Our chief end

“What is the chief end of man?” is the opening question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Maybe I reveal my Reformed but non-Presbyterian roots when I say I have not liked this opening question, apart from its sexist sound today. It starts with us and our duty, not God and his grace. Yet it is the basic question of the meaning of life.

Westminster’s answer seems incomplete to me, “to glorify God and fully enjoy him forever.” This answer only directs us towards God; whereas, God seems to direct us towards the world. I do like the enjoying statement, but what does it really mean to “glorify God?” “Glory” is one of those “religious” words that no longer communicates well today. The texts given to support the Westminster answer do not help us understand the meaning.

Often glory is used as synonymous with praise. Praise is to speak well or approving of something or someone. Glory has this element, but there is more. In the Hebrew, glory is related to the concept of heaviness. God’s glory is that he is the ultimately substantial being, the greatest value. Interestingly, this weightiness is pictured as a fiery cloud. This cloud would express the presence of God among his people, often in the Tabernacle or the Temple. Glorying is our response to experiencing the ultimate value of God’s glorious presence. This is one end for humans.

The great commission
In a church growth seminar I was uncomfortable. The presenter was giving excellent ideas for marketing, helping people connect with the church, growing as disciples and going out to bring others in. He had good techniques, but something was lacking. He had only one end. His only goal was to bring more people into the church. He read the Great Commission as the only purpose statement.

The great commandment
We have two ends. We are created to be mediators between God and his creation. The Great Commandment has two parts, love the Lord your God with all as ultimate and love your neighbour as yourself. Our starting end is our connection to God. Our goal end is to bring that connection into the world. Picture reaching a hand in each direction. To bear God’s image we need to see him more and to show him more.

We are created as purposeful beings. The three-year-old starts asking “why,” repeatedly. We never stop asking this question. Science and technology has offered a great deal by carrying forward the Newtonian change of “why” from teleology (purpose) to methodology (practice). Much of our education now deals with the “how” question, where “why” is changed into only cause and effect. This has given us wonderful ways to “till and keep the garden.” Yet it is not enough.

The focus on only the how, the “why” or cause and effect, has left a great vacuum. Some have been sucked into this vacuum and left with the nothingness of nihilism, but few people truly live nihilistically. Most of us keep searching for meaning.

This search is not new. It is wrestled with in most of the earliest human texts. The Indians wrestled with it in the Bhagavad-Gita. The Greeks through Plato and Aristotle. The Chinese in Taoism. The Hebrews in the preaching of Ecclesiastes and wisdom struggles of Job. All these texts help us seeking meaning, the end goal and the means.

Christian education
Christian education explores the questions and answers of our neighbours. This is loving our neighbour. Christian education explores the questions and answers of our God. This is loving our God. Christian education connects the two. This is image bearing.

I turn to Christian education because that has been my area. As I wrestle with my purpose as a campus minister, a colleague said that we provide Christian education in the context of a secular university.

“What is the chief end of human beings?” We are here for two ends. We are here to love God and neighbour. We exist as mediators, image bearers, seeing God more to show God more in the world. Reach up. Reach out. We celebrate these goals in the Advent of Christ, the great mediator of God’s glory.

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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