Summary: Everyone wants fulfillment. Some try being good, but that only brings smugness. Some try religion, as Luther did, but that brings only busy-ness. Life and peace are found in the Spirit of God as our companion.
When I look deep down and ask myself what I really want out of life, one answer keeps coming back over and over: I want meaning. I want significance. I want fulfillment. When I look deep down and ask myself what I really want for my life, I know that the accumulation of things is not it. These can be destroyed in an instant, as the California wildfires remind us. I know that the achievement of fame is not it. Just a few moments this week working on one of my hobbies, family history, reminded me of how fleeting are the memories we leave behind. No, what I really want out of life is not material accumulation or memorable achievements: I want meaning. I want significance. I want fulfillment.
And so does every human heart. I once heard a lecture by Victor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist and a Jew who had survived the Nazi death camps. His thesis was that the only thing that kept the prisoners in the death camps going was the will to meaning. The will to meaning, that profound human need to have mattered. Without that, Frankl said, people just die. It’s about feeling significant – not so much about what others think of you, but about what you think of yourself.
So how do we get there? By what avenues can we reach that lively sense of significance? What are the roads we may take in order to find a refreshing spring of vitality in our hearts?
Some of you are old enough to remember that romantic 1954 movie, “Three Coins in the Fountain.” In that film, three young women working at the American Embassy in Rome each respond to the legend that said that if you throw a coin in Trevi Fountain, you will return to Rome. By the way, that legend is alive and well, enough so that even now, every day coins worth about five thousand dollars are thrown into Trevi Fountain. The city cleans them out every night and uses the money to feed the hungry. But: “Three coins in the fountain, each one seeking happiness; thrown by three hopeful lovers, which one will the fountain bless?” It’s about seeking fulfillment.
Two weeks ago we began our sermon series, “Prime Numbers” as a way to see some basic ideas about God. Using the Letter to the Romans in each case, I said about God the Creator, the first person of the Trinity, that we were first to thank God – to experience Him, not analyze Him. God is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be experienced. First thank God.
And then last week we thought about the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. We acknowledged that weakness and sin and even hostility toward God are the harsh human realities, but that through the sacrifice of Christ we have a second chance to become what God intended us to become.
And so today, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Using our prime number, three, we are going to explore three ways – by the way the name Trevi as in “Trevi Fountain” means “three ways” – three ways through which people try to find significance. Three coins, three wishes, tossed with wistfulness into the misty fountain. Which one will bring blessing?
One coin that people spend in order to find significance is the coin of behavior. We work at being good, and think that will bring fulfillment. We work at behaving ourselves, and hope that at the end of the day we will feel satisfaction at having broken no laws, having made the right decisions – we’ve measured up. We throw out the coin of good behavior and hope it will pay rich returns of self-satisfaction.
Now I’ve known any number of people who operate this way. They will tell you in a heartbeat that they are pretty good folks. Like the citizens of Lake Wobegon, they think of themselves as strong and above average and good-looking. So good behavior is expected to bring fulfillment.
But the Bible shoots that down. Paul says that that is setting the mind on the flesh, and that to set the mind on the flesh is death, because we cannot do what we know we ought to do. The Bible tells us what many of us already know, and that is that merely being good, even if it were possible, does not bring satisfaction. It does not bring fulfillment.
Now, I grant you, being good may bring something other than fulfillment. It may bring smugness. Doing things right may bring self-righteousness. But not joy, not meaning. I know. I’ve been through that. You see, I love being right. I enjoy being correct. There is something in me that gets a charge out of pointing out other people’s errors and touting my own correctness. I am the guy who, if you write a paper, can spot a typo from a mile away and will gleefully draw a red circle around it and push it across the desk at you. I am the fellow who, if you speak a grammatical error, cannot keep from correcting it immediately, loudly, and pompously. I know all about being goodie-two-shoes. And it does not satisfy. It does not bring meaning. It only stirs resentment, it only damages relationships. Paul says it, “The mind that is set on the flesh … cannot submit … to set the mind on the flesh is death.”