Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh!” he whispered. “Yes, Piglet?” “Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.” — A. A. Milne
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us. — 1 John 4:12
I grabbed my canvas book bag, slung it over my shoulder, and headed out of my dormitory to trudge across campus to the library, where a few students and I were gathering that windy autumn afternoon to work on our assignment for Philosophy 200. (I may have had an extra spring in my step because a cute new student named Todd Ehman would be there — and I might have a chance to sit next to him!) The project that day included thinking through and coming up with what the professor in our small Christian college called our summum bonum.
Summum bonum is a Latin expression meaning “the highest good.” It was introduced by Cicero to parallel the “Idea of the Good” in ancient Greek philosophy. The summum bonum is commonly referred to as an end in itself that also encompasses all other goods in life. In medieval times the phrase was used to describe the act of ultimate importance — that singular and paramount pursuit that human beings should strive to do.
Our professor gave us several examples of what someone might choose as their highest good in life. Perhaps it was God. Or family. Or caring for the poor. There really was no correct answer. It was up to us to prayerfully consider the assignment and then present our case for what was most significant to each of us and why, gathering in small groups to explain our choice.
As I sat in the library fiddling with my number two pencil, I tried to think of what I would choose as my summum bonum to share with the group. What was most important to me in life? What did I think was the highest good — the chief pursuit that mattered more than anything else?
I decided I would choose relationships.
Even at my young age I had already heard many people say how when we pass away, we cannot take anything with us. And I remembered my spiritual mother’s assertion that the only two reasons we are on Earth are to have a relationship with God and to show others the way of salvation through Jesus. Their comments showed me that things were less important than people. Certainly what was most precious to me were my family, my close friends, and my fellow brothers and sisters at the church I’d attended in the three years I had been a believer. It wasn’t hard for me to write a paper asserting that what mattered most in life is relationships. So I whipped out a canary-yellow legal pad and began to scratch out my thesis and main points, determined to make the argument that nothing in life mattered more than people. Nothing.
That philosophy assignment was decades ago, but I still believe that nothing in life matters more than relationships. And the longer I am on this Earth, the more convinced I am that it’s true.
Why Am I Here?
One of the oldest questions known to humans might very well be, “Why am I here?” Something deep within us longs to know the meaning of life. Is there a point to it? And if so, what is it? Where do I fit in the grand scheme of things? And if I am on Earth for a purpose, how do I find it? We simply do not want to go through life having missed our cause and calling.
Pastor Rick Warren tackled this topic in his bestselling book The Purpose Driven Life, subtitled What on Earth Am I Here For? In just the first five years after the book released, it sold over thirty million copies. Thirty million people wanted to know their purpose for being on Earth!
Warren’s book was his attempt to lay out the biblical perspective on why we exist. Society, of course, has its own answers to this question. One answer is to grab all the gusto we can. After all, we only go around once, right? We might as well live it up and accumulate all of the material possessions or memorable experiences that we can.
Just look at some of the popular hashtags in social media. #yolo stands for “you only live once.” People use this phrase to justify some of their outlandish or crazy behavior. (Perhaps even some illegal behavior as well!) And #fomo reminds us of our “fear of missing out.” After all, we don’t want to be left behind.
Interestingly, for all of social media’s frequent illustrations of people’s narcissism and selfishness, it also gives us glimpses of true acts of kindness and episodes of thoughtfulness. The articles, pictures, and videos associated with such benevolent behaviors often go viral. Just today I saw the following stories trending on social media:
- A police officer who used his own money to buy a homeless family clothes, food, and a ten-night stay in a local hotel
- A social worker who decided to adopt one of her clients, a teenager who had been in foster care for over a decade
- A customer who gave a four-digit tip to a faithful waitress so she could pay down some of her college debt
While many of us may be self-centered and care too much about material possessions or glamorous experiences, we also celebrate selfless acts of kindness and care for other humans. (And animals. I mean, who doesn’t love a great animal rescue story!)
What does this tell us? Perhaps we all experience a tension between the selfishness of what we want to do and the appeal of the truly heartwarming and touching stories of kindness we see. We long to live unselfishly as well, but sometimes we are just too accustomed to our self-centered living. Or we think that our small acts of kindness don’t add up to much, while the grand ones we spy online seem to make a real difference. Or maybe we have just been conditioned from birth to think of ourselves first; our default mode is to look out for number one. Perhaps if we paid closer attention to why our hearts are drawn to such stories, we’d discover it is because we are called not only to view them online but to live them out in our own lives as well!
A Three-Step Life Plan
Of course Jesus gave us the answer not only to why we are here but what we are supposed to do while we’re here.
Take a look at how He answered a tough question a religious leader asked Him, and what His answer teaches us about our why and our what:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:36-40
Jesus asserts that the entire teaching of God — all the law and the prophets — hinge upon these commands, which can be summed up in this three-step life plan:
- Love God.
- Love others.
- Love yourself.
Relationships. Relationships. And more relationships.
Why are we here? To love. What are we supposed to do? Again: love. God, others, and even self.
When I became a Christian, I read the command to love yourself and thought it was strange. I thought surely the Christian thing to do was to think very little of ourselves. The concept of loving myself was very foreign. But when I followed Jesus’ line of logic, I came to a different conclusion.
If Jesus told us we are to love our neighbor “as ourselves,” then it must be crucial that we do indeed possess self-love.
If we put ourselves down or neglect our most basic physical or emotional needs, we would not be a good model for how we are to treat our fellow human beings. Slowly my understanding of this verse began to change.
How do we love ourselves? Well, we make sure that we have enough to eat. We take care to see that we have clothes to wear. We make sure we are sheltered. We seek self-respect
and safety, security, and significance. We nurture our important relationships. And then we realize that these are the same things we should make sure our neighbor has. When we love ourselves, we can see that God calls us to love others in the same way.
Still, it can be difficult to strike a balance. Sometimes we think too little of ourselves. Other times we may think of ourselves too much, leaving very little time to reach out and to love others. How can we properly address both problems at the same time: the problem of self-loathing and the problem of self-love?
The answer lies within the passage we have just visited. Look back at what Jesus declares is the greatest commandment of all:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. — Matthew 22:37
Learning to manage the tension between putting ourselves first and thinking of the needs of others happens when we put loving God at the very top of our “How to Live” list.
If we truly love God with our hearts and souls and minds, we will want to get to know Him through the pages of Scripture. We will long to spend time with Him in prayer. We will hunger to get to know His heart and mind as we seek to discover His will for our lives. And as we interact with God through prayer and experience His heart through studying the Scriptures, we will learn how to live properly.
We will learn that thinking of ourselves with a proper perspective and reaching out in love to others always go together. And when we live in this manner, we will be able to maintain the purpose I learned as a young Christian: to go about our days strengthening our relationship with God as we look forward to eternity, but also being on the lookout for ways to share Christ with others so that they may spend eternity in Heaven with Him as well. All of this takes place within the context of relationships.
Perhaps I got my little philosophy assignment correct. Maybe relationships are the highest good in life — with others here on Earth, but most importantly with God.
Watch the Video for Listen, Love, Repeat
Excerpted with permission from Listen, Love, Repeat by Karen Ehman, copyright Karen Ehman.
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What would you name as your summum bonum? Maybe for you it’s relationships as well. What relationships are most important to you and why? Does your relationship with God top the list? Come share with us on our blog. We would love to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily