Wired to Find Meaning In Life

What is the meaning of life?

It’s a question most of us have asked ourselves at one time or another. In fact, 75% of Americans believe that there is a higher purpose and meaning for their lives and nearly 70% believe that finding that deeper purpose is a high priority.[1]  This isn’t 75% of Christian-Americans or religious Americans, this is 75% of all Americans.  An even higher number believe “there is more to life than the physical world and society.”[2]  88%!  Even a surprising number of atheists ponder the meaning of life.  In a Pew Gallop poll, 35% said that they often think about the higher purpose of their life.[3]  Over a third of atheists OFTEN think about this!  That’s amazing!  They don’t believe in God or an afterlife, but they do believe there is a higher purpose for their life.  Why would they think that?  Why would people who don’t believe in God or an afterlife or divine providence hold on to this fiction that there is any meaning to life at all?  Unless it’s not.  Fiction that is.

Very young me

As a kid, I thought I had it all figured out.

When I was five years old, I had to have a tonsillectomy.  I don’t know what it was about my tonsils, but they would get infected seemingly every other week.  Dr. Thom and Dr. Crehan knew me very well.  One look down my throat and about 10 minutes later I was getting a shot in the rear.  The only good part was that afterward, my mom would take us to Tommy’s Hamburgers, the original one in downtown LA and I’d get a burger and a soda and eat it while sitting on the floor of our car.  I had a lot of Tommy’s Hamburgers.  But going to the doctor inspired me, even at five years old to want to do something to help other people and I decided I wanted to be a doctor.  I went through all of elementary school, junior high, and high school with the same goal in mind, but when I got to college that all changed.  I realized that being a doctor wasn’t going to be the path for me.  But I still felt this pull on my life and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.  When I finally heard God’s call on my life to enter into ministry, I realized that earlier when I thought for sure I was going to be a doctor, it was really a call to find a way to help people.  My calling, my meaning in life was to help others in whatever way I could.

The only good thing about visiting the doctor so often – Tommy’s Hamburgers

Apparently, I’m not alone.

Teens who are notorious for drifting away from church and for feeling disheartened by traditional means of faith have a deep sense they were created for something more.  Eighty-seven percent report they believe there is an overall purpose to life.  87%!  When asked what they thought that purpose was, the two most common answers were to help people and to be a good Christian.[4]  Number three was to be a good person.  Nearly 50% of teens thought that one of these answers was the meaning to life.  Helping others.  Being good.  A 17-year old in Kentucky said, “I think that my purpose in life is to help people. I’ve gone through hard times myself, and I can’t even imagine the situations some kids are in — much worse even than the life that I’ve had growing up. I think that as long as I have the ability, and want to help people, that’s what I should do.”  A 17-year old from Utah said, “Everyone is here to fill in the holes in other people’s lives, whether little or big holes. Not everybody is the same, and we all need to share our talents and strengths to uplift other people.” And a 15-year old girl from CA said, “I am here to mourn with those that mourn, help those in need, comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and to stand as a witness to God at all times and in all things and in all places. I am here to stand for faith, divine nature, individual worth, knowledge, choice and accountability, good works, and integrity.”[5]  But what is it that inspires us to believe these things?  What is it we hold in common between believers and non-believers, in church-goers and non-church-goers, in young and old that tells us we are made for a purpose?  It’s God.  God created us to search for meaning. We are wired to find the meaning of life. 

Whether or not you believe in God, you are wired to search for the meaning of life.

There is something within us that compels us to search for life’s meaning.  There’s something within us that craves to know why we are here, what purpose we are meant to serve.  And God gives us that deeper purpose.  With God we understand what Jesus tells the Pharisee when he’s asked about the Greatest Commandment.  Jesus tells him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  It’s this idea of loving God and loving others that helps us to better understand why we are here and it’s fulfilling this commandment that gives us meaning.  There are so many ways to show your love of others.  It could be with your cooking or your singing or your writing or your gardening or your teaching.  It could be how your talents make life easier or better or more meaningful for others.  There isn’t just one way to love your neighbor.  There are as many ways to help others as there are talents in the world.  More actually.  And it’s in the process of loving others and helping them that we have meaning in our lives.

But you don’t have to take my word for it, or even God’s.

From a purely scientific point of view, helping others gives us a sense of purpose. Researchers have studied this and have found that helping others gives us a sense of free will, it helps us to feel like we are good people, and it strengthens our relationships to others both in a specific and a general sense.[6]  But it also gives us a general sense of purpose.  Helping others makes us feel that life has meaning.[7]  And if you’re a Christian that all makes sense.  Most of what the prophets and the disciples record for us tells us to help others and to build one another up.  Whether it’s in the New Testament or Old Testament.  It doesn’t matter. The prophet Micah tells us we are “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).”  Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Galatia, “…do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Galatians 5:13-14).’”  And God himself tells us in Leviticus, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”  Helping is a part of who we are and who were created to be.  And here’s why.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

We are meant to be a city on a hill.

We are meant to point the way to God.  As Christians we understand God has already done so much for us that we are compelled to do good things for others.  We know Christ sacrificed everything so that we might have eternal life and so we dedicate ourselves to helping others receive God into their lives too.  We join together in God’s quest to bring as many as possible to him.  So for us, doing good, helping others is not only what we feel compelled to do to love our neighbor, but is our way of honoring what God has done for us.  Anybody can do good, but knowing why we do good and where this drive comes from gives us a sense of peace and wholeness that comes from nowhere else.

But there’s more to it than that.

Knowing God is at the heart of all things and believing he is are two different ideas altogether.  Finding that peace in your life doesn’t come from the head but from the heart.  And most people don’t spend enough time thinking about God for it to really sink in to their heart even if they do a bunch of good stuff. When asked how often they think about the deeper meaning of their lives, 38% of people barely think about it if at all.  When asked if they thought about going to heaven the results were worse.  Only 11% thought about it yearly and a whopping 46% never thought about it at all.  And it gets worse still.  When asked if they “think often about what I must do to experience peace in the afterlife,” 50% of people said they didn’t.[8]  As a society, we pay lip service to knowing God and finding the meaning of life, but too often we don’t think about it much at all.  Part of that is the hectic nature of life.  But part of it is that we just don’t make it a priority.

If there is an afterlife and God is a part of that, this really is the single biggest question of our lives.

We owe it to God and we owe it to ourselves to work on this and to make it a part of who we are.  So if you are a Christian and you do believe in God, I want to ask you to do two things.  One, think about this way more than once a year.  And two, make it a priority to know God better.  I promise that if you do, you’ll be even more at peace than you already are and you’ll feel more fulfilled than you already do.  Help others with the mindset that we do so to honor God and to light the way for him.  And if you don’t believe in God or you have doubts, please at least consider that this desire you have to find the meaning of life might just perhaps really come from God.  That this deep longing you have to figure out they “whys” and “wherefores” of life have to do with something beyond this world.  And then open your heart to the possibility of more.


[1] http://www.lifeway.com/Article/Research-Ultimate-purpose-and-meaning

[2] Ibid

[3] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts-about-atheists/

[4] Data about teens comes from http://www.gallup.com/poll/11215/how-many-teens-see-purpose-life.aspx

[5] http://www.gallup.com/poll/11215/how-many-teens-see-purpose-life.aspx

[6] http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/can_helping_others_help_you_find_meaning_in_life

[7] Ibid.

[8] All data in this section comes from http://www.lifeway.com/Article/Research-Ultimate-purpose-and-meaning

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