A tall, strong, virile man of forty left his home to represent his state’s interests in the congress assembling to decide the future of the nation. More than twenty years later, an old man, wracked with constant pain, beset with health problems, nearly deaf, and all-but exhausted returned home, never to leave it again.
George Washington spent nearly every ounce of strength he had for the sake of his fledgling nation, working himself almost literally to death so that his country might live. He endured eight long years of war: a war perpetually on the brink of disaster. He then led the constitutional convention and subsequently assumed the authority of President, offering a cool, confident example of leadership never to be surpassed in all the years to come. In the process, he endured such stress and worked to such an exhausting point that he all-but destroyed his own health and strength.
The nation wasn’t an idol to Washington: he prayed daily to the true God and invoked His assistance at need. Rather, it was the task he was set: his own personal duty before his creator.
Washington spent his life for the sake of something greater than himself: his country. It is one of the defining features of manhood that a man does not live for his own sake, but for the sake of something greater.
No man lives for his own sake. Or rather, to live for one’s own sake is to be less than a real man.
This was brought out in the Gospel. When Jesus encountered a true ‘man’s man,’ the Roman Centurion, the man recognized Him at once as a kindred spirit.
“I too am a man subject to authority, and with soldiers under me.”
The Centurion, like Jesus, lived not for his own sake, but for the sake of something greater, just as all real men do, and it was this which allowed him to recognize the Lord for what He was.
To take a literary example, compare and contrast Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham from Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Wickham, in the end, lives for himself: for pleasure, money, advancement, and so on. He’s a selfish, envious, contemptible being. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, lives for something greater than himself: namely, the care for his family estate. It is his inheritance and legacy, and he holds it to be a great trust bequeathed to him by greater men than himself. To be worthy of that trust is the great aim of his life.
In another great piece of literature, The Lord of the Rings sums up the issue in two sentences:
“Am I not free to lead my life as I choose?” asks Eowyn.
“Few may do that with honor,” answers Aragorn.
Aragorn, though a king in exile and a man of great and lordly aspect and unconquerable willpower, does not live for his own sake nor do just as he chooses. His life is dedicated to his kingdom, Gondor, and to the overthrow of Sauron and the forces of evil. For that sake he spends decades guarding the obliviously happy and simple people of the Shire and Bree and suffers long periods of separation from his beloved Arwen. His wants and desires are secondary to the great purpose of his life.
Similarly, in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy (my personal favorite of the Narnia books), he has King Lune inform his son that a king has no more right to refuse his throne than a sentry has to abandon his post. “A king is under the law, for it is the law makes him a king.” Even the repulsive Tisroc of the Ottomans Calormans claims that he loves nothing compared to the honor of his throne.
Every man must have some great and all-consuming purpose in his life, to which he subordinates all save God and virtue. To live for one’s own sake, to stand on your right to “live your own life” is the attitude of a child and a coward.
This is one reason I like learning about classic entertainers like Bob Hope or John Wayne and their contemporaries. To me, they are not images of glamor, but of people who knew their purpose in life, and humble though it was, gave it their all and were rewarded for it. John Agar put it well late in his life when he was asked whether he regretted the many cheesy sci-fi movies he ended up starring in. He said that, as an actor, as long as anyone enjoys his work, he’s doing his job. John Wayne said something similar; that the only thing that counted to him was that people enjoyed his movies, not what kind of reviews they got. See, people like Wayne and Agar were entertainers; their purpose was to give people wholesome, pleasant enjoyment, and that’s what they did.
Saints live for God. Poets and artists live for their work. Writers live for the stories they tell. Patriots live for their nation. The Son lives for the Father.
What do you live for? What is the purpose of your life? Yes, yes; you are a Christian and a servant of God. But if the Gospel is clear on anything, it’s clear that God expects something from us. He expects that we will produce good fruit and multiply our talents. What kind of fruit do you produce? What investments will you make with your talents?
Some men live for God alone. Others offer Him a life given in service to some lesser, but still excellent good; family, country, knowledge, art, and so on. What are you going to offer Him in service?
Your purpose may be as humble as putting a smile on someone’s face after they’ve had a hard day’s work. Or it might be to defend your country in its hour of need, or to bring God to those who need Him, or just to raise one family. Whatever it is, submit to it with a thankful heart and grow old in the practice of it.