I'm at PDX (Portland International Airport) where my flight is delayed. After eating a triple-scoop of Tillamook ice cream I decided to plug in my laptop and do something productive with my sugar rush (man cannot live by Candy Crush alone).
So why not delve into the meaning of life, itself? No time like the present.
Don't be surprised I'm tackling something as momentous as the meaning of life in a business-casual bistro at the airport; I've written before how inspiration can come wherever we find ourselves, even the Costco Food Court.
I am not going to tease; at the end of this Post I will in fact share the meaning of life. No cliff-hangers, I promise. But to understand the final destination, we first need to experience the journey.
I am seated overlooking the Columbia River that flows toward the Pacific Ocean, where the legendary Columbia River Salmon Run happens each year. Here we will begin our search for the meaning of life.
I hope you brought a wet suit.
Chinook salmon are the largest of the Pacific salmon ─ hence their nickname "King Salmon." They can grow to five feet long and weigh over a hundred pounds.
Each year the salmon return from the ocean to the place they were born; they swim up the Columbia River to spawn.
It is incredible to see: the surface of the water teeming with life as thousands of chinook migrate inland.
The reason for the arduous journey against the current is the fish need fresh water to reproduce.
But I want to focus on the way the journey changes them ― literally! As they head upstream, the salmon transform from silvery blue to a deep pink.
When they finally reach the end of their journey, their lives culminate in a singular purpose: to reproduce. But swimming up the Columbia River drains their life away; most of them have no energy left for a return trip to the ocean.
After spawning, the salmon die.
Airports have a way of making us feel anonymous, creating a false sense of privacy in a public place.
Sitting here in the airport watching people flow past me, it is easy to feel lost among the throng of nameless humanity.
I've never felt fully alive in an airport. There's something about the way these terminals are "in-between places" with their comings and goings ─ waystations filled with entrances and exits; corridors for passing crowds, excited and exhausted.
You see, airports are transitionary; they are not destinations-in-themselves.
Just like earth-life.
We are neither here-nor-there; earth is a waystation fraught with hope and uncertainty, delays and canceled flights, and so many missed connections; but also joyous reunions with loved ones and the relief of being almost home.
Amidst the hustle and bustle, among the swirling sea of humanity, we find a curious mixture of those coming and those going.
Which ones are we?
Wilderness and Waystations
The wilderness was a waystation for Nephi. For eight years the Lord instructed him and prepared him for his journey across the great waters, teaching him about the condescension of God (1 Nephi 11).
It was while journeying on the Road to Damascus that Saul encountered Christ. In order to prepare Paul for his ministry, the Lord removed Paul's sight; in blindness he journeyed to Ananias.
Have you ever wondered why journeys are so formative? Why adventures so often transpire on the road?
It shouldn't surprise us to find Christ on the Road to Emmaus ─ not relaxing in His heavenly hot tub, but sweating along the Straight and Narrow Path, shoulder to shoulder with us, as a Good Samaritan.
As we are reminded by Luke: "Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way?" (Luke 24:32).
That's a good description of our lives: we find ourselves "by the way" here on earth. This is a place of comings-and-goings; a sojourn for weary pilgrims seeking the face of the Lord.
So what are we supposed to do during our journey? Why have we embarked on this path in the first place, leaving our previous estate?
Joy in the Journey
I have heard Sunday School teachers say the reason we came to earth was to gain a body.
But is that all? If so, we've got bodies ─ what's the point of the rest of it?
And if having a physical body was all we needed, wasn't there a simpler way for us to get a body-suit than this rigmarole?
Maybe the reason we're here on earth is to find happiness? Is that our true purpose?
After all, father Lehi taught us that "men are that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25).
And aren't we told in Church that "happiness is the object and design of our existence?"
But wait a minute. We are beneficiaries of Christ's tears and sorrows; we are witnesses to His suffering and agony (Mosiah 15:10). If life were about happiness, why is everything on the 10 o'clock news so depressing?
We have to account for all of the pain and misery that gets in the way of our happiness. I mean, one-half of the population will contract cancer during their lifetimes. Happiness and chemotherapy aren't exactly bedfellows.
Going back to "men are that they might have joy," how do we reconcile Lehi's joyful mantra with these words by his son Jacob, describing the harsh reality we all face:
Our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from [our previous estate], born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren. . . wherefore, we did mourn out our days.
Sound about right?
Or is the purpose of life to gain knowledge? If so, this may create a problem: happiness and knowledge are often at odds (as Ernest Hemingway famously said, "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.").
There's even an idiom that captures this folk-wisdom: "Ignorance is bliss."
But Joseph Smith taught, "A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge." (History of the Church, 5:588.)
Have you ever wondered how Heavenly Father could ever be happy when He has a perfect knowledge of all of the bad stuff going on with His children?
Jesus groaned within himself, and said: Father, I am troubled [really? this from the Man who said "Be ye not troubled"?] because of the wickedness of the people of the house of Israel.
(3 Nephi 17:14)
What do you think is the thing that is most troubling to the Lord? Breaking the Sabbath? Drinking coffee? Committing adultery? Well, I think we can infer from this verse that the "wickedness" of His people troubled him; not their individual sins, but their collective unwillingness to embrace their Messiah; He was troubled by their confidence in the lesser-law that prevented them from coming unto Him and being healed. I suspect the Lord is deeply troubled about us, too.
We often compare our earth-education to leaving home and "going away to college." But if so, then we are Freshmen rushing at the worst fraternity in history; there's way too much hazing.
So is the pursuit of wisdom our greatest goal? Should we follow in Solomon's footsteps?
Joseph Smith taught:
Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.
And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.
I won't argue with that; I can't! The acquisition of knowledge is a good, eternal investment.
But is that all there is to it?
Now I am going to cut-to-the-chase. The purpose of life (in one word) is abasement.
If that seems like an odd statement, I'll try to explain. Joseph Smith described our eternal progression as climbing the steps of a ladder. "When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top." (History of the Church, 6:306–7.)
But that is only half of the story; what Joseph doesn't say is that in order to climb the ladder, you must also descend it.
"Eternal life . . . [is] going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation." (History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 (1 July 1843–30 April 1844), p. 1971, The Joseph Smith Papers)
Remember Jacob's Ladder? The thing everyone forgets in their haste to reach the top is that the ladder goes both ways; it is a two-way street. And in one of the great eternal paradoxes, the only way up is, in fact, by going down.
And Jacob dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God [watch] ascending AND descending on it.
Things will make more sense as you ponder this statement and let it sink in:
"Happiness is the path of ascent after descent. You must descend to a very low point, and prove faithful; this always occurs in steps of ever-increasing abasement followed by ever-increasing exaltation. Every step forward requires you descend below your previous lowest point." (Rob Smith, "Abasement and Ascension: Happiness and Sorrow," blog posted Monday, October 13, 2014.)
What does this have to do with the meaning of life?
I am going to try to lay this out as simply and as clearly as I can.
1. Saving knowledge (“intelligence”) is acquired by completing a descent/ascent cycle.
2. The descent phase is called "condescension" in scripture.
3. The ascent phase is called "exaltation" in scripture.
4. Here's the important part: the extent of our condescension will dictate the extent of our exaltation, which are always proportionate.
5. Christ is the great exemplar of this truth; He said: "The Son of Man hath descended below them all" (D&C 122:8).
6. It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of Christ's condescension. "He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth" (D&C 88:6).
7. If we want to encounter Christ, chances are we will meet Him during our descent phase (which is ironic, because everyone expects to find Him by climbing up the ladder, when in fact you're more likely to see him in a soup kitchen at the bottom of it) (see Matt. 25:37-40).
8. What is condescension? This was such an important question the angel quizzed Nephi on it: "Knowest thou the condescension of God?" (1 Nephi 11:16). Why is it critical we understand the doctrine of Christ's condescension? How is it related to our progression?
9. Why must we "descend"? I mean, couldn't we be good little boys and girls and just take a direct flight to Kolob, straight-as-an-arrow, upwards forever and forever, to infinity and beyond? What strikes me is that the Lord (who was perfect) traveled to heaven via hell.
10. The signs set in the heavens typify the ascent/descent cycle (think of the sun and moon). Ancient Egyptians understood this concept better than we do. The sun god (Ra) descended from the sky as a ba and rose again (ascent). Jesus's resurrection was foreshadowed millennia in advance through the ascent/descent theology of Osiris.
11. So the literal meaning of life is to condescend (or to abase) ourselves.
The Meaning of Life
But why? Why is it so important to slum it? Why must we condescend to join the riff-raff at the bottom of the ladder?
The gods understood the cost when they said, "Let us go down."
And then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning . . . that is the Gods.
What were the gods going down for? Why did they choose to leave their exaltation, laying aside their exalted crowns, to condescend?
Here's the whole point: they did it in order to gather others and bring them along with them on their ascent.
Our ascent is made possible by Christ's ascent; and His ascent is a consequence of lifting us up with Him. This is what it means to be a "Father" and "Mother" in heaven.
Christ descended to find sons and daughters whom He could adopt into His family and thereby draw them up the ladder as the jewels in His crown.
Would it surprise you if Jesus framed His entire "gospel" in this way?
This is the gospel which I have given unto you-- that I came into the world [descent] to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me. [why was He sent?]
And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up [ascent] upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men [helping us ascend the ladder] unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father.
(3 Nephi 27:13-14)
Abasement means we stand arm-in-arm with those who sin and suffer and are sick; to minister to the untouchables and lepers; to become a member of a fallen community in order to gain their trust so they will take hold of our hand, that we might pull them up the ladder with us.
All of this Christ said when He taught, "Whosoever will lose his life (descend) for my sake shall find it (ascend)" (Matt. 16:25).
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life [descent] for his friends
When I hear this verse quoted at the funeral of a servicemember who lost their life in battle, I appreciate the sentiment.
But these words hold a deeper meaning. The Lord is not just talking about "dying" for those we love.
He is talking about the Noble-and-Great Ones (referred to as "the Gods" in the Book of Abraham) who willingly "laid down" their exaltation, setting it aside, to descend the ladder that we might catch a piggy-back as they ascend back up.
Would you be willing to step away from a lush retirement on the white sands of Fiji to serve a humanitarian mission in the mosquito-infested Congo?
"We will go down" (Abraham 3:24).
Love and Happiness
Sorry to state the obvious, but "abasement" doesn’t feel good.
Condescension is an act of love, not of happiness.
But happiness is found in reaching and connecting with those in the pit and helping them ascend.
I like how Rob Smith summarized this wonderful truth:
"Happiness is not the absence of sorrow, but the accumulation of knowledge learned through sorrow incurred through righteous intercession on others' behalf."
Isn't this what Isaiah wrote about Christ?
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. . . . Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.
Notice the descent-language; but wait! What happens when Christ hits rock-bottom? What is the centerpiece of this psalm, when Christ goes down the ladder to the very bottom, making his soul an offering for sin?
He shall see his seed.
Did you see it? Where did the Lord find His family? He found His "seed" in the most unlikely of places!
Here He makes sons and daughters out of us. This gives him "pleasure" (Isaiah 53:10).
Then, in true chiastic form, Isaiah gives us ascent-language to describe the Lord pulling us up with Him during His ascent:
Why all the positive feedback? Well, it comes after Christ "poured out his soul unto death" (v. 12) to be numbered with us.
Think about how ridiculous that must appear to glory-hogs like Lucifer and his ilk, seeing Christ dressed-down to be with us, as if He were one of the transgressors!
But it was only in doing so (here's the punch) that Jesus was able to "make intercession" (v. 12) for us.
Implications of a Gospel of Condescension
The real-world implications of Christ's gospel are staggering. The things that please God look very different from an abased posture. It is the difference between Christ's perspective and Simon's (see Luke 7).
Here are some that come to mind:
(1) Those who think they can ascend the ladder based on their ritual-righteousness ("temple worthiness"), like the Pharisees, are mistaken. We don't ascend because we are "good"; we ascend because we abase ourselves beneath others in order to hoist them higher.
(2) The Church's hierarchy is actually calculated to mitigate condescension. Instead of becoming "the least" and servants, a prestigious priesthood elevates men to high offices. This is the opposite of abasement.
(3) Repentance cannot be preached top-down; Christ showed it must be down-up. When repentance is preached from the top, it sounds accusatory and prideful; but when we preach repentance from an abased position, our message is reinforced by works of love rather than hypocritical words of righteousness (see James 2). It's the difference between tossing coins into a beggar's cup (top-down) vs. lifting the beggar into our arms and carrying them to Taco Bell and sharing a burrito together, getting to know them by name and beginning a life-long friendship.
But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.
And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
Have I committed an offence in abasing myself that ye might be exalted, because I have preached to you the gospel?