What is the meaning of your life? What is it that gets you out of bed in the morning and gives your life purpose? Is there an ultimate reason, one that rises high above all the rest and justifies or defends the multitude of things you plunge yourself into each day and gives these other things meaning?
Whether you realize it or not, there is something you adhere to that acts like a compass to direct your thoughts and actions to some particular destination. Except rather than north being the reference point, it is some other thing that acts as a standard by which you use to direct your life. This standard becomes your meaning, or reason for the things that you do. This usually exists as a goal or aim that resides in your mind, and it casts its shadow over all the various facets of your life. This goal or aim often reveals itself in certain ideals that you have for yourself and for your life, and it is this ideal that lingers over all the thoughts that traffic through your mind and brings them into submission as it attempts to mold everything into its own image.
Because our ideals attempt to mold our thoughts and actions to its own likeness, it would then follow that the nature or character of the thing we strive after has a profound forming effect on the nature of our personality. The object that we strive after tends to bear its stamp upon our very being; it brands us, marks us, making us a fit vessel according to its own determinations. Psychologist Jordan Peterson quoted Carl Jung in stating that “We don’t have ideas, but ideas have us”. It is in this vein that ideas, or in this discussion ideals, have us. They mold, shape, or form us, and this is done according to the nature of the object of our ideal itself.
In the Bible, whatever replaces God as the ultimate aim or ideal in our life is considered an idol. An idol is a false god; it is something that one gives obeisance to, since before its image we are struck with a sort of awe and reverence. We feel the weightiness and significance of this thing which seems to have a sort of ubiquitous character hovering over every aspect of our lives. The challenge laid down in the Bible is, what or who do you choose to establish as your highest aim: God or something else? What we choose is of the utmost significance. One is spiritual, the other is material, finite, and limited. What we choose will have a profound effect on the nature of our own characters and personalities. In fact, regarding the effects of idols, Psalm 115:8 tells us that “Those who make them (idols) become like them; so do all who trust in them”.
Regarding the forming effects that our aims and ideals have on our personality, two of these effects are worthy of comment. One is a narrowing, or limiting effect, the other has a more widening, expansive effect. As a thing grows in importance and obtains to the highest priority in our life, the more we revolve around this thing in direct proportion to its importance. Because the object of our aims influence the forming of our personality and reproduce its own kind, our personality develops as a reflection of the nature of the object of our interests. So the question becomes, which object is best for our nature? Well, that depends on whether we consider our nature from a material or spiritual perspective.
Created objects are finite and limited. In other words, a created thing is limited in the scope or range of qualities and powers it possesses. A created thing can impart only limited and specific effects because it only has limited and specific capabilities. As our personality is a reflection of our aims and ideals, the more bound up and identified our personality is with a finite limited thing, the more limited our personality becomes as it mirrors the objects we adore. Consider King Saul, the king of Israel prior to King David. Saul was so possessed with the idea of retaining his position as king that he became very limited in his abilities to lead the nation as a faithful ruler. His obsession with maintaining his position as king dominated his thinking and way of being to the extent that it hindered him both as a leader and as a person.
The other effect an aim and its object can have on our personality is an expansive, or widening one. One that allows our personality to blossom in full flower and radiance, in possession of all the powers and abilities necessary for a full human life. Unlike all the other creatures that roam the earth, only man transcends the material and physical conditions imposed on him as his mind and heart are unlimited in his pursuit of happiness and knowledge. No object can satisfy the deep and almost unending desires of the heart, nor the unquenchable thirst of the mind. This is what it means to be human. Our hearts and minds, because they are spiritual, have an infinite capacity to want, to know, and to do more.
Only God can satisfy the constant longing we feel in the depths of our being. Only God has the power and ability that effectively allows us to engage life, according to our spiritual natures, in a manner that transcends our physical conditions and circumstances. But if we become more identified with the material, finite things of this world, the more we tend to engage life through the forms of those particular activities. The more we limit our life by relating to it through a particular form, the more deficient we become as we starve other aspects of our personality. Our spiritual natures are meant to rise and expand beyond the horizons, but we are often pinned down according to the particular things we seek as instruments of our self-realizations.
Now in contrast to King Saul, consider St. Paul. Prior to his acquaintance with Jesus, Paul was an enemy of the Church as he tried to punish the followers of Jesus. He related to life primarily through the forms of the religious traditions known to the Pharisees. After he came to know Jesus, he began to relate to life through Jesus, and henceforth could say things like “To the Jew I am a Jew, and to the Greek I am a Greek, I am all things to all people”. What an expansion of his personality! No petty (such as Saul who was upset that people were singing about David having killed more enemies that Saul), small-minded person could possibly have such an magnanimous attitude. Paul was no longer bound up, identified, and living through his narrower forms of religious expression, but could rather subsume these forms and ideals into a larger and more encompassing truth he found in Jesus. The effect was to enlarge his personality to such a degree that he became a living conduit through which God Himself could express His will and love through Paul to countless others.
What kind of influence on your life do things and circumstances have on you? What do you find yourself shrinking back, recoiling, and retreating from? Or, what do you find yourself aggressively defending that is causing conflicts elsewhere? The answer to these questions can shed light on areas where your personality may still need further development.
To summarize this forming effect of our aims or ideals, and the consequent limiting or enhancing effects on our personality, I have included here a powerful statement eloquently expressed by the renowned psychoanalyst Erich Fromm: “The history of mankind up to the present time is primarily the history of idol worship, from the primitive idols of clay and wood to the modern idols of the state, the leader, production, and consumption – sanctified by the blessing of an idolized God. Man transfers his own passions and qualities to the idol. The more he impoverishes himself, the greater and stronger becomes the idol. The idol is the alienated form of man’s experience of himself. In worshiping the idol, man worships himself. But this self is a partial, limited aspect of man: his intelligence, his physical strength, power, fame, and so on. By identifying himself with a partial aspect of himself, man limits himself and ceases to grow. He is dependent on the idol, since only in submission to the idol does he find the shadow, although not the substance, of himself. (You Shall Be as Gods, pp. 43-44)