Meaningful Lives in a Purposeful World
How Providence Changes Everything
In order to live with real hope in this world, you must have a view of reality that can bear the weight of reality.
What do I mean by “reality”? I mean everything. We humans are designed to pursue understanding not only of the physical world (material reality) but also of the metaphysical world (ultimate reality). It’s not enough for us to know how everything works; we need to know what everything means.
We want to know why we exist. Where did the world come from? Why is there such breathtaking beauty and incomprehensible macroscopic and microscopic wonders in the natural world? Why does evil seem to infect and affect just about everything? Why is there so much suffering?
We want to know why our parents divorced. Why did I survive that accident? Why did my dreams crumble? What will happen when I die?
“In order to live with real hope in this world, you must have a view of reality that can bear the weight of reality.”
But when we ask such metaphysical questions, most often what we really want is not highly detailed answers, but to know whether or not, at the core of ultimate reality, everything has a purpose. Or is it all just meaningless? In other words, we must have what social scientists call a worldview — an interpretive grid or lens through which we see everything in order to make sense of it all.
So the question is, What view of ultimate reality, what worldview, can bear the full weight of the incomprehensibly vast and complex reality in which we live?
Worldview of the Bible
The Bible makes a clear, bold claim about what ultimate reality is: the triune God (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1–3; Matthew 28:19; Acts 17:28; Romans 11:36). But how would we describe the Bible’s worldview — the interpretive grid or lens, shaped by the ultimate reality of God, through which the Bible shows us what everything means? I suggest the Bible’s worldview is the providence of God.
What do we mean by the providence of God? John Piper captures it in a phrase: God’s wise and purposeful sovereignty. So why not just describe the Bible’s worldview as God’s sovereignty? Piper explains that while God’s sovereignty “focuses on God’s right and power to do all that he wills . . . it does not express any design or goal.” But “God’s providence carries his [sovereign] plans into action, guides all things toward his ultimate goal, and leads to the final consummation.”
If God’s providence is the biblical lens through which he wants us to see and make sense of ourselves and the world, what does the Bible teach us to believe about his wise and purposeful sovereignty?
[The Bible teaches us to] believe that God upholds and governs all things — from galaxies (Isaiah 40:26) to subatomic particles (Colossians 1:16–17), from the forces of nature (Psalm 147:15–18) to the movements of nations (Psalm 33:10–11), and from the public plans of politicians (Proverbs 21:1) to the secret acts of solitary persons (Proverbs 16:9) — all in accord with his eternal, all-wise purposes (Psalm 104:24) to glorify himself, yet in such a way that he never sins (Deuteronomy 32:4), nor ever condemns a person unjustly (Romans 2:11–12); but that his ordaining and governing all things is compatible with the moral accountability (Romans 3:19) of all persons created in his image. (Desiring God Affirmation of Faith)
This is the worldview of the Bible. And if this is what we believe is true about ultimate reality, we will see the world — as terribly infected with evil, sin, and suffering as it is — infused with great meaning. And we will live with an undercurrent of profound hope.
But if this isn’t what we believe about ultimate reality, if we believe the world is a product of mindless forces, we will see everything as fundamentally meaningless, and live with an undercurrent of despair. What we see through what we believe makes all the difference in the way we approach life.
World Without God
This difference can be seen in the way two remarkably brilliant and influential men of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell and C.S. Lewis, understood ultimate reality.
Russell was a metaphysical naturalist. He did not believe God exists; for him, therefore, material reality was ultimate reality. With no divine providence to guide the world, he viewed it as “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms” and therefore “void of meaning.” Which meant, when it came to the story of humanity, he believed
that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.
C.S. Lewis well understood Bertrand Russell’s worldview, having once been a metaphysical naturalist himself. But after undergoing a gradual, arduous conversion to Christianity, the way he saw everything changed.
World Guided by God
Looking through the lens of biblical revelation, Lewis saw a cosmos enchanted, bursting with purposeful meaning, everything pointing him to the one thing that could possibly address his “inconsolable secret” (29), his undeniable “desire [for joy] which no experience in this world can satisfy” (181): God.
When it came to the story of humanity, what Lewis came to see could not have been more different than what Russell saw:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. (The Weight of Glory, 46–47)
Oh, the difference a worldview makes. Through his understanding of ultimate reality, Russell saw a meaningless world in which one must build one’s life “on the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” But Lewis, through his understanding of ultimate reality, saw God’s providential hand guiding all things toward his ultimate goal, a significant part of which is ultimately giving to those who love him what their souls most deeply desire: himself.
What Can Bear Our Reality?
Both Bertrand Russell’s metaphysical naturalism and C.S. Lewis’s Christianity are logically coherent ways of believing what’s ultimately real — both make internal logical sense. Whose belief, however, more accurately aligns with what is truly, ultimately real?
“We need to know our lives, with all their joys and agonies, somehow fit into some larger purpose.”
I believe a clue lies in how we answer this question: What view of reality can bear the weight of reality? No one can really build a life on “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” No one can really bear existential hopelessness. We need the firm foundation of ultimate meaning to fuel the hope we need to live and thrive in a world like ours. Deep down at the most visceral, intuitive part of our being, we need to know that our lives, with all their joys and agonies, somehow fit into some larger purpose.
In other words, whether we articulate it this way or not, we need to see the world through the lens of the providence of God. As John Piper says,
That is where ultimate meaning is found. If we are going to understand anything, at the most important level, we start with this reality: God created the world, holds it in existence, and governs all of it for his purposes. Everything relates to everything because everything relates to God. The knowledge of this, and the fear of the Lord, is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:12).
This is the view of reality that bears the otherwise unbearable weight of reality, for while it doesn’t answer all our confounding questions, it provides us with the framework for understanding our profound existential questions. And in doing so, it addresses our soul’s deep, unshakable needs for real hope and lasting joy.