What Is the Meaning of Life?
What Is the Meaning of Life?
by Asher Witmer
This article first appeared in the May/June 2016 print edition of Daughters of Promise.
Have you ever stopped to think about what it was like for Joseph to be imprisoned in a damp and cold dungeon in the middle of Egypt? Sure, it stank and there were probably a host of black widow spiders waiting to feast on his warm, scintillating blood.
Scary spiders aside, though, there is another reason I would have found it hard to maintain any sense of happiness and hope if I were in Joseph’s shoes. God had given him dreams of royalty and authority. Joseph’s life was going to be successful and deeply meaningful, yet something tells me that’s not exactly what he was feeling in the dungeon as he watched slimy spiders string their webs from the ceiling of his cell.
We read the life of Joseph with the advantage of knowing the end of the story. We see his pain and struggle as he was betrayed by brothers, falsely accused by friends, and completely forgotten by a fellow inmate he had helped; but, we also know that eventually the butler remembers him and he interprets Pharaoh’s dream and becomes prince of Egypt, saving the nation of Israel from extinction. Sad story, great ending!
But Joseph didn’t know all that. He didn’t have the luxury of knowing the end of his life from the beginning.
And neither do you. Or I.
All Joseph knew in that moment was that he was a long way away from having anyone bow down to him. He also knew he needed to keep on the alert for spider bites.
I read the story of Joseph at least once a year, and never have I felt any real intense emotion of hopelessness, confusion, or fear of the uncertainty as I do when faced with hard times or major decisions in my own life. I get so caught up in the moment— my little moments—that nothing else looks remotely as difficult as whatever I’m going through at the time.
For five years I worked a job I had no heart for. Every day felt like an eternity of sacrifice. “Is this all I’m going to do for the rest of my life?” I wondered in fear. It was my own dungeon, of sorts, as I labeled books in a self-storage unit in downtown Los Angeles. I wanted more. I knew I was capable of more. But nothing else seemed to come up or be the right fit. Yeah, it was money, but surely there’s more to life than money and work, right?
It was amazing to be out of high school and entering adulthood, but I felt bored. I would go off to Bible school for four months or travel over seas for missions training, but still, “normal life” can’t be this boring, can it?
What do I do? Do I just go do something different? Do I wait until someone asks me to do something that sounds more fun than labeling books in a warehouse?
These were the questions I was asking at twenty years old, and while I’m sure none of you have feared you would be stuck labeling books all your life, my guess is that many of you have asked similar questions with similar fears.
Whenever we go through a situation like that, we often feel a lot of fear. Fear that we’ll miss something, as if God might communicate something once and we weren’t listening at the time. Maybe we fear failure if we were to pursue something that felt more down our line of calling and dreams. Or, maybe we just simply fear being stuck. For life. Doing what we’re doing, and not liking it.
Yet, as I read over the life of Joseph, I don’t get that sense. He went through much more heinous experiences than I ever have, and he seems to do it without fear or wavering faith. Did he have some fear, and it just didn’t get recorded in the Bible? Maybe. But when he is finally reconciled with his brothers after they had sold him into slavery, Joseph says something that tells me he had a perspective few us do. Remember what he said?
“Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen. 50:20)
Did Joseph really know, as he sat in the dungeon eluding spiders, that he would one day save the nation of Israel from starvation? I doubt it. Scripture gives us no indication that he was given that information. But, he had a perspective of God that enabled him to see every situation, every life experience, through eternal purposes.
Joseph made this statement after their father, Jacob, passed away. He had several years to see unveiled God’s purposes for him being sold into slavery. I don’t think he knew, even when his dream was realized and his brothers bowed before him, what God was going to do through that experience. But what Joseph did know was that he was not in the place of God. He trusted that God was in control and that was all he needed to know in the dungeon.
I don’t know where you’re at in life right now, but my guess is you are wondering what the point of life is. You have probably discovered several personal gifts and dreams and, most likely, you’re not really doing anything with them right now and maybe you’re frustrated about that.
I was when I labeled books in a storage unit. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned, though, was that God is in control. He sees where I’m at right now, not from the beginning as if He’s standing in the hospital room looking out while I grow up and move on in life, but He sees where I’m at from the end. He’s looking from the end of my life back to me coming down the road. He knows the twists and turns I’ll come through. He understands the obstacles I’ll face; He sees exactly what types of skills I’ll need, or character traits that should be developed. I don’t know all of that. That’s why labeling the same book over and over again in a warm, dark storage unit felt absolutely excruciating to me. All I can see is what I am doing right now and what I feel in my heart I could do or would like to do one day.
But I don’t need to see it all. God does, and that’s enough to trust.
The really neat thing about God’s perspective is that He turns everything for good—even what is meant for evil. He does not waste painful experiences we go through. Even when we don’t feel anything meaningful coming out of it, He is working it for good. Consider the years that span between Joseph’s dungeon experience and his family settling in Goshen. I don’t think Joseph saw anything good coming from being falsely accused until then.
If you’re going through a painful experience right now, or maybe even just a time of waiting or trying to figure out which opportunity to pursue, understand that God is not wasting this time. We are such driven creatures and we want to see results or know what to do right now. But we don’t have to. God is in control. He sees where we are at from the end of our lives, and He is using our experiences right now to create something good and beautiful.
Revelation 4:11 says, “Thou art worthy, oh Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”
This is our purpose in life. No matter what we go through. No matter what unique personality traits we have or life experiences we realize—we are created for pleasure. God’s pleasure. Joseph understood this. He knew that purpose wasn’t found in knowing what to do next, but in being pleasurable to God.
How do we live a life of pleasure for God? As practical takeaways of this article, I’d like point out two elements in Joseph’s life and how we can apply them to our own.
Solomon said at the end of Ecclesiastes that the end of the matter is this: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Eccl. 12:13) There we have it. If we want to pleasure God by our lives, we must fear Him and keep His commandments.
No matter what Joseph went through he always feared the Lord and kept his commandments. Pain is never an excuse for no longer fearing God and keeping His commandments. Neither is a waiting period in life, and if you find yourself in this type of situation you can pleasure God by continuing to fear Him and keep His commandments.
In the same way, the ecstasy of fulfilling our calling or experiencing success in our work, ministry and relationships is still not an excuse for no longer fearing God and keeping His commandments. If you’re on a mountaintop experience right now, you can still pleasure God by fearing Him and keeping His commandments.
But what does it mean to fear God? Does that mean we’re scared to approach him, as we are to get in front people and give a speech?
Do you remember Joseph’s experience with Potiphar’s wife? That was a mountaintop time of life for him. Certainly, he probably wished he could still be back home with his family, but here he had gained the respect of an Egyptian ruler and had authority over his whole household. Everything, in fact, except Potiphar’s wife. And now she is trying to get him to lay with her by flattering him and making his already confident ego stronger.
What was Joseph’s response? After listing off everything that Potiphar had given him authority over, he asks her, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”
What does God have to do with anything? This is Potiphar’s wife and he just got done listing everything Potiphar had given him power over, now his wife is asking him to lay with her and Potiphar is not around. He could get away with it, couldn’t he?
Fearing God means we are constantly aware of His presence and believe that He will do what He says He will do. So when He says those who sow iniquity will reap iniquity, we believe that and, therefore, don’t sow iniquity. Or when He says that He will acknowledge all those who acknowledge him, because we believe He’ll follow through on His word, we live our lives openly for God. That’s fear of the Lord. Simply trusting Him and His word.
And because we trust Him we then keep His commandments.
Life is full of varying experiences both good and bad. There are many changes, especially as we grow into adulthood, and we’re not always doing what we feel gifted and called for. That’s why the deeper meaning of life doesn’t have so much to do with what we do, but that we pleasure God as we do it.
We pleasure Him by fearing Him and keeping His commandments. That’s what Joseph showed us, even while sitting in a cold, dark and damp dungeon far removed from his youthful dreams.
To read more thought-provoking writing, visit Asher’s blog at https://www.asherwitmer.com/.