Ever wish you had someone else’s life? I have, many times. It’s easy to do when we see a friend or even a stranger buying that house or going on that vacation we always dreamed of for ourselves. Or maybe it’s that higher level of education we never were able to attain, or even the relational bliss we see someone else enjoying. But even if we acquire these trophies that are so often assumed to be keys to the good life, it’s not unusual for contradicting thoughts to still run through our minds at times: “Is this all there is?” So many people wake up each morning wondering how their life ended up as unfulfilling, boring or painful as it is. Surely it was meant to have more to it.
The search is always on for how to make life better. And I, too, am in the middle of seeking greater fulfillment. But as a follower of Jesus, I have to ask, what do we mean by “life”? There are many ways that word can be defined and used. And how a person understands what life ought to be determines the path for its pursuit.
The meaning of life?
A few years back, I discovered that the Bible has more to say about this than I first realized. Not being an ancient language scholar, I didn’t know that New Testament Greek has three words that can be translated into English as “life.” And each one of them communicates a distinct meaning.
For example, Jesus watched people giving their offerings at the temple. He commended a poor widow as giving the most, even though it was only a few copper coins, because “she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood” (Mark 12:44, NKJV). The Greek word translated as “livelihood” is bios. It’s the root word for our English “biology.” Multiple times throughout the New Testament, it’s used to speak of the means for sustaining physical life, particularly material and financial resources. In general, it refers to the aspects of human life that we encounter on the surface—what it takes to physically be alive in this present world.
The second word for life in the New Testament is the Greek word psyche. This can also be translated as “soul.” It indicates a human’s inner life—thoughts, values, desires, ambitions. This is the part of our essence where knowledge is gathered, choices are made, commitments are established, and character is formed. It’s where we find and confirm identity and meaning for our existence. When Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35, ESV), psyche is the word used here for “life,” the substance of our souls.
And then there’s the third word, zoe. It’s used by the New Testament writers to describe life that does not (as opposed to bios and psyche) innately belong to humans. It comes from outside ourselves and thus must be received. It’s God’s life, part of Himself that He desires to share with humans. God in His essence is never described with bios or psyche—only zoe. Humans can go from their first breath to their last and never experience zoe if they never receive it from God. But it is His ambition for as many humans as will receive it to make it their center and source for all they need to live—forever.
The Tree of Life (Zoe) in the Garden was available to humans from the beginning, until it was lost because of human sin. And the same tree will be at the center of the New Jerusalem in the end (Revelation 22:2). Its fruit will allow us to live eternally healed and whole, since its essence is God’s life, not human life. When Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), He wasn’t speaking of bios or psyche. The word used here is zoe. That’s what He came to give. And He promised eternal zoe for all who believe in Him (John 3:16).
Zoe is the answer!
Even Jesus followers are tempted to rely on their own bios and psyche to make life worth living. After all, that’s what everyone naturally does, and it’s what we are taught to do. We treasure our bios and psyche and look to them to fulfill our dreams and set us free to become the independent lords of our own existence. It’s all we have to work with.
Yet when their fulfillment is my focus and goal, these two sources of life ultimately elude or lead me astray. I never seem to have enough bios. And in the end, regardless my personal wealth or health, it simply runs out. And my psyche, by itself, promises me complete internal satisfaction if allowed to be free to do what it wants. But in the end it leads me so deeply into myself that I get lost.
God knows that His zoe is the missing piece with which we were originally designed to operate at the fullest capacity. When submitted to zoe, our bios and psyche can actually become what they were originally meant to be. The only real requirement for receiving God’s zoe is the humble surrendering of our bios and psyche to Him, letting Him be in control of our lives. But oh how we resist because that’s where we feel the rub.
I have to lay down my life as I know it to receive divine life. Zoe is so far beyond my natural experience that I can’t comprehend it. And it’s scary to let go of what’s familiar, no matter how broken and unsatisfying, to take hold of that which is so much more promising, but unknown. It’s where faith comes in—trusting Him enough to let go of what I can’t keep in order to take hold of something better that can be mine forever.
Adversity and suffering are what it usually takes for us to realize the limitations of bios and psyche. The moment we comprehend and admit that they aren’t enough, we’re in a position to ask for and receive zoe. It’s no wonder that our loving Heavenly Father lets us go through trials and tribulations when He knows there’s a chance that we’ll then ask for His amazing gift. We can get real Life—the kind that transcends circumstances and fills up empty holes within!
So, what keeps me from submitting myself to God’s zoe without reservation? It’s probably the same thing that had our ancestors Adam and Eve fixated on the forbidden fruit (which is experiential knowledge of good and evil—expanding their psyche) and ignoring the good stuff (which is eternal life submitted to God—zoe). Their desire to be in control of their own lives got them (and all their children) into a miserable mess, cut off from what was offered to them from the very beginning to make life work. The promise of the serpent was basically that doing their own thing with their own lives would be better than submitting to God’s zoe. And our world is still reeling from the deadly impact of what that gave to them and all their children.
Yes, it’s actually good to want someone else’s life, as long as it is the One who has real life. Jesus came to give us what was His. Not more stuff. And not more self-actualization. He laid down His very own life so that we could take up His life and be reconnected to the Source, forever. We just have to humble ourselves enough to let go of our own definition of life and ask for His. Zoe is at the heart of the Gospel. And that’s truly Good News!