“Why did you decide to give your life to this work?” The old farmer, weather-worn and bowed with age, answered my question with a wry smile: “Bad luck and being born into it.” Born into a family who had farmed for generations, he had no reason to kick the trend. Now, in the evening of his life, he stood in the yard that had greeted him every morning since he was a child. He knew intimately the shape of the surrounding hills, the time each year when the swallows returned, the best days to plant his crops, and the patience necessary to draw some yield out of his rocky New England soil. A tough life. He had been born into farming. Was he born to farm?
Sometimes, we speak as if success reveals the reason for a person’s birth. Michael Phelps was born to swim. Usain Bolt was born to sprint. Bruce Springsteen was “Born to Run.” Those of us who will spend our lives in circles of lesser notoriety won’t be able to claim a single activity as our purpose. Perhaps we will think that we were born to love this spouse, raise these children, work this job, live this vocation. In a limited sense, this seems right. We all find our way through particular circumstances, bumping and tripping through the contingencies of life. Depending on what these details entail, life can be more or less pleasant. All lives, however, will involve at least a little of what the farmer called “bad luck.” So the question remains. What are we born for?
Jeremiah regrets the day of his birth because he had become “a man of strife and contention to the whole land” (Jer 15:10). Job too curses the day of his birth, wondering why he would have to come into the world only to endure such great suffering (Job 3). “Bad luck” hardly captures the evils of life. Not all of us are born into farming, yet we’re all born into a life that will sometimes feel like a match with the psalmist’s description:
Seventy years is the span of our days,
or eighty if we are strong.
And most of these are toil and pain.
They pass swiftly and we are gone. (Ps 90:10)
Do you know why you were born? On a dark Friday afternoon, many years ago, a man declared the reason for his birth. Mysteriously, he alone knew it: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37). This man did not succeed in any typical way. He had no children. He left no writings. He died an inglorious death. But he had a few followers at the time, and they continued to speak of him. And in these voices, many heard the echo of something they could not quite place yet somehow knew to be an answer, an answer to a question about life. Because before him, the one sure thing about a newborn was that he would live and then die. But now we have heard and have seen one who was born, died, and then lived. If we are “of the truth,” we too hear the answer to the question of our birth—we were born to die, yes, but then to have life, and have it abundantly.
Image: Vasily Vereshchagin, Crucifixion by the Romans