On Meaning & Life
In recent years the concept of meaning has taken center stage. In 2002, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Southern California, wrote a book that propelled him to instant fame. The Purpose Driven Life was an overnight success across Christian and non-Christian communities worldwide. In the past 7 years, the book has sold over 30 million copies. I had a vacation once in a remote village in the Bahamas. There I stumbled upon a 19th century colonial church’s yard sign reading “40 Days of Purpose for January & February”. Even there, in a remote tourist destination, the book flourished and the local body of believers took to the corresponding program of the book. Why? What was the reason for the book’s success? How did it become the best selling non-fiction book of the past century?
My answer: Deep within, even beyond purpose (but interconnected to purpose – as we will see) the question of meaning dwells. People need to know that life is meaningful. And not just life in general, but their lives are meaningful. People need to know that the mundane & grinding activities of life are not useless & trivial pursuits.
If I may be honest with you, I am in the same boat. With all the life moments that seem meaningless, I need to know that meaning exists. For if the contrary is true, life would truly be absurd and nothing at all would matter in the end.
What would a life without meaning actually be like? Why would one live without a reason to? Those that do not experience meaning, either directly or indirectly, may find themselves in a meaningless existence and depression develops.
For many people in modern day America depression is common. Many millions experience depression in the form of mental illness, but most of our depressed people experience what psychologists would term “general anxiety.” Clients report that their unwillingness to work at a job, cook for their family, go to school, do chores around the house, etc., is due to the fact that they have lost the meaning in it. That they find no reason to do this or that and the “I am supposed to do it” reason just increases their depression…Clearly, for those in this state, this is not a good reason and truly points to the fact that no meaning exists in the activity.
Meaning is so vital to each and every life. We all must find meaning in life and embrace it. We all need to know our reason for being.
Have you ever wondered whether life is meaningful or meaningless?
While this is an ancient question, the answers still may not be obvious to everyone today. So what about you? When asked directly whether life is meaningful or meaningless, could you give an answer? Or how would you answer this question “Is my life meaningful?”
If it’s a quick answer but not a good answer, you may want to read on. If it’s good answer but it takes some time to explain it, you may want to read on. If you have no answer, you may need to read on.
For in this article, I will attempt to answer the questions “Is life meaningful or meaningless” and “If life is meaningful or meaningless, what would the result be?” I contend that life is meaningful and as a result, we can fulfill our destiny by actualizing our specific meaning if we choose to. This I will show by uncovering the nature of meaning through investigating the primary and secondary questions of life that we all ask ourselves. Also, I will investigate pertinent books of modern literature and the Bible to determine the competing alternative answers to the above questions and which answer is the most reasonable, attractive, and compelling.
But before we tackle these mega questions and answers, let us first consider some major life questions & the nature of meaning to help us understand the parameters of this issue and how the issue of meaning is applicable to our overall life.
Initial Framework: Life & the Nature of Meaning
The Meaning Questions of Life
Out of all the deep life questions and tough decisions that one could wrestle with throughout one’s life, the question of meaning takes center stage. Consider the following questions:
Who should I marry?
Where should I live?
Where should I go to college?
What do I want my retirement to look like?
How many kids should I have?
How much money to spend on this or that?
Well you may say, “but what about the people experiencing extreme poverty, war, genocide, rape? They would not ask these sorts of questions? They are just thinking about how to survive. I agree. So, the life question then becomes: How do I survive? This is just an obvious essential question – to which we shall now come to.
This above list of questions could be considered practical questions. Practical questions are those that are latent with meaning. That is, the practical questions are derived from meaning, not the other way around.
But the practical questions above could be more easily answered if one has answered the overarching and more essential questions of life. Here are some more essential meaning questions of life:
Where did I come from?
Why am I here?
Where am I going?
What is my purpose?
Was I made for something?
What should I do with myself?
Do I have particular talents or gifts?
Where the former set of questions spoke of actions, the latter set speak of direction. Where the former set referred to preference, the latter refer to value. Where the former imply interest, the latter imply aboutness. The former set, then, are the secondary questions, the latter are the primary questions. If one can answer the latter set, one can more easily answer the former set.
In either case, each practical and essential question infers meaning in 3 ways: direction, value, and aboutness.
First, they are questions of our lives and are not in & of themselves obviously related to meaning but they postulate a visible tangible action based on a hidden intangible direction. These questions steer our life one direction or another. Meaning is driving the question to get to a solution in a life situation. (I.e., the meaning is the horse that pulls the cart of the questions; the questions are not the horse that pulls the meaning.) A solution may be good or bad. The answers may make or break us.
Second, they are questions of value not desire. Desire is based on preference which changes as often as the tide. But value is like the root from which a plant sprouts, takes shape, and produces more life. For human beings, this deepest value is meaning. Meaning is the core value of a seed, i.e. what the plant becomes is according to its nature, according to that which it was meant to be. Its being has to do with meaning. A man’s being has to do with the root of meaning from which he comes. The questions grow from and are an indicator of this root.
Third, rather than interest, these are questions of aboutness. We all have a quality that philosophers call “aboutness”. Our lives, every one of us, is about something. There is no one born who is not about at least one thing. Aboutness is an essential “property” of the human soul. It is what sets us apart from animals. What your aboutness is, differs from the next persons. One man’s aboutness is another man’s disinterest. As we shall see, it is the aboutness that sheds light on the meaning of one’s life.
Overall and more importantly, if one understands his meaning to life, one can then understand his direction, value, and aboutness. Or vice versa, if one discovers one’s direction, value, and aboutness, one can discover one’s meaning in life. Each primary meaning question and answer yield fruit that connect the tree to the root, the energy to the generator, the life to the liver.
The Nature of Meaning
Let us now consider the meaning of meaning or the nature of meaning.
Webster’s New 20#039;; letter-spacing: 0.0px;”>th Century Dictionary (unabridged) states that meaning is “that which is intended to be, or in fact is, conveyed, denoted, signified, or understood by acts or language; the sense, signification, or import of words; significance; force. Sense, understanding, knowledge.”
Helpful, perhaps?…If not, try on another’s definition:
Dictionary.com defines meaning this way: 1. what is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated; signification; import: the three meanings of a word. 2. the end, purpose, or significance of something.
Sounds good? In an attempt to clarify further, I will offer some of my own understanding of the nature of meaning:
Epistemologically: Meaning establishes truth, grounds knowledge, and designs existence.
Metaphysically: Meaning is a form of an object’s function, duration, and even essence. Meaning’s object is an object. Meaning is reality in a moment or an indefinite amount of time. Meaning can be willed and accepted.
Causally: Meaning follows words, fluctuates in words, and contextualizes words. Meaning brightens, defines, and realizes a quality. Meaning correctly adjusts the subject to the object. Meaning is proactive rather than reactive. Meaning is empowering and liberating. Meaning is not neutral, but divisive, decisive, and demanding. Meaning creates and destroys, surrounds and protects, but cannot be destroyed.
Ethically or Aesthetically: Meaning is healthy, life giving, and bountiful. Meaning corresponds to hope and at times hopelessness, whereas meaninglessness corresponds only to hopelessness.
Let us move forward with that. Now that we have some hard definitions of meaning in mind, let us attempt to understand meaning in by some influential authors. In our review of these authors we will also attempt to determine their conclusions as to whether life is meaningful or not?
Syntopical Discussion: Is Life Meaningful or Meaningless? What is the result?
To help us answer our questions “Is life meaningful or meaningless?” and “If life is meaningful or meaningless, what would the result be?” let us consult others who have written widely on such topics. As expected, when examining great authors of modern and ancient literature, answers to these questions range dramatically across the spectrum as follows:
- Life is not meaningful and everything is meaningless;
- Life is not meaningful but freedom can be found;
- Life appears meaningless, but meaning exists only in appropriate contexts such as loving relationships;
- Life is meaningful for those who choose to create meaning;
- Life is meaningful (with or without God) because meaning just exists.
- Life is meaningful because God exists and ordained life to show His meaning.
- Life is meaningful because God exists and has created meaning for us.
These views seem to represent many of the views I have encountered in my study. Other views could exist but would fall somewhere within those breakpoints of the spectrum. While it would be difficult to address all of these views, I will attempt to examine what I think are the most important: 2, 3, 5 & 6.
Let us consider a few pertinent pieces of modern literature written during the existentialist movement & the Bible. We will examine & analyze the views of the following authors with their respective works which contribute to our discussion of our questions: Albert Camus’ view in The Stranger, Thornton Wilder’s view in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Victor Frankl’s view in Man’s Search for Meaning, Solomon’s view in Ecclesiastes, & the views of others authors of the Bible.
- Albert Camus would say that life is not meaningful rather it is meaningless, thus there is no reason for my existence which gives more freedom.
- Thornton Wilder has a different take on it: Life appears meaningless, but meaning exists in the appropriate love of relationships. But Wilder’s character, Brother Junipero, has even a different take on it: Life is meaningful because God ordained it that way to show His meaning.
- Victor Frankl: Life is meaningful and one can choose to embrace his responsibility to live with meaning.
- Solomon: Without God, life is meaningless.
- Bible: Life is meaningful because God exists and has created meaning for us to fulfill.
Albert Camus in The Stranger
The Stranger is a book written by the existentialist atheist, novelist, and playwright, Albert Camus. The protagonist, Meursault, is at the dawn of his execution for murder. He is battling ideas with a jail chaplain who comes to discuss salvation with him.
“Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time…What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers? Couldn’t he see, couldn’t he see that? Everybody was privileged…The others would all be condemned, too.”
Finally, for the first time, at the end of the book, Meursault displays emotion, erupts with aggression even, when pressed that God and the Christian worldview is more certain than life and death – than his being alive at the moment and his coming death in the next moment. Outraged he attacks the chaplain because God would also bring a concept of hope for the condemned. But hope could not change his outcome; hope could only bring more restlessness.
Although chance and will seem to be real, the only reality we know with certainty is that fate always wins. By the decisions we make, we seem to be the deciders of our destiny; however death is inevitable to all. Life continues for others after we die, but the machine of life is indifferent to the affairs of humans; the “imperturbable march of events”, leads to an end for all eventually. Therefore, our decisions don’t change the certain future; so nothing matters.
But this was not a despairing moment for Meursault, because at this point he was able to realize and embrace freedom. That early morning, before the sun rose, he emerged from his dark cell of inanimate stones a victor. Here he embraces hopelessness and indifference: “And I felt ready to live again too. As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with the signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.” For Meursault, life is better & more attractive to live in light of that existential thought. There is more freedom to live without false hope or illusory meaning.
So for Camus (through the character Mersault): Life is not meaningful and this gives more freedom.
Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Thornton Wilder wrote an excellent classic fiction novel that is apologetically relevant to the concept of meaning. The wildly acclaimed novel was one of Wilder’s first works which quickly launched him into worldwide fame. The honor & accolades he attained was well deserved as the he brilliantly described colonized Peru in the 18th century. You can’t help believing that he was there living and observing the people and events of the account first hand. (Apparently, this book was made into a film in 2004 starring Robert Di Niro and Kathy Bates. I have not seen it as of the time of this writing.)
The plot is basically that a lofty rope bridge spanning over a gorge collapsed and 5 people died. This so bewildered and troubled the people of Lima that they never forgot it.
Why those 5 on that particular day? What pattern or commonality seen in those 5 lives that could make sense and show some sort of meaning for such a meaningless tragedy? As Wilder puts it, “Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.” For Wilder, regardless of divine intention being ill or good, it is “either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.”
But, it so happened that a Franciscan monk, Brother Junipero, coincidentally was there to witness the catastrophe. He ventured to discover the meaning behind why the bridge which “seemed to be among the things that last forever…should break.” He set out to prove that God intended these 5 to go at that time and place according to God’s plan and demonstration of wisdom. That pain was inserted for their own good. This event would prove to converts God’s divine providence and direction as 5 lives were bound by 1 fate; that these 5 were “a perfect whole.” He had always wanted to show that theology is pertinent just as the other “exact sciences” so that man could know with certainty God’s meaning for life’s circumstances. For Junipero, “people were always looking for good sound proofs; doubt springs eternal in the human breast, even in countries where the Inquisition can read your very thoughts in your eyes.”
Junipero’s research led him to the conclusion that the good of the 5 were taken early to Heaven and the wicked were visited with destruction. In the collapse of the bridge, pride and wealth were exposed as sin and the virtue of humility was crowned. It appears that the meaning of the bridges collapse was connected to the exemplification of the unhealthy love as a preliminary form of perfect love in some of the characters. Thus, due to divine intention to end misery and honor the honorable based on this pattern found in the victims, the bridge collapsed.
However, this is not proven or provable. But, the view of Brother Junipero remained the same: Life is meaningful because God ordained it that way to show His meaning. Life without meaning is as meaningless as a bridge without a gorge. The bridge existed for the gorge and the ultimate purpose of the bridge’s collapse only becomes apparent in light of their lives and God’s intervention. Junipero was later burned at the stake as a heretic for this conclusion.
But the author Wilder draws his own conclusions. Correlation does not imply causation. But more importantly, divine intention as a conclusion from such induction ought not to be even considered more than speculation. So what was the meaning for the bridge’s collapse?
Wilder concurs that there was a central pattern in the lives of the victims, it was the central passion of love. The characters were shown to experience the longings and shortcomings of their imperfect and unhealthy love for others. He elaborates:
“…[they] had never realized any love save love as passion. Such love, though it expends itself in generosity and thoughtfulness, though it give birth to visions and great poetry, remains among the sharpest expressions of self-interest…Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
These lives had exterior circumstances that thwarted any purer love within, such that selfishness emerged stronger. Love was essential to their lives, but their love was uncontrolled and dangerous. Their love, Wilder gathers, is what they were remembered for and meant for. It gave their life meaning.
Other commentators on the book elaborate on Wilder this way: “Those who remain alive as well as those who die on the bridge suffer through the preliminary stages of love until they reach an enlightenment that brings the full knowledge and reward of love…We can never be assured of Divine Intention in every movement on earth, but the bridge of love that connects one another gives dignity and purpose to the lowliest of lives.”
With that said, we can conclude this coincidence of their love was not the reason for the bridges collapse. The bridges collapse seemed to show some divine connection but in reality no connection existed. So for Wilder, the cause of the collapse is unknown, however, the result of the collapse was 2 fold: that brother Junipero’s solution led to his death by the religious authority and that meaning becomes apparent and exists in appropriate loving relationships.
Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning
About 70 years ago a prominent Jewish psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, was imprisoned in Auschwitz, Germany. He endured the mental, emotional, and physical suffering of the concentration camp during the peak of the Holocaust and WWII. As he watched countless comrades and loved ones tortured, gassed, and humiliated like swine, he sought to understand the meaning of it all. His international groundbreaking book on logotherapy describes the disgustingly hellish conditions he survived through and his revolutionary psychological framework of meaning that developed out of it. The book is titled “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
In his book, Frankl develops the main points of his “logotherapy” from the observations he made in the camp. When “inmates” were about to suffer, he observed their attitude. He writes
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death…The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails…gives him ample opportunity to add deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, undignified and unselfish. In the bitter fight for self preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal…And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
Frankl goes on to describe how fellow inmates needed a future reason to live for. Someone or something outside of themselves to make it through the suffering for. It could have been a career, like speech pathology, or a daughter or son. Whatever it was, it was their “future goal.” He quotes Nietzsche who says “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” For those who could not find this future goal, he writes, “life for such people became meaningless.”
To try to explain or express Frankl’s words would be an injustice as he is so direct in his own teaching. So I will provide some quotes to simply show off his take on our meaning:
- “They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.”
- “We were not hoping for happiness-it was not that which gave us courage and gave meaning to our suffering, our sacrifices and our dying. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.”
- “Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future.”
- “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
- “When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitudes. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.”
- “According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in 3 different ways, 1) by creating a work or doing a deed; 2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
- “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
- “We had to learn ourselves and furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life-daily and hourly…”
What does “life expect from us?” In these passages, he is clear that there is a future purpose to which we are called to live for. Frankl urged his fellow inmates to live on in spite of the inhumane and grotesque treatment. Frankl is calling his readers to realize the existential vacuum, distress, and despair and fulfill a meaning, closing the “gap between what one is and what one should become.”
Why? Because person is needed in this world to do the thing and be the person that only they could do and be. Each and every one of us can fulfill the role only given to us. No one can live in my shoes and be the brother, friend, son, father, writer, thinker, creator, artist, player, evangelist, engineer, etc. Only I can do that and be that. No one can take my place. If I don’t do and be, it won’t get done and relationships would be left wanting.
So for Victor Frankl, life is meaningful and one can choose to embrace his responsibility to live with meaning.
Solomon in Ecclesiastes
Ecclesiastes 1 is a powerful piece of ancient writing. It was scribed around 1000 B.C. by King Solomon of Israel. Known in his time, for his wisdom and favor from the Lord of Israel, Solomon governed Israel into its golden age. After many years of building, peace, and prosperity, Solomon penned 3 canonical books of the Old Testament, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Let us take a peak at Ecclesiastes chapter 1 to see just how this ancient mind arrived at his view.
“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun? One generation goeth, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to its place where it ariseth. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it turneth about continually in its course, and the wind returneth again to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again. All things are full of weariness; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun…I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. That which is crooked cannot be made straight; and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I have gotten me great wisdom above all that were before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart hath had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow…Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do; and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.”
In this passage Solomon is pretty aware that things aren’t as great as they seem. After living life with so much fame, fortune, education, blessing, and favorable relationships, Solomon laments here that its all vanity, meaningless, and worthless. To help explain Solomon, St. Augustine (a great theologian in church history) used this analogy: It is like God is the sun and when we run away from him we run into our own shadow. This is the perspective of Solomon, as he is not looking at things in the light of God. Thus, he sees things in darkness and concludes life is meaningless.
There have been many times where I have felt like Solomon. I have had to really search God out in my moments of meaninglessness – many times, I might add, to no avail. But answers in the hear and now are often times hard to come by, especially in times of immense emotional pain and sorrow. Perhaps the vanity of the pain is the worse part about the time going through it. But God is not scared of pain like we are. As C.S. Lewis ensures in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” This is for sure. Pain is the ultimate wake up call. The questions are always, to what or to whom caused this and to where or to whom do we look for answers?
For Solomon, only bad answers can be found without God. For without God, every activity, pursuit, achievement, gain, advancement, and all of life is meaningless.
Throughout the Bible, the teaching is clear, that life is meaningful because God exists and has created a divine way for each life to embrace the meaning He gave. We are designed and created for a purpose. Even in what seems to be meaninglessness, there is meaning – which may never be discovered or may not be discovered till a later time. God created meaning. This world is full of meaning because God exists. There is meaning to my existence.
Let us examine briefly some passages that teach this.
- “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” (Psalm 139:13-16)
- “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
- “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
- “Ye did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that ye should go and bear fruit.” (John 15:16)
Rick Warren would sum up the Bible’s view on life this way Purpose #1: You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure (Worship); Purpose #2: You Were Formed for God’s Family (Fellowship); Purpose #3: You Were Created to Become Like Christ (Discipleship); Purpose #4: You Were Shaped for Serving God (Ministry); Purpose #5: You Were Made for a Mission (Mission).
Thus, for the other authors of the Bible, life is meaningful because God exists and has created a meaning for us to fulfill.
Evaluation & Implication:
Lets repeat for clarity the alternative views:
- Life is not meaningful rather it is meaningless, thus there is no reason for my existence which gives more freedom.
- Life appears meaningless, but meaning exists in the appropriate love of relationships. But Wilder’s character, Brother Junipero, has even a different take on it: Life is meaningful because God ordained it that way to show His meaning.
- Life is meaningful and one can choose to embrace his responsibility to live with meaning.
- Without God, life is meaningless.
- Life is meaningful because God exists and has created meaning for us to fulfill.
From these points of view it is possible to gather the following results:
- If life is meaningful, there is a reason for my existence.
- If life is meaningless, there is no reason for my existence.
- If meaning can be created in life, there is a reason for my existence.
- If meaning cannot be created in life, there is no reason for my existence.
Which implication is the most difficult to embrace? Which implication is the most absurd?
Obviously, the conclusion that “there is no reason for my existence” is absurd. Who can live like that and function in reality? There is no practical way one could live life with the conclusion that there is no reason for my existence. If you would disagree, I would respectfully dare you to try to live like there is no reason for your existence. Surely, this would quickly lead to depression or chaos.
Let’s think just how troublesome meaningless sounds. C.S. Lewis provides an enlightening example of chess in The Problem of Pain. Lewis describes a game with one player playing by the rules and another making them up as he goes. Every change of turn only breeds more randomness and chaos. Well, meaningless is like we are playing in the game of life but there are no rules. So, chaos is our sole reality and there is no way to win the game.
And if I considered meaninglessness, I could easily think of the endless sea of needy humanity in developing countries, there is a temptation to think that all the efforts of NGO’s, non-profits, ministries, and churches amount to just a drop in the ocean. After looking at all of the horrible needs of this world, it would be only human to think “What can we do? How can we make a difference in a world of such massive and brutal injustice?”(Gary Haugen, Good News About Injustice) And in the end I could empathize with Solomon when he said that all was meaningless. Such a hopeless view.
So how mankind finds a sense of meaning in meaninglessness is amazing and bizarre. Let’s continue to consider the existential view at its best before moving on: Camus says elsewhere, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Mankind is ultimately negotiating his way through a complicated history towards a meaningful existence. Man wants more than the bare earth and sky. He wants to explore. So man tends to get creative and build. Societies, cultures, infrastructure, and development begins. Man is in control of his own fate. Man creates meaning for his being. But out of this nothingness and lostness, man creates something and goes somewhere. Existential hope emerges. There can be courage to live another day.
But I am not so sure that this struggle and progress is that fulfilling in and of itself. Rather it seems struggle and progress with a purpose would be preferable.
While the humanistic existential view is somewhat attractive, at its best, the issue comes down to this: who is the source of meaning? Man or God? For as Nancy Pearcy writes in Total Truth, “Every system of thought begins with some ultimate principle. If it does not begin with God, it will begin with some dimension of creation – the material, the spiritual, the biological, the empirical or whatever.” What we “find” as the source of meaning, determines how we view our meaning.
The Christian view contends that God, not man, is the source of the meaning, general and specific. God is the creator of general objective meaning, that is, the universal meaning. Also, God is the creator of specific meaning for each and every one of our lives.
The Christian view is preferable and makes the most sense when one considers the nature of the universal concept of meaning. I would refer the reader back to that section and contemplate meaning in light of man creating it. Perhaps you could see, as I have, the impossibility not in creating just specific meaning in a setting or culture or about a thing, but in creating the universal concept of meaning itself – the very concept, entity, notion of meaning itself. It seems only God could be the source of such a thing. This leads to the following lines of thought in the Christian view:
- Man searches for meaning because he is a purpose driven creature.
- Nothing exists on earth that can ultimately fulfill his search for meaning.
- But man has not found the answer and continues to search and this points to a deeper meaning.
- There exists something outside of space, time, and other creatures that can satisfy the deepest search of meaning.
- That something is God.
In other words, the universal concept of meaning is grounded in God, and from there all meaning is rooted. That is, God is the source of all general meaning from which all specific meaning flows.
With this in mind, let us consider and compare Frankl’s view with the Biblical one. Frankl and the Bible both contend that there is a meaning to be fulfilled by each and every one of us, specific meaning. This is such an enlightening and hopeful view that highly encourages me. My efforts or lack thereof, my love or lack thereof, my passion or lack thereof, affect this world in positive or negative ways. What I do and who I am counts in this world. The decisions I make matter. The principles and priorities I have matter. Every day I am on a mission to do the things and become the person only I can be to the world.
Also, Frankl and the Bible agree in terms of the sufferings we endure in this life. There is a future purpose of our lives and all of time that we can all choose to embrace. This future experience will make sense of our meaningless sufferings in the here and now. For the Christian the suffering is permitted by God for the building and sharpening of our faith and character so that we can enter the afterlife bringing the most glory to God possible. God and His people, including ourselves, will marvel at the work He has done in our lives, showing off His endless grace and mercy toward us. For Frankl, life itself is the creator of meaning, rather than God. That is, meaning just exists in this world and we ourselves actualize our own specific meaning.
Frankl has a lot right and almost hit the nail on the head, except that his view that life is the source of the specific meaning of a life is incoherent and too abstract. How could life be the source of meaning? It would have to be pre-existing. Could life itself be the pre-existing source? Well if one deems this possible, I would recommend that he would encounter Aristotle. As this would lead to an infinite regress which ought to be rejected in light of Aristotle’s First Cause principle that every effect must have a cause. Thus, life as the source of meaning ought to be rejected. Unless, “life” itself was in fact an all-powerful, un-beginning, First Cause deity.
Alternatively, the Bible shows that God is the source of meaning. Man was created by God to fulfill a specific purpose and destiny he designed us and only us for. Now this is not to say that man cannot fulfill a different purpose and destiny. Man can choose any life path he wants. However, God created and designed us to do and be specific things and people. In the end, each and every one of us can contribute to His general purpose and plan for the entire Universe by choosing His specific purpose and plan for our lives.
Additionally, the Bible teaches that man is made in the image of God thus we can be creative with God. He can participate in the redeeming all of Creation back to God with the specific artistic talent, ingenuity, and care that He has instilled within us. We can design and create beautiful, purposeful, and meaningful things, places, and events just as He does. This includes past pains. Life can be restored to its original beauty, purpose, and meaning with God. It’s never too late with God, for “He has made everything beautiful in its time, He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Solomon in Ecclesiastes)
So, like Frankl, the biblical authors agree – that there is a meaning for each and every one of us to actualize – but the only difference is in Frankl’s view the source of meaning is mistakenly placed.
Overall, it seems clear from our investigations into the nature of meaning and the pertinent books of modern literature and the Bible that the most reasonable, attractive, and compelling view to hold is that life is meaningful and as a result, we can fulfill our destiny by actualizing our specific meaning if we choose to. Whereas the alternative worldviews advocate a lesser form of meaning or no meaning at all. Therefore, they are less reasonable, attractive, and compelling. So we are left with a very rational result: that there is reason for my existence. This implication, can easily be reached just by acknowledging that God exists.
Furthermore, life is so much more meaningful because God exists than in any other view. God’s being is the truest source of being to which we were made in the image of and from. For His existence is the pre-existing source of all existence. So, our meaning is derived from our being which is derived from His purest form. As Solomon later says, “To the man who pleases Him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and happiness.”
In light of this, the Christian worldview seems the most favorable view to adopt because it makes sense of all of reality as a whole – bringing the most meaning to everything – including our nature. It seems to provide for our nature to align with the true nature of being as uncovered above. Based on that, the Christian worldview corresponds to the most meaningful existence one can have.
Recommendation & Inspiration
God has created you for a purpose and wants to fill your life with great joy in pursuing what he has designed you to do. So I invite you to lay your life down for His will, throw yourself into the divine destiny He has for you, and become the being He designed and created you to be.
Life may feel very meaningless right now for many Christians and non-Christians. Perhaps you the reader are in a place of meaninglessness and don’t have any sense of direction, value, and aboutness. Maybe you are experiencing chaos and absurdity. My word for you echoes that of Brennan Manning in his heart touching book Abba’s Child, “With infinite patience He (will illuminate) the meaning of life and refreshed the weariness of (your) defeated days.”
May I invite you to refresh yourself in the spring of purpose. Jesus said “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) First, by encountering our Creator himself we can begin to fulfill our purpose. Augustine sums it up well when he said that “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” That would be the place to start. The second step I would offer is to adopt the famous Westminster Catechism (1647) which states that the chief end of man is “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” I doubt you can go wrong with these steps.
With this passage in Ephesians 1:4-12 I leave you to actualize your meaning:
“Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him, in love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.”