The Word Among Us

Lent 2011 Issue

What Is the Meaning of Life?

Jesus holds the key.

What Is the Meaning of Life?: Jesus holds the key.

With its emphasis on renewal and repentance, the season of Lent offers us a perfect opportunity to step back and reflect on the state of our lives.

It’s a great opportunity to assess our relationships with our loved ones and with Jesus. It can be so easy to rush through each day—from event to event, even from crisis to crisis—never slowing down and never taking the time to ask, “What is the ultimate meaning for my life?”

When people are asked what provides meaning in their lives, the responses hit every point on the spectrum. Some say it comes through marriage and family. Others say it comes though living a virtuous life in service to others. Still others say they find meaning through work and getting ahead in the world. Some find meaning through financial gain and material wealth. And still others say that life is about having as much fun as possible—without hurting too many people along the way.

Of course, there is a grain of truth in all of these answers, but as Christians, we believe that meaning is found in loving God with all our hearts and in loving one another as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). So this Lent, let’s take some time to reflect on the meaning of our lives.

The Confessions of Leo Tolstoy. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was a master storyteller. His novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina are considered classics of Western literature, and his short stories have been translated into countless languages. But there was more to this man than the stories he crafted. He was also a deeply spiritual man who spent years wrestling with questions about the meaning of life.

Born into a well-to-do family, he was schooled by private tutors and given every opportunity for social advancement. In addition to his inherited wealth, his novels brought him enough money to guarantee him a very comfortable life for decades. Tolstoy was married to a beautiful woman, Sofya, and they had thirteen children. But despite his wealth, his fame, his success, and his family, Tolstoy suffered bouts of depression and even contemplated suicide. Why?

In his book titled A Confession, Tolstoy wrote about his ongoing search for meaning. He told how he had decided to bury himself in his work in order to avoid facing the deeper questions of life. But as much as he tried to avoid them, the questions kept coming up. The death of a friend, the suffering of a servant, or some other challenge would make the questions surface again, pleading for answers.

As time marched on, and as death drew closer, his bouts of depression grew more frequent and more intense. “What will come of my entire life?” he asked. “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the death that awaits me?”

Tolstoy eventually did find meaning, and it came in part through his reading of the Bible, especially Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Tolstoy discovered more than just good philosophy in the words of Jesus. They were teachings were food for his soul and light to his heart. Ultimately, Tolstoy concluded that the purpose of life was to forge a living relationship with a loving God.

While Tolstoy had his problems with certain elements of organized religion, he nevertheless dedicated the rest of his days to building the kingdom of God on earth. He took greater care of his servants, became very generous to the poor, and dedicated much of his time to improving the conditions of the needy around him. Leo Tolstoy, the acclaimed novelist and wealthy landowner, found true peace in a life of service and love—a life in imitation of Jesus.

The Confessions of St. Augustine. About fifteen hundred years before Tolstoy, another brilliant and famous man chronicled his own crisis of faith in another book entitled The Confession. That man was Augustine of Hippo, a philosopher, teacher, and scholar.

Augustine begins his Confession by describing his self-centered youth, and then he traces his life up to his conversion to Christianity at the age of thirty-two. During these years, Augustine tried to find meaning in philosophy, in astrology, in the pursuit of pleasure, and in a successful academic career.

Like Tolstoy, the death of a close friend caused a sort of crisis for Augustine and prompted him to look more closely at the direction his life was taking. For three years, he struggled with the discrepancy between the life he was living—with a mistress and illegitimate son—and the life he sensed God wanted for him. He studied Scripture, spoke frequently with Ambrose, his local bishop, and wrestled with his mother’s pleas for him to become a Christian.

Then came the day when, agonizing over his wretched state, he heard what sounded like a child’s voice chanting: “Take up and read, take up and read.” In response, Augustine opened the Bible and read the first passage that caught his eye: “Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:13-14). At that moment, his resistance finally broke, and Augustine surrendered himself to Christ. He had found the answer to life’s questions in the gospel message.

Whether we realize it or not, we all seek to find meaning in our lives. Like Tolstoy, we may bury ourselves in work. Or like Augustine, we may try to avoid the issue by immersing ourselves in worldly pleasures. But the questions never really go away. All it takes is a crisis or a challenge in our lives to bring them back again.

Meaning Found in Activity. Today’s activity-oriented world encourages us to find meaning through what we do—and it almost works. It’s almost as if we are expected to be always looking forward to the next thing. We begin in January looking forward to a new year. Companies roll out their projected budgets and goals. Families emerge from their Christmas holidays looking for something new and exciting as winter begins to loosen its grip. Then comes the springtime with the start of the baseball season and a family gathering to celebrate Easter. This is followed by the end-of-school exams and graduation celebrations. As summer arrives, thoughts turn perhaps toward a family vacation, a day at the beach, or a trip to visit relatives. Then comes fall, with the start of football season, a new school year, Halloween, and national holidays. Before you know it, you’re getting ready for Christmas again and the beginning of another whole year.

But is this never-ending cycle of activity all there is to life? Is life just a matter of living through seventy or eighty of these yearly cycles?

To some degree, yes. Many of these activities can provide meaning to our lives, especially all the ones that help bind us more deeply to our families and friends. But none of these activities can give us complete satisfaction. None of them has the capacity to fill the deepest longings of our human heart. It’s why so many people who seem to have so much going for them—people like Leo Tolstoy—experience a mid-life crisis or struggle with sadness or feel lost and confused.

The Cure for the Restless Heart. Why do none of these activities quell our deepest longings? Why do they fall short of providing us with the deepest meaning for our lives? Perhaps St. Augustine put it best when he wrote: “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions, I, 1). We were created to be in union with God. We were created to have a relationship with him, and until we enter into that relationship, we will always feel incomplete. No matter how hard we try, we will always have a sense that something is missing.

St. Augustine’s insight tells us that life is about more than our physical wants and needs. We may try to find fulfillment in more food, more drink, more exercise, and more sex. But there is more to us than our bodies, as good as they are.

Augustine’s insight tells us that life is also about more than our psychological needs and desires. We may try to find meaning through a healthy sense of self-worth, through growing in our education and developing our talents. We may even try to fill the void by escaping into a good novel or movie. But there is more to us than our minds, as good as they are.

Ultimately, Augustine’s insight tells us that we are not just physical and psychological people; we are spiritual people as well. And until we meet the Lord, our spiritual dimension will feel empty and restless.

So as we begin this Lenten season, let’s take a close look at our lives. Are we restless like St. Augustine? Do we feel frustrated like Leo Tolstoy? Even if we can see just a bit of their restlessness or frustration, it’s a sign that Jesus is inviting us to get to know him more. Let’s take up his invitation so that we can find even greater peace and meaning for our lives this Lent.