In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” Both the book and its most famous quote were products of an incredibly difficult experience. During World War II, Frankl and his family were deported from their native Vienna to various concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He was the only member of his family to survive.
Frankl knew just how unbearable the “how” of life could be. And yet, as Frankl explained, humans are meaning-seeking creatures. We want to believe that there’s more to life than meeting our basic survival needs of food, water, shelter, and safety. Even more, we need this to be true. Otherwise, ours becomes a purely animal existence. Despite all the zoo placards and biology textbooks assuring us that humans are just animals, we certainly don’t act like survival and promulgating the species are all that matters.
Without meaning, hope is difficult, if not impossible. At best, without meaning, we resort to a kind of detachment and resignation. At worst, we resort to self-harm, violence, or even suicide.
On the other hand, the benefits of meaning extend well beyond psychological and spiritual health. As a recent article in the Washington Post reports, a sense of purpose and meaning brings physical benefits as well. Believing that one’s “existence has meaning” is linked to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower levels of heart inflammation. One study found that having a “clear purpose in life” can slow the impact of Alzheimer’s in older patients. Another metanalysis of various studies even suggested that having a purpose in life can lower risk of death equally as well as following the “Mediterranean diet.”
Of course, finding this kind of life-changing and life-extending purpose isn’t as straightforward as changing a diet or starting a new exercise routine. An essential place to begin is the opening sentence of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Drive Life: “It’s not about you.” Purpose is not found by looking inward; it’s found by looking outward and is manifested in what we do for others. Among the examples cited by the Post article were volunteering, donating to charity, and “joining a group of people who share your values.” What all of these ideas have in common is that they remove us, for however long, from the center of our personal universe.
Of course, nothing turns our perspective outward (and upward) like faith in Jesus Christ. I don’t mean the consumerist, therapeutic kind of inward-looking religion that too often passes for Christianity these days. I mean something along the lines of what Paul told the Corinthians: “And [Christ] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Cor 5:15).
Living for the One who died and rose again not only removes us from the center of our own universe, but aligns our hearts and minds with what is actually true about the universe: that it belongs to God and that our purpose is given by Him not determined by us. True faith locates our lives in this cultural moment within the larger story of God, and how He is fulfilling His purposes throughout each chapter of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. When we no longer see our lives and actions as isolated, we realize they are part of the story and even the means by which God is restoring all things.
Knowing this doesn’t make the “how” any easier, as my colleague Shane Morris recently testified on BreakPoint. Paul told the Corinthians that toil, hardship, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, and anxiety were his lot as an Apostle of Jesus Christ. But he also knew that his suffering wasn’t meaningless. Neither, for that matter, was his success.
Despite and even through them, God’s purposes were being fulfilled. This is the ultimate “why.” This message is not only true; it’s worth sharing, especially in a world where, for so many, meaning has been lost and the best efforts to manufacture meaning fall short.