Does It All Have Meaning?
If you find life boring, something’s wrong.
Life has so much mystery to keep us busy for…well, forever. How did life develop on the planet? Are there multiple universes? Has our universe recycled innumerable times through repeated “big bangs?” How is it that life forms developed in the depths of our oceans without sunlight? Is there life in the depths of Europa’s oceans? How does consciousness emerge from a bunch of neurons firing in the brain?
I suppose these are just a few of life’s good mysteries among a zillion others. But life has bad mysteries too. Those bad mysteries plagued the nation of Israel. And it was those mysteries with which Jesus came to deal.
The top three over-arching bad mysteries of life are evil, suffering, and death. They are the infamous Biblical Trifecta. Looking back at the dawn of human history, the Hebrew people wrestled with where all of life’s nonsense came from—including why they suffered so much trauma as a people and as a nation. Thus we have Genesis…specifically, chapter three. And later, the apostles wrapped Israel’s ponderings, summarized in that chapter, around Jesus like a royal robe.
If the mind-boggling intrigues of our glorious universe aren’t enough to keep us busy—and interested—then surely our own evil we perpetrate on one another in our families and between nations should be. Beyond that, the uninvited sufferings life puts us through, with sometimes the super-intense sufferings that push us to the brink of self-destruction or madness, can certainly keep us engaged in the game of life.
The engagement of life’s mysteries—both good and bad—can be its own meaning. It is what makes life an adventure. But such intrigue does not give us the meaning of either the good or the bad. Some think that Genesis 3 does, in fact, give us the full meaning of life’s bad mysteries. And that meaning is this: We engaged evil through Adam. As a consequence we suffer and die. And, later in history, that’s why Jesus died…to reverse it all. In reversing the trifecta, we stand forgiven for all the evil we will ever perpetrate on others. Someday we will rise from death, no more to suffer and no more to die. It is because of this reversal that the apostle Paul declared that we are new in Christ. The old order of the trifecta is gone; behold, all things are being made new—with us in it.
But—it’s not quite that neat and clean.
Job was traumatized with super-intense suffering. His friends thought he must be doing something wrong to earn the suffering. In the end, God vindicated Job, declaring him innocent of wrongdoing. Life traumatized Job; Job was innocent. Both were true. The story put those two facts together: Job suffered intensely but was innocent of having earned it. So people really do suffer in ways they have not earned.
So do the animals. All living creatures eventually suffer and then die. But animals are not considered evil. So why do they suffer and die? Hmmm….
Many Christians believe that if and when we suffer in this life, such suffering must have a divine purpose. Why? Because God wouldn’t let us suffer for no good reason, they think. He’d be cruel. And the apostle Paul noted that all things work together for good for those who are called….
All things work together for good…. Just what does that mean? The apostle was talking about God ultimately and mysteriously using the trifecta to bring those of us who belong to Christ into the new universe, where there will be no more evil, suffering, and death. It doesn’t mean that each piece of suffering we go through has some special divine meaning for us personally. My mother’s emotional abandonment of me in my infancy—and with it, nearly losing my mind as a toddler—was not some divine plan to build character in me. THAT would have been cruel indeed…not to mention stupid.
I’d like to offer you what one of my seminary professors offered me and the other students in his class. He was a professor of theological apologetics. He had trained in Europe in various philosophies. He was also trained in the Bible. One class, we were discussing evil in the context of what he called, “the existential search for the philosophical ground of meaning and being.” I share this to contrast that erudite statement with his next extraordinarily plain-spoken comment. For a young seminarian like myself, it was a bullet between my eyes. Looking up from his notes, he glanced to his right, at me first, then slowly scanned the room, locking eyes with each man as he did so, saying, “Men, perhaps part of what makes evil ‘evil’ is that it is just nuts.”
I felt the jolt. I felt at once disappointed, yet so very relieved. While we have the panoramic of what God has done in Christ to free us from the Trifecta, in the nuts-‘n-bolts of each person’s suffering—in the nuts-‘n-bolts of my suffering—I could stop chasing the wind of trying to figure out why I suffered so. I could stop chasing the wind because there was no wind to chase. Part of what makes evil so horrific…part of what makes suffering feel so bad…part of what makes suffering super-intense is the fact that it is nuts. It is anti-life, anti-love, anti-health, and anti-God. That’s why we need a new universe. Jesus’ entire ministry was to reverse the trifecta. The apostle John’s futuristic vision in Revelation is a universe without any—ANY—of this craziness.
Indeed, whatever else it may be, the nonsense we go through in this life…is nuts.
Frank Barbehenn is an expert on integrating psychology with faith. He is the author of Faith of a Father: from Torment to Trust—Forging Our New Identity in Christ. This book has received industry recognitions including being an International Illumination Book Award Winner and an International Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist.
Frank is a licensed psychologist in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and has been in practice for 35 years. He specializes in relationship and trauma therapy. He also trained in theology. He is a Clinical Fellow with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a Fellow with the American Psychotherapy Association.
He is an elder at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pa. and has been on the Permanent Judicial Committee of his Presbytery. He has been a middle school and high school teacher, as well as adjunct faculty in psychology at the college level. He has led seminars, taught Adult Education, year-long discipleship programs, and led church committees.
Frank has been married for forty-four years and is a father of three——Paul, Matt, and Kristen——and the proud grandfather of five (as of this writing): Dylan, Leah, Jacob, Hannah, and Sarah. He loves to sail and play golf, along with launching model rockets with his grandchildren and chasing them around the house as the “Grampy Monster.”
Finally, Frank is the survivor of multiple traumas, including emotional trauma at the hands of his own parents, beginning in infancy.
Sponsored by Frank Barbehenn