Monday, August 11, 2008

God's gift of meaning

by John D Ramsey
I mowed the front yard after work on Friday afternoon. This summer, Claire has been eager to help mow, but on Friday neither of us wanted to mow the backyard. I thought that I would mow again in the morning; however, I awakened Saturday to the sight of a gentle but soaking rain. The yard would have to wait. I decided that instead of mowing, I would fulfill my standing appointment with Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. The book has been sitting on my desk for a few weeks, but I had not touched it.

For me a book is usually an all-or-nothing endeavor. Lisa can read a page or a chapter each day until the book is finished. I try to read a book in one sitting. Every day I saw Man’s Search for Meaning, but I hesitated even to pick it up lest I become rapt in its pages and fail to do something important such as show up for work. Fortunately, Frankl’s style is accessible and I finished the book in a couple hours. I should have picked it up sooner.

Frankl summarizes man’s source of meaning in three words: work, love, and suffering. As a survivor of multiple Nazi concentration camps, Frankl speaks convincingly of his finding meaning in the midst of suffering. Frankl’s humility toward human suffering is tender. He does not qualify his benevolent compassion for men by the degree of suffering they have endured. Whatever we have suffered, Frankl suffered more. He could have easily lost patience and told the despairing, “Stop it!” as a Bob Newhart did in a Mad TV skit. Rather, Frankl encourages everyone to find meaning in his suffering or perhaps better said – to find meaning even in the midst of suffering.

The focus of Man’s Search for Meaning is not religious much less Christian, but Frankl repeatedly uses metaphors such as crucifixion and carrying a cross. Frankl alludes to Christology to epitomize the depth and persistence of human suffering. For the Christian, this is compelling. Certainly, the audience to which Frankl writes is predominantly, if only marginally, Christian. Nevertheless, the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 52:14, “His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness”, together with the crucifixion accounts in the Gospels, testifies of the overwhelming suffering endured by Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ left his rightful place beside the Father in heaven. He became a man. He suffered at the hands of evil men. He was crucified, and therein he incurred all of man's wrath against his God. He who was sinless became the sin offering for the whole world; Jesus suffered more than Viktor E. Frankl.

Had he understood that Christ carried on the cross the cause of all human suffering, Frankl would have become an evangelist rather than a psychiatrist. An earlier Jewish philosopher and theologian, the Apostle Paul, understood the full meaning of suffering when he wrote,

I want to know Christ
and the power of his resurrection
and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings,
becoming like him in his death,
and so, somehow
to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10, 11 (NIV)

While Frankl taught that finding meaning is victory over suffering – even victory in life, the idea that each can find his own meaning falls far short of power of Christ’s resurrection. Frankl’s insights come up short because in Frankl’s philosophy, everyone must find contentment only from within himself.

Frankl, like all existentialists, internalizes meaning. Meaning begins and ends with the man. While Frankl disparages modern man’s pursuit of meaning through pleasure, his system does not preclude finding meaning through pleasure. Frankl merely acknowledges that pleasure is fleeting, and man might find persistent meaning more easily by ascribing purpose to pain. Frankl’s insights are valuable to everyone who feels that they suffer without cause, yet it falls short of man’s greatest hope. A wiser man than Frankl, King Solomon, once wrote:

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.

Whatever is has already been,
and what will be has been before;
and God will call the past to account.

And I saw something else under the sun:
In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

I thought in my heart,
God will bring to judgment
both the righteous and the wicked
for there will be a time for every activity,
a time for every deed.”

Ecclesiastes 3:9-17 (NIV)

God has “set eternity in the hearts of men” – eternity is the meaning we seek, yet we cannot grasp what God is doing. Whereas Frankl internalizes the source of meaning, Christianity must externalize the source of meaning. For the Christian, meaning derives from his hope of resurrection unto eternal life. Moreover, we discover eternal life not from within ourselves, but within our relationship with God. Jesus praying to the Father, said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17:3 (NIV)

Whereas Frankl’s philosophy liberates men’s minds by ascribing some meaning to their suffering, Jesus Christ, through his suffering, liberates men’s souls by offering reconciliation to God and eternal life in fellowship with God. To the extent that we know the Father through Jesus Christ, we are already experiencing eternal life. Freedom according to Frankl comes with personal understanding, yet as believers, we need not understand God’s specific purpose to understand that God has a specific purpose. Our freedom comes not from knowing everything that God knows, but rather from knowing and trusting God himself.

Frankl devised a therapeutic framework he designated logotherapy. He chose this name because the Greek word logos can be translated meaning. In the English New Testament, logos is usually translated word. Nevertheless, I like Frankl’s translation.

In the beginning was the [Meaning],
and the [Meaning] was with God,
and the [Meaning] was God.
He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made
that has been made.
In him was life,
and that life was the light of men . . .

The [Meaning] became flesh
and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory,
the glory of the One and Only
who came from the Father
full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-3, 14 (NIV)

Jesus Christ is God’s amazing gift of Meaning to all who are searching for it.

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