What is the meaning of life? This is a question that man has been trying to answer as long as man has been around. If the meaning of life hasn’t been sought after since the beginning, it has been since shortly after the beginning.
Writers, poets, philosophers, and thinkers, have tormented their minds and anguished over its answer. Politicians have focused their campaigns, elections and their term in office around trying to answer that question for those that elected them. Artists have written songs, painted portraits, and created poems in an attempt to answer it. Wars have been waged, yes, wars, in an effort to find the meaning of life.
Why, you might ask, would nations go to war over the answer to that question? How does that come about? For some, money, power, influence, acquisition of material goods, acclaim, reputation, significance, and a host of other goals have been seen by men and women through the centuries as the chief end to a person’s existence. And while some of these goals are admirable and some are not, they have driven the lives of people. Unfortunately, sometimes this has come at the expense of the health, welfare, and security of others and ended in dreadful acts in order to control, manipulate and destroy those who might stand in opposition to them.
But, with all of that effort, human energy and creativity, we still have yet to generate a sufficient answer to that question which can provide rest and a sense of adequacy to the human heart. In this sense, the term human heart reflects a person’s nature, their being and sense of what it means to be a person.
In truth, everyone has an idea of what the meaning of life would be. For the child, it would be obtaining the love of a parent and later to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. For the teen, it will be what college they are to attend, who their future mate will be. For the adult, it can be how to help their children to grow up to be responsible and productive members of society; and at the same time, how to work out a career and retire. For the retiree, it may be what they will do to fill the hours of the day.
To find the answer to the meaning of life, we first must find out what we mean by the question in the first place. When considering the question “what is the meaning of life?”, I’ll turn to one of my own favorite movies. While it has garnered some criticism over the years, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” broaches this great question when Spock shares an experience with the alien “V-GER”. He suggests that even an alien intelligence is asking the question “what is the meaning of life?” Spock points out that V-GER is seeking meaning by asking, “Why am I here? is there nothing more?” In the human situation we would add, what happens when I die.
No matter the effort, thought, or production of the human mind and heart, there still seems to be no concrete answer provided to this question through purely human wisdom.
However, Christianity has sought to answer this question, not through human wisdom and experience, but by turning to a source outside of humanity. This source has revealed Himself to humanity in a variety of ways, at a variety of times, and with a variety of purposes in the revelation. These are recorded for us in the pages of the Christian Scriptures, commonly referred to as the Bible. The Bible, or biblios as it is referred to in Latin, are a collection of 66 letters and books developed over the span of several thousand years, by at least 39 authors. In them, the God of the universe is shown to be the Creator of the universe and of the humanity that now resides upon the earth.
According to the Bible, God has created the universe, as well as humanity for His glory: "...everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made." (Isa 43:7 ESV)
The Westminster Shorter Catechism, a collection of questions and answers that expresses Biblical teaching in various areas of life says in the very first question and answer:
Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.
According to the Bible, our purpose (the reason we are here) is for God's glory. In other words, our purpose is to praise God, worship Him, to proclaim His greatness, and to accomplish His will. This is what glorifies Him. Therefore, in this we find that God has given us a reason for our existence--a meaning for our existence. We were created by Him, according to His desire, and our lives are to be lived for Him so that we might accomplish what He has for us to do. When we trust the One who has made us, who works all things after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11), then we are able to live a life of purpose. How the particulars of that purpose are expressed is up to the individual.
But what about pain and suffering…Is there purpose in trials?
What if our lives are difficult and things go wrong? Are our failures and hardships for the glory of God, too? Yes, they are. We often thank God and praise His name when things go well, but we often turn our backs on Him and complain when things are difficult. Sometimes our appreciation and trust in God becomes conditioned on how well things are going for us. Ultimately, this is self-centered immaturity. Even though things can go wrong in our lives, the ultimate reason we are here is to glorify God--even through the difficulties. We do this by praising Him and trusting Him through difficult times.
Within this attempt to glorify God--in all things--we can then determine the particular meaning of our life that God has for us specifically. In Christianity, we are free to pursue God in all areas of our lives. For example, we are free to glorify God by being a doctor, a lawyer, a mechanic, a housewife, a father, a mother, a minister, an accountant, etc. If the ultimate goal in life is to bring glory to God, then we can do that by being the best we can be at what we do in the various callings of life. So, as the Bible says, " . . . whatever you do, do all to the glory of God," (1 Cor. 10:31).
But, what if I want to determine my own purpose?
There are those who will not like this. There are those who will deny that God has made us. These individuals want to determine their own purpose. They must decide for themselves what is meaningful to them. They want their independence. They want to proclaim what is good and bad in their own hearts and determine their purpose based on their desires. But the problem is that this becomes self-serving. When we do what we think is right in our own eyes, we often make mistakes, especially when we deny God. When a child says, "I want, I want, I want," he is showing his immaturity and self-centeredness. Adults become other-centered as is demonstrated by the sacrifices involved in parenthood and marriage. As we grow older, we realize the value in considering the interests of others. "Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others," (Phil. 2:4). In this, we learn that purpose is best defined not by selfish desires but by the ability to love and consider others more important. This carries over to receiving a purpose from God. If we are selfish and want to determine our own purpose, then how is that truly loving? After all, if love is other-centered, then shouldn't we love God, center our lives on Him, and humble ourselves before Him in His wisdom and trust what He desires for us? Think about it. He knows infinitely more than we do, and by trusting Him, we can discover the ultimate purpose of our lives. It makes sense.
A dilemma: avoiding moralism
Moralism is simply doing what is good for goodness' sake. Anyone, atheist, or believer, can do that, but for those who claim to be Christians, our purpose is not the building up of our own glory. The meaning of our lives is to bring glory to God (Isa. 43:7). Unbelievers do not know God. Therefore, they can only be moralistic in their self-determination of meaning and purpose. That is, they have no objective moral standard that exists outside of themselves and so they have no way of knowing what their ultimate purpose really is. They will then, at best, adopt a kind of moralism; a goodness that is relative to their preferences and situations and live a kind of conditional love. In that way, they cannot know what real goodness is. And without knowing what truly is good, how can they truly have a good purpose in their lives?
For the Christian:
The right thing to do is bring glory to God because there is no One greater who is worthy of trust, adoration, and worship. Therefore, for the Christian, we are to live to bring glory to God--how we do that is through prayer and study of His Word, the Bible, so that we might better know what He has for us.
Those who would like to read more on this topic are encouraged to check out:
Got Questions – What is the meaning of life?
Matt Slick – What is the meaning and purpose of life?
Christianity.net – What is the meaning of life?
Robert McGee – The Search for Significance
Ravi Zacharias – Why Suffering
Ken Ham – The Purpose and Meaning of Life
Timothy Keller – Every Good Endeavor
Westminster Assembly – Shorter Catechism with Scriptural Proofs
A.W. Tozer – The Purpose of Man