The Meaning of Life, According to Jesus

Here’s a little experiment for you. Right now, make yourself smile.

mirror_smileLook in the mirror.

Are you really, genuinely smiling? Or is it a little forced?

Okay, now make yourself laugh.

Did you fill the room with hearty guffawing? Or did you find it quite difficult?

Okay, now make yourself happy.

Are you truly brimming with joy?

You know, I bet you couldn’t do it at all.

Why? Because happiness is a reaction to your circumstances, like smiling and laughter. You can’t artificially make yourself happy, any more than you can make yourself laugh if you have nothing to laugh at.

Genuine smiling and laughter occur when something cheers you up or tickles your funny bone. You smile when you bump into a good friend at the grocery store. You laugh at a hilarious one-liner. Smiling and laughter are responses to things outside yourself, they aren’t something you can generate on your own.

And, as much as our culture is convinced that happiness is the goal of life, it’s impossible to will yourself to be happy.

In fact, the pursuit of happiness can frustrate that very goal. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl makes this point. He notes, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness. The more one makes happiness an aim, the more he misses the aim.”

happy_mealHere’s what he means. What if you made each decision based on how it served your happiness? You get into college but instead of studying, you focus on frisbee-playing. Studying, after all, is tiresome, but your frisbee causes happiness to flood into your soul.

Each night for supper, you forgo boring health foods to feast at McDonald’s, because it seems to make you happier. (Isn’t that why they have “Happy Meals” there?)

You get married but a few years later, you meet someone else. So you tell your spouse that you have no choice but to leave — your happiness demands it.

How happy will you be in the end?

In our culture, “happiness” is such a priority that it has become an acceptable excuse for all sorts of short-sighted, selfish behavior. Of course it’s fine to enjoy life and find ways to have fun. But happiness often eludes us when we consistently choose the “happy” thing over the better thing.

Viktor Frankl made another profound observation in his book — that what humans fundamentally desire is not happiness, but meaning. As a survivor of Auschwitz, he found that he and other prisoners could endure great suffering as long as they felt it had purpose. But as soon as they felt life had no meaning, they gave up, and nothing could stop them from dying. It was knowing that their lives had worth and dignity, that a loved one needed them to keep going, or that God was with them — that was what sustained them.

Frankl goes on to point out that when people see that they are fulfilling a worthy purpose, happiness is inevitable. When you persevere through difficult classes to earn your diploma, the pleasure you feel is real and long-lasting. When you see children you’ve raised grow into well-adjusted adults, heartfelt satisfaction is the automatic response. Happiness is almost unavoidable then.

Seeing that your life has purpose and being true to it is what leads, ultimately, to inner well-being.

Jesus’ Purpose and Ours

Many a modern sermon has asserted that Christ’s main goal was to teach us how to be happy, because that’s what our culture thinks life is all about. But after reading Viktor Frankl, a new thought dawned on me.

When you read Jesus’ words, what he really was preaching about was not happiness, but meaning. And not about finding your “personal” meaning. But God’s true, ultimate purpose for the world, his plans to redeem sinners and heal creation.

Climbing dune

Christ’s own life and ministry had just one purpose: the Kingdom of God. He knew he was called to establish God’s loving reign on earth, no matter what it took, even his own death on a cross. His single-minded passion often comes out in his words:

“My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.”

“I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”

And he exhorts his disciples to “Seek first the Kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.” Nothing else is important!

Jesus had a single task: to bring God’s forgiveness to the world. He invited disciples to join him in his mission — to spread the Good News, to heal the hurting, and to even love their enemies. He knew it would be difficult and costly at times, and may even require their lives.

His first Jewish disciples got it — and they dropped everything to join him. They weren’t following him to find happiness, but because they realized that this was the purpose for which they were created — to bring God’s loving redemption to the world.


11 Responses to “The Meaning of Life, According to Jesus”

  1. 1
    Tom Schuessler|April 24, 2013

    This is beautiful, Lois. On this subject of the Kingdom of God, for years I read Jesus’ “compressed” teaching on the kingdom (Matt 5-7) and was discouraged by it because I felt like our Lord had set a bar that was so totally out of my reach that I had a hard time deriving meaning and purpose (Frankl) from it. I totally missed what I now think is the interpretive key to the teaching, something which is pretty obvious from the text of Matt 5-7 – that is the father and child relationship which God invites us to enter into. Clinging to that relationship with God as my loving father is what gives meaning to the struggles that I face along the way in my pilgrimage.

  2. 2
    Lois Tverberg|April 25, 2013

    Thanks, Tom. I agree. I read the Sermon on the Mount as saying to disciples, never give up in pursuing God’s reign over your life. Strive to go beyond the minimum required by the law – not out of fear of God or an insecure desire to earn his approval, but to express your passionate love for your Father in heaven.

  3. 3
    Jeff Woods|May 1, 2013

    Lois, thank you. I discovered your site recently, and have enjoyed it immensely. For me, in order to understand and interpret the Bible, the importance of context is crucial. It is important to understand the background, words, and meaning of Jesus within the historical context of 1st Century Judea and Galilee.

    I look forward to reading ‘Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus’, and more of your work.

    I would also love to invite you and anyone who follows this page to join our conversation:

  4. 4
    Lois Tverberg|May 17, 2013

    Jeff, thanks for your comment. Hope you enjoy the book.

  5. 5
    Dale Stone|May 20, 2013

    I greatly enjoyed your discussion about finding happiness. You are spot on…that it is a choice. I would offer a key to happiness…not original w/me but salient to your our dialogue, Lois, “Happiness isn’t having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.”

    Frankle accomplished much by surviving years in a death camp during WWII. But he missed a truly fulfilled life, and ended up killing himself. May we not shy from sharing the Love of the Messiah with others, even those in high places.

    Some people shy away from being totally sold out to the Lord because they fear legalistic limitations, etc will crimp their lifestyle. John 10:10 speaks to these folks, Jesus speaking, “I came that you might have life and that it would be full and meaningful.” May we follow our Messiah…sheep are the only animal that is led…and heed his every word. Keep on blessing us w/ your well researched and intriguing teachings Lois! Dale in Minnesota

  6. 6
    Lois Tverberg|May 21, 2013

    Dale, thanks for your quote – nice. Regarding Frankl, you couldn’t be more wrong. Frankl had an exceedingly long, rewarding life, after founding a school of psychotherapy and publishing more than 25 books. (You can read an interview with him at 90 here.)

    My only frustration with Frankl’s writing is that even though he had a strong faith in God, his writings relentlessly hide the fact. You need to read between the lines to catch the fact that the meaning that sustained him came from his faith, not just the idea of a “higher power.” He did this because he was writing for an secular psychology audience that was quite hostile toward religion. In “Man’s Search for Meaning” he quotes from the Bible in several places and shares some amazing stories about his faith in God, but he never says so in so many words. He was Jewish – I do not know if he ever believed in Christ. One clue, though, is that when he remarried after the Holocaust, his wife was a Christian, and they put a large crucifix in their front hallway.

  7. 7
    Gary Harrell|May 21, 2013

    Viktor Emil Frankl, MD, PhD (26 March 1905 – 2 September 1997. Frankl died of heart failure on 2 September 1997. He was survived by his wife Eleonore, his daughter Dr. Gabriele Frankl-Vesely, his grandchildren Katharina and Alexander, and his great-granddaughter Anna Viktoria. He was 92 years old.

  8. 8
    jason|March 15, 2015

    This article is very misleading the reason it seems like our fathers wants for us are unattainable is clear society squashes pure practice of an apostlitic lifestyle so man who is lazy just do the minimum to get by and hope they succed

  9. 9
    Dale|March 16, 2015

    It is unfortunate that one has to force a smile.

    General comment about the best definition of happiness I have yet heard. Happiness isn’t having what you want, it is wanting what you have.

    Now a little testimony. Philippians has key words, “Joy” and “rejoice”. We are instructed to “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” Phil. 4:4

    My wife died after short illness when she was 27…of a brain infection. Her first seizure was on a Thursday. She died the next Tuesday. Our son was six months old. It was devastating. But even as the memorial service unfolded…while I was tremendously sad, my underlying emotion was joy. The key is the focus of a believers’ joy. To have a consistent joy level one has to focus on a being who is unchanging. Only Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. By focusing on Him, I was able to make it through those trying times. I found I could trust the Lord even with this horrendous tragedy. My son and I were blessed that my parents’ kindness to let us rent from them for a time.

    … (post limited by length)

  10. 10
    orienthunt|December 18, 2015

    This doesn’t work out for me. I’ve tried Jesus and my life became worse instead of finding a purpose of life. Furthermore, the purpose of my life turned to “waiting for his second coming”, release everything in life then become a preacher or missionary. I got so many things I want to do in my life and I don’t see them as bad things, yet I sense that Jesus disapproved them and want me to do something else which sounds ridiculous. I was in love with him at that moment. I waited for years and years then nothing happened. I feel betrayed and fooled, I should’ve done something beneficial for myself or others. The other thing that made me pissed off is, god ruined all of my efforts. Seems like he’s prohibiting me but then doesn’t do anything about the thing he want me to do. What a stupid god!

  11. 11
    Jevigan|May 15, 2016

    Love this article!

    This is in reply to Orienthunt. First off I’m sorry that you trying out Jesus didn’t work. I do think the problem starts right there with “Trying”. You don’t try Water out, you are made of it. With out it you die. You don’t just try out Gasoline in your car. Your car needs it to run. I’m a young dude who had no gas in the engine and never had a sip of water in my life. When I met Jesus I realized “Whoa this is a God who loves me like crazy and just put up these guidelines because he doesn’t want to see me hurt my self or hurt others.”

    Wow, I tried everything under the sun..literally from every drug to every type of girl to performing in front of arenas full of people. All of it left me empty. Only he could take me higher than the drugs only he could make me smile in the dark.

    He isn’t so concerned about us worrying about him coming back or becoming a preacher or a missionary. He wants us to be evangelizing ourselves all the time so we can become fountains and gardens to the world.

    You said “I was in love with him at that moment. I waited for years and years then nothing happened. I feel betrayed and fooled, I should’ve done something beneficial for myself or others.”

    What were you waiting for? You said you loved him. There should be enough Joy right there. Did you want money or some worldly happiness? He doesn’t care about that stuff. He just wants a relationship. And yes you should have been doing something beneficial for yourself and others. That’s his number one commandment. Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

    Sounds like you met a religious Jesus. I don’t think that was really him. I wouldn’t give up just yet. He loves you more than you can imagine and is right beside you waiting for you except his invite. I don’t know you but I got a lot of love you brother or sister. Tons of blessings on your journey. 🙂

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