What Makes a Life a Good Life?

J.R. Waller, MBA

And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.1 Jn. 5:11-12 (KJV)

It’s worthwhile for Christians to study secular philosophy. Doing so gives you a better understanding of how God’s word answers mankind’s most important questions.

For example, take the question, “What makes a life a good life?”

Early in Plato’s Republic, which was written in Ancient Greece about four centuries before Jesus was born, Socrates presents the philosophical concept of “function” as it relates to personal fulfillment (a good life).

According to him, a function is something that only a certain thing or person can do or do best. For example, an eye sees, therefore sight is its function. Only an eye can see and be best at seeing.

Each function manifests itself through its own characteristic excellence or characteristic defect.

A thing’s characteristic excellence or its characteristic defect being that which makes it perform its function well or badly.

“Socrates points out that there is no function that cannot be performed without the use of one’s mind.”

For instance, your eye could have a defect. This defect could cause your eye to be blind and prevent your eye from performing its function fully. Your eye then would be a “bad” eye philosophically speaking. It wouldn’t be able to see well if at all.

Likewise, a pruning knife cuts certain things well because its sharp. An athlete runs fast because his leg muscles are strong, and so on.

Sharpness and strength are the knife and leg’s characteristic excellence. They allow them to perform well. Therefore the knife and leg are both good.

Eventually, Socrates points out that there is no function that cannot be performed without the use of one’s mind. This means that life itself, or living, is a function of the mind.

If we follow Socrates’ logic then, if the mind is deprived of its characteristic excellence it will perform its function badly. Life will be lived badly. If someone’s mind is defective he will live a bad life.

Put simply, a good mind leads to a good life, and a bad mind leads to a bad life.

But just what can be classified as a mind’s excellence and what can be considered a mind’s defect?

That’s a topic for a whole other article, however in the dialogues leading up to this one in The Republic the point is made that justice is a peculiar excellence of the mind and injustice a peculiar defect.

“What is a good mind? How do we define that? And more importantly, are our minds good?”

So, to be just is to be good, to be unjust bad. Socrates summarizes this and the main thrust of his dialogue on functions by stating, “The just mind and the just man will have a good life, and the unjust a bad life.”

His point was that the just live happier lives than the unjust because they have a happy life that flows from a good mind – a mind that functions well because it is just.

Justice then is a characteristic excellence of the mind that helps the mind carry out its function of living life.

Plato’s point is a good one and its logically sound. A good mind leads to a good life.

However, there’s just one problem here and it’s a big one. What is a good mind? How do we define that? And more importantly, are our minds good?

According to the Bible, all of mankind is fallen, corrupt and born into sin because of man’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. (Rom. 5:12)

Life itself is infected with sin and our minds are not at all immune to the disease. Rather, they are naturally defective due to sin. (Rom. 8:7)

Sin truly wreaks havoc on our minds and consequently our lives.

“Our minds do not function as they were intended to nor will we ever have perfect minds or perfect lives this side of heaven because of sin.”

It limits the strength of our minds. We only use a tiny fraction of our brain’s potential while we’re alive.

Sin also rots the physical nature of our brains. Mental illness, neurological disease and other defects hurt and impair us cognitively, emotionally, and socially.

Yet the most common defect sin brings to our minds are sinful tendencies, thoughts and desires. Selfishness, pride and countless other sins are rooted in our minds and we naturally seek after and want to sin. (Rom. 3:11)

Thus, our minds do not function as they were intended to nor will we ever have perfect minds or perfect lives this side of heaven because of sin.

In fact, even when our ways seem right they are not. Our hearts are duplicitous. (Prov. 21:2)

“Even when we want to do good we can’t cleanse ourselves from our sin.”

Ultimately, sin keeps us from living a good life because it separates us from God. (Is. 59:2) Moreover, being good enough isn’t good enough.

Yes, we can as Plato mentions act justly and that’s certainly good in most circumstances, but being just isn’t enough to give us a good life.

Committing characteristically excellent actions and virtues, while admirable, doesn’t change us fundamentally at all. Such actions make our lives appear good, but deep down we remain sinful.

Even when we want to do good we can’t cleanse ourselves from our sin. (Prov. 20:9) We need something more, and from Someone else.

A good life and freedom from sin only become realities for you when you trust Christ as your savior by faith. (Rom. 10:9-10, Rom. 1:17)

Jesus’ death on the cross is the only thing that pays the penalty for your sins. (2 Cor. 5:21) His death is the only thing that satisfies God’s wrath.

Through Jesus’ death God’s wrath that was meant for you as a just punishment for your sins was poured out on his Son instead. (Is. 53:5-6) While we’re not, Jesus was and is good enough; he was and is perfect. (1 Pet. 2:22) By his death we are healed from sin. (Is. 53:5)

Jesus’ work of salvation robes the believer in his righteousness. (1 Cor. 1:30) This makes us right with God as his possession. (1 Cor. 6:20) Thus, those who trust Christ as their savior are no longer separated from God because of sin.

Jesus is the only answer to sin and the only way to a good life because he is “the life.” (Jn. 14:6) If you have him you have life itself. (1 Jn. 5:12)

Of course, those who trust Christ will still sin in this life because we live in the flesh. However, Christians no longer live by the flesh.

Christians are new men and women in Christ and are commanded to be transformed by the “renewing” of their minds so that they may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (2 Cor. 5:17, Rom. 12:2)

“What makes a life a good life? Not merely being just, but being justified.”

Thus, we are to allow God to help us think right and in turn our lives will be better as they conform more to God’s will and ways through his working in us. (Phil. 2:13) That’s how a mind functions best.

What then makes a life a good life? Only Jesus does – he who helps renew our minds and who enables us to be spiritually minded. He brings us life and peace in the process as he makes us more like him. (Rom. 8:6)

Such a mind no longer looks on things on earth but to heaven – its thoughts being ever more conformed to the mind of Christ by doing those things that are pleasing in God’s sight by the work of God’s grace in the believer’s life. (2 Cor. 10:5, 1 Jn. 3:22, 2 Cor. 12:9)

We must remember that we live by faith not by sight, and that life to the fullest comes from Jesus alone. (2 Cor. 5:7, Jn. 10:10)

So, to conclude, what makes a life a good life? Not merely being just, but being justified.

Soli Deo gloria!

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