It’s human nature to ask the question “What is my life?”—and the world doesn’t give us the best answers. If we seek to find meaning in happiness and self-expression, we eventually find ourselves feeling empty instead. The Bible offers an alternative: as Alistair Begg explains, our lives are grounded in the gift of God and determined by His providence. In our search for meaning, are we willing to acknowledge our dependence on Him?
Sermon Transcript: Print
The question for this evening, you will note from your card, comes from the fourth chapter of James, and it falls within these verses:
“Now listen,” James writes, “you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”
We pray together:
Our God and our Father, we bow before you this evening. And we thank you for your grace and goodness to us throughout the hours of this day; for the blessings of family life and friendship; for food to eat and clothes to wear; for at least a measure of health and strength that allows us to gather here tonight; for your Word, the Bible, that we can turn to; in the way that we would turn to a map to get from here to another part of the country, we turn to your Word as a map that would be able to guide us from where we are to you and on into eternity. And we pray that tonight, as we think about what the Bible says, as we think about what the issues are that are raised by our question, that you will help us to be honest, that you will help me to be clear, and that by your grace and goodness you will enable us to be responsive.
We thank you that none of us are here by chance, that you have purposed to put together this particular company on this particular evening in this very place. That’s beyond our ability to comprehend, and yet your Word tells us that it’s so. And so, we believe that, having brought us together and having given us the Bible, that your plan is to speak to us through your Bible, and we pray that we might have ears to hear. Bless and help us, then, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The Leisure & Arts page of the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, some of you saw because you read the review of Cream playing at Madison Square Garden. Those of you who didn’t know that Cream played guitars but you thought that cream was in a jar, don’t worry about that. Others can put you right later on. And when I’d finished reading about Eric Clapton and his buddies, I noticed a review of a book directly underneath entitled, “What the Guru and the Philosopher Can’t Tell You.” This is the review of a book by a man by the name of Julian Baggini. The book is called What’s It All About? And in the book, he suggests that the meaning of life—answering the question “What is life?”—is not to be found in any sense of cause. It isn’t found, as he says, in “the causal origin of the human race.” This, he says, is actually “a good thing, because it is at best a moot point whether the universe has any purpose at all.” The universe, he says, “might simply be.” And “if this is at least a possibility,” then, he says, “we want to be able to find a meaning in life that issues from life itself,” and “not from what purpose[ful]ly gave rise to life.”
And so, almost in keeping with some of the answers that were there in this little video tonight, the writer suggests that what we need in order make sense of it all is a list of things. And top of that list—and top of the list up here, I think—happiness; and, he says, self-expression; and thirdly, personal relationships.
The reviewer, a fellow called Colin McGinn—who himself has written a book called Mindsight: Image, Dream, [and] Meaning, published by Harvard University Press—the reviewer says that from the author’s perspective, God is not so much dead as he is irrelevant. And as he draws his review to a close, this is how he writes:
The question that remains, not taken up by Mr. Baggini, is whether this kind of deflationary secular answer is enough. Most people will agree with the list he offers and live according to it, but they may still have a nagging feeling that more is required for life to be anything other than a brief and inglorious cosmic bleep. That may be irrational, a kind of pointless overreaching, but it may yet be what the majority of mankind is condemned to feel.
I thought that was a fascinating phrase. “Most people,” he says, will conclude that something more is required for life to be regarded as more than “a brief and inglorious cosmic bleep.”
I’ve spoken so much recently that I can’t remember where I’m repeating myself, but I know for sure I’m repeating myself. And if I quoted last Sunday night from Einstein’s Credo, then let me preface it by saying, “You remember last Sunday evening when I mentioned Einstein’s Credo?” I think that’s well worthy of repetition. But Einstein in 1932 writes in his Credo, “Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here, involuntarily and uninvited, for a short stay, without knowing the [whys] and the [wherefores].”
And, of course, whys and wherefores will take some of us of lesser intellectual capacity and less erudite reading to the work of Tony Hatch and to the voice of Petula Clark, because she’s the one who said, “We wander around on our own little cloud, and we don’t know the whys and the wherefores.”
So whether you go, if you like, to the pinnacle of intellectualism expressed in Einstein, or whether you go to the common parlance of the everyday life of people who are warned not to sleep in the subway and not to stand in the pouring rain, none of us could deny the fact that this question is a significant question, and it is a question that demands our attention. And, I think, perhaps you’ve come this evening because you recognize the validity of that assertion.
And here in this little section that I read for you, James’s question, you will note, is set within the context of a group of businessmen, if you like, sitting down to make their plans. Jewish men have been well-known throughout the years—and the same remains true today—for their peculiar abilities in the world of entrepreneurial skills. And that was true in the time of James, and James is able to say and appeal to their thinking, “I know that a group of you often sit down, and you gather around a table, and you put together a business plan and a strategy for making money that extends beyond the immediate and out, perhaps, even as far as a year.” He says, “I want to speak to those of you who are good at doing that. I want to give you a word of warning. I want to suggest to you that you’re actually making a tactical error.”
And what he is condemning here is not—as some people have liked to suggest, because of their political and economic persuasions—what he is condemning here is not business but boasting. What he is condemning here is not the industrious nature of the quest, but it is that the quest is being engaged in entirely independently of God. What these individuals he addresses are doing—and we can identify with this, I’m sure, if we’re honest—is thinking quite ordinarily about matters of life and business.
And there are certain assumptions that underpin their choices. For example, they operate on the basis that they’ll for sure be here tomorrow, that they’ll for sure go there tomorrow, and that they will for sure be successful on the basis of what they do when they get there. That’s what they’re saying. And that’s common thinking. You could argue that that’s what makes the whole of the American economy go round—that if it weren’t for individuals sitting down in small businesses and large, making those kind of plans, that many of us would be in dire straits. And the progression is straightforward: “today,” “tomorrow,” “a year.”
And from this perspective, a day as it passes is viewed almost like a mark that you could put on a wheel. Do you remember when you were small, you used to take Popsicle sticks and stick them in your bike to make it sound as though you had a sort of motorbike, and it made that whirring sound? How pathetic was that? How embarrassing, when I think about it. How my parents must’ve said, “What a dimwit.” But anyway, there I was … around the place. And sometimes I came up with all kinds of schemes. I was going to work out how far I was going and how many times it was going round. In order to do that, I’d mark my wheel. But of course, the faster I went, the less I could see the mark, and whole thing was a futility in the end.
And the perspective from what we read here is the notion that tomorrow is, if you like, like a mark on the rim of time’s wheel. And there is, if you like, the wheel of time, which goes round and round and round.
“Well,” you say, “there’s a sense in which that’s true. I mean, it’s twenty past seven, and in twelve hours it’ll be twenty past seven again; it’ll have just moved to a.m. And then twelve hours later it’ll be twenty past seven; it’ll be twenty-four hours from now.” We understand that. But what is being suggested is something at a far deeper level. And it is challenged by what the Bible says.
When I was thinking about this, I was reminded of the lyrics from The Lion King, which I’ve never seen. But the hit song from The Lion King, I thought I remembered, was entitled “The Circle of Life.” And so I checked, and it was, and here’s how it reads:
From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun,
There’s more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There’s far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round
It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life
It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life
Now, what the Bible actually says is that there’s no point in putting a mark on a circle, because it isn’t a circle, but that the passage of time is not ultimately cyclical, but rather, it is linear, and that the line goes from eternity to eternity. And any attempt to view life in a cyclical fashion is actually, in some dimension, to seek to escape from the inevitable, strange, insistent knocking at the door of our minds which says to us, “I don’t think we’re going around. I don’t think we’re coming around. I think that ‘the first day that I said hello began my last goodbye.’ I think that from the day of my birth I am moving inexorably towards the day of my death.”
Alec Motyer says of this, when we think, then, in terms of the passage of time, “we receive another day not as a result of natural necessity”—tomorrow does not have to come—“nor by mechanical law, nor by right, nor by the courtesy of nature, but [we receive another day] by the covenanted mercies of God.” That’s Lamentations 3, isn’t it? It is because of God’s mercy that we are not consumed. It is because of his mercy that we awaken to a new day. What is our life? Well, our life is grounded in the gift of God, and every day is a further gift.
Now, in this little section, what we discover is that man is proud in his presumptuous planning. That’s what’s present here: “You’re saying this, you’re planning that, you’re going there,” and so on. And what is absent in the section is any notion of the providence of God. The very phrase “the providence of God” is so alien to contemporary thinking that we have to go and look for somewhere to try and understand what is even meant by the phrase.
And, of course, you know the best place to go is to the Shorter Scottish Catechism, which is a great wealth of truth. And in the Shorter Catechism we’re told that “the works of God’s providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.” God preserves all his creatures. What does that mean? It means that according to the Bible, nothing in the whole universe would continue to exist for one slightest fraction of a second without God . The universe has real existence; its continuity is not a mere semblance. But it does not exist independently of the continuous activity of its creator.
So we’re not to quote Noel Harrison; the world is not “like an apple [spinning] silently in space,” and the answer to the question “What is your life?” is not to be found in the borders of our minds—“Like the circles that you find in the [borders] of your mind.”
I don’t want to belabor this, but I think some of you may be following me. And the striking emphasis which is given here—and this is not the totality of the answer to the question “What is your life?” but it is the answer that James provides for us. “What is your life?” he says. “Your life is very, very brief. In fact, when you think about it,” he says, “you are a mist.”
How substantial is a mist? A mist is completely insubstantial. You can’t grab the mist. Some mornings, when you come here early in the morning, out over Grantwood Golf Course there is a wonderful inversion, and you can see this super mist all over the fairways and up over those first couple of greens. You come in, you go about your business, even for an hour, you go back out and say, “I must go out and see the mist,” and there is no possibility ever of seeing it. It is gone. And even while it was there, it was insubstantial. If your children were to get out of the car and run up and try and grab hold of it, they couldn’t grab hold of it. What is your life? Your life is a mist. It’s insubstantial. It’s “a mist that appears for a little while.” It’s transient. It’s ephemeral. And it “vanishes.” It goes without trace.
Now, when we think of life in these terms, then it changes everything, doesn’t it? And that’s why, most of the time in our lives, we don’t think about these things. We don’t want to think about these things. But the Bible continually confronts us with them. For example, in Psalm 90, the psalmist says,
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
[through] all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
“You are the everlasting one.” And then listen to what he says:
You turn men back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep men away in the sleep of death;
[they’re] like the new grass of the morning—
though in the morning it springs up new,
by evening it is dry and withered.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
The length of our days is seventy years—
or eighty, if we have the strength.
That was written a long time ago! Have you checked the actuarial tables lately? Not a lot has changed, has it? Despite the advance of civilization, despite our sophistication, despite all the advances of medication, I would think most men here would say seventy would be a good innings. And if we push it to eighty, then we will have occasion for thankfulness, hopefully, and hopefully those that we’re still around will be equally thankful.
What is your life? Your life is passing.
How are we then to handle the fact of life’s frailty? Well, one of the answers is, abandon yourself to the indulgence of all your lusts and all your passions. Eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow you die. Grab the gusto. Get all the toys you can. The old bumper sticker expresses the philosophy well: “He that dies”—she that dies—“with the most toys wins.” That’s one of the answers in the circle of life. What’re we going to do through the journey of despair and hope and so on? We might as well grab what we can while we’re going along.
Last Sunday, when I began to quote from memory from the old song by Ray Stevens from 1968, I think it was, and everybody immediately went on the internet and got the song for me—thank you to each of you who did—but I was trying to get to the verse that I couldn’t remember. And maybe I wasn’t supposed to remember it because it’s perhaps a better verse for tonight than it was for last Sunday. But the verse that I was trying to get to was this:
Spending counterfeit incentive
Wasting precious time and health
Placing value on the worthless
Disregarding priceless wealth
You can wheel and deal the best of them
And steal it from the rest of them
You know the score, their ethics are a bore
You better [just] take care of business, Mr. Businessman, [while you can].
James says to the businessman, “Hey, Mr. Businessman: you’re a little presumptuous, aren’t you? You are presuming not only on tomorrow but on all of your tomorrows.”
“Here,” says James, “is what that presumptuous person needs to do: first of all, he or she needs to face up to what they do not know.” There’s an irony in this, I’m sure: “I want to speak to you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, and spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’”
I sit in the airport and listen to men talking on their cell phones—women too, but mainly men. It’s going to be one obnoxious day when cell phones are cut free on the airlines, because you’re now going to be in 25B, sitting next to two guys, both talking out loud on their cell phones, and it’s unthinkable. It’s a nightmare coming.
But a fellow said to me the other day—Wednesday, Thursday morning, I think it was—I was sitting by myself after Sue had left, and he said, “Is it okay if I sit here?” “Yes,” I said, “It’s fine.” Well, he no sooner sat down than he started to talk out loud. And he had the thing in his ear. At first, I thought he’d lost his senses, and then I realized what he was doing. And my wife has been trying to teach me that if you whisper into your cell phone, you can still be heard at the other end of the line. I don’t know whether I feel dumber whispering or speaking out loud, but nevertheless, this fellow had no interest in whispering in his phone. And I don’t want to do him a disservice; he was just a fairly straightforward businessman. But essentially, what he was doing was living in James 4:13. He was announcing to everyone about today, and tomorrow, and next year, and he ran the figures by them, and he cross-referenced them, and he pointed out what he was doing. And frankly, all I needed was his social security number and I pretty well had this guy down for raps. But as I listened to him, I said, “Who does this guy think he is? He can’t even put his socks on apart from God’s providence. He sounds as though he runs the universe, let alone runs his company.”
And then I said to myself, “You know, you find it easy to see your sins in other people, don’t you?” See, what I dislike most in other people is usually what I hate most in myself, but it’s easier to find it in someone else than to face it in me. This is not a peculiarly pagan problem; Christians do this as well—the sin of presumptuousness that forgets what it doesn’t know . He says, “You’re planning next year? I’ve got news for you: you don’t even know what will happen tomorrow.”
“Yeah, well, I have the year-end figures for you, and, yeah, we’ve already done the projections for next year. Yeah. Yeah, Joe’s got that. Call Joe, you can get ’em ….”
Sounds so grand, doesn’t it? Just a little blood test, just a significant amount of turbulence on the aircraft, and suddenly all of our proud and presumptuous boasts are reaching for something—either the “eighty-six proof anesthetic crutch,” or the relationship, or the dream.
“If you’re gonna tackle this question,” he says, “you have to face up to what you do not know.” You don’t know about tomorrow; none of us do.
Also, you have to face up to the fact of your frailty. We’ve addressed that, haven’t we? “What is your life? You’re a mist. It appears for a wee while, and then it vanishes away.”
I think it was last week—it might have been the week before—I was teaching one of the girls in the office a poem. Not a great poem. In fact, I started to wander around the building, saying it out loud. A number of people of my vintage said, “Oh, I haven’t heard that in a hundred years,” which was hyperbole, but I understood what they meant.
Do you remember this one?
Born on Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday.
And that was the end,
Of Solomon Grundy.
Now, there’s a nice little rhyme for your children, isn’t it? Children in Scotland played games to that. They skipped rope to it: “Solomon Grundy, born on Monday, christened on Tuesday…” And then if the person tripped, they stopped it, and they started again: “Solomon Grundy, born on Mon…” And then when they’d finished that, they held hands, and they went around and around, singing—the Scottish version is as follows; the American version is marginally different; you perfect everything, I understand that—singing,
Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
There’s another nice one. Where did that come from? It came from the Plague. And posies were held by the ladies to offset the stench.
Now, you might say to yourself, “Well, thank God we’ve moved on from those dreadful days,” when our children, in their infancy and in their growing years, were confronted by their mortality—were aware of the fact that they weren’t spinning in the circle of life but that they were actually purposefully created, that they did not exist before they were born, and that they were moving to a definite terminus in their life, and the same God who made them and fashioned them according to his wonderful plan was the same God who loved them in Jesus and longed to have a personal relationship with them. And within the framework of what they didn’t know and within the context of the frailty of life, then the gospel came to them. But it’s hard to speak to people about eternity when they have embraced a philosophy which is the circle of life. Because first you have to argue for the linear nature of the passage of time and so wean people away from the preoccupation that allows them to get through their days.
But I’m going on a bit, so I’ll take my final point and finish.
James says, “If you’re gonna face up to the question, you need to face up to what you don’t know”—you don’t know about tomorrow—“you need to face up to your frailty, and also, you need to face up to the fact that you’re entirely dependent upon God.” You see, in verse 14, it’s the contents of tomorrow that we don’t know, and in verse 15, it is that we don’t know if there’s a tomorrow. In verse 14 he says, “You don’t know what will happen tomorrow.” In verse 15 he says, “You better get used to saying, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, there will be a tomorrow,’ because if it isn’t the Lord’s will, there won’t be a tomorrow.” It’s quite a thought, isn’t it?
Now, I don’t know if you had this kind of terminology growing up as children. And when I think back on it, it’s amazing that I made my way through life or I didn’t lie in my bed worried out of my wits. But you remember the prayer: “And now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.”
You know, so many things out of my childhood come back to me now that I move into my dotage. But I was thinking about this. Because there was a lady who used to come to this church, and it infuriated her when I said that God “spares us.” She said, “God doesn’t spare us.” Well, we chose to disagree with one another. But when we said goodnight to one another in our family, this was our parting shot: “Good night, Dad. I will see you in the morning, all spared and well.” “I will see you in the morning, all spared and well.” In other words, “I will see you in the morning if God spares me and grants me health. Otherwise, I will not see you in the morning.” You don’t have to be a genius as a boy growing up to recognize what you’re giving expression to in that kind of terminology.
And tonight, contemporary American society resists the question, flees from the challenge that it brings, chooses not to think about these things at all. And surely the contemporary fascination with health is in large measure on account of the fact that contemporary society has no answer to death.
I pulled off the internet “All the world’s a stage.” It’s a great quote, isn’t it? You remember that? Jacques in As You Like It? The dentists love this. I’m gonna dedicate this to all dentists because of the way it finishes. But you remember it:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women [are] merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
You know, the first instance is the wee guy, and so on, it goes through; you know it. And then he says, “And it ends up sans teeth”—without teeth—“without eyes, without taste, without everything.”
Now, that’s why, in our funeral services here at Parkside, I think most of us eventually end up saying the same thing every time. We say to the people who have gathered, “We’re here today, and there’s some things we can’t avoid. One is the fact of life’s brevity, two is the fact of death’s reality, three is the fact of judgment’s certainty, and four is the fact of faith’s opportunity.”
Tonight, you may be here, and this question has a very personal and a very private touch on your life. Because you’ve been asking the question “What is your life?” and getting really rotten answers. And it may be completely unknown to the people around you. It may even be unknown to the people who are nearest and dearest to you. But that you feel yourself to be empty and left out, and there may even be things in your life that disgust you so badly that you hate to wake up in the night and have your conscience accuse you. And frankly, if you’re honest, you think you’re pretty worthless.
Well, the Bible is full of good news for people who think themselves to be worthless . And the Bible says that man—men and women—are the very pinnacle of God’s creation, that God has made us in his image, that we are precious in his sight, that we possess a dignity that is unknown even by the angels. That image is marred because of man’s sin, and that’s why you feel the way you feel, and that’s why people treat you as they treat you, and that’s why you treat people as you do.
But the good news is this: that the same God that made you has done something for you in Jesus, and he has done something in Jesus so as to put the pieces of your picture back together again . You may have been trying to fix it on the horizontal level: “If I can bridge the gap with her, if I can reengage with him, if I can do this…” And those are all useful adventures, but the fact of the matter is, the Bible says that first we have to deal with it on the vertical axis between ourselves and the God who has made us—coming and meeting him. “Well, how can I meet him? He seems so far away. It’s as if his phone is off the hook.” Well, the good news is, we don’t have to go and find him; he is the one who comes to finds us. And he has reached down to us in Jesus and offers to us forgiveness, dies to bear our punishment, dies to wipe clean our stain, offers us a whole new family, offers us a whole new future, so that we can then ask the question, “What is my life?” And we can say, “My life is passing; that is without doubt. But my life is purchased; he purchased it. And my life is powerful.” Powerful! The impact of a solitary life lived for good and lived for God.
“Only one life, it’ll soon be past. And only what’s done for Jesus will last.”
 Colin McGinn, “What the Guru and the Philosopher Can’t Tell You,” review of What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, by Julian Baggini, Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2005, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB113097193510286709.
 McGinn, “The Guru and the Philosopher.”
 Quoted in Michael White and John Gribbin, Einstein: A Life in Science (London: Free Press, 2005), 262–63.
 Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent, “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” (1967). Paraphrased.
 Tim Rice, “The Circle of Life” (1994).
 Roger Whittaker and Cardew Robinson, “The First Hello, the Last Goodbye” (1976). Paraphrased.
 Alec Motyer, The Message of James (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity, 1985), 162.
 Lamentations 3:22–23 (paraphrased).
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 11.
 Alan and Marilyn Bergman, “The Windmills of Your Mind” (1968).
 Psalm 90:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 90:3–6, 9–10 (NIV 1984).
 See Isaiah 22:13.
 Ray Stevens, “Mr. Businessman” (1968).
 Stevens, “Mr. Businessman.”
 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2.7.
 Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2.7. Paraphrased.
 C. T. Studd, “Only One Life.” Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.