You woke up this morning to the sound of your alarm clock. After turning it off, you went to the bathroom to take a shower. Then you went to work, came home, went to sleep, and the next day, you did the same thing. Eat, drink, sleep, work. That is your life, and it repeats itself over and over again. As you cycle through this seemingly endless pattern, you will begin to reflect on it. Why are you even bothering? You tell yourself that if you received that promotion at work, then the pattern would be broken and life would no longer be pointless. Then you receive that promotion and it feels good for a passing moment until the next pattern ensues and you begin looking for the next promotion or major life change. Every time you attain one, you are faced more thoroughly with the futility of it all. No matter what you do, everything just seems vain. You may be asking yourself, “Why does my life sometimes seem so pointless?”
I want to begin by pointing out that anybody can have this sort of existential crisis. Anybody can feel as though their existence does not matter. I am not saying this to make you feel better, as if to say, “We are all hopeless together,” because I suspect that this would only make the situation worse. I am pointing this out because this article is not meant to say something to the effect of, “Become religious and this problem will go away. You will always feel that your life has meaning.” Faithful Christians can have an existential crisis. I am not writing this to offer some sort of cheap solution to your feelings. But there are many relevant factors to consider.
Your Philosophy of Life And Value
While I am not trying to offer a cheap solution to the problem of the existential crisis, the way that you view the world will still very much impact how you are feeling about your current situation. Everybody has a worldview, philosophy, and a way that they look at human beings and their place in the world. This is one reason that I cringe when people think that philosophy is relevant only for scholars who are locked away in an Ivory Tower. Your philosophy impacts how you live. One’s personal philosophy can change how they look at the world. That is why secularists and Christians are often on opposite ends of the spectrum of social issues.
Think about it for a moment. If you believe that mankind is made in the image of God, imbued with intrinsic moral worth, that everything that we do is governed by the sovereign hand of God, that there is a purpose for your life, that life does not end at the grave and that when you have an positive impact on your humanity, you are doing a true good, then you will be more inclined to feel like your life has meaning (though, again, not all Christians have that feeling, because feelings are transitory). If you deny all of this, though, then you will be more inclined to feel like everything is hopeless.
Now, this is not an apologetic for Christianity. I am not saying, “Therefore, you should believe that which is more hopeful.” But the way that you look at the world matters. I am sure that very different people are reading this post and I do not know how you look at the world or if you even think about that sort of thing. If you do not contemplate the deep questions of life, then you probably are more prone to feel like everything is meaningless, because there are no answers as to why you are doing anything. Having no position functions as a position. If you are someone who thinks that human beings arose by purely natural processes, that there is no overriding standard of morality, that human beings have the same value as goat, sheep, or chicken, then to ask the question is to answer it. You have feelings of meaninglessness because, in your view, life truly is meaningless.
The life that you are living.
“Ah,” the atheist replies, “But if your life feels meaningless, then you need to do something about it.” There is a sense in which that is true and a sense in which it is not true. Let us first consider the sense in which it is true. Right now, we are talking about the way you feel during an existential crisis. Do you feel as though you are making a difference, and do you feel as though your actions matter? For many (most) people, the answer is that it does not. Perhaps you went to college to get a job so that you could pay the bills and now you are caring for your family. Of course, caring for your family and paying your bills is a good thing. But the deeper question that we are asking is one of meaning and purpose.
If you spend 8-12 hours every day working just for the sake of survival, then you are probably somebody who typed “Why does my life feel so meaningless?” into Google and came across this article. Everything that you do is just an attempt to survive, to continue the endless pattern that you desperately want to escape from. Every moment is an attempt to ensure that you will make it to the next moment. Then, if you succeed as a parent, your children will find their own pattern, be able to pay the bills, survive, and do exactly what you are doing.
This is where the wisdom of the atheist’s reply will be relevant. If you feel as though your life is meaningless, then you should do something about it. Invest your time in something that is worthwhile, that you care about. If you are not sure what you are passionate about, then you should think about that. Consider what is a cause that should be pursued and pursue it. When you have free time, do not just watch television or do something mindless. Read a good book. Start a blog. Do something that makes you feel as though you are making a difference in society. If that seems overwhelming, then start small. Commit to spending an extra hour once a week on a project. That is my initial assessment of the atheist’s reply. There is some wisdom to be gleaned. But there is also a sense in which it is foolish.
The Foolishness of The Reply
We are addressing an existential crisis. You are asking yourself why you exist, what purpose your life has, and how you can escape this dreadful pattern of futility. The advice that you receive is to do something that makes you feel better about your life. But the truth is that this is just an exercise in self-delusion. You are intentionally pretending that your life has meaning, when in fact, it does not. You are intentionally fooling yourself to help you to overcome the emotional feeling of futility. It may help, but it would be something like a quick-fix, an aid that helps you to overcome the symptoms without addressing the disease.
Think about it for a moment. If the entire universe is meaningless, if mankind is just another animal here on earth, lost in cosmos, then for you to feel as though your life has meaning would amount to nothing more than delusion. Even if your good work impacts history or civilization, it does not really matter. Eventually, in the heat death of the universe, the Earth will look something like Mars. All of the campaigns of human history, the pursuits of the intellect, the drive of the activist and the triumphs over evil will be buried deep within the earth amidst the ruins of dead civilizations, on a death planet, floating in a dead universe. That is, without a doubt, truly, a scientifically accurate picture of the world to come.
It does not really matter how you feel. If you feel like your life has meaning, you will still be caught in the same pattern of futility that has plagued you. Taking steps to do something meaningful, to get yourself out of a rut all ultimately end in nothing. That is the foolishness of the atheistic reply. Even if you feel as though your life has meaning, that still does not mitigate the fact that your life truly has no meaning. If there is no meaning in the universe, then where will you go to find it?
Is There Any Hope At All? What Am I Supposed To Do?
There is no hope anywhere in the universe. You would have to transcend the bounds of the universe, to traverse the outer echelons of space, hit the edge of the universe and then plunge a little further to find some hope and then voyage back to earth. Although, the careful reader will note that in the above subsection, I was addressing the atheist’s reply. The atheist who says that we can create meaning for our lives has become an apologist for delusion. In that worldview, there truly is no meaning to life. But that is not the view that I ascribe to. Nonetheless, it is true that all life is doomed to end in the heat death of the universe and there is no hope anywhere in the physical world. You would need to leave the physical world to find hope.
But suppose for a moment that there is something beyond the physical world. Suppose even that there is Someone beyond the physical world. This Someone could see that we are hopeless, and while we cannot transcend the physical to acquire hope, this Someone could enter into the physical and bring it to us. This is what we mean when we say that God became a man. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In his life, he demonstrated that it is possible to live a fulfilled life by loving your friends and your enemies, by living without sin, in perfect righteousness and obedience, but never in anger toward the Law, as though it were a legalistic cage, but rather out of love for the Father. In his death, he took our sins upon himself, as it is written, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In his resurrection from the death, he provided a model for our resurrection, a true hope of what will come in the future, for his is the first fruit of the resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20).
You may ask, “But how is that any different from the atheist who is an apologist for delusion?” It is different because I am not saying that your feelings will change. I am not saying that you should do something to forget about reality. I am saying that you should meditate upon reality. We are made in the image of God, and his resurrection is our resurrection. That is a true hope for the future. It means that your life is truly significant, that the love that you have for others will not end at the grave, and that the achievements of righteousness will persist after grave. Christ promised to raise those who trust in him to everlasting life (John 6:40) and to make this world new, with no death, disease, sin, suffering, children dying, loved ones leaving – all things will be made new and be given to Christ’s people.
The Pursuit of Happiness
What does it mean to pursue happiness? Everything in this world leaves us feeling empty, cold, and bitter. Every time we tell ourselves that something will make us happy, we realize how empty it was when we finally find it. Whether it was a new job, that big promotion, wealth, fame, losing weight, power, winning the Super Bowl, it all amounts to nothing. When you get to the top, you realize that there is nothing there. We have an immense capacity for joy and we are always looking for things in this world that can fill it and are constantly disappointed when we find that they do not satisfy us. Those who immerse themselves in carnality are often trying to dull the pain of existence. They do not fulfill them. They worsen their condition. There is a sense in which we are each, individually, the bane of our own individual existence, because we try to fill our capacity for joy in sexuality, money, food, relationships, traveling, always sinking deeper and deeper because we realize that nothing can satisfy us in this world. That is why your life feels so meaningless.
What am I saying, then? Give up the pursuit of happiness? Stop trying to be happy? Stop trying to fill this capacity for joy? That is not what I am saying. I am saying that if you want true satisfaction, then you need to yield yourself to the one who created you. Surrender everything, all of your life’s pursuits, to the will of the Creator. There is a reason that Job said “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” (Job 13:15). As it is written, “Whoever believes in him will not be disappointed.” (Romans 10:11).
But telling you to lay yourself down is not about telling you that you cannot dance. It is not about saying that you have to put yourself in a cage. It is about following Christ. In his book Desiring God (which I recommend to anyone reading this), Dr. John Piper recounted a conversation with a woman who posed a challenge. She said, “Sir, don’t you believe that a lady can get to Heaven if she dances?” Piper replied, “A lady cannot get to Heaven unless she dances.” Life in Christ is about joy, about your cup overflowing. There will be struggles, and as I said, sometimes you might even feel meaninglessness, but for those in Christ, we may meditate upon reality and do something in life that truly matters.
If you would like to read more, check out John Piper’s book Desiring God.