By Ben Swift
“The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs” (Viktor Frankl).
A long time ago it was noted by an observer of the early church that a small but growing group of people following Jesus Christ as their Messiah, were turning the world upside down, flipping many cultural norms on their head.
It doesn’t take a great deal of insight to see the need for this type of paradigm shift today as we survey a world caught in a continual wrestle between chaos and order. Perhaps, as followers of Christ in 2020, we should be asking, “What message of hope can we offer those struggling with a life that can so easily seem devoid of meaning and rampant with suffering?”
According to the World Health Organization, close to 800 000 people worldwide die due to suicide every year. This statistic carries with it an even greater weight of sadness with estimates of those being unsuccessful in taking their own lives to be up to 20 times higher.
Why does this problem continue to plague humanity? Why do so many become overwhelmed with a helplessness that drives them to see no other way forward? And what, if anything, does this have to do with living a life in Christ?
When it comes to seeking advice on the relationship between a human being’s will to live and giving up on life altogether, surely Viktor Frankl has earned his stripes as a man with something profound to say. It’s not often that we get to share in the thoughts and discoveries of a psychotherapist with firsthand knowledge of prison life in possibly the darkest corners of humanity, the Nazi death camps of the Holocaust. That is, however, exactly what Frankl offers us in the pages of his classic book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ containing the opening quote of this article. Having lost his wife, parents, friends and many comrades while under the seemingly endless brutality of the Nazi regime, Frankl continued to find something to hold on to, something that kept him moving forward when so many others could understandably no longer find the will to go on. But what was it?
While Frankl has much to say on how to find hope where hope seems to have lost its pulse, perhaps his discoveries can be boiled down to the words of the humanist philosopher, Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”. In fact, Frankl makes the following suggestion from his book on bringing meaning to a person’s existence:
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’”.
Frankl makes an important observation, one which he obviously applied to his own mind in order to grapple with the hopelessness that would have rained down on him day after day, year after year. It’s here, however, that I begin to wonder just how far this kind of hope can take a human being. How deep can this hope extend beyond the finite and into a place where hope truly becomes a hope worth hoping for, a hope that stretches into eternity?
It’s true, hope from a purely humanistic perspective can add value to the present. After all, who hasn’t experienced the joy of nature’s interactions with the senses? The sun still rises and sets on the faces of those in prison yards; distant memories of joy can still warm the heart of a person who has lost loved ones. But these temporary rays of hope can only take us so far before we once again find ourselves asking existential questions, seeking answers that exist beyond ourselves.
While Psychology requires one to rise above the problems of our lives in our own strength, it is in Christ that we find a hope that lives beyond the finite and with the power to transform lives beyond what can be achieved by experiencing life through the senses and looking inwardly for the strength to go on.
As Christians who have already come to terms with the transforming nature of Christ and the eternal hope that exists through a relationship with him, we can take the words of Nietzsche and Frankl to a much higher place, a place where others can find hope truly worth hoping for. The ‘why’ that holds their hand through the seasons of life, that gives them the ‘how’, will no longer depend on the ‘self’ but instead on the all-powerful creator and sustainer of all things.
‘But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint’ (Isaiah 40:31).
If, as Frankl suggests, “The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs”, we as Christians have some paradigm shifting work to do.
‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ (Romans 10:14)
If statistics paint a picture, surely the numbers shared earlier paint what is a perhaps one of the saddest stains on humanity’s canvas. It seems that for many people on this planet, hope seems a distant illusion, all of what goes on under the sun has not been enough to keep them going. Life has not given them a ‘why’ for their ‘how’. It seems that the peace that passes all understanding has eluded them, that same peace that they have been created to experience from the beginning.
As surely as this breaks God’s heart, it should break ours.
Christ has called us to follow him, to walk as he walked, to be like him and to share his good news of hope with anyone who will listen. This, then, is the meaning of your life as a Christian, to love God and your neighbor as yourself, helping others to find the meaning of theirs, a life of ultimate hope, a life transformed by Christ to be held eternally in his loving hands.
‘And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:7).