It’s been a long while since I last wrote an update. To be honest, it has just been a really crazy year. I wrote a bit about it in my last post and we started a separate website to post personal updates about our family. Let’s just say that for at least for a season, my focus in writing has been somewhere else, together with basically the rest of our lives. Now at least the rhythm of our lives are slowly returning to relatively normal, I’m hoping writing becomes part of my rhythm again.
So on that note: every November, for some reason, we tackle big topics in our church. In the past, we have talked about the Science & Faith topic, suffering, mental health and much more. This year, the topic of Meaning was chosen and a series was planned. If you are interested, you can find my message on Youtube by clicking here. If you are not sure yet whether you want to commit 35-40 minutes of your time, you can find a shorter version of my thoughts below here.
What is your meaning?
First, I understand that there are many different worldviews that answer this question differently. If you ask 100 people about the meaning of life, you might get 100 different answers. And zooming in to the question of your personal life, it might get even more complicated. I mean, for millennia, different schools of philosophy have tried to answer this question. To prepare for this message, I got distracted and started to read about different schools, from Plato to Stoicism to Existentialism and Postmodernism. It’s so easy to get lost in all the different ways of looking at the world. And no wonder, it’s a huge question.
Apparently, having a meaning or a purpose has a very positive impact both on physical and mental wellbeing. A recent study showed that having meaning in life apparently leads to a lower likelihood of Alzheimers, a lower likelihood of heart attack and possibly, increased longevity. The NHS even has a five-step program that should help people in their mental well-being. One of Nietzsche’s famous quotes is “He who has a why can bear almost any how” (yes he has more famous quotes).
So the question of meaning is more than just an abstract question that you should ponder on whilst looking at a clear sky full of stars or at a campfire (that is how I picture asking the big questions in life).
The Christian worldview and its answer to the question of meaning is in sharp contrast with some of the currently more popular worldviews, such as Postmodernism. In fact, it’s hard to emphasize how different they are.
Meaning is not made up
Starting with this: according to the Christian worldview, we all have meaning. Your life has meaning, it has a purpose. And it is not something that is made up. It also isn’t something you assign to yourself. It also isn’t something that is deeply hidden in your inner being. It also doesn’t require backpacking in New Zealand or Costa Rica to discover.
In some sense, we are all born without knowing who we are, why we are here, and where we are going. But according to a Christian worldview, the answers to these questions can be found in God.
Meaning comes from the Maker
Intan and I love our Dyson. It is just such a well-designed vacuum cleaner. It is light, looks good and we can see exactly what we just vacuumed. So we can see precisely how dusty and dirty our house was. A lot of thought went into the design of the product. It has a clear purpose. You see where I am going with this.
Of course, it’s a simplistic comparison. Humans are not mechanical beings and are infinitely more complex. According to Genesis 1, humans are created in the image of God, with the purpose of being fruitful, multiplying, and subduing the earth and having dominion over it.
This scripture, together with Matthew 28, is sometimes called ‘the cultural mandate’. Fill the earth, but also bring culture to it by making disciples. We are called to bring the culture of heaven to earth. Now what that means precisely can differ from person to person and possibly from season to season.
The story of the Bible beings in a garden, but God always had more in mind. In Judaism, a transformation story was anticipated. We were supposed to prepare the physical world for the world that is to come. In the same sense, God made us to be more than gardeners. John Mark Comer describes some of this transformation in his book Garden City.
Meaning has layers
I think you can compare meaning with an onion. In the sense that meaning has layers, not in the sense that it will make you cry when you start to work on it (it might though).
The Westminster catechism describes the ‘chief end of man’ as ‘to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.’ That can be an overarching purpose for all mankind, but it’s still pretty abstract. It’s also unclear how it applies to us on a personal level. I think many of us have an understanding of how we can enjoy God – by being in His presence – but then forever.
What is the chief end of man?
It is to glorify God and to enjoy Him foreverWestminster catechism, first question
But what does it exactly mean to glorify God? Definitions as “acknowledging His greatness” and “giving Him the worship He deserves” can be found. Romans 12:1 indicates our worship entails all of ourselves. In Colossians 3 Paul encourages us to consider whatever we do as work for the Lord. Worship is more than songs or Sunday service, it can be everything we do. But it often is not everything we do. John Mark Comer describes worship as “an entire life, oriented around wonder and awe at the nature of God”. This really brings up a question if we reflect on our lives: can I really consider my life as worship to God?
Worship is an entire life oriented around wonder and awe at the nature of GodJohn Mark Comer
Can we really consider our lives as worship to God?
Meaning has a process
I think that we sometimes underestimate the process of discovering our meaning. The existentialist Søren Kierkegaard once said ‘life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.’ Whilst it is great when we know our purpose and I am, like any coach, a fan of ‘Start with Why‘ which is empowering, we can only see and understand how it really has meant in retrospect.
Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwardsSøren Kierkegaard
One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of Joseph. He thought he discovered his purpose in two God-given dreams, where he saw his family bow down to him. He thought his purpose was to reign. What followed, was not a straightforward journey to see his dreams materialize, but rather a difficult life with many challenges. At times in his life, he must have wondered whether any of it would still happen. At the end of his life, he understood that it was never his purpose to reign, but that his position was necessary for him to save his people from starvation. His meaning at a deeper level than serving God could only be understood at the end.
Jesus tells his disciples that if anyone wants to follow Him, they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Him. In the same passage, he says that whoever saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for His sake, will find it. When we are concerned with our meaning, we need to look to Jesus and not to ourselves. Our doctrine doesn’t teach us that we will find our answers within, but we find them in God.
Finding our meaning is a process because chooses to do his work in processes. And he loves including us in His processes. In Mark 4, we can read about how the Kingdom works: a sower sows seed. Note that it does not describe a gardener planting trees. God often does not give us the final product, but rather the raw materials and invites us to use our creative capabilities to work with Him towards a final product. So why would God give us our meaning at the start? I think he prefers to start with raw materials like passions, interests, and circumstances. And from there, the process can begin.
Meaning has a place
I mean this in two different ways. First, meaning has a place in terms of people. God’s meaning for his people was always community. One of the largest differences between Christianity and other the other Abrahamic religions (and most other religions) is that God in Himself is community. God is three-in-one. Christians believe love does not exist outside of relationships – and God is love. God is never outside of community. I am convinced therefore that we find our meaning in community. It’s pivotal to be a part of community, to talk to the people around us and to pray together.
Second, meaning has a place in terms of priority. Give me a moment to explain. Meaning is not always, or maybe almost never, revealed when we want it to. Joseph is an example of someone who only understood his meaning afterwards. But for many people their meaning might only really be revealed after their life is over.
Take Ignaz Semmelweis. He was a Hungarian physicist who lived mid-1800s in the Austrian empire. He is now called ‘saviour of mothers’, which is a pretty amazing title if you ask me. Semmelweis discovered a relation between handwashing and childbed fever, which was often fatal for mothers who just delivered their babies. Semmelweis discovered that many doctors worked on cadavers for research before delivering babies. Key detail: not every doctor washed their hands before delivery. Semmelweis discovered in these cases, mortality was three times higher. You would think his discovery would applauded and policies would change, but they didn’t. If anything, there was outrage in the local medical community: how dare he insinuate that the doctors were the reason for these deaths!
Eventually, Semmelweis had a mental breakdown, was admitted to an asylum and died two weeks later after being beaten. Only years later, his discoveries were accepted and put into practice. His discovery, combined with discoveries by scientists like Pasteur and Lister, saved many mothers’ lives.
We won’t always understand the meaning of our lives or the seasons that we are in. And that is not always the most important. Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl wrote after surviving Auschwitz that “Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.. to life he can only respond by being responsible”.
In some sense, the question of meaning can be paralyzing. I have seen people that didn’t know what to do with their life because they didn’t know their meaning.
Sometimes, the question can add to pain as we want to understand the meaning in our suffering. But the goal is not always to understand the meaning of what we are going through, especially not whilst we are going through it. Ironically, it may be more meaningful to live through these seasons well than to understand the meaning in these seasons itself.
In Psalm 57, the psalmist cries out to God, who fulfills His (God’s) purpose for him (the psalmist). We can take comfort in the fact that God knows our meaning, even if we don’t. And that He is at least just as interested as us in fulfilling our purpose.
Moreover, understanding our meaning is not our highest priority. As Christians, we don’t stand on our understanding of our meaning, but on the cross and the empty grave, on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We can take comfort in the fact that even when we don’t know our meaning, God knows
As Christians, we don’t stand on our understanding of our meaning, but on the cross and the empty grace, on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ
Meaning is found in a person
That brings us to the person. This might be a bit of a reiteration of the first point, but it’s not completely. Colossians 1 shows that Jesus is the focal point creation. If he is that, he must also be the focal point of our purpose.
As a follower of Christ, I believe that by living with Him and for Him, is will discover my purpose step by step.
As a follower of Christ, I believe that making myself available for Him is a first step in discovering my meaning.
As a follower of Christ, I believe that even if I never discover my meaning, my life will have been far from meaningless.