I want to live a meaningful life, and I think you do as well. And (no surprise!) I think that the truly meaningful life is found in the life of the Christian believer. The best life is the meaningful life, and the most abundantly meaningful life is the life of faith. But why is that true? What is it about the Christian faith that makes a meaningful life possible?
Aspects of a Meaningful Life
The meaningful life is one that is significant, that matters, that contributes to a larger purpose. One thing that makes life significant is how our actions relate to our sense of right and wrong. We would like to believe that there is an “oughtness” to things. There is right, and there is wrong. And we can find meaning in doing the right thing. To treat people well is satisfying. To pursue goals that are not corrupt and evil is satisfying. Without a sense of right and wrong, our actions seem arbitrary and insignificant. And if we violate our sense of right and wrong, then we are ashamed of ourselves. Actions that are arbitrary or shameful feel meaningless. Actions that are upright feel meaningful.
Similarly, we also see our actions as significant if we are increasing the number of beneficial things in the world. We find it meaningful to promote health, contentment, learning, peace of mind, and so on. Meaning and flourishing are related to each other. We would like to believe that it is possible to flourish and that our actions can contribute to that flourishing for ourselves and for others. If we feel that nothing beneficial can be found, and that nothing we do can benefits ourselves or others, life feels meaningless. Actions that are futile or harmful feel meaningless. Actions that are beneficial feel meaningful.
We also find meaning from relationship. We want to think that we matter to others and that others matter to us. If we were gone, we would be missed. And ideally, on the biggest scale, we would like to think that the universe is not impersonal and indifferent to us. It is very hard to find meaning if we feel completely alone. To be alone and uncared for feels meaningless. To be loved and loving feels meaningful.
We also judge how meaningful a situation is by its outcome. Ultimately, meaning comes not just from what we are doing at the moment but from what we are pursuing, the goal that drives us. Hope is a hugely important contributor to meaning, even in the midst of suffering. Think, for example, of someone working for Habitat for Humanity. A group of people come together to build a house for someone who has no home. The people are working hard. They are hot. They are tired. They are sore. But they are working toward a goal that they believe in. The thought of that goal gives meaning to every aching muscle. We can live with a great deal of suffering if we believe that it is purposeful, if we believe that the suffering is taking us somewhere worthwhile. Actions that are purposeless and pointless seem meaningless. Actions that are purposeful and hopeful feel meaningful.
We also find it meaningful to think that we ourselves have capacities and qualities that are worthwhile, that make us significant. We can think, we can create, we can understand, we can solve problems, we can be funny. Each individual has a unique set of qualities that makes that person interesting. We rightly see our individual characteristics as a gift. To have a role to play enriches our lives. We find meaning in believing that we can make a unique contribution to the world. To be inconsequential and dispensable feels meaningless. To make a unique contribution feels meaningful.
I am sure much more could be said, but let me stop here. We will feel that we have truly meaningful lives if we are upright and without shame, if we benefit ourselves and others, if we give and receive love, if we can work hopefully toward a desirable outcome, and if we can make a unique personal contribution to the world.
The Bible on the Human Situation
The Bible has much to say about the human situation and how that relates to the possibility of a meaningful life. Genesis tells us that God created human beings to be stewards over the rest of creation. And it is in that context that we are told God made men and women in His image. God made us like Himself so that He could delegate responsibility over creation to us. Lots of animals are bigger and more powerful than we are. But God did not give dominion over creation to the grizzly bear or the tiger. He gave it to human beings made in His image. Many things contribute to our being in God’s image, but the most fundamentally important is that we can understand right and wrong and then make decisions based on that understanding. God has qualities like goodness, generosity, justice, and we have the capacity to have such qualities as well. And we can bring those qualities to bear as we exercise our stewardship over creation.
So, before we even get out of the first two chapters of Genesis, we have a lot to think about when it comes to a meaningful life. Human beings have a relationship with their creator and with other human beings also made in God’s image. We have qualities that make us truly significant. That is, we have the qualities of God Himself. It is so significant that we are made in God’s image that one of the first commandments given is that we must not murder each other. We can kill and eat a lamb, but we cannot kill another human being. And what is the reason given? The other person is in the image of God. We also have meaningful work as stewards over creation. We can work toward a meaningful goal. We can judge our actions by God’s standards of right and wrong and do what is right. We can choose to do those things that bring goodness and health and flourishing to the world. We can make things better. All of this brings great meaning to human life.
But, of course, we have to turn the page from Genesis chapter two to Genesis chapter three. There we read of the rebellion of humanity and the reality of sin and death, the two great tragedies of humanity. First of all, we are morally corrupt. We ought to love our creator with all our being, but instead we turn away from Him. We ought to love our neighbors with the same care that we show for ourselves, but we are selfish instead. And that moral corruption has led God to condemn us. Our end is death and rejection by God. And so, in a very real sense, we have lost the ability to find true, lasting meaning in life. We cannot find meaning by expressing through our actions the image of God in ourselves because that image is stained and degraded. And we cannot find meaning by working hopefully for a desirable goal because the greatest goal is to sustain and improve life, and instead we die.
Now we come to one of the great themes of the Bible: God is our rescuer. We need rescuing from the two tragedies of human life: sin and death. And essentially, that is the story that the rest of the Bible goes on to tell. We need God’s mercy, so we can escape the judgment that we so richly deserve. And that mercy, in turn, will lead to restoration, rescue from the death and moral corruption that robs life of meaning. Ultimately, the biblical story of God’s mercy and redemption culminates in the promise of the Messiah. The Messiah will give His life as an offering for our sins. The Messiah will conquer sin and death, ruling in righteousness forever. And so we see that the supreme goal of each person must be to receive God’s mercy and find life and restoration under the promised Messiah.
Life in This Age
Clearly then, life in the age to come, life in the Kingdom of God, will be a life filled with meaning. With death gone and the image of God fully manifested in us, we will live without shame, we will benefit everyone, we will give and receive love, we will have truly desirable goals, and we will express our God-given individuality perfectly. The question we are left with, however, is what about now? Does the life of faith contribute to a meaningful life now, in this age?
The answer is yes, absolutely. Remember, the key to the ultimately meaningful life is finding mercy and restoration from God. But who is it that receives this mercy and restoration? I would describe the Bible’s answer in this way: Mercy and restoration come to the one who says from the heart, “God, tell me the truth, and I will strive to believe You and to live in the light of that belief. God, tell me the truth about my sin, Your mercy, Your promises, what is right and wrong, and anything else You want to tell me. Tell me, and I will seek to believe You and live as if it were true.” And so it is in pursuit of this kind of life, the life of faith, that today, in this age, the opportunities for a meaningful life are found.
Today, sin makes it impossible for us to escape a sense of shame. But believers can pursue one supremely right thing: we can believe God and seek to live in the light of that belief. We can believe the gospel. We can confess our sins. We can repent. We can live our lives in the light of God’s promises. Even though we are sinners, we can have the great satisfaction that comes from doing what God says is right: to humbly believe Him.
Today, sin and death degrade all the possible benefits we might bring to the world. But believers can pursue one supremely beneficial thing: We can proclaim the truths of God and encourage each other to believe them and find life. The greatest gift we can give each other is to clarify what is true and important and urge each other to pursue that truth.
Today, all our relationships are corroded with sin. But God has given believers eternally unbreakable relationships. We have relationship now with the God who works all things for our good and opens the door when we knock. And we have eternally significant relationship with our fellow believers, those who share our faith and our hope and our destiny.
Today, all our hopes are ultimately nullified by death. But believers have a hope and a goal that will not disappoint. We can seek, through the life of faith, to find our citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
Today, our individuality is stained with our own evil. But each believer has the opportunity to contribute to the everlasting work of God. We can comfort others, we can teach, we can tell the meaningful story about our own struggle to believe. In the eyes of the world, we may seem unimportant, but in the drama of faith, we each have a crucial role to play.
The life of faith is the only truly meaningful life because it alone partakes of the eternal. Believers will enter into eternal life in the age to come, and there they will have a completely meaningful existence throughout eternity. But now, today, is the time when we make the choices about whether we will submit to the truth and pursue it in our lives. To believe God is profoundly right; to encourage faith in ourselves and others is profoundly beneficial; to know God and our fellow believers is a profoundly meaningful relationship; to strive in hope to enter the kingdom of God is profoundly desirable; to express our individual lives of faith in the world is a profoundly important contribution. So where is the meaningful life to be found? In this age and the next, the truly meaningful life is found in the promises of God.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.