The Hunger For Meaning

Jeff Myers Grow Together Book CoverIn 2 Corinthians 9:11, Paul writes, “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” One of the most important ways Christians can “produce” thanksgiving through others is to give. You can give money, of course, but perhaps most importantly, you can give of yourself. The following is an excerpt from chapter six of Dr. Jeff Myers’ book, Grow Together. The aim of this chapter is to equip mentors to help others find meaning. The hunger for meaning leads Americans, especially young adults, to attempt to find satisfaction in the worst of places. But you could change that. Coaching, or mentoring, is one of those life-giving practices that sets Christians apart in our culture. We hope you’ll find that this chapter brings some insight into the deep hunger around you, which God has uniquely “enriched” you to satisfy! 

London’s Westminster Abbey features dozens of gigantic monuments to persons whose historical achievements may have been modest but whose families possessed substantial-enough means to memorialize them in grand fashion. In their midst, one monument stands apart, small and unpretentious, as if to reflect the petite frame of its honoree rather than his gigantic, nation-shaping spirit. Tucked in a side alcove, the monument to William Wilberforce might go unnoticed but for a 21st-century revival of interest in his tireless opposition to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Invited by Abbey personnel for an after-hours visit, I stood before the Wilberforce monument, journaling my thoughts amidst the fading echoes of the day’s last departing guests. Evensong approached, awakening the Abbey’s mighty organ, its massive pipes curling the joyous sounds of heavenly anthems into every transept, calling forth living believers into eternal community with the saints entombed beneath the Abbey’s stone floor.

At just that moment, my eyes fell on a phrase chiseled into the base of the Wilberforce monument: “He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times.” I felt a chill. My eyes stung, hot. This was a man fully alive. Death comes, I realized, as if for the first time. But then a vow: God helping me, I will be fully alive as long as I have breath.

Perhaps you’ve had a moment where you craved aliveness of the sort that enables you to shape, rather than be shaped by, the times. Our hearts long to know that our existence isn’t incidental to what really matters.

For most, the search is solitary, and thus futile. Alone, our cries for meaning dissipate in the poisonous atmosphere of self-pity or echo back insufficiently sharp to penetrate the busyness of the day or the cacophony of the age. Our search for meaning needs something more than what we alone can bring to it. But what is it?

Years ago when I began work as a professor, I noticed the question of meaning on the lips of each of my students, no matter how gifted or talented or popular. It is a question that demands, but rarely receives, an answer, and it often sounds like this:

If I Were to Disappear, Would Anyone Notice?

Most of us can only look at Wilberforce’s legacy with wistful envy. We hunger for truth, for identity, for meaning, but do not know how to find them. We scavenge the platitudes with which we were raised but find them self-defeating.

Layered over with strips of papier-mâché optimism and the watery glue of self-confidence, our outer forms become a way to hide the emptiness we feel inside. I recently encountered a website called The Experience Project in which people discussed questions such as, “Would anyone miss me if I disappeared?” My heart ached with pity as I read:

“I’m sure my parents and maybe my brothers would for a while, but I’ve left no lasting impression on anyone in my life.”

“I just don’t actually believe that anyone genuinely cares enough to miss me if I were to vanish. Of course my family would have the police looking for me because I was supposed to be somewhere or do something, but after a while, life would go on and no one would remember me.”

“If I were to disappear, I believe that people would be relieved. I caused nothing but trouble for so many years and I think I am a burden.”1

In other words, I believe the real me — the deep part of me I know is not imaginary — has no actual value to anyone else. The hunger for meaning will be met, either by the good, the true and the beautiful, or by their counterfeits, by self-obsessions incapable of giving to others or receiving from God. Sometimes our quest for meaning is one of the things preventing us from finding it.

We Act on What We Believe

As the father of four teenage children, I’ve read through each Lord of the Rings book twice and watched each movie at least three times. My heart beats to Aragorn’s speech on the eve of the battle for Gondor:

Sons of Gondor! Of Rohan! My brothers! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me! A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. … This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand! Men of the West!

I want to be in that army, part of a winner-takes-all battle against a snarling, ugly foe.

But when the speeches are made, the rush of inspiration they produce masks a debilitating lie: that the only path to meaning is a heroic stand against a singular evil. For most, this is not our lot. Ours is, rather, an intrepid life of thousands of little daily decisions, each inconsequential but together signaling what we truly believe about the meaning of life.

The epic-battle-myth obscures the fact that humanity’s search for meaning is not as much a forward movement into the unknown as a battle against what we know all too well — the seemingly unconquerable meaning-killers that seep into our everyday existence. Meaning-killers such as:

Hopelessness: A sense of dejection, inadequacy and desperation pervades our nation. About one-third of high school students feel sad or hopeless.2 Eighty percent of people polled say they believe it is harder to get ahead than it used to be.3 And it’s not just among youth. The highest levels of suicide in America are among white men over 85 years.4 Hopelessness abounds when people feel powerless to make life better. Hopelessness is a parasite to meaning, destroying the very thing off which it feeds.

Consumerism: The average American sees as many as 5,000 advertising messages per day, from billboards to t-shirts to web popups to television ads.5 New breakthroughs even make it possible to identify a person’s age, race and gender when walking through the mall and to instantly customize electronic billboards to feature ads similar people found compelling. Very soon advertisers will even be able to merge the virtual and real worlds, using social media profiles to recognize a shopper’s face and offer special deals from nearby stores.6 Through this targeting, we begin to identify ourselves primarily as consumers rather than producers. We exist only when others think we might buy something. No money, no meaning.

Habits: Sometimes our habits, embraced initially to ease hopelessness, curve back and erode meaning, leaving us ever further from a source of hope. A study of Christian young men found that those who reported using pornography also reported lower levels of religious practice, lower self-worth, lower identity development regarding dating and higher levels of depression.7 In a study of 20-somethings’ faith, sociologist Jeremy Uecker found that although young people can (and do) return to faith from just about every circumstance, certain life habits such as co-habitation, extramarital sex, and drugs and alcohol accelerate diminished religiosity.8 Sin leads to disordered love — loving the wrong things in the wrong way at the wrong time. Disordered love destroys meaning.

Ruptured relationships:Shalom” is a Hebrew word describing peace with God, peace from war and peace with one’s neighbors. To wish another person shalom is to wish that person completeness, safety, physical health and wellness, prosperity, tranquility, contentment, and friendship. God originally created human beings in a state of shalom — wholeness in their relationship with him, with each other, and with creation. In the fall, each of these relationships was ruptured. The world we see is not the way it’s supposed to be.9 Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied the daily habits of Americans and gauged how much “flow,” or sense of well-being, they experienced when doing various things. People reported the lowest level of flow when they were alone with their demanding “self.” Even leisure did not necessarily improve the quality of life.10 In fact, one of the most common leisure activities, watching television, was correlated with the lowest level of flow.

The way we live our lives can deaden a sense of meaning in life. But might it also enliven it? Yes, and in the most surprising way.

Too Earthly Minded

In ancient Rome, Christians were often considered atheists because in becoming like Christ — the God-man who came to earth and experienced life as a human — they feasted joyfully together and focused on physical acts such as easing the suffering of the sick and poor. This earthy focus offended Roman sensibilities.  Peter J. Leithart explains: “Instead of ascending past sensible things to the intellectual realm, Christians said that God had made Himself known in flesh and continues to give Himself in water and wine, bodies and bread. Christians were so earthly-minded that they could be no heavenly good.”11

So earthly-minded that they could be no heavenly good. It’s the opposite of the accusation lodged against Christians today. Such a thing is only possible in a world where the good, true and beautiful actually exist as a physical unveiling of spiritual wholeness rather than a spiritualized masking of physical imperfection.

We sense in our hearts that a world of goodness, truthfulness and beauty would, by definition, be a meaningful world. But what would it actually look like?

The Good: togetherness. In all the universe, the church is the natural home to what is robust, fruitful, victorious and full of ultimate meaning. Not just in a church, as in a particular church building, but in the universal church, the body of Christ, a group of losers for whom perfection is a far-off dream and who flail, toddler-like, steadied by God’s ever-patient hand, until at last we grow up and become a beautiful bride. Not individually, mind you. Together.

Sociologist Peter Berger has noted that being together with other believers is one of the key factors that makes a serious faith plausible: “To have a conversion experience is nothing much. The real thing is to be able to keep taking it seriously; to retain a sense of its plausibility. This is where the religious community comes in.”12 The church serves as an “authoritative community” that gives people of all generations a sense of place, nurtures them, helps them grow spiritually, and teaches them to treat those inside and outside the community with dignity and love.

Recent studies have shown the power of “authoritative communities” in people’s lives, helping children and adults live mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy lives.13 Churches ought to be the most purposeful authoritative communities. No church is perfect, but every church ought to be a safe place to practice the life of the kingdom rather than just a place to go on our day off.

The True: practical wisdom. In ancient times, Greeks saw wisdom as a spiritual state, other-worldly and detached. Plato (428-348 BC) saw wisdom as an unattainable form, about which we could know only enough to want and love it.14 Lucretius (99 to 55 BC) taught that absorbing the teachings of the wise separated people from the striving masses so they could live a life free from pain, fear or struggle.15

In the Hebrew tradition, though, wisdom was not a state of restful repose. In Hebrew, the dominant word for wisdom is “khokmah,” which means “skill in living.”16 While the Greeks saw wisdom in party clothes and looking a lot like leisure, the Hebrews saw wisdom in overalls and looking a lot like work.

From a biblical perspective, wisdom is truly multigenerational. Some young people are wise; some older people are not. As Job 32:9 says, “Great men are not always wise; neither do the aged understand judgment.” Think of Solomon, proclaimed in scripture as the wisest of men. Solomon started off as wise but became more foolish the older he got.

Today scholars say that the optimal age for wisdom development is between adolescence and the mid-20s.17 Wisdom is a virtue that must be cultivated, and it is best nurtured in youth. Preparing for a life of wisdom while you’re young moves you toward what scholars call “gerotranscendence,” away from superficial social engagement toward concern for others, meaningful relationships and contributing to society.18

We grow wise together, across the generations.19

The Beautiful: soulish embodiment. The Christian conception of humans is that we possess both natural, material bodies and supernatural, immaterial souls. Our souls rule our bodies, disciplining them in accordance with God’s eternal law.

The reigning ideology of our age, on the other hand, is that humans are merely bodies — computers made of meat, as Marvin Minsky so hideously phrased it.20 Based on a false understanding of the Apostle Paul’s differentiation between the “spirit” and the “flesh,” though, some Christians make the opposite mistake — exalting the soul and considering the body a sort of prison from which the soul longs to escape.

This teaching isn’t new, and it doesn’t come from the Bible. It’s an ancient heresy called Gnosticism or Manicheism that taught that material existence was the cause of all evil and that humans can only be saved by a spiritual act of denouncing the body.

The biblical perspective is far different. Genesis 1:26 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’” The words “image” and “likeness” (shape and resemblance) are physical terms symbolizing authority over a certain domain.21 God’s domain is the entire universe, but rather than setting up a statue, God took the dust of earth, breathed into it, and created a living, moving representation of his image.

As image-bearers of God, we don’t give shape to ourselves, nor do we resemble some abstract form. Instead, we take on God’s “shape” and resemble him as sons and daughters resemble their parents. All human life is meaningful if for no other reason than that we bear God’s image and experience the good, the true and the beautiful in real life.22 But what does this sort of image-bearing look like in the church?

What Embodiment Looks Like

It took a near tragedy for Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California, to connect the generations in a way that satisfied the hunger for meaning. Drew Sams, pastor of student ministries, shares the story: “For years we had tried to make students ‘busy for Jesus’ by providing exciting events and programs that they would want to do.” Drew’s youth group was thriving, but everything came to a screeching halt when one of their top students — a young man who was involved in leadership, small group and missions — attempted suicide. Shocked, Drew and his team realized they had labeled this student a “success” while knowing nothing of his struggles.

That’s when it hit them: No other spotlight in the world can illuminate the heart the way a personal relationship can. With that realization came a paradigm shift; what their youth ministry needed was to shift its focus from numbers, events and a full calendar of ministry activities to life-on-life involvement with their students.

Drew describes how this paradigm shift has played out: “One of the many practical ways we have [brought about this shift] is through equipping volunteers, parents and students to be present in each other’s lives. Our events calendar is emptier than it used to be, but now we are free to go to students, listen and care unconditionally for them.”23

This is a picture we ought to embrace all across the lifespan. Scripture describes the spiritual life as a birth and the church as everything from a family, to a team, to an army, to a flock. These metaphors have two things in common: We grow, and we grow together. No one can deliver a baby by email or nurse it by Skype or teach it to walk through texting.

The only way to show rising generations that church is something you are, not something to go to, is to make it personal. It’s like a birthday party, not a drive-through. A wedding reception, not a concert. A family reunion, not an amusement park. But knowing this in theory does us little good. If what we’ve learned so far in this book is true, our own hunger for truth, identity and meaning will be satisfied only as we meet others’ hunger. So how do we do that in a practical way?