There are times when you can’t help thinking that our lives are very much like a little puff of smoke, existing briefly and easily dispersed by the wind.
You realise this in a hospital’s Emergency Department, when you are confronted with shattered human bodies … how fragile we little creatures are! How easily do our lives end! Even the greatest of men can be brought low by the tiniest virus or torn apart by the simplest of weapons. The Psalmists understood this…
Psalm 103:14 For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.
15 As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place remembers it no more.
Psalm 39:4 “Lord, make me to know my end,
And what is the measure of my days,
That I may know how frail I am.
5 Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths,
And my age is as nothing before You;
Certainly every man at his best state is but vapour.
6 Surely every man walks about like a shadow;
Surely they busy themselves in vain;
He heaps up riches,
And does not know who will gather them.
7 “And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You.
The metaphor of vapour is particularly apt. Smoke looks big and solid, yet it is made mostly of nothing. You try to grasp it in your hand, but you can’t. God has built this lesson into the cosmos. I find it intriguing that universe has within it such messages of the nothingness of humanity: built into it, but hidden, so that only the most intelligent can discover them. It is as though the Maker built in a safety system: “If you are clever enough to discover how the universe works, then know that in reality, you are nothing”.
For example, the same knowledge that has given us nuclear power (and nuclear weapons of mass destruction) has taught us that we, and the whole physical universe, are made of mostly nothing. The atom which seems so solid is actually like a little solar system: a tiny little nucleus, some shells of whizzing electrons orbiting it, and in between, the huge majority of its volume is emptiness. Nothing. We are 99.999% Nothing.
This fact is not only revealed to the faithful, but to all humanity. For those who discover it, yet lack the support of faith, the realisation is devastating. If man is nothing so much as Nothing, then what is the point? How does living differ from dying, when both seem so empty, so meaningless?
Psalm 90:9 For all our days have passed away in Your wrath;
We finish our years like a sigh.
10 The days of our lives are seventy years;
And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,
Yet their boast is only labour and sorrow;
For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
11 Who knows the power of Your anger?
For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath.
12 So teach us to number our days,
That we may gain a heart of wisdom.
For the Christian, the realisation of our nothingness leads not to despair, then, but to wisdom; and wisdom in turn leads to humility and purpose. In a universe made by God, to know you are nothing is not to lose meaning, but to find it: it is the understanding of our true state in relation to God. He IS, we are NOT. He is Existence, we are very nearly Non-existence, and it is only His Existence that lends to us any existence of our own. To know what we are in relation to Him, and to know the vast gulf between the Maker and the Made, is to know why we exist…
We do not exist in order to labour for the goals of this world: for money or power, for success or popularity or physical beauty. All those things are made of the emptiness that is this world. They are Nothing. No, rather we are put in this world of Nothing to realise that there is Something, the reality of God, that is worth labouring for. Meaning can never come into our lives effectively through the things that only seem to be Something, but are in reality, Nothing. Meaning can only be found in the things that seem to be nothing, and yet they are Something. Can you hold Love in your hand? Can you fill a bottle with Mercy, or warm yourself with a blanket of Justice? These are things that do not even pretend to have a solid existence, yet it is in them that we hope to give substance to our lives.
We are next to nothing.
Know this, and you will find that He who IS is He who makes you Something.