The Haunting Question

Saturday, 5/19/12

Tell me, do you know the meaning of life?

I’ve been wrestling with this question since I was a teenager.  I’ve been a Christian my whole life, surrounded by a Christian family and friends, gone to church, read the Bible, and prayed quite a bit.  I’ve had faith, albeit small and weak most of the time.  I think I still have faith.  Yet I do not know why I live.  I’m not sure why I was born or the purpose of my existence in this world.

In a way this is silly to me.  Supposedly Christianity answers this question.  The existence and knowledge of God, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the salvation of human souls, and the redemption of this world – this is the stuff meaning and purpose is made of.  I know this; I have been taught it again and again, I have memorized scores of verses, I have studied the Bible from a theological, historical, and philosophical angle.  I have made many professions of faith and I’ve been baptized twice.  I have read the Bible cover to cover more than once and I’ve read many books about the Bible.  I have read biographies and autobiographies of stout and exemplar Christians throughout history.  I could go on.

I can give you a biblical answer, a solid and ringing theological answer.  I can quote you the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that man’s chief end is to “glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”  But how is this suppose to be tangible to me each day?  It is too abstract, too distant, unbelievable most of the time.  Me, bring glory to God?  Ha!  You wouldn’t say that if you knew me.  I bring shame to God most of the time, not glory.  Me, actually enjoy God?  I can’t even comprehend what this means because I have never experienced it.  At times I have felt God’s pleasure in brief spurts and glimpses, but I have never enjoyed Him, essentially because I do not know Him.  And this is my problem: I know of God, but I do not know God.

I could define the meaning of life by studying other Christians, either my believing friends around me or Christians in history.  Right now I am reading a number of books by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together), the German theologian who opposed Hitler’s Third Reich and was arrested and put to death because of it.  He knew the meaning of life and he lived every day to the fullest.  He had a vision, motivation, a reason to live, breath, pray, suffer, love, and eventually die for his faith.  I envy such a man, because I lack similar conviction.  How did Bonhoeffer come by this?  What happened in his life to bring this about?  What happened to him that has yet to happen to me?  I do not know.

I am also reading a biography of Vernon Grounds, the one-time president and long-time chancellor of Denver Seminary.  Dr. Grounds was an amazing man, and his passion for life, and his desire to love others and serve continually has impressed me greatly.  I am jealous of this man too.  And I am frustrated that I am not more like him.  In Dr. Grounds and Bonhoeffer, and in many hundreds of other Christian men and women, I see something that I want, and yet continually lack.  I know that they had purpose and their lives were worth living.  I am intensely jealous and daily plagued by the fact that they knew and lived something that I know not.  I know that their lives had purpose; and leads me to believe that there is purpose out there somewhere.  But I’m not primarily interested in a generalize purpose for all mankind, or even that others found purpose.  What about my life?  What is my purpose?  Why am I here?  What am I suppose to do with my life?  Why did God put me on this earth?  What value could I possible have?  What could I ever contribute?  These are the questions that haunt me.

Perhaps I need to conjure up a vision for life; or maybe a strategy, a game plan to get my life on track, to make something of my existence, to make a difference.  Maybe I should try to end world poverty or world hunger or save the environment.  Blah, no thanks.  I’ve tried the whole vision thing and it didn’t work.  I don’t want a vision, I want a person, a relationship.  I want to come face to face with my Creator.  I’m tired of seeing darkly, my perception of my God continually veiled and murky.  I am tired of chasing after a shadow, a phantom of a God who always seems so close and yet impossible to grasp.  A God who beckons me to pray and then meets my prayers with stony silence.  A God who makes promises that seem to be true for everyone but me.  Either that or I am too faithless and sinful for them to apply to my life.

“O Lord, you have deceived me,
and I was deceived;
you are stronger than I,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
everyone mocks me.”

“Let the day perish on which I was born,
and the night that said,
‘A man is conceived.’
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
nor light shine upon it.
Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds dwell upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.”

What’s that you say?  There is no God?  There is nothing beyond the few years I struggle on this earth?  There is no meaning and purpose in this life except what I make of it?  There’s no meaning to life at all?  Bull.  Let me tell you, if I simply die and return to dust and one day the earth meets its end through fire or ice, then anything I or you do is meaningless.  And if the meaning of life is that there is no meaning, then life is meaningless and there’s no reason to live.  Why not die now and get it over with?  Why should I not die today, tomorrow, the next day?

Tell me, why do you live?  What keeps you going?  What motivates you?  What are you living to accomplish each day?  What are your hopes, your dreams, the things you want to do in life?  What is your vision?  And if one day it expires in an explosion or vanishes with a whimper, what good is it?  You accomplished nothing and no one will ever know or care.  So why do you live again?  That’s what I thought, you haven’t ever considered it.  And you don’t know.

Why do I live?  Why do I breath?  Why does my heart beat?  Why was I born?  What am I to do with the remaining years of my life?  I do not know.  I do not know.  I do not know.  I do not know.  I do not know.  Tell me, why should I get up tomorrow?  Why should I go to church again?  Why should I take up the struggle of life, the bearing of pain and burdens?   Why should I continue to witness meaningless suffering and the darkness that engulfs and blinds endless numbers of people all around me and often myself as well?  Life is a tragedy and it is cruel.  Why should I continue to wrestle with these questions?  Why should I still seek God?  Tell me, damn it, because I’m out of answers.

Obviously, I have doubts.  Surprise, surprise.  Bear with me.  What Christian hasn’t had doubts – deep, disturbing, and faith-threatening doubts – at times in their life?   I have now succeeded in expressing these doubts, and perhaps I have raised doubts in your mind too.  Perhaps you know me a little better now, and when you see me you’ll be able to look beyond the polished surface appearance and see the struggle of soul.  The question that now faces me is what do I do with these doubts?  Do I continue to grapple with them, seek answers, and hopefully one day overcome?  Or do I fold, give up, and become a shell of person eking out the remainder of my days with dread and gnawing meaninglessness?  I don’t intend to give up because I do think there is meaning, simply because I see it in others.  And I still have a little faith left.  So I will get up tomorrow, not because I have found the purpose to life, but because I haven’t yet and I must.

2 thoughts on “The Haunting Question

  1. Hi Ben – it’s Julie, Lydia’s friend and for a couple of years, I attended FBC off and on. I am so glad you’re writing this blog and so glad to hear how well you are doing! I am truly impressed with your academic success.

    I just wanted to mention how relieved I was to read in the beginning of this post how you said you’ve been a Christian your whole life and yet you describe your faith as “small and weak most of the time.” I have struggled TERRIBLY with my faith or lack there of for many years now. It has been so bad that I’ve actually thought there was something wrong with me. I’ve asked other Christians about it in the past and one piece of “advice” sticks out in my mind. When I asked a fellow Christian about my doubt, I was told, “Well, if you have doubt then you’re not really a Christian!” I walked away so depressed and defeated, thinking that then I wasn’t really a Christian and probably never would be because I just couldn’t seem to get over my nagging doubt.

    When I hear someone I know to be a committed Christian, like yourself, admit that they too have doubt, my heart soars and I think, “There! I’m not alone! I can be a Christian and still have doubt!” I was not raised with any faith at all and my parents were very bitter ex-Catholics so if anything I was taught to hate organized religion of any sort. I have always thought that my upbringing accounted for my struggle with doubt and that’s why I wasn’t “normal” or like other Christians.

    I know this is not the topic of your post, but I wanted you to know how much that little sentence touched me.

    Julie

  2. Hi Julie,
    Thanks for your comment and your honesty about your faith. Yes, doubt is quite naturally and I’d be even so bold as to say that if you are a Christian and do not doubt at some point in your life, you have either have A) not encountered God and the mystery and complexity that he is, or B) you are out of touch with reality. Just the problem of pain, evil, and suffering in this world alone is enough to cause even the most committed and confident Christian to doubt God’s goodness and purposes. I have wrestled with this issue significantly, especially since escaping the church and realizing how evil it was. The important issue for me – and I think for most Christians – is how to acknowledge, face, and wrestle with our doubts in a constructive way that doesn’t destroy our faith. I think the amazing thing about Christianity is that if you look in the Bible you see story after story of the patriarchs, the kings of Israel, and other godly men and women (take Job for instance), who doubted greatly and severely questioned God. Christianity doesn’t deny our doubts; it doesn’t deny the evil and injustice in the world; it doesn’t deny pain and sorrow, but instead allows us to lament and mourn. Christianity is a robust belief that engages all the aspect of life – the good and bad. So don’t be afraid of your doubts: write them down, pray over them, read widely and seek credibly answers that are both logically and theologically sound; talk to other people, and ask God to help you find the truth and ultimately, Him. Remember, Jesus said that faith as small as a mustard seed is sufficient (Mt. 17:14-21). I find that questions and mysteries that remain unanswered and cause me to feel unsettled are often calmed when I consider Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for us and the overriding truth of God’s great and unshakable love for us (Rom. 8:28-29). Best of luck in your searching and don’t be afraid to interact here on my blog or shoot me an email if you have more questions/comments.
    – Ben

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