I guess my mid-life crisis kicked off when I turned 26. What is my purpose in life? What have I accomplished so far? Am I caught in a treadmill of mediocrity? Who am I? Am I basically a good person or a selfish person? Do I have a destiny? These kinds of questions have a way of recycling themselves—they turned up again around my 31st birthday, at 33 and again at 40. Recently I gave into the impulse to buy a couple of motorcycles. And I have plans for overseas travel. So these tough existential questions are quieted . . . for now.
While the ancient wisdom of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures—the Bible—might not offer specific directions for our individual career paths, financial options or relationship choices, they do offer a basic foundation that millions have found is worth building a life on. Let’s look at five biblical teachings about human identity and destiny, and consider the practical implications for our everyday lives.
1. The image of God
The Bible begins with the story of how God created our world, speaking it and forming it into existence. The book of beginnings—Genesis—tells us about God’s unique purpose in creating human beings as the crowning glory of this new world: “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (1:27).
Straightaway we’re confronted with a choice. Is a human just a particularly successful primate—a naked ape, as zoologist Desmond Morris suggested in his classic 1967 book of the same name? Or does each human carry some kind of divine imprint?
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident,” declares the 1776 US Declaration of Independence, “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness . . . ” Can you see the link? Created. Equal. This is not the evolutionary ethic of “survival of the fittest”. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, the image-of-God perspective values the wisdom of the elderly as well as the potential of the young; the contribution of both male and female; the full personhood of the sick, disabled and unborn, even if they cannot contribute economically or culturally.
Awareness that each human being is created in God’s own image will lead us to respect and value others as well as ourselves. This applies in the family, the workplace, on the sports field, in the supermarket queue . . . it can even influence the way we vote and are involved in public issues.
Mind, body, spirit, soul? What are the components of a human being and how do they fit together? If you’re a Buddhist or a Hindu, you’ll have a fairly clear idea of a spiritual essence of self that transfers from one physical body to the next in an ongoing cycle of reincarnation. The aim is to eventually escape that cycle and be eternally united in spiritual oneness, totally removed from the physical world.
The implication of this view, as well as many Christian views that emphasise the “immortal soul,” is that our physical bodies are annoying distractions from the real business of attending to the spirit. These views can lead to extreme practices of ignoring the needs of the body, or even punishing the body, in order to achieve benefits in the spiritual realm.
But the Bible teaches something quite different. In Genesis 2:7 (KJV) we read that “. . . the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” The equation here is simple: Dust + Breath = Soul. This is a description of an integrated human being, not an eternal spirit trapped within a useless shell of a body.
The creation accounts in Genesis help us to remember that God’s original, perfect plan was for humans to live as physical beings within a physical world enjoying physical pleasures—food and procreation are specifically mentioned. Our bodies are gifts from God—He intended for us to care for them and enjoy them. And, as science continually shows us, our bodies are intricate miracles of design and function. For many believers, this awareness prompts awe, gratitude and worship of the One who created us. It also prompts the desire for self-discipline—not to punish the body, but to maintain and develop its health, beauty, strength and abilities. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” wrote the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31.
3. The darkness within
Pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud suggested in the early 1900s that the human mind contains three forces that must be kept in balance: the ego, the id and the superego. He tweaked his theory a number of times, trying to reflect more accurately the struggle that occurs within each of us. And he’s not alone. Over the centuries, various attempts have been made to untangle this most difficult of problems: the human capacity for evil.
It takes brutal honesty to face up to the reality. Our impulses are often selfish to the point of self-destruction, not to mention the pain we inflict on others.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” mourned the ancient Hebrew prophet (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV). But isn’t this a contradiction of our first point: that we are created in the image of God? No, but it is an important piece in the puzzle. Genesis 3 recounts the entry of evil into the world and how the first man and woman—Adam and Eve—chose doubt and disobedience over trust in their Creator. At that point there was a fundamental shift in the moral fabric of our world; from Adam and Eve we each inherited what theologians call a “sinful nature,” a twist in our basic characters, skewed towards selfishness and destruction. The image of God remained, but was distorted. “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” laments David, the chosen King of Israel’s golden era (Psalm 51:5). Why was he so guilt-ridden and miserable? Despite his bravery, humility and spirituality he’d given into lust, abused his authority to satisfy it and plotted a murder in an attempt to cover up his indiscretion (read the story in 2 Samuel 11–12).
4. A new heart
It seems that, centuries later, the apostle Paul could relate to David’s despair: “. . . although I want to do good, evil is right there with me,” he confesses. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7: 21, 24).
But Paul continues with a sudden note of triumph—or perhaps it’s just relief? “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25). Paul reminds his readers of a promise that runs through the Old Testament, popping up in various odd places like a scarlet thread in the back of a tapestry.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh,” promised God through one of His prophets (Ezekiel 36:26).
But once the reader turns to the New Testament, the design becomes clearer. Jesus Himself explained the importance of being “born again” and said that this becomes possible when we accept Him and open ourselves to the renewal of the Holy Spirit (see John 3). We see this born-again transformation in the book of Acts as the earliest Christians—most of them common working people—preach the risen Christ boldly, suddenly speak in other languages and heal the sick. It’s clear they’re not doing these things out of their natural abilities, but because of God’s power working through them.
Does God still do remarkable things like this through people today? Yes, but not often. What is more common, however, is to see totally surrendered and born-again Christians overcome addiction, arrogance and bitterness. Hearts heal and lives are restored. It’s an opportunity that’s available to all of us.
5. A new body
Who am I? I’m someone who’s looking forward to the ultimate event in my transformation and a seriously super upgrade of my physical body. Yes, I may sleep in the grave for some time, but that’s not the end. The apostle Paul offered his readers hope as he explained the resurrection of the dead at Jesus’ second coming: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. . . . When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:42, 43, 54).
Yes, he’s describing the death of death. And the beginning of new life.