jesus' theory of life. When the rich young senator came to him as to an expert professional prophet, asking him to specify something the asking of which would guarantee him the advantages of "eternal life," Jesus simply directed him to begin at once to use the power he already possest in a friendly spirit, He pointed out to him the suffering on every side and told him to begin to use his possessions in relieving it.

Jesus' general teaching regarding the proper use of money is based on this theory of life. "Make to yourselves friends," he said, "by means of the mammon of unrighteousness, so that when it shall fail they may receive you into eternal tabernacles" (Luke, 16:9). That is, a man's money power is to be used in a friendly spirit that will lay the foundations for eternal friendships. When two men meet for the first time in tire age to come, it will be discovered that one is there because of the friendly spirit in which the other once used his money to meet the great needs of those whom he did not then know personally, and who perhaps lived in other lands. Jesus regarded money as a comparatively low form of power put into a man's hands for a little time in order that he might learn to use it in a friendly way and so prepare himself to be trusted with higher forms of power. "If, therefore, ye have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous mammon who will commit to your trust tire true riches?" How can the Church expect God to trust it with any such large degree of prayer power as is described in the great promises of achievement through prayer, until it has first learned to use the lower money power in a friendly spirit? Jesus regarded money as something that really belongs to another. It often comes to us by inheritance from another, and is certain at death to pass from us to another. It remains in our hands a little while in order that by using it in a friendly way we may be prepared to inherit some higher form of power that we can carry out into the eternal future as our permanent possession. "And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?"

Jesus not only held this view of life as a theory, but He actually used human life as a situation in which to prepare men for an inheritance of power by teaching them to use power in a friendly way. The salvation which He brings to men is one which saves them to this kind of life. There is no more striking evidence of the seriousness of sin than the fact that the powerful appeal made by life itself is not sufficient to induce men to use power in a friendly way. There is still need that a great Savior should enter the situation and bring the persuasive power of his own friendly personality to hear upon men. But human life, as we have conceived it, is a situation big enough for, and suitable to, the operations of a great Savior. It affords him the opportunity He needs to link men’s lives in with His own ever-present life, and to train them through personal association with Himself in the friendly use of power. He not only pointed out the suffering poor to the rich young man who came inquiring about eternal life, and directed him to use his money in their relief, but He said also, "Come, follow me." He proposed to attach the man permanently to himself and to the friendly enterprise into which He was leading His disciples. The disciples of Jesus were a company of men being personally trained by Him in the friendly use of power. They were to be specialists in friendship: "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." The Church of Jesus Christ is not a club which men and women join for what they can get out of it, but it is a company of men and women banded together to be trained by the living Lord in the friendly use of power. They keep the searchlight of their investigation playing all round the world’s horizon, and when it falls upon some point of special need, to that point some members of this Christly company hasten with power for its relief.

It is further evident that human life is a situation devised by tire infinite ingenuity of God in which to prepare sons for an inheritance of power by teaching them to use power in a friendly spirit, because human life has actually been serving this purpose. When we look back over the long history of human life in the world, it is evident that God has fairly been crowding more power into the hands of men, as fast as they have learned to use what they already had with even an imperfect degree of friendliness. This is seen, for instance, in the case of explosives. Men in the brutal first century of our era could not be trusted to use the power of modern explosives. We see evidences enough of brutality still, but if some new explosive should be discovered that would destroy the lives of a million men in an instant, there is now a friendly sentiment in the hearts of men that would instantly demand the elimination of this explosive from modern warfare.

In the industrial development of our day, increasing power is being put into the hands of employers and employed, as men are able to use it with increasing though imperfect. friendliness. Once neither employers nor employed could have been safely trusted with the power that organization has given to both parties, but now the growing sense of responsibility for the general welfare makes it safe to give larger power to both. It seems probable that vast industrial enterprises conducive to human welfare lie just ahead of us, which can be undertaken only when men have been trained to use power with a friendliness that will make it safe to trust them with the great increase of power that these enterprises will demand.

Human life, then, by its very nature, by Jesus' theory and use of it, by what it has already accomplished through the centuries, is seen to be a situation devised by the infinite ingenuity of God, in which to train sons for an inheritance of power by teaching them to use power in a friendly spirit.

It is in the light of this conception of the meaning of life that the peril of living appears. The danger is that man will refuse to learn the friendly music of power, and therefore be unable to inherit the bequests of power that would naturally await them. Such failure means inevitable loss. He who throws himself athwart the deep trend of the long evolution of life inevitably suffers indescribable disaster. It is of him that the most ominous words of Jesus are spoken. The power that he has will be taken from him and be given to him that has shown himself fit to be trusted with large and growing grants of power - "Take away the talent from him and give it to him that hath ten talents." From the farmer who refuses to sow his seed the seed shall be taken and given to him who has it in abundance and is willing to sow it, for seed must be sown that God’s children may have bread. "He will be cast out into the outer darkness," eliminated from Jesus' civilization of friendly workmen. Over against these busy friendly workmen, to whom, as they work together, God gives growing grants of power, the persistently selfish man putters away ever more feebly and painfully in his little lonely self-made hell. The peril is that men will not see the significance of plain daily life, with its commonplace most constantly recurring opportunity to learn to use power in a friendly spirit. The men that stood for judgment before the Son of Man cried out in surprized chagrin, "When saw we thee hungry and thirsty?" They had not noticed the significance of daily life. It is those with the least power, one-talent people, who are in greatest danger. They are too proud to do the little they can do because it will appear to others to be so little - "Others can do it so much better than I." Or the little power they possess is not sufficiently impressive to overcome the wicked lethargy of their anemic good will - "It is too much trouble." So they merit the descriptive words of Jesus, "wicked and slothful," proud and lazy, and pass out into the sphere of self-wrecked personalities.

But, on the other hand this view of the meaning of life gives birth to a great hope. The man who has only a little power, and who faithfully uses it in the friendly spirit of a son of God, is certain to inherit vastly increased power. He lives in a generous economy in which he who is "faithful over a few things" will surely be "set over many things." It is this conception of the future life as one of achievement that appeals to the strong man of our age. We do not like to think of the future life as one of endless rest. We do not care to sing:
    There shall I bathe my weary soul
    In seas of endless rest,
    Arid not a wave of trouble roll
    Across my peaceful breast.
Tennyson rather has struck the chord to which our age responds, when he says of his departed friend:
    And doubtless unto thee is given
    A life that bears immortal fruit
    If those great offenses that suit
    The full-grown energies of heaven.
The thought of "the full-grown energies of heaven" and the opportunity for their exercise that "heaven" must afford, makes immortality seem worthwhile. The sons of God are to inherit a career. Men may walk the shores of the "silent sea" not shivering and cowering with fear of death, but feeling rather as Columbus did when he finally got his three ships, and sailed away expecting to find opportunity for great achievements beyond. They may walk the shore like spiritual vikings, ready to start out on a beneficent career of high adventure. They may feel an enthusiasm for eternity which will
    Greet the unseen with a cheer!
But all this future outlook is for him who has present insight into the meaning of daily life and who puts himself under the daily discipline of Jesus. The homespun language of Sam Foss expresses his deep desire.
    Let me live in a house by the side of the road,
    Where the race of men go by?
    The men who are good and the men who are bad,
    As good and as bad as I.
    I would not sit in a scorner' seat,
    Or hurl the cynic' ban;
    Let me live in a house by the side of the road
    And be a friend to man.
Human life is a situation devised by the infinite ingenuity of God, in which to prepare sons for an inheritance of power by teaching them to use power in a friendly spirit. "If a son, then an heir."

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE - Edward Increase Bosworth
PROFESSOR of New Testament language and literature, Oberlin Theological Seminary, Ohio,1892- 1926; dean 1903-1924; born Dundee, Ill., January 10, 1861; graduated from Elgin Academy, Ill., 1877; student Oberlin College, 1879-81; graduated from Yale, 1883; Oberlin Theological Seminary, 1886; student at the University of Leipsic, 1890,1; Congregational clergyman; pastor, Mt. Vernon, Ohio, 1886,7; professor of English Bible, 1887-90; author of "Studies in the Acts and Epistles," - "Studies in the Teaching of Jesus and His Apostles," - "Studies in the Life of Jesus Christ," etc.

Picture by Michael Bretherton

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4 comment(s)

  1. Maeghan,

    That's some great stuff. I'll have to read it again to digest it.

    God Bless

  2. Hi Meaghan,

    That was interesting. He had some rather unique ways of saying things back in the 1800's.
    Incidentally, my family geneology includes one or more people with the name "Increase" from that time period and Edward is an awesome name, too. Blessings, Julia

  3. Edward is an awesome name

    Of course! :)

    Julia, I have not been around much - but I did take a peek at your blog a moment ago -- it's snowing!!!!

  4. Doug,
    Yeah ... it's good stuff - I read it several times too.