Here’s the thing about life. We just get one of them. No one that I know wants to look back on their life and say, “I was just going through the motions. I wasted my life.” On the contrary, people want to lead a life that’s worth living.
In her oft-cited poem “The Summer Day,” the late Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And as much as I admire her writing and her spirituality, I would have posed a different question.
Our lives feel meaningful when we have a reason to live. No matter what the world throws at us, no matter how challenging or bleak the circumstances, we’ll feel a sense of purpose and keep on going when we have the kind of reason that can inspire us and sustain us.
While it may not have been Mary Oliver’s intended meaning, I hear her encouraging her readers to pursue what they love to do, even if the world keeps telling them they’re being impractical and foolish. Write poetry. Paint murals. Play the saxophone. Do the thing that you love to do. That you feel born to do.
Please don’t get me wrong. I readily acknowledge that doing something you love is richly rewarding. But life’s meaning ultimately comes from someplace deeper. From a more powerful source. How we do what we do gives our life meaning.
When we do what we do with love—whatever that may be—then our life will be worth living. That’s true even if the world assures us that we’re daft for living that way.
Paul told the Corinthians something very much like this. He said, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
Paradoxically, Jesus showed us how to live most clearly—and most starkly—on the cross. The cross is a message to all of us about what makes life worth living. The cross reveals the true nature of love.
Jesus put it like this. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:34-36)
Whether we’re an artist or a short order cook, a stay-at-home parent or a roofer, a brain surgeon or a house cleaner, we can devote ourselves to making the world better for someone else. We can write or cook or change a diaper in love.
By comparison a life devoted to something less than love is just going through the motions. You’re dead and just don’t know it yet.
The martyrs of the early church teach us this very lesson. They died at the hands of the Roman authorities for refusing to renounce their faith. But let’s be clear about what they were doing.
The martyrs did not choose to die for the sake of theological concepts. Jesus had taught them the key to a meaningful life.
You really know you’re loved when you love. You truly love yourself when you love your neighbor. This is a love-shaped life.
Doing what we do with love makes life worth living. And as it turns out, that’s the only kind of life that you can never lose.