The crossroads in life
I was driving our teen daughter and her friends to a church camp. They were all between 16-21 years old. The camp would be at a beach site, promising joy and fun to any young heart nearing the end of a sun-filled summer holiday. The air was brimming with excitement as the girls exchanged ideas about their futures and career options. Some of them had well-laid-out goals and already knew how they would approach their journey into the economic marketplace. Others were already busy with their tertiary qualifications. Some had but a vague idea of options they could pursue. My daughter was one of the latter.
As exciting as it is to walk alongside our daughter into this pivotal chapter in her life, it is also quite daunting to try and give wise advice. Together we are learning more and more about the gifts God has given her. We assist her in matching that to a career which would give her satisfaction in her daily journey on earth. We try to guide her so that one day she can provide financially for herself and maybe a family without putting too much emphasis on just earning money. It feels like a tightrope we are dancing on to help her with these decisions.
An uncertain future
Juxtaposed against the young girls’ discussions about their hopes and dreams were my own thoughts about my recent turn of fate. Sometimes life holds a promising hand, marking your future with shiny pearls to reach out for. I remember my own hopes and dreams as a young adult. I was looking forward to starting a life with my (even younger) husband, dreaming about a house, kids, and my counselling practice. Sometimes though, life turns a sour face and holds out lemons for the taking. When a diagnosis of advanced-stage ovarian cancer steps into one’s door, the future’s light instantaneously becomes grim. Since February last year, I have had to become accustomed to the reality of a possibly short-lived future. In Sept 2022, that reality threw its ugly, stark face right into mine when the CT scan showed cancerous spread on my liver, spleen and throughout the abdominal cavity. The chemotherapy and other treatments gave only a partial response. (see Paul’s post).
Then the tables were turned in November 2022. The doctors planned to “lighten the load” by surgically removing whatever cancer they could cut out. They gave us bleak hope, explaining that I would never be cancer free. We should instead aim for good quality of life for as long as possible. On the 7th of November, they wheeled me into the theatre. I was scheduled for surgery that would take 7 hours. But only two hours later, Paul received a message from an elated surgeon that the surgery exceeded all expectations. There was NO cancer in the liver, NO cancer in the spleen and minimal cancer in the abdominal area. They were able to remove all visible cancer. A few weeks after the surgery, the CT scan confirmed the finding: complete resolution. No cancer was detected. According to the oncologist, I could not claim that I am in remission, but rather that we have the cancer well under control. Yet this meant that a bleak future suddenly turned quite rosy. The dread of preparing my husband and children for a life without a wife and mom sometime soon cleared like mist before the sun.
Suddenly I found myself having to recalibrate my outlook on my future.
Answered prayer and second chances
A death sentence reversed, so to speak.
I got the good news as I woke up in ICU after the surgery. My cup was overflowing with relief and thankfulness. God has heard my prayers and those of many fellow Christians who came alongside me in prayer. The words of Psalm 81:7 rang true for me, where God said,
In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder.
He answered indeed and gave me more time to enjoy with my husband and kids. I have been grabbed from the claws of death and given another chance to live. The extent of this miracle is still overwhelming. It is something I will treasure forever.
But the very real experience of recovering from major surgery was still there. The second night after surgery, I had severely restless legs (for those not familiar with this, it is a very uncomfortable state where your legs cannot lie still, possibly due to insufficient magnesium/side effects of anaesthetics). I felt trapped and powerless, unable to move my body much but wanting to climb through the roof with discomfort. Then, I decided to take my mind where my body cannot go now. I put earphones on and started listening to worship songs. There in the ICU bed, I worshipped God like never before. It was there that I knew that nothing could separate me from His love. Rom 8:38-39 became a tangible reality:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I knew God would be with me in whatever I faced until I finally met my Maker in Heaven. Against that solid certainty, though, was the question: What does God want me to do with my life while I am still here on earth?
The thought woke much fear in me. How can I honour God enough? I meditated on Ephesians 5:16 (NASB):
be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil
It felt ironic to feel those young girls’ hopes and uncertainties about their future resonate with my own hopes and uncertainties about my own “newfound” future.
I was now again reflecting on my cognitive ability, physical health, mental health, money, time, personality, social support, “career capital” (i.e. experience) and more. All these things God equipped me with. But with this, I still felt ill-equipped to serve God well. I needed to intentionally search for the sweet spots where I could love Him with my life’s work. My thoughts intertwined with my daughter’s thoughts, sparking many conversations in our house. During one of these conversations, my husband Paul introduced us to the concept of Ikigai.
“Iki” means life, and “gai” describes value or worth. Yukari Mitsuhashi explores the Japanese concept of Ikigai in a bbc.com article in 2017. The word ikigai goes back to the Heian period (794 to 1185). “Gai comes from the word kai (“shell” in Japanese) which was deemed highly valuable, and from there, ikigai derived as a word that means value in living.” Mitsuhashi summarises that, essentially, ikigai is why you get up in the morning. The meaning is similar to “happiness” but has a subtle difference in its nuance.
Ikigai is what allows you to look forward to the future, even if you’re miserable right now.
In Western philosophy, much thinking and debate have been spent on the issues surrounding the meaning of life. Philosophies about what would give purpose to our existence have been coined existentialism. Existentialism is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the issue of human existence. Existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard explored the problems related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence and personal agency. The concepts of existentialism are existential crisis, a sense of dread, anxiety in the face of an absurd world, authenticity, courage, and virtue. It contains the idea that there is no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it. This meaninglessness also encompasses the amorality or “unfairness” of the world.
But then, what do we learn about the meaning of life, or ikigai, as the Bible explains?
Life is not without meaning
We don’t have to conjure up or create sense in a meaningless world. If we believe the Bible, we understand that God has created us to love Him and enjoy fellowship with him in all we do. He created this world as a context for us to live in, nurture and enjoy life with other people and God-made creatures. He created each unique and with specific intent, not sparing any detail when He decided about each of our genealogies, physical traits, personalities, skills and abilities, or socio-cultural circumstances. Proverbs 16:4, the Bible states,
The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble
If we try to find meaning on a vertical level, we’ll inevitably end up with one of three issues that Pastor Roger Haynes explained so well in a recent message:
We must fight by making deliberate decisions not to succumb to their allure. If our mindsets get drawn into the vertical realm, it is easy to succumb. We must re-align our minds to who God is, where we are in relation to Him, and what He has set before us to do. He further quoted Frederick Buechner, who said,
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. That is where you and I will find the fullness of our purpose.
Life is unfair
There is no guarantee that the faithful wife will always be happy, that the goodhearted mother will be able to bear children, or that the godly will have a prosperous and healthy life. We know this from life experience. The Bible teaches us that we live in a fallen world due to sin. The curse that entered right in the beginning chapters of this world’s history and man’s sinfulness makes this world a tough place to live in. Rom 8:20-23 says,
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God, for we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
There is purpose in hardship
Life can deal us hard blows that might shake our sense of purpose. God doesn’t randomly allow bad things to happen to people. He is intently involved in every person that He created, up to the point where, if they persist in their sinful thoughts and behaviour, He will let that get the better of them (Romans 1:24-28; James 1:14-15; Romans 6:23). When bad things happen to us though, we can be sure that God has a purpose using it primarily to draw us closer to Him. If we trust and obey God, whatever happens to us will be for our good (Romans 8:28, Matthew 7:10).
Contrary to what the world believes, there is purpose even in suffering. If we define purpose by our level of present personal satisfaction or happiness, we might also be in danger of missing the boat. In his booklet called Suffering: Eternity makes a difference (2001), Paul Tripp mentions that
we forget that the gospel is more about the coming of Christ’s kingdom than our individual enjoyment
He explains what God IS working on:
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these, he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires2 Peter 1:3-4
Paul Tripp explains that these verses show us that God’s main goal is to deliver us from the bondage of our own evil desires and to make us participants in his divine nature. There is nothing more satisfying than to experience God’s closeness, to be in His presence. Hardship is a magnifying glass to see God’s love and leadership. When things don’t go as planned, we tend to think life has lost its ikigai. When we lose something of “high life value”, such as a loved one, our health, our marriage, or our job, it is normal to become despondent. To ask, “why me?” as if we all deserve these blessings from God’s hand. The answer to such a question will rarely come. The meaning of this life does not lie in whether we have these “high life-value” things or not. These things might make us feel more secure, comfortable, loved, independent, or whatever need we think gets fulfilled by these aspects. But ultimately, we are still trying to find the meaning of this life in those things. They are precious indeed but never supersede the love of the Giver. The only thing that can suck meaning from this world is disconnection from God.
Our biggest treasure
What conclusion could I come to after all this contemplation? We cannot control everything that happens to us in life. In the Capetonian context where God has placed me, I have many options for deciding about my future. That is a blessing to experience such freedom. But I am still unable to determine and control my destiny completely. Life happens, and stuff happens that is out of my control. Those things shake my own level of happiness and satisfaction. But it cannot shake my purpose in life. God has decided that. Psalm 16:5 says,
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot
If I trust in Him, He will guide, help, and protect me. He will not leave me or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5-6).
If I have to break my heart open and bear the deepest longing, it would be that I want to honour and love Him with every resource, skill and opportunity that He has blessed me with. I want to use everything that He has equipped me with. I pray that God will give me the wisdom to know how to do this. As wisdom itself states,
For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favour from the LordProverbs 8:35
Together with the psalmist, I pray
Teach me to do your will, for you are my God! Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground! For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life!Psalm 143:10-11
Whoever gives thought to the word will discover good, and blessed is he who trusts in the Lord.Proverbs 16:20
May He give you the wisdom to do His will in 2023 too. May you experience the mystery of His closeness, love, protection and guidance each day. May He fill your days with purpose as we push forward towards the day when all who love Him can forever enjoy His glory and goodness.