And the meaning of life is… not 42?
Recently Andrew, a youth pastor in Spokane, found us on Facebook. At the end of a little introduction, he landed this bomb of a question,
“Anyway, I was wondering, where do you find meaning?”
It’s like saying to your seatmate on the bus as you come up to your stop,
“Oh, by the way, can you tell me the meaning of life?”
Awesome. Here goes.
So Andrew, from your message it looks like you’ve gone down some of the same paths we’ve tried out when it comes to looking for meaning. You mentioned that you spent time in Central America and became “unhealthily bitter about economic inequality and the lavishness of typical US lifestyles.”
We’ve been there. Picture me dripping with tears and snot in Kohls because Adam wanted to buy four new pairs of pants and somehow that signaled to me his morality had crumbled, all hope was gone, and everything we stood for in life was a puff of smoke.
I got over that. But I still have moments where I get blinded by some little cause with a little “c” and lose track of what the big capitalized Cause is all about.
You also said,
Yes, we ultimately all must find meaning in God, but what does that mean? And, Is meaning a unique thing for each individual?
For instance, we might find meaning in adventurous travels that engage with different cultures, but does that mean everyone should?
It’s been helpful for me to figure out what are little causes and what are the big ones.
Some little causes look like this:
- Embrace wild adventures so you don’t let your young vibrant attitude atrophy
- Complete lots of projects you start so you’re perseverant and not lazy
- Do the stuff you’re really good at, gifted in, and successful in
- Be super simple so your life isn’t cluttered and you set an example for wealthy North Americans
- Know the Bible really well and apply it in every conversation and interaction
- Tell lots of people about Jesus
- Be really careful when you figure out the best job you can do and the best person you can marry and the best everything you can do so you don’t miss God’s plan for your life
Just because I call these little causes doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re important. I want to do them all (though we can definitely get caught up in doing them for the wrong reasons). What they have in common is that none of them will give lasting satisfaction and meaning if we aim for them directly.
Like if I think I’m only supposed to do what I’m good at and gifted in, I would have sold off my kids to some nicer person long ago. In my first year parenting I took a spiritual gifts inventory and come out dead last in the gift called “helps.” Unfortunately “helps”—behind the scenes helping with little recognition—is pretty much what moms do all day long. Fortunately God’s big enough to keep this world spinning even when he puts us in jobs that don’t come easy to us.
Or if I’m going to find meaning in finding a certain job, that will feel nice as long as I get that job, but if I don’t, I’ll feel like I’ve failed in my calling. And every time I have to switch jobs (which for me has been insanely much—my total resume must be about 8 pages long), I’ll feel like I have to start from scratch again to figure out my “calling.”
I went through a major emotional slump the year after we came back from South Africa. If I seemed down in the dumps in the early chapters of This Ordinary Adventure, that’s right, I was. I went from my favorite jobs I’d ever had (writing African people’s awesome life stories and teaching intercultural communication with Africans from across the continent), to being pretty much unemployed and having no idea what I’d do with the rest of my life.
That year God hammered into me that meaning doesn’t come from having opportunities to be “used.” I love a quote from a speaker about 70 years ago at Urbana (in this awesome video) who says “I am willing to be expendable. I am willing to die.” I’ve got little problem with the ready to die part. The being expendable part? That’s dang hard.
Opportunities to be “useful” don’t come around at regular ticking speed all our lives. If we’re living for those opportunities alone, we’re going to get real down real fast.
Not every day is going to be a big juicy pie of an opportunity. Sure, Adam and I challenge people to record “Amazing Days,” noticing ways every day has a piece of Amazingness. But that doesn’t mean you have to go to bed a failure any day you didn’t save somebody’s life or see the course of the universe change because of you.
So we need something bigger and broader to aim for. What’s the “meaning?” What’s the Cause with a capital “C?”
Sometimes I find it helpful to look not at what is in Bible stories, but at what isn’t there. Like what were Abraham and Sarah doing for the huge gaps of 10 and 30 years between when God spoke to them? And what were people like Jonah, John the Baptist, and Isaiah doing all the rest of their lives before they showed up doing big stuff?
I thought about this while I was watching Les Miserables recently, too. I love that there are gaps of like 8 or 14 years in the life story of the main character. But you see that what made his story so incredible was that he became kind of person who made key decisions when they happened (rescuing a girl from prostitution, caring for her orphan, saving a guy from war, big cool stuff, right?) But he could do that because of who he was in all the silent untold in-between years.
I recently stumbled upon this:
I put on righteousness and it clothed me, my justice was like a robe and turban.
I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know. (Job 29:14-16)
I like thinking of righteousness like clothing—something you’re wrapped in, no matter whether you’re in a youth center, a village in Nicaragua, a university classroom, or your parent’s house. You wear it everywhere, and it shows no matter what you’re doing.
That righteousness comes pretty close to what I’d say the meaning is, the Cause with a capital C. Righteousness is a good word to start with, because it’s something given to us, not something we earn. But it’s something we have to keep doing, too. It’s like Ephesians 2:9-10, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith,” but we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Righteousness is something we’re supposed to hunger and thirst for. Unlike a lot of things we hunger and thirst for, Jesus says it’s actually going to satisfy us (Mt. 5:6).
As for figuring out what hungering for righteousness looks like in a given day, I think we have to keep on starting big and then narrowing it down. The “big” is that God saved you, wants you, loves you, made you for his service, loves you even if you’re catatonic, disabled, and by all counts a failure.
Then when it comes to choosing a job, or choosing what to write a paper on, or choosing what to do today or in the next five minutes, you can narrow that down. What’s in front of you? What do you like doing? What are you made capable of doing? What does hungering for and craving righteousness look like right here and now?
Those questions help me figure out a little cause I can hang on to for that particular moment, but it’s the big Cause that I come back to for my satisfaction and meaning.