Troubles, great and small, seem to be the natural lot of mankind. In our darkest moments, we may agree with Macbeth’s declaration that life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 5.5.27–28).However, the scriptures and God’s prophets teach us the fallacy of Macbeth’s bleak philosophy and help us recognize that what we call life is a gift of galactic dimensions, a treasure beyond the counting, a time to prepare for the next steps in our eternal journey.
In Alma 34:32–33 we read: “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors. … This day of life … is given us to prepare for eternity” (emphasis added). Helaman told his sons Nephi and Lehi, “And now my sons, … [my] desire is, that ye may … lay up for yourselves a treasure in heaven, yea, which is eternal, and which fadeth not away; yea, that ye may have that precious gift of eternal life, which we have reason to suppose hath been given to our fathers” (Hel. 5:8).
I bear my witness that life is a gift, unfolding day by day, and, yes, it is sometimes full of sound and fury—but signifying everything. At this season of gift giving and gift receiving, this season of rejoicing in the great gifts that our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have given us, it is most fitting to ponder their greatest gift of all—the gift of life.
What, then, is the meaning of life? What are its central purposes? Can they ever be identified and understood by mortals? These are questions which in one form or another have occupied the time and attention of thoughtful men and women throughout the ages. Some believe that there is no God and that the end of all human life is personal annihilation—a dark philosophy of despair that leads to the inevitable conclusion that life is meaningless and that it matters not what one does, nor how one treats others. Such persons think that cruelty and compassion, love and hate, good and evil are all equally meaningless; there is no place in such thinking for sin or repentance or forgiveness.
Belief in God is on the wane in some countries. In one 1990 survey, 61 percent of respondents in the Netherlands professed a belief in God, compared with 80 percent in 1947. Similarly, 63 percent of respondents in the former West Germany claimed to believe, compared with 81 percent in 1947 (see Sheena Ashford and Noel Timms, What Europe Thinks , 42). In America, George Gallup Jr. has demonstrated that a significant gap exists between superficial religion (such as being religious for social reasons) and deep, transforming faith. He concluded that only 13 percent of Americans can be said to have a faith which permeates all aspects of their lives and affects how they behave (see “Religion in America: Will the Vitality of Churches Be the Surprise of the Next Century?” The Public Perspective, Oct.–Nov. 1995). Many who are not deeply rooted in their faith pick and choose those beliefs and practices that are most comfortable and least demanding, a practice the Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby calls “religion à la carte”(Fragmented Gods , 80).
As belief in God wanes, so too does the view that life has real meaning. The contention that the aim of life is to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is widespread in Western societies. This philosophy, which seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, ultimately too is a philosophy of despair. But faithful adherents to the religions of the Abrahamic tradition—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—do not in general share the pessimism so pervasive among other views of human existence. They unite in their understanding that God, the Supreme Creator, gives meaning to human life. The Psalmist sang, “For thou hast made [man] a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet. … O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” (Ps. 8:5–6, 9).
Perceptions about the nature of mankind influence our understanding of the meaning of life. If, as the scriptures teach, we are imbued with divinity, with infinite power and capacity to grow and progress, eventually to become as God Himself, our lives are innately important and meaningful. When we understand who we are and who we may become, then and only then will the full meaning of life unfold to us.
Latter-day Saint views on the nature and destiny of God’s children are expressed cogently in these teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith: “All those who keep his commandments shall grow up from grace to grace, and become heirs of the heavenly kingdom, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ; possessing the same mind, being transformed into the same image or likeness, even the express image of him who fills all in all” (Lectures on Faith , 60).
Latter-day Saints affirm that life is a three-stage process, to be viewed within the context of the Father’s “great plan of happiness” (Alma 42:8). Long ago, before the earth on which we now dwell came into existence, God our Father, the mighty Elohim whose children we are, established a plan whereby his offspring would experience life in mortality, with all its trials, temptations, and opportunities, and then return to dwell with Him in eternal glory. The plan provided the perfect way for all of God’s children to receive immortality and gain eternal life. Indeed, the very purpose of God’s existence—His work and glory—is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
Three divine events, beyond mortal comprehension in their glory—the grand pillars of eternity—constitute the foundation stones upon which the plan of salvation rests. They are the Creation, the Fall of Adam, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Their effects sweep across the existence of mankind from before the world was, through the days of our mortal probation, to the endless vistas of a never-ending eternity. On these great pillars rest the answers to the three primal questions of human existence: where did we come from, why are we here, and what awaits us after death?
Against the context of the Father’s infinite eternal love for His children, and within the framework of His “great plan of happiness,” we can discern several purposes for mortal life. They include the following:
1. We come to earth to obtain a body. “We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the celestial kingdom,” said the Prophet Joseph Smith (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith , 181). To understand the reason why being given a mortal body is essential to the perfecting of our souls, we must go back to the very beginning of man’s second estate—to the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Adam. As originally created by Jesus Christ, the earth was in a paradisiacal and deathless state. These conditions precluded the progression of mankind, and had they not changed, “all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they [Adam and Eve] would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin” (2 Ne. 2:22–23).
In other words, before the Fall—before Adam and Eve became mortal—there was no opportunity for God’s children to grow and progress toward their ultimate destiny of transformation to become even as He is. Such essential progression can occur only if there is opposition. Lehi said, “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation” (2 Ne. 2:11–12).
Possessing a mortal body is an essential step toward receiving a fulness of joy. Lehi said, “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). The Lord declared to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93:33–34). In other words, spirit and element together, body and spirit united, are essential to the joy of man. Only in this immortal unity as resurrected beings can we experience a fulness of joy and attain the very reason for our being.
Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy pointed out that the joy referred to in Lehi’s utterance is not synonymous with pleasure. He said that joy may arise “from pain, even, when the endurance of pain is to eventuate in the achievement of some good; such as the travail of a mother in bringing forth her offspring; the weariness and pain and danger of toil by a father to secure comforts for loved ones.”
Elder Roberts continued: “The ‘joy’ contemplated in the Book of Mormon passage is to arise out of man’s knowledge of evil as well as of good; through knowing misery, sorrow, pain and suffering; through seeing good and evillocked in awful conflict; through a consciousness of having chosen in that conflict the better part, the good; and not only in having chosen it, but in having wedded it by eternal compact, made it his by right of conquest over evil. It is a ‘joy’ that will arise from a consciousness of having ‘fought the good fight,’ of having ‘kept the faith.’ It will arise from a consciousness of moral, spiritual, and physical strength; of strength gained in conflict; the strength that comes from experience; from having sounded the depths of the soul; from experiencing all emotions of which mind is susceptible; from testing all the qualities and strength of the intellect” (“Modern Revelation Challenges Wisdom of Ages,” Liahona the Elders’ Journal, 8 May 1923, 438).
2. We come to earth to be tried and tested. “I will try you and prove you herewith,” the Lord has said (D&C 98:12). Only thus can we be prepared to receive the glory God has in store for us. “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom” (D&C 136:31).
Trials come in various forms. Some are not easily recognized as such, at least at first glance. Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated, “Some are tested by poor health, some by a body that is deformed or homely. Others are tested by handsome and healthy bodies; some by the passion of youth; others by the erosions of old age. Some suffer disappointment in marriage, family problems; others live in poverty and obscurity. Some (perhaps this is the hardest test) find ease and luxury. All are part of the test, and there is more equality in this testing than sometimes we suspect” (“The Choice,” Ensign, Nov. 1980, 21).
Intrinsic in the proving process is the concept of agency. Moral agency was given to man in the garden (see Moses 7:32) and is an eternal principle. The Prophet Joseph Smith noted that the conditions of mortality were voluntarily subscribed to by all mortals: “At the first organization in heaven we were all present, and saw the Savior chosen and appointed and the plan of salvation made, and we sanctioned it” (Teachings, 181). Exercising their agency, Adam and Eve, our first parents, partook of the forbidden fruit and fell, “that man might be” (2 Ne. 2:25).With the Fall, Adam and Eve became mortal. Death, sin, sorrow, and pain became a part of life. But so too did the opportunity to progress, to grow in knowledge and develop our talents and gifts, to experience the joys of parenthood, and, if we are faithful to the commandments and to Jesus Christ, to return to our Heavenly Father’s presence. The scriptures state that Adam proclaimed, “Because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God. And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient. And Adam and Eve blessed the name of God” (Moses 5:10–12).
The experiences of life, with their contrasts and opposites—health and sickness, success and failure, joy and sorrow—help us to know how to value the good. They help us to make the choices necessary to obtain eternal happiness and exaltation. They are our great teachers, if we will but listen and learn from them. However, people can react differently to almost identical experiences. After losing a loved one, for example, some people draw closer to the Lord, but others alienate themselves from Him. T. S. Eliot’s comment that many people have “had the experience but missed the meaning” (“The Dry Salvages,” in Four Quartets , 39) suggests that we must understand the true meaning of life’s experiences if we are to learn from them.
To learn fully from the experiences of life, we must interpret them within the framework of the restored gospel. For example, those who understand and believe the Church’s teachings about the eternal nature of humankind and the family will feel and react much differently to the loss of a loved one than will others who fail to understand or believe these glorious doctrines. In this, as in all else, we are free to choose. “And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free” (Hel. 14:30).
3. We come to earth to learn to be like Jesus Christ—one of the greatest purposes of life. President Joseph F. Smith said, “One of the main purposes of our existence is that we might conform to the image and likeness of Him who sojourned in the flesh without blemish—immaculate, pure and spotless! Christ came not only to atone for the sins of the world, but to set an example before all men and to establish the standard of God’s perfection, of God’s law, and of obedience to the Father” (quoted in F. W. Otterstrom, “A Journey to the South,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1917, 104). This sublime truth, with its implicit, lifelong challenge to endure to the end, is an intrinsic part of the gospel.
Nearly 900 years ago, around A.D. 1100, Anselm of Canterbury, an Italian-Norman monk who was perhaps the greatest theologian of his day, wrote his famous book Cur Deus Homo, in which he discusses the question, Why does God become man? The answer, according to Anselm, “is not only sacramental, to provide the means of salvation through Christ’s atonement, but also educational, to show men and women how to live. The life of Christ is a role model for mankind, a revelation of a life of love” (quoted in Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages , 338). Anselm was blessed to understand correctly. God’s gift of life permits us to strive to become as Christ is, to live a life of love as He did, to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), and to obtain His image in our countenances (see Alma 5:19).
Of course, we all fall short of His divine example. God does not expect full perfection from us in mortality. He knows better. All He requires of us is that we do our best, that we “trust in his redeeming blood, and try his works to do” (“There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” Hymns, no. 194). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that even for the faithful “it is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave” (Teachings, 348).
The scriptures teach us that to have eternal life we must know God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (see John 17:3; D&C 132:24). Yet we know also that many there are who “walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol” (D&C 1:16). Latter-day Saints possess a unique knowledge of the nature and character of God, which originated from the First Vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith. “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves,” the Prophet said (Teachings, 343). Modern revelation tells us that the “key of the knowledge of God” is held by the Melchizedek Priesthood, in the ordinances and authority of which the “power of godliness is manifest” (D&C 84:19–21). The highest expression of the ordinances of the priesthood, “things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world”—the meaning of life itself—is revealed in the holy temple (see D&C 124:41).
The prophets have reminded us often of the need, at the end of mortal life, to present our bodies “pure before God in the celestial kingdom,” to quote the Prophet Joseph Smith (Teachings, 181).
To accomplish the purpose of learning to become like Jesus Christ, we are required to walk by faith, exercising our agency wisely to make and keep the right choices, without memory of our premortal existence. God has not promised us that the road will be easy, only that the rewards are great!
4. We come to earth to establish an eternal family as children, siblings, and (if the proper opportunity permits) parents. Marriage is ordained of God and, by virtue of the sealing power and obedience to gospel laws and ordinances, can endure eternally (see D&C 49:15, D&C 132:19). The family, President Spencer W. Kimball proclaimed, “is the great plan of life as conceived and organized by our Father in Heaven” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball , 324). Heaven is but an exalted extension of righteous family life.
In 1995 the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve presented to the world an inspired proclamation on the family. In words of solemn majesty the Brethren proclaimed that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. … Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally. … Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, to teach them to love and serve one another, to observe the commandments of God. … Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.” Then the Brethren delivered this somber warning: “The disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102).
These, then, are the major purposes of life: to obtain a body; to be tested and tried as we walk by faith; to come to know and understand God and His divine Son, Jesus Christ, and at the end of our mortal journey to present ourselves worthy and pure before God; and to establish an eternal family. With this knowledge we understand that life is rich and full of meaning, an ineffable gift given to us by Him who loves us and works unceasingly that we might return to His presence. At this Christmas season, let us each rejoice again and again in His great gift, our very lives.
This article may furnish material for a family home evening discussion or for personal consideration. You might consider questions such as:
What are the basic purposes of life?
How does a knowledge of who we are and what we may become affect our understanding of the meaning and value of life?
How can trials benefit us?
How does joy transcend pleasure?