“I just want my life to matter, I want my life to mean something!”
Everyone thinks something like this at some point in their lives. It’s an incredibly human concern that goes far deeper than politics, culture or even religion. Everyone, in their moments of deepest clarity, feels a powerful desire for meaning and significance. But these aren’t the clearest of terms; what does it mean for my life to have meaning? What does it mean for my life to be significant, for my existence to matter?
What exactly would make the claim, “My life has meaning” true? To answer that question, it’s helpful to look at the kinds of things we say about ‘meaning’. Before you continue reading, you might want to consider your own answers. Close your eyes and ask yourself, ‘How do I know my life has meaning?’ or ‘How do I know that it matters that I exist?’ Remember the answers if possible; maybe even write them down.
Now compare your answer to this fairly typical statement from a post called “I Want to Matter“, by another, apparently Christian, blogger:
“I desperately want my life to matter. I want to live my life in such a way that it makes a difference. I want my life to impact the lives of the people around me in a positive way.” (emphasis added)
Did your answers involve words like difference and impact as well? This certainly doesn’t seem to be a uniquely Christian way of speaking about ‘meaning’. For example, the following is from a very honest and insightful post on the Suicide Project, a site where people post up their ‘suicide stories’:
“I have no idea what to do with myself because nothing really matters. I kind of think that I need to do something earth-shattering, log an amazing accomplishment that will be revolutionize the world and lead to never-ending adulation from others, because then I’d have some feeling of accomplishment and meaning. But I know that no matter what I do – win a gold medal in the Olympics, get elected President, invent a revolutionary technology and become a billionaire, whatever – none of it will matter to me because nothing is good enough to create any meaning for me.” (emph. mostly added)
Again, it’s assumed that the ‘meaning’ of one’s life is the difference one makes to the world. A life which produces some revolutionary accomplishment is a meaningful life, because it has left the world different than it was before. Perhaps that’s why we often say things like, “I want it to have mattered that I existed. I want the world to be a different place because I was here.” People who feel that their life is making no difference are typically those who suffer from low self-esteem. Suicide can tragically seem like a logical step because the person (falsely) believes that their life is having no effect on the world around them, and so they won’t be missed (‘Would anyone even notice if I was gone?’).
What I hope I’ve shown so far is simply this: that we judge our lives meaningful if they have an effect on the world around us, and that it’s incredibly important for us to feel that this is the case. Another way to put this is to say that the meaning of our lives is synonymous with the difference between our existing and not existing. If there is no meaningful difference between a world where we exist and a world where we do not, then our life has no meaning. (We’ll get to to what counts as a meaningful difference in a moment.)
And this is where things get really interesting. If you were to ask even the most theologically indifferent, genuine Christian the a simple question like “Why do you exist?” or “What gives your life meaning?”, you would almost certainly get an answer like, “Loving God and my neighbour.” The Gospels make this fairly clear – the two commandments on which hang all the Law and the Prophets, are to love God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbour as one’s self (Mt 22:37). On the Christian definition, God is love. Love is something which God simply does or commands; love is something that God is. Christians also define God as ‘life’ and ‘truth’; but in an important way, these aren’t really separate things. The truth is love. And so is life itself. The truth alienated from love is not fully true, and a life without love is not a real life at all. But here’s the point I really want to make: on the Christian worldview, love is the difference between our existing and not existing, because the motivation for God’s act of Creation was love. For a Christian, every created thing is meaningful because God bridged the infinite gap between something and nothing in order to give it being: God’s creative love, the difference between our being and not being, is the meaning of life.
Christians have always insisted that God did not create us because He needed anything from us (Acts 17:25), be it worship, glory or servitude. When He requests such things from us, they are for our benefit and not His (all persons must worship something; love is the only object of worship which will not destroy or consume the worshipper). Take for example, St. Gregory Nazianzen’s Liturgy, which contains a beautiful prayer from the creature to the Creator:
“You, as a Lover of Mankind, have created me, as a man. You had no need of my servitude, but rather, I had need of Your Lordship. Because of the multitude of Your mercies, you have brought me into existence when I was not …” (The Trisagion of the Anaphora, St. Gregory’s Liturgy, emph. added)
Creation, by definition, is an act of gratuitous, totally non-selfish love. And that, for a Christian, is the ultimate expression of life’s meaning. We’ve said that the meaning of our lives is the difference between our existing and not existing; for a Christian, that difference is made by the world-creating action of Love itself which brought us into being when we had none.
This turns out to be a very different model to the one the modern world usually communicates. One of the reasons we have such an epidemic of low self-esteem in our culture is because we have the cultural assumption that until we have made a difference to the world, by our own powers of intelligence, sociability, determination or beauty, then our existence does not matter. In the world, one has to work in order to gain one’s meaning. The Christian worldview however, says that we ought to strive to make the world better not in order to become meaningful, but because we are meaningful. A Christian defines the meaning of his or her life as the creative love of God which brought them into being; and this is the fact that inspires all service and work of the Church. We do not serve Christ because we hope to ‘win’ His love – the proof God’s love that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). God’s love is our meaning, and we have it unconditionally, regardless of our shortcomings.
This certainly doesn’t mean that Christians should lie back and do absolutely nothing, because their meaning is achieved by simply existing. There is a difference between having meaning and living it, just as there is a difference between being taught and learning. For Orthodox Christians especially, who emphasise human co-operation with divine grace, it’s absolutely essential to strive and serve in order to make the world a better place (Jn 15:16). But where the world says, “You are not meaningful until you have achieved things”, the Church says, “You ought to achieve things because you are meaningful.” But no-one who has truly understood the meaning of their life could fail to want to express it by living a Christ-like life; not in order to become meaningful, but because that is what being meaningful means (see Eph 2:8-10 below – we are not saved by works, but through grace, for works).
Christ, as the ideal human being, reveals to us the true meaning of life: to love God and our neighbour, even unto death. That is something which everyone can do, whether they are rich or poor, a scholar or illiterate, pretty or ugly, fat or thin, strong or weak. And thankfully, we needn’t rely on our own abilities to live out our meaning; what saves us is the grace of His Incarnation, which we live and receive in the Church’s liturgical and sacramental life. All our work and service flows out of the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist, where we celebrate the fact that God has already given our lives meaning by offering us His own broken body and shed blood.
True, Orthodox servants are the ambassadors of a victorious conqueror who has died to save them, not the terrified slaves of a capricious master, toiling away to earn his approval. We follow His commandments not because we fear His retribution, but because His commandments are love and life themselves: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us.” (1 Jn 4:18,19)
“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ … For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:4,5, 8-10)