The Meaning of Life

“To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in the suffering,” so said the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche. Suffering, as he was right to point out, is universal. While I don’t think he was wrong, in either the premise or the assertion, I will call him out as stupid for everything surrounding it.

For those who want to dive into philosophy, my thoughts are below.1 Suffice it to say, Nietzsche wins the gold medal in mental gymnastics.


Even if Nietzsche was right at this point, finding purpose is now archaic – it is not considered wrong, rather it is just not considered. Proof of that is not on Twitter – but rather it is Twitter (or X). According to its new owner, Twitter is the town-square of our day. In the days of old, the town square was where the movers and shakers, moved and shook the thinking of the people; from Aristotle to the Apostle Paul. And it remains so.

With that as our understanding, our modern society has reached the conclusion that determining meaning and purpose is simply too stressful, and so we collectively avoid it. We have become beasts of burden, who plow our fields to avoid some type of stick; no thinking involved – we don’t know why we plow other than to live, and so we plow if only to avoid the alternative.

The functional and circular definition is that suffering is life, and that life is suffering. Collectively, this is the best thinking we have to offer the world today, (that, and cat videos). But it’s not new.


Perhaps in response to Nietzsche, Tolstoy deepened the waters and wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyach. And then, in a letter about this story, Tolstoy clarified, “No matter how often I may be told, ‘You cannot understand the meaning of life so do not think about it, but live,’ I can no longer do it: I have already done it too long.”2

Nietzsche acknowledged how survival required some type of purpose, but it was Tolstoy who was thinking past anything relativistic or individualized, past any arbitrary purpose, into trying to determine a true and substantive meaning for all.


Not long after Tolstoy, Frankl famously wrote about his experience in a Nazi concentration camp, where he concluded that suffering could be managed by retaining a sense of choice. In fact, he fleshed out a whole branch of psychology centered around recognizing meaning and purpose.

I love that Frankl called his branch of counseling logotherapy. Logos is Greek for ‘words’, and words are all about communicating clearly with other people, but first with yourself – as a result, logotherapy highlights how words mean something, and therefore carry power. The power of words recognizes inherent choice,3 and choice fosters hope in the future. Conversely, if there is no choice, whatever the future is, it is inevitable. And without a loving God, inevitably the future is nihilistic.4

Coming from a Jewish perspective, Frankl profoundly recognized how words carry power.


The apostle Paul said, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.” In talking with Jesus, Peter recognized “You have the very words of life,” which was backed-up by John who said Jesus is the very Word. And Jesus Himself said, “I am … the Life.”5

We are now brought back to the start. When discussing the meaning of life, it is good to define ‘life’.

And here it is: Life is Jesus.6


But we’re alive now, yes? Even without Jesus here, no? Well, yes and no.

According to Scripture, before Adam sinned he was warned that doing so would result in death. When he in fact sinned, he was removed from paradise, guards were placed to prevent his reentry, and a detailed description was given as to what was now going to happen as a result of no longer being face-to-face with God.7 Although Adam’s heart didn’t stop beating, and his brain waves continued to function, he was removed from God’s presence. He, along with all of creation, would now groan.

So Yes, we are alive but No, not fully.8 I find it helpful to think like Augustine in this regard, with this life operating like a grander pregnancy – we’re in utero now, waiting to be born. What we are becoming will be fully realized after these labor pains are over.9


Suffering is a consequence of the rebellion. Thorns, pain, sweat and separation from those we love, both temporarily and permanently, crept in – all by our first parents’ choosing. That doesn’t mean we’re guiltless. By our ongoing choosing, we show how we don’t want life on God’s terms; we want it instead on our own terms.10 In other words, we want to be our own gods, because we don’t want the Giver of our life to stay in that role. In our ongoing arrogance, our spoiled-brat selves blame God for the consequences of our own choices. He didn’t impose the effects of our choosing upon us, but rather, as He withdrew Himself, the natural results took over.11

Suffering, it would seem, is the best we can offer. Apart from Christ, any meaning for our time on earth is merely a self-improvement project – but to what end? To be the best ‘me’ I can be, as I drag myself into the casket? To live my ‘best life now,’ before I turn on the incinerator later? That may be Joel Osteen’s gospel, but it is not Jesus’. The message of Glennon Doyle Melton, Richard Rohr and their ilk is not anything like the good news promised by the God who took our life away and replaced it with His own.12


Yet even in Christ, we continue to suffer.

Acts 5:40-42 - “[A]nd when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”

It would seem as though Peter and the apostles took their beating with gladness, and then asked for the beatings to continue by continuing to do what brought about the first beating. They were gluttons for suffering, it would seem, so suffering must be the goal. Nope. Rather, by being in Jesus they knew that their life was secure, understanding what life actually is. Being beaten was not the point, but it was used by God to show how they were with God, and how God was with them.


Suffering doesn’t make us alive, in and of itself, but if we accept Christ’s life as our own, then an eternal purpose can be revealed through our suffering; clarity comes. In Jesus, pain is not the enemy. Pain is the refining fire which sloughs off the dross, making us more into His image; more alive than ever. Pain is not the point, but it is not shunned. It is difficult, it is heart-breaking, it is even crushing at times – but it is not lost on us.

To the Christian, suffering is known to bring about a greater purpose; God’s purpose. We trust that as true because we see Him in and through our suffering; we trust Him. To return to Tolstoy, there is a meaning and purpose to this life that can be known, which acknowledges, if not necessitates, suffering – to become more Christ-like.13 That is the point.

We want to allow God to shape us, in every respect. To that, we can say, Hallelujah – even through brokenness and in the midst of many tears.14

1- Nietzsche’s Gold Medal Asterisk

 Just like Lia Thomas should have an asterisk by his name in Women’s Swimming – whoever wrote his Wikipedia page worked extraordinarily hard, and should have a gold medal for denying reality – so Nietzsche should have an asterisk by his name in philosophy. Thank you for indulging me:

a. The fantasy of a super-man who rises above the slave morality that he spoke against, is the secular version of: Be your own savior (quite the oxymoron). The burden of being your own savior is piling on guilt and inadequacy without offering any outside help – pull yourself up by your own bootstraps; you have nobody to blame but yourself.

b. Nietzsche tacitly agreed that morality sure showed itself to be consistent over time and throughout every culture – which explains how the image of God is upon us all – but it was his life’s work to fight against the very concept of God. To get there, Nietzsche had to alter reality – he questioned the cold, hard fact that all people intrinsically know right from wrong. So he worked with Paul Rée and the best they could come up with was an amalgamation of Darwin (evolution) and Jung (the collective unconscious) – both of whom were somewhat contemporaries of Nietzsche. Both of those guys, by the way, were used by Karl Marx to justify and embrace the very slave morality that Nietzsche was theoretically against. I say ‘theoretically,’ because Nietzsche didn’t act in accord with his own words; not even remotely. He was all about sitting with the cool-kids at their elite lunch table.

c. In order to not concede God, Nietzsche proposed a few moral absolutes of his own, and he encouraged everybody else to do the same. That is the height of his thinking: Do what you want and call it ‘good’. Is it any wonder he had serious mental health issues, along the lines of psychosis, as well as a neurological syphilis?

2- Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession (Kindle Locations 306-308). Kindle Edition -or- for free over here.

3- Today’s psychology calls it Cognitive Restructuring. Jordan Peterson includes it as the tenth of his Twelve Rules for Life: Be precise in your speech.

4- This would be the second law of thermodynamics which, scientifically describes, among other things, the natural law of how things grow old and die. Disorder happens naturally from order, if not maintained through some outside effort. There is definitely more to it, and I see no reason to disagree with Wikipedia on this point.

5- For reference, those verses are:  Philippians 1:21, then John 6:68, then John 1:1, and finally John 14:6.

6- Acts 17:24-31 (ESV) - “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

7- Enumerated in Genesis 2, overall. But I find verses 22-24 particularly compelling: “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”

To quote Galadriel when I probably shouldn’t: “And some things that should not have been forgotten, were lost. History became legend, and legend became myth.” And the Tree of Life, which which was almost forgotten, returns in Christ.

8- That banishment is one in which Adam’s descendants continue in today.  Read more about that over here.

We are in despair. We hurt. We grieve, because we are apart from the Giver of life. That original sin set creation apart from the Creator. As a result, we are born opposed to Him; as rebels.

As a child of that first insurrection, I continued my warfare against God’s creation and His order – such is the heart that is hardened toward Christ. But God drew me in. He had zero need to do so, yet He provided a way to Him through Christ’s atonement. He didn’t have to – there was no obligation for God to appease humanity’s coup.

9- This metaphor was first identified by Augustine in Confessions, and fleshed out further by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity. And if this jug holds any water – that we’re alive now, but we’re more alive later – that would solidify the logic that babies in the womb are are also alive now. Developmentally, babies need their mothers to protect and sustain them, so that they can grow into what they were designed to be. Spiritually, we too need the Giver of life.

Which reminds me of Colossians 2:17, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

10- Proverbs 14:12 – “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”

11- Remember the speech V delivered in that phenomenally prescient 2005 film? “How did this happen? Who is to blame? Well certainly there are those who are more responsible than others; they will be held accountable. But again, truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.”

12a- Historically understood Christianity bears no resemblance to these modern heretics. From the authority of Scripture, to atonement, to salvation, to the basic understanding of who God is, and down to the nature of the church – there is no Christ in what they call Christianity.

12b- Here is a nice summary of what Luther (potentially) called The Great Exchange

13- Timothy Keller questions the logic of those who conclude there is no God because they have issues with God allowing suffering: “If this world is all there is, how can you be mad at suffering? Suffering is natural and so are the causes of suffering.”

14- Jeremiah 18 – Please, read that chapter again. At least the first half.

FINAL NOTE: There is a lot more to be said about suffering.  Jacob wrestled with God and refused to let His angel go without first receiving a blessing, and I see a parallel here. In wrestling with this topic, I am painfully aware of how simplistic my thinking is, but there is a blessing in it.

And so I wonder, as we are working this out: what other thoughts do you have about pain and struggle, meaning and purpose? Were there any questions raised in your mind as you read my ramblings? Did I omit any key arguments? Did you find yourself thinking any snarky thoughts or singing any pithy lyrics to yourself?  I’d love to know.

Thank you,