Winter 1997

Volume 16, Issue 4

Making Sense of Your Life as a Whole

by Dr. Michael Payne

Dr. Michael Payne is Associate Professor of Missions at RTS/Jackson. Before coming to RTS, he was a missionary in East Africa for ten years. His background is multi-disciplinary, including the study of music at the Boston Conservatory of Music as well as a Ph.D. in theology. His interests are varied, but his primary focus at the moment is the use of narrative in theology and ethics and its application to apologetics. He and his wife, Karen, have two children.

In the collection of essays titled Now and Then, Frederick Buechner wrote that "if God speaks to us at all other than through the Bible...then I think that he speaks to us largely through what happens to us." Buechner goes on to say that this speech is not alphabetical, in syllables, but "enigmatically, in events." The skill we must develop is the skill of listening, of not turning a deaf ear to God’s voice in the events and people that litter our lives. Through these events, he writes, "we hear the call to prayer." Unfortunately, very few of us are listening, and, as a result, we see little order or design to our lives.

Most people have given up any hope of seeing or finding a pattern to things. After all, in the words of the nineteenth-century French philosopher, August Compte, patterns, like stories, are "pre-scientific." For Positivists like Compte, patterns are too easily associated with fables or myths, and we moderns deal in hard facts and rational discourse. But by such logic, life tends to lose all unity, and decisions or choices become isolated acts with no coherence. As a result, no intelligible pattern can interpret past actions or anticipate future courses of action. The person with a distinctive face has been wiped out. Ours is a period of numbers, not characters. We live in and for the moment. Accordingly, to look for a pattern or theme to our lives is to succumb to the temptations of religion and myth.

Albert Borgman has evocatively described our contemporary period as under the control of tool-oriented thinking. According to Borgman, under its influence we withdraw more and more from those around us, and instead request and get products designed simply to deliver some calculated benefit. For example, today we heat our houses with central heating furnaces. To accomplish this same function in pioneer times, the whole family had to be involved in cutting and stacking the wood, feeding the stoves or fireplace, and the like. This modern fascination with tools and control leads to isolation and self-absorption. We’re too busy choosing and acting to reflect upon the relationship our choices have to our personal or corporate histories as they dispose us toward one thing rather than another. In the process we become fascinated by rules and directions, which are totally defined by a certain situation.

Modern ethics, with its penchant for "hard cases" and "quandaries," reveals the lack of importance it places upon context and character and the role of history in understanding the life of virtue. What they offer is at best an ethics of "everyman." The human is altogether missing from this environment.


Contrast this picture with that drawn in Scripture, where actions and choices are never offered as abstractions, but are always situated within a complex relation with both the past as well as the future dimension of our lives displayed prominently. The Old Testament reveals that a specific series of events in Israel’s history was decisive for God’s relation to man. It was in these events that God had spoken, and it was to these events Israel returned for guidance for the future of her relation to God. The journey of Moses from Egypt, the Exodus, the giving of the Law at Sinai, the crossing of the Jordan, the Temple . . . all of these were seen as formative phases in God’s creation of his people Israel. Israel was called upon by its leaders and prophets to "remember these things" (Dt. 8:6; 10:15ff; Ex. 4:22; Jer. 22:16).

We are who we are, to the extent that we remember the "way of the Lord." To the extent that we situate ourselves and our lives within the "prevenient" and "provident" work of God we come to know ourselves and God, and to develop the kind of character that sees beyond the immediate, well into the future. God’s prevenience reminds us that life is a journey where He goes before us as our guide and as the example. His providence affirms His accompaniment as our companion and teacher.

Our lives are an unfolding story. We exist in the space of questions, which only a coherent narrative can answer. In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have become who we are, and of where we are going. For all his shortcomings (and there were many to be sure!), the philosopher Martin Heidegger saw correctly the inescapably temporal structure of our existence in the world. That from a sense of what we have become, among a range of present possibilities, we intend or purpose a future character. This is the normal way our lives are structured.

For example, at the supermarket, among the possible other destinations I might choose, I purpose or intend to drive home. In an even more profound sense this is true in terms of my place relative to the "good" or "true" as God’s word presents it to us. From my sense of where I am relative to it, and among the different choices or possibilities available, I order my life in relation to it and not some other alternative. My life always has this narrative understanding, what I am and what I plan to become. Thus, in an important sense, character (the decision to live in such a manner) determines the context of decision or choice. What do I mean?

What I am must always be understood as what I have become. In any moral environment (every environment we occupy is in fact "moral") one of the first questions we must ask is how present events fit into our surrounding lives. What part do they play in the narrative or story of my life? I must move both backward and forward to draw accurate conclusions. As I look back I see what I am by what I have become, by the story of how I got there. Looking forward I determine to act consistently with my life as a whole as it will be projected into the future. My life is meant to fulfill a complete vision of what I am yet to be. This, in the words of Gabriel Marcel (who probably borrowed the expression from Augustine), is homo viator, the pilgrim’s life.

Unfortunately, most of us are guilty of forgetfulness. We forget who we are and what we are about as a people created by God who has gone before us and is now our companion. Such forgetfulness is sin. And someone has remarked that when forgetfulness is sin, memory becomes a prized virtue.


Memory for many has come to mean "living in the past" and as such can become a pathological force. (This can be true for institutions like denominations as well as for individuals!) For a few of us, the present is always a "pale" shadow of some past, unrepeatable experience. We are paralyzed by the events that landmark our past and find living in the present impossible.

This was powerfully brought to expression in the film Plenty directed by David Hare. The central character was a woman who had participated in the resistance movement in France during World War II. She lived on the edge of danger and intrigue; every day was another encounter with death and possible betrayal. Under such circumstances, love gained an intensity which seemed to be unrepeatable throughout the remainder of her life. Ultimately her memory of these experiences led to deep depression and despair and the search for contact with the people of her past.

Many of us know of people who in one way or another are captives to their past. Destructive acts we performed earlier in life seem to have power over our lives today as things which can never be forgotten or forgiven. In this sense we see what Kierkegaard meant when he wrote that "memory is the preeminent element of the unhappy."

This is clearly not how memory or "remembering" is to function in the Christian life. It has been suggested that a better way of construing "memory" would be to think of it as "being present in mind." To have something "present in mind" through memory is to have it here with us in all its creative force (Ps.63:6; Ecc. 12:1; Jonah 2:7; Zec. 10:9). Memory has this kind of force when it reminds us not of past events in and of themselves, but of the character which produced them. On a personal level, this enables us to be free from actions we may have performed long ago and which there is nothing we can do about today. Our focus is upon the character that produced the action which we can either identify with or reject.

When Israel is called upon to remember the past, it is always directed at the God who was acting, not simply on events themselves. Such a misuse of memory as evidenced in the latter case, can easily lead to pride and arrogance—a condition that Israel was subject to on many occasions! It was her failure to see "God" through these events that led to her continual forgetfulness.

Memory is one way we can begin to make sense of our lives as a whole. This is the beginning of ethical reflection. Placing the immediate circumstance in the context of the whole of our lives and the lives of our fellow believers in the church. This is the calling to build character, to begin to see the part in relation to the whole (1 Cor. 10:32). Most of us however fear the development of such a perspective on our lives. Such an approach will reveal the often ugly parts of our lives as well as the more beautiful ones. We are reminded however, that the treasure we bear is not borne in perfect, unblemished vessels. Paul reminds us that, instead, it is to be found in vessels of clay, easily chipped and broken (2 Cor. 4:7ff). Our lives are in fact letters (stories?), known and read by all men ( 2 Cor. 3:2f) showing the handiwork of Christ, making the declaration we often glibly acknowledge, "our lives are meant to be open books," more profound every day. How different from the aspirations Maggie Verver revealed to her friend Fanny Assingham in Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Her desire in life was to have happiness "without a hole in it . . .the golden bowl as it was meant to be . . .the bowl with all our happiness in it . . . the bowl without a crack." Our lives are filled with cracks, but together they constitute a beautiful tapestry of God’s handiwork and purpose.

RTS wordmark Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 4
Reformed Theological Seminary
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Last updated 4-2-2002.