I’m going to try to approach this from a different perspective. If you’re willing, come along and we’ll think through this together.
Do lives objectively matter, in the cosmos? Why do lives matter?
When we say that “A Life Matters,” it begs the question “To whom?”
In the big, physical-existence only picture, the answer is “no.” Not really. Go back and check the size of the universe. Then check how many people will die today. Happens everyday. More people die, more people are born, the stars shine and go supernova and black holes swallow up light and does any of it really “matter?” No. It just is. I’m describing an answer to the question if we don’t immediately ask “To whom?” Based on the best scientific evidence, we’re a blip, a blink, just passing through with no impact and no real relevance. Then we’re gone, decomposing in our physical form, switching to other forms of matter–so do we matter? Yeah, the pun is almost too strong to resist. But I will.
If I tell you that you matter, I mean you matter to someone.
The great and shocking truth of Christianity–and this is a belief not a scientific fact I can prove for you–is that bigger than the universe, greater and older and infinitely more than the universe, exists a God who answers that question, who in fact initiated that question so you would know the answer.
Genesis 1, describing the chaos that was pre-creation, addresses the ancient belief that existence is without order, ultimately threatening and either utterly indifferent or even malicious toward human existence. The writer of Genesis conveys, “No, God who created everything brought order and, from the beginning, bestowed both value and purpose on humanity.” We are all made in God’s image to share God’s value and God’s purpose–and God, we learn, is love. We matter to God. God loves us. God loves us and shows grace to all of us, meaning God doesn’t stop loving us or love us less when we hurt others or ourselves.
Now if you don’t believe in God’s existence or reject that a creator God loves us, you have to answer “To whom” differently than I have. Humanity has attempted to answer that question apart from God but I won’t recount all those various attempts; I’m taking the long way around, but not that long. I’m just pausing here to say you still have to answer the question.
Okay, from the abstract to the very personal and immediate: you live as if some people matter more than others. You might say “All people matter equally,” or ‘All people matter equally to God.” Perhaps this means all people have a right to matter equally. But none of us live as if all people matter equally because that is impossible. We talk to some people and not to others. We spend money on some people and not on others. If one person is rushed to the emergency room, we drop everything and go; if others are rushed to the emergency room, we say a prayer, or simply don’t notice at all. Remember, we’re talking about lives “mattering” to us, not whether lives have value to God. Who matters to you? I think it’s probably self-deception to say “Everyone matters equally to me but I just pay attention to certain people and not to others.” If you got the news today of someone’s death, you would not respond equally to that news regardless of who died. Neither would I.
When I lived in Nicaragua I realized that Nicaraguan lives did not matter very much to most people living in the United States. It was a bizarre experience, yet probably one shared by nearly everyone who lives abroad and comes to love the country and people of their adopted home. These lives, Bismarck and Juan Ramon and Mileydi and Exequiel, were abstractions to my friends from my native land. I had the strange honor of trying to make them real to other people I love.
But I’m not claiming I’m special, I’m just describing my experience. If a person in Burkina Faso dies tonight, that person will be an abstraction to me. I don’t know that person. If I somehow found out and it was a little girl, I would feel grief in that general, abstract way we do over the world’s pain, injustice, how children should not die before their parents. But in the past week, I learned that Manuel, who lived in our barrio–no, we lived in his–and who watched out for us as his gringo family, died. Manuel was an alcoholic. He treated his body horribly and we knew his life expectancy couldn’t be terribly long. But he was younger than I am and now he is gone and I grieve. He matters to me. Of course he didn’t matter to you as much as he matters to me if you never met him. When I told you he was an alcoholic, he may have mattered to you a little less; you might now think, just a little, he deserves what he got.
But people can not matter to us when we know them, too. Jesus tells a parable about a man living in poverty named Lazarus and a rich man named…”rich man.” Unsettlingly, Jesus doesn’t give the rich guy a name. But the rich man steps over Lazarus at his gate, ignores Lazarus’s suffering and needs, and continues on with his comfortable, pleasurable life.
We’re not like the rich man, of course. At least, I’m willing to bet we have all told ourselves that we’re not and gathered our reasons to back this up.
“But Mike, you’re being unfair! A life can matter to me even if I don’t interact directly with that person! I can value a person’s life from a distance. I can say that person matters without having to feed him or dress her wounds or clothe their children.”
Hold that thought.
My life matters. To whom? It matters to me. I value my own life. I feed myself and exercise and try to take reasonable care of my health. I also try to enjoy myself, to do things that give my life meaning by my own measures, and to be a person I can bear. I try to love others even when they don’t love me, to show kindness to those who refuse to show kindness to me.
My life matters to me because my life matters to God. I can’t say the following with certainty–I don’t have a control group to test my hypothesis–but I believe I would not be alive if I didn’t matter to God. We usually phrase this as “Because God loves me.” In the mysterious, inexplicable ways of God, not only does God love me, but Jesus has taught me that the very meaning of my life, the purpose, is to do what I can to help others know God loves them, also. You. Nicaraguan friends. Ultimate players. My kids. Strangers on the street.
Can lives matter without purpose? They can, but I think it’s harder for us to accept. We still matter to God if we feel we have no purpose at all, but part of God’s conveying to us that we matter is inviting us to join in God’s purposes. Those are big. Reconcile the world to God in love (as opposed to at gunpoint). Redeem and restore all that we’ve damaged with our hate and violence and our disfiguring of creation. Build shalom community. In fact, I would say our purpose and our love, both given by God, can’t be taken away. Even if we lose our ability to do everything, God still works through us to love and heal. That’s grace.
We live as if others matter by affirming their beloved-ness, by recognizing and calling out their reflection of God’s image, by which I mean that they are both loved and capable of loving. The more abstract this is, the less it touches people. The more specifically and truthfully we can tell and show people they are loved, that they have purpose and value and significance to us, the better chance we have of helping them to know that they matter.
Yet numbers work against us. Can you love a thousand people? A million? Can you love twenty people? Or twelve? Or only two?
Well, of course the answer is that you can love different numbers of people in different ways. For how many people would you rush to the hospital? That is one very specific expression of love. That you would not rush to the hospital for everyone does not mean you don’t love everyone, but again, you don’t love everyone equally. We have limits. We could smile at everyone we meet, but we can’t listen well to every person we meet (believe me, I’ve tried). We can share our food with some but not with everyone. We choose.
As Jesus followers, we choose and also trust that God who is infinite can and does love everyone, while we seek to love those within our reach. We who are finite do our small part and believe God uses our small part for the whole, what we call “God’s Kingdom,” God’s overall work in the world.
You know at some point I’m going to shift gears. Not yet.
Complicating these matters, I’m both sinful and broken. I love imperfectly, even when I’m crazy about the person. Some people I flat don’t like, or don’t enjoy, or don’t respect, or don’t accept. Jesus literally commands us to love everyone–including enemies– and not just abstractly, but specifically to love them as we would want to be loved.
Of course, my failures and shortcomings in loving others don’t mean they are less lovable. Nor that they matter less.
Our church has a sign above the door that says, “You matter to God, so you matter to us.” That’s our calling that we recognize from Jesus. Jesus says they matter, so they matter, and consequently we seek to help them to know that they matter, to show by what we say and do and don’t say and don’t do that we affirm their value. To God. To us.
Therefore, if we have a movement within our country insisting that certain people matter, of course we have the calling to affirm this truth. Jesus makes that clear. I have never, in my thirty-plus years of following Jesus, felt the need to convey to anyone that they matter less. Have I needed to confront some people’s pride and ego? Of course. But not their value. Not that they matter to God or to me.
Going back to abstracts and specifics, of course every person in the whole world matters. But how many people feel specifically loved or valued by my declaration that everyone matters? Notably, our sign doesn’t say “Everyone matters to God so everyone matters to us.” Of course we believe that and try to live it. But my calling, now and in each moment, is to help you know that you matter. You won’t feel that more if we tell you, “Yeah, everyone.” It is everyone. But you have to hear that it’s you. YOU matter to God. So YOU matter to us.
In Mark 5, Jesus went rushing off with Jairus, a very esteemed and powerful man in his culture, because Jairus begged Jesus, “Come, heal my daughter!” But on the way, Jesus got stalked by a woman. She came up close to him–violating her culture’s laws, by the way–and touched his clothing. Stalker. This touch healed her. You may not believe that, but I do. But the story isn’t that Jesus magic-healed her without trying; Jesus stopped and asked, “Who touched me?” Remember he was rushing to heal a dying girl, with a man who mattered very much within the hierarchy of that culture. Jairus’s daughter mattered very much to Jairus, Jairus beseeched Jesus for help, Jairus mattered to Jesus, and Jesus charged–until this. This lowly, unhealthy, impoverished woman (all strikes against her) did not believe she mattered to Jesus at all. I can just touch him, she thought, get healed, and he won’t ever have to see me or know I exist.
Jesus stopped. Jesus demanded, “Who touched me?” Peter said, “It’s a crowd. Everyone is touching you.” Yep. Everyone. Everyone matters. Jesus didn’t ask that. “Who touched me, for I felt power for healing flow out of me.” What? But the woman knew she was busted. She fell to her knees in front of him–have you ever actually dropped to your knees before another person? I don’t think we can even quite get how demeaning, how lowering this act might be. Jesus spoke with her. He raised her up. He listened. He affirmed her. He told her, “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
Then, and only then, did he resume hurrying to the emergency of Jairus’ little ten-year-old girl.
I’ve heard people say, “Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was sick in his time. He didn’t help everyone who was poor.” It’s like they understand that Jesus imposed human limitations on himself yet also don’t understand. Or conveniently forget. Jesus loved and modeled loving. He didn’t come so that he could directly heal and love everyone–even though he certainly loved everyone–but so that we could learn how to love as he loves us and spread this love, person by person, throughout the world. He showed love all the way to and through his death, and to his followers’ shock, even after his death through his resurrection. He atoned for our sins in that death and imparted his life to us in that resurrection.
Yes, now we’re there. Gears shifting.
If someone tells you their life does not matter, as a Jesus follower you have one clear answer. If someone tells you, “I’m worthless, I want to die,” you may not be able to change their mind but you know with certainty that they have worth, love, meaning, value. They matter.
If someone tells you, “I feel as if I don’t matter,” you have an answer. We know our calling. We know why they matter. We can address what in their life makes them feel they don’t matter.
If Lazarus says to you, “The rich man steps over me. I don’t matter,” you must tell him, “The rich man is wrong! You do matter, God loves you, and that indifference and neglect by that nameless wealthy person cannot negate your value. You matter!”
If people feel like it’s debatable whether or not they matter, our part, always, always, is to affirm how much they matter to a loving, grace-extravagant God, and to us, imperfect and finite but loved by God and learning to love like God. If we love others as we want to be loved (i.e. the way Jesus commanded), we know we want to be reminded of and upheld in our value. We may do that poorly for others, but we know the truth; we know our calling.
As Jesus followers, we affirm to people that their lives matter. Any response that waters this down, or questions or attacks why they bring up the question–imagine answering someone who is suicidal, “Why are you even talking about that?”–works against what Jesus did with the woman he stopped for, what Jesus does when he stops for us. As Jesus followers, we can only be on one side of a discussion someone else raises about whether or not their life matters:
Yes, you are right. Yes it does. Your life matters.