Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries


Meaning In the Face of Suffering  audio

Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3

2 Cor 4:5-12

(Part of a Sermon series based on Making Sense of God by Tim Keller,  Hodder & Stoughton, Sept 2016)

The book of Ecclesiastes presents us with the basic dilemma of living: What’s it all about? King Solomon explains that he’s applied his mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. He’s lived a life of pleasure, he’s built great works of architecture; he’s studied nature to the point where he’s become a great naturalist; he’s surrounded himself with every form of luxury: gold, jewels, slaves, entertainers, concubines; - and his conclusion? “It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14I saw all the things that are done under the sun; all is meaningless, a chasing after wind.” (Eccl 1:13-14)

 In the passage we read today he says when he looked in the places of justice and righteousness all he found was wickedness. He says he can find no difference between humans and animals. Despite our great inventiveness and intelligence, in the end we all die the same way animals do. We’re all from dust and we all return to dust. - He sounds like he needs a course of anti-depressants, doesn’t he?

But he isn’t depressed. He’s just realistic. His conclusion, one of them at least, is that what we need to do is just accept our lot and enjoy what we can of life. “22There is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?” There’s something very contemporary about that isn’t there?

But let’s face it, it’s not really a satisfactory answer is it? We want to know what we’re here for. We want to feel that what we do might have some meaning, some significance, don’t we?

This is a question that’s intrigued philosophers for centuries. Heidegger suggests that this is one of the things that separate us from other animals: only humans ask this question.

But how important is it? Atul Gawande, a surgeon and author in the area of public health tells of a doctor working at a nursing home who convinced the administrator to bring in various animals and birds to be cared for by residents – with significant results. The residents began to come to life. People they’d believed to be unable to speak started talking. People who’d been completely withdrawn and unable to walk began coming to the nurses’ station offering to take the dog for a walk. Parakeets were adopted and named by residents. Most significantly the use and need for psychotropic drugs dropped to 38% of the previous level. And deaths fell by 15%.

So how do you account for such a dramatic change? The doctor concluded that the difference in death rate was connected with the fundamental human need for a reason to live. Merely being housed and fed and safe isn’t enough to feel that life is worthwhile. We all need a cause beyond ourselves.

So it seems that the search for the meaning of life might be a healthy thing.

It’s interesting though that this overt questioning of meaning has really only come about in the past couple of hundred years. Writers like Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, playwrights like Chekhov, Arthur Miller, Samuel Becket have all highlighted the meaninglessness and absurdity of life. e.g. Camus suggests that whatever good we try to do for others doesn’t last, any more than they do. We try to put meaning into things but the universe fails to cooperate. In the end we’ll all be forgotten and our great works will be like the ruins of Ephesus or Machu Picchu, mere relics.

Of course we see this in the world around us from time to time don’t we? A man spends weeks fighting fires, facing a blazing inferno and survives. He drives away for a break and someone runs a car into his and he dies. A surgeon walks out of a hospital at the end of his shift and a man on drugs punches him and he dies. No justice there. No way to explain it. It’s certainly not Karma or the universe balancing accounts. No, it seems totally meaningless, just as Solomon observed.

So should we stop looking for meaning in our lives? Just live in the moment. Another philosopher, Thomas Nagel, wonders whether the search for Meaning comes from an overinflated sense of our own importance. His view is a bit like what we saw in Ecclesiastes. Your destiny is the grave, so don’t take yourself so seriously. Just take life as it comes and enjoy as much of it as you can. Why torture yourself with a search for meaning?

But again that doesn’t really satisfy does it?

So what do we do? The postmodern philosophers of recent times would suggest that you should let go of the notion that life should have meaning and you’ll be free to enjoy life as it comes. If you really want meaning in your life then just create it. Decide for yourself what will be your meaning, your purpose in life.

Our schoolchildren are trained in this from an early age. They’re told “Life is what you make it.” They’re told they can do whatever they put their minds to; which of course is nonsense, isn’t it? Someone once said you can try with all you might to see tigers as cuddly pussycats but if you try to cuddle one you won’t be around to tell the tale. The numbers of young men or women who get to play cricket for Australia or compete in the Australian Open is much, much lower than the numbers who wish they could. 

Still, the consensus seems to be that meaning only exists in your mind. If you don’t create your own meaning then there isn’t any. In other words, meaning has become a created thing, not a discovered thing.

Can you see how this has happened? I think it’s happened like this. As a society we’ve moved from a belief that there’s some external guide or standard, some divine (?) arbiter of what’s right or helpful or good, to a choice based on our personal freedom, our own desires, our own sense of what will be best for us. This hasn’t happened all at once. In the last century there was at least a sense that the interests of the community should be considered. Communally held values were considered important. That’s why the Baby Booster generation, the one before mine, were so willing to commit themselves to community organisations, including churches. But slowly individualism and the desire for personal freedom began to take over. No longer was the communal interest the first priority. What was primary was my own right to develop my own set of values, my own way of life, of being, my own worldview. And that’s led to a relativism that makes it impossible to know what our society’s ideals should be. Just think about the ongoing debates over recent years about what Australian values are. No-one’s quite sure any more.

So that change has made a huge difference to our thinking about our lives. It has an enormous impact on the way we might interact with our non-Christian friends or neighbours or workmates.

There was an article in the paper this week suggesting that the increase in allergies among children since the late 90s may be connected with a change in the vaccine for whooping cough that all children are given. Apparently there was a change from the old version that had some minor side effects to a new version that scientists thought would be an improvement. But now they’re wondering whether this increase in allergies was an unintended consequence. Well it strikes me that a similar thing has happened in the world of philosophy. As more and more people have abandoned a view of the world as created and overseen by a deity and have substituted personal freedom and autonomy we’ve become much more aware of and affected by the absurdity and tragedy of life; of our inability to control our destiny. And at the same time we’ve lost the avenue for discussing our differences.

I might say to someone “You’re free to do or say what you like but not if that hurts someone else” but that just raises the question what do you mean by hurt? Who decides what hurt is? Who decides what’s right and what’s wrong? You and I would probably agree that our nation’s treatment of asylum seekers is unjust but others will say they’re getting what they deserve for not going through the right channels. And we have no objective basis, as a culture, on which to decide. In fact if you think about the climate change debate, even the findings of scientific research aren’t a sufficient basis for discussion.

Sadly, in Australia and probably in most of the western world a consumerist mindset has taken over when it comes to values. Everything now has a price, from communications to environmental protection; from childcare to entertainment. We flirted with free tertiary education for a while in the 70s and 80s but that’s now joined the long list of public benefits that have to be paid for. If we have a problem with meaninglessness we deal with it by seeking to escape through mindless entertainment or extreme sports or luxury holidays or shopping sprees or some other form of diversion. Similarly, when life gets too hard, people today are much more likely to go to a psychologist than to a pastor.

We have a name for this approach to life, this worldview. It’s called secularism. Secularism is the only major worldview whose members must find their meaning within this life. Other worldviews hold that this life is not the whole story; but with secularism it is. That’s why cultures with a religious foundation have always found in suffering and death a way to affirm something that matters beyond and more than this life. Without that, life has to go well for it to be meaningful. If your meaning comes from family or career or politics or sport, it can be so fragile. Suffering could ruin it at any moment.

This is where the Christian faith has something to say. If you derive your meaning from becoming like Christ and living with God and others in glory forever, nothing can take that way. If your meaning in life is to emulate Christ, suffering may actually help you. What did Paul say in that passage from 2 Corinthians 4? “8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

Christianity also speaks to the imperative to love and be loved that exists in every human being. If all you have is this life then the prospect of death means the loss of love, whether you’re the one dying or the one surviving the death of another. This is one of the things Camus says makes life meaningless. But if you believe that death opens the way to a life of greater and endless love relationships it becomes something to accept with ease or even to welcome. I’m reminded of my grandmother who, in her 90s, told us that she prayed every night for God to take her to be with him.

But this leaves us with the difficult question of how we talk to our non-Christian friends and acquaintances about suffering, about the meaning of life. What do you say when someone asks how your God could allow the devastation of this year’s bushfires; or how could God allow a four year old to develop cancer and die, or an elite sportsperson to be injured and in a wheelchair for the rest of their life?

Well let me suggest some things to avoid, then some possible positive approaches.

Let’s be careful not to insult people by pointing out the meaninglessness of a life without God. That’ll just close down the conversation. Much better to give examples of how you derive meaning from your relationship with God and let them work it out.

Let’s avoid the suggestion that suffering is in some way a punishment by God for something a person has done or perhaps for their lack of faith.

Let’s avoid a patronising attempt at empathy. Never say “I know how you must be feeling” even if you’ve suffered something similar. Everyone suffers in different ways.

Let’s avoid putting words in God’s mouth. You know the sort of thing: “I’m sure God has something good to bring out of this.” “God’s grace will be sufficient for you.” Even if those trite words are true they won’t help.

On a more positive side it may help to acknowledge that Christianity teaches that all suffering is unfair. Karma is not a Christian doctrine. Suffering doesn’t arise from a former life or even from misdeeds in this life.

Christianity teaches that suffering is a terrible reality, not an illusion to be overcome by stoic detachment. There’s nothing particularly noble in suffering, though God can use it in a meaningful way to help us grow. Looking back many Christians have seen how suffering has been instrumental in their growth to maturity.

In Ecclesiastes, in the passage before the one we read today, he tells us: “11He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” He’s saying that God puts limitations in our understanding that lead us to long to know more. Christianity teaches that humans are separated from the love of God through our self-centredness and refusal to live the way he wants us to. So sometimes suffering becomes a catalyst for seeking to know what God is doing in the world, or at least in my life. We may not be able to find a specific link between my suffering and God’s actions but we can know this: the world is not the way God intended it to be, nor the way he plans to remake it.

By the way, despite what I said before, the evidence seems to be that climate change is largely the result of human action. But Christians would say that that’s just one symptom of a greater problem caused by humans turning their back on God.

My present suffering is a symptom of that greater problem and it can only be addressed by God himself.

When Jesus died on the cross he cried out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” That was an echo of the abandonment and meaninglessness felt by so many suffering people as he took on himself the penalty for our rebellion. He died so we could be brought back into the family of God, forgiven and restored to a place of loving welcome.

His sacrifice doesn’t remove our present suffering but it does give our lives a meaning that transcends this world and places us in an eternal timeline that will lead at last to an end of suffering.


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