We field some huge questions on the podcast, like this one from a woman named Abijah, who is going through a lot. “Dear Pastor John, hello! So, I have been dealing with much in life, which has been really hard for the past three years. Normally I could face life’s challenges with the assurance that God was in control and that I could trust him. But beginning in 2018, I started to get really depressed about the whole meaning of life and my own purpose. It was in the midst of my challenges that I lost someone I really loved, and it broke me like nothing ever has. My entire view of God and life has been shattered. I can’t seem to get myself out of wondering why life is even a thing. Life, at least my life, often feels like it has no meaning. Can you renew my vision for life? Can you explain to me: What is the meaning of life?”
Abijah, I hear three distinct and interrelated sorrows that have brought you to this place of doubt about the meaning of your life. I hear depression; I hear loss; I hear a kind of fixation in your mind. You say, “I can’t seem to get myself out of wondering why life is even a thing.” In other words, the tape keeps playing over and over in your mind: Is life really significant at all? Or is it just a meaningless jumble coming from nowhere, going nowhere, with nothing in between but randomness?
I take your question, your plea, very seriously. I have tasted a little bit of what you’re talking about, and I know others who have tasted all of what you’re talking about. I have seen myself come through, I have seen others come through, and I believe you can come through. You can come out into the light of confidence in God, confidence in Christ, confidence in the certain purpose that God has for this world — the wise, good, just, holy purpose that God has for this world and your place in it.
Even in the words that you use, Abijah, you put your finger on the meaning of life. You say you are depressed about the whole meaning of your life and your own purpose. And I think that’s right; I think you’re absolutely right that meaning consists in purpose — a good purpose, a wise, just, satisfying purpose or design for you or for the world. So, the whole question is, Does the world, with all of its beauty and ugliness, gladness and groaning, love and hate, pleasure and pain, nobility and vulgarity, kindness and abuse, selfishness and sacrifice — does such a world as ours have a wise, good, just, satisfying purpose under the providence of an all-wise, all-powerful God?
Or was the atheist Bertrand Russell right at the end of his life when he said, “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing”? Are the words of Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play, when he hears about his wife’s death — are those words true? Are they a reflection of reality?
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
“The meaning of life is to know God, and to enjoy God, and to reflect some of the beauty of God as we know him in Christ.”
Abijah, I think one of the common strategies of Satan, whom you know is a thief and a murderer — he steals truth from the mind; he kills the soul — one of his common strategies is to fixate our mind on such possibilities: Life is a tale told by an idiot, isn’t it? Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Satan doesn’t even care if you believe that; he just wants you to be fixated on it — to think about it all the time and wonder if it might be true. He wants to steal from you and me every vestige of confidence that God is wise and good and just and holy, and that God is working everything together for a great purpose.
Know and Enjoy God
So, my purpose right now in this Ask Pastor John is to pray for you: that you would have power to resist the devil and that I could put a sword, the sword of the Spirit, in your hand, so that you could do battle valiantly and triumphantly against the darkness. The sword of the Spirit is the word of God. When he wrote his book, God knew that you would go through this. God knew about your depression. He knew about your loss. He knew about the fixation of doubt in your mind. And he wrote about these things over and over again in his word to help you and all of us.
The meaning of life, according to that word, God’s word, is to know God as he really is; and to enjoy him and all that he is for us in Christ; and to reflect in this dark world some of the light that he has shown to us when Christ, the very Son of God, died in our place, precisely that we might know God and enjoy God in spite of our sin; and then one day to see him and know him perfectly unendingly. Let me say it again. The meaning of life is to know God, and to enjoy God, and to reflect some of the beauty of God as we know him in Christ, and one day to see him perfectly and unendingly enjoy him.
The meaning of life now, the purpose of life in this age, is not comfort in this world now, nor escape from suffering now, nor the avoidance of loss now, nor the maximizing of physical pleasures now, nor the amassing of riches now, nor the achievement of any fame now, nor the right to any health now, nor that we would be treated with respect and justice now. Those are not the meaning of life in this age for God’s people.
Once sin entered the world and everything was corrupted, and once God’s saving purposes began to rescue people from sin, the glorious and beautiful purposes of this creation were thrust forward into the time when Christ would come again and set everything right: a time of perfect righteousness, a time of perfect peace, a new creation with no crying or pain anymore, so that over and over again in the Scriptures we are told to rejoice in hope — like Romans 5:2: “Rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
This present world is primarily a season of testing and a refiner’s fire. If this world is all there is, then life is surely meaningless. The Bible says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” if there’s no resurrection from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:32). So, the apostle Paul said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). And again, he said, “This light momentary affliction” — I’m thinking of your loss, Abijah, for example. “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). The apostle Peter put it most fully and clearly.
By God’s power [you] are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this [the coming, sure remedy for all ills; this salvation] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:5–7)
“Jesus Christ suffered precisely to bring us through our fiery trials, refined and purified, into the very presence of God.”
Oh, Abijah, that’s your life, right? The words for various trials mean “all kinds of trials” — literally, “many colors of trials and tests.” What an amazing interpretation of this world and our place in it! The meaning of suffering in this life is the refinement of faith by the fires of various trials, that we might know God, love God, show God as more precious than everything that the fires consume. Jesus Christ suffered precisely to bring us through these fiery trials, refined and purified, into the very presence of God for our eternal joy (1 Peter 3:18).
New Perspective on the Puzzle
So I close, Abijah, with an illustration. When COVID-19 shut up my wife and me, someone gave us a puzzle with a thousand pieces. They thought we would need something to do. I spread it out on two card tables. And in the interludes between my work, I would just pause there and try to find a piece or two to put together. I began with the confidence that these thousand chaotic pieces piled in the middle of the table would one day be that beautiful picture on the box — from bedlam to beauty, from chaos to order. Yes, that’s going to come. I saw the picture on the box. It was a kind of promise.
But one day, I had the border almost entirely completed — that’s the way I started, with the border. It was almost entirely completed, everything fitting together, but it wouldn’t fit. There were just one or two pieces that wouldn’t fit. And I was sure a piece was missing. I looked all over the floor. Or maybe they made the puzzle wrong. It’s defective. I went through, time after time, systematically looking at all the pieces. I put them in rows so I could see. I became fixated on the thought: This puzzle is not going to work. This puzzle is defective.
Then my wife came over and she sat down, and she looked at all the edge pieces that I had put together. And she said, “I don’t think these two pieces go together that you have fastened here. They almost go together. But I don’t think they go together.” I looked at it and responded, “They’re perfect. They go together.” And she said, “No, I don’t think so.” She took my puzzle apart, and she uncoupled the pieces that I had spent hours finding. She rearranged the pieces, and she put them back together, and it fit perfectly. There was no lost piece. There was no defect. There was just fallible me.
So my prayer, Abijah, is that this Ask Pastor John would perhaps come to you the way my wife came to me and showed me, “Johnny, your fixation on the imperfection of this puzzle and that the makers blew it — that’s out of place. They really do fit. This is going to be a beautiful picture. Just keep at it. Trust the promise that’s on the box there. It’s true.” The sufferings of this life are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed.