Student ponders true meaning of progress

I love progress. (I think we all do.) We get excited when our church grows, our business expands, new technology is developed, etc. It’s the American way – making a better life for ourselves than those who came before us. Progress is a beautiful thing. But I’ve got to ask – why? Why do we love progress so much? We always want bigger and better. But is bigger and better always best?

First of all, what is progress? Literally, it means to walk forward. Imagine American society gradually moving along a line towards a better life. That’s progress – and we’re great at it! In the last century, we’ve increased the American male’s life expectancy by about 30 years. Our jobs have progressed: we’ve moved from mostly agricultural or manufacturing jobs to more of a service economy. (Read: cushy jobs). We don’t go hungry anymore; progress has satisfied our physical needs.

This progress raises our physical quality of life. But does it improve our life? We may live longer and have more food and comforts – but so what? We satisfy one want, only to desire something else, something even more elusive. And our better jobs and physical comforts haven’t given us amazing lives, either. As Tyler Durden says in the movie Fight Club, we’re people “working jobs we hate so we can buy [stuff] we don’t need.”

So why progress? No matter what nice new technology we come up with, new book we write, new scientific discovery we make – our lives will still have huge problems. Even if a business grows, its employees will still have their problems.

It seems to me that we often pursue progress for progress’ sake. Indeed, progress and good seem to be synonymous. The question “is progress good?” may seem redundant. Try thinking of progress as sailing a ship. Naturally, we want to move. We harness the wind in our sails and plow ahead. The future is ever before us. But while a ship can sail thousands of miles, it’s all worthless unless there’s a destination. Unless the ship is going somewhere, all the so-called progress it accomplishes is meaningless.

That’s what I feel like progress is sometimes. We surge straight ahead: raise revenue, increase enrollment, learn more, be more involved – but why? We can sail a ship for as long as we live, but it’s worth nothing unless we go somewhere. This is pointless progress, sailing for the sake of sailing. Now, there’s a place for this, such as in games. Super Smash Bros is pointless in a practical sense, but is great for pleasure. Yet a life set on pursuing progress for the sake of progress is pointless and destructive.

Is there any point to progress? This question is getting at the whole meaning of life. An atheist might say that there’s no point or purpose to anything. Just sail along and enjoy the experience; that’s what life is all about.

But for those of us who are Christians, we have a purpose. We were made to glorify God in fellowship with Him. In all that we do, we have meaning – to know Him and to make Him known. So, in everything we do, whether as a pastor, CEO, or janitor, we can glorify God.

So is progress worth anything for the Christian? In the sense that we can glorify God through progress, yes. This is like glorifying God simply through the sailing of the boat. But does God give us a specific direction to set sail towards? Does God give us any specific call to pursue bigger and better, like our culture craves?

How I see it, it’s a yes and a no. God doesn’t specifically call us to “bigger and better.” But He does give us several general commands in scripture. A few of the big ones are: to multiply (make babies), subdue the earth, be sanctified, and to make disciples of all nations. We are explicitly called to make progress in these areas, and the Christian must sail towards them. But I think the Christian janitor who strives for God’s purposes but does not work much for the progress of society is just as obedient as the ambitious Christian scientist who also strives for God’s purposes and ends up finding a cure for cancer.

Sail somewhere God tells us to go, and glorify Him in the way you sail.