The Search for Meaning

May 8, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Meaning of Life

In his 1946 classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl candidly and insightfully reflects on his time as a concentration camp prisoner in Auschwitz and how he struggled to find bright spots of meaning what felt like a deeply dark vacant evil.  In one particularly moving passage, Frankl describes how he found meaning by thinking about his wife as he was forced into hard and humiliating work:

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp.  The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles.  Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm.  Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk.  Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now!  I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife.  Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.[1]

As Frankl thought about the woman he loves, he found meaning for life in that love.  He writes, “Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”

The human desire for meaning, it seems, is a desire that is nearly impossible to extinguish, even when it is confronted with the horrors of a concentration camp.  Whether consciously or subconsciously, everyone lives for something.  Some people live for riches.  Others live for fame.  Still others live for pleasure.  Some wiser and more mature souls find meaning in, if you will excuse the somewhat circular logic, more meaningful things.  For example, I was talking to a single mom some time ago who lives for her kids. She works long hours and she has gone back to school so she can better provide for her two daughters.  She finds her meaning in motherhood.

What is particularly fascinating to me about this mother’s search for meaning is that she is, by her own admission, not a Christian.  “Religion,” she admits, “is just not my thing.”

I have known this mom for quite a while and, on the one hand, I am proud of how far she’s come.  There was a time, not too long ago, when she reveled in a shallow hedonism – drinking, carousing, and doing drugs.  All that has ended.  She has fled those demons.  On the other hand, however, I can’t help but notice that, as admirable as her investment into motherhood is, she has only kicked her search for ultimate meaning down the curb a bit.  Here’s what I mean.

If my friend finds her meaning for life in being a mother, what happens if her kids rebel against her and ultimately reject her?  Will she lose her source of meaning because they have pulled away from her?  Or, what happens if she falls back into her old habits of substance abuse and fast living?  Will she lose her source of meaning because she will not have been the mother she could have been?  Or, less dramatically, what happens when her kids grow up and move away?  When she no longer has little children to nurture, what will provide her with meaning and purpose?

It is in light of questions like these that Christianity’s answer to man’s search for meaning becomes critical.  For Christianity asserts that man can only find ultimate meaning in God and in the hope of an eternity with Him.  To use the formulation in the opening salvo of the Westminster Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”  This is where man finds his ultimate meaning.

The problem with finding ultimate meaning in anything other than God is that no other source of meaning lasts.  Every other source of meaning only kicks the search for meaning down the curb, for every other source of meaning eventually fades and expires, which compels another search for another source of meaning.  Only God ends such searches permanently.

It is not until my friend finds her ultimate meaning in Christ that her search for meaning will find its final answer.  There are greater sources of meaning and lesser sources of meaning to be sure.  But there is only one eternal source of meaning.  I pray that she, along with others like her, discovers this eternal source.  For when she does, she will find that this eternal source leads to eternal life.


[1] Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2006), 36-37.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Michael Peterson  |  May 8, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    I’ve never understood this idea of ‘meaning’. When I read Holy Scriptures I am drawn to the idea of purpose – both my own and God’s. ‘Meaning’ is the last thing I think about, if it crosses my mind at all. The problem, I think, is that the pursuit of ‘meaning’ is far to subjective and, as a consequence, runs the risk of filling an emotional void that becomes self-absorption.

    The consequential questions, it seems to me, are what is my purpose in life and how do I fulfill it? Consequential because the answers are focused on who do you serve and what do you do for them?



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