Two paths to finding meaning and purpose

Last time I shared what Nietzsche meant by saying that “God is dead.” I’m paraphrasing here, but he predicted (with uncanny accuracy) that when we, as a modern society, have “killed God” by losing faith in a True World view (afterlife, religion), we will inevitably slide into nihilism.  I would like to continue by comparing his solution to this dilemma to that of Christ’s.

In one of his earlier works, Human All Too Human, Nietzsche wrote about the pain of leaving the security of the “sweet by-and-by” in a world of pain and suffering:

“But the tragic thing is that we can no longer believe those dogmas of religion and metaphysics, once we have rigorous method of truth in our hearts and heads, and yet on the other hand, the development of mankind has made us so delicate, sensitive, and ailing that we need the most potent kind of cures and comforts—hence arises the danger that man might bleed to death from the truth he has recognized. Byron expressed this in his immortal lines: “Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth, the tree of knowledge is not that of life.”

What’s interesting about his quote is that the Bible agrees with Nietzsche and Byron here. We would say that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil has brought nothing but strife, pain, and suffering into this world. And Byron is also just parroting Solomon….

17 And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind.

18 For in much wisdom is much grief,
And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. (Eccl.1:17-18 NKJV)

Now, to be clear, Nietzsche didn’t see existential nihilism as necessarily a good alternative either. He urged his followers to be brave and face the world without escaping to a “God of the after-life” and, instead, make their own happiness within themselves now in this life.

Becoming who you are (Nietzsche)

Nietzsche sometimes referred to this process as the journey of becoming who you are. In his book, The Gay Science, he wrote:

“We, however, want to become those we are–human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves.”

Furthermore, in one of his essays titled, Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche pinpointed fear and laziness as two human characteristics from realizing their potential.

Becoming who you are (Christian)

The Christian worldview actually agrees with Nietzsche in principle. For instance, Paul makes it clear that we’re already complete in Christ. Everything we need is already within us.

10 And our own completeness is now found in him. We are completely filled with God as Christ’s fullness overflows within us. (Col.2:10a TPT)

Jesus mirrors our completeness and endorses our true identity. He is the ‘I Am’ in us. (Col.2:1o MIRROR)

Like Nietzsche would say, we’re to stop “following the herd” and discover who we are by having our minds renewed to a new way of thinking:

2 Stop imitating the ideals and opinions of the culture around you, but be inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit through a total reformation of how you think. This will empower you to discern God’s will as you live a beautiful life, satisfying and perfect in his eyes. (Rom.12:2 TPT)

In fact, Jesus told us to grow up and live according to our true identity:

48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matt.5:48 MSG)

But this is also radically different than Nietzsche’s ideology. We will briefly compare the two here.

The vast difference

Nietzsche offered suggestions to help us create our own meaning and purpose in this life without God. Here’s are the highlights:

  • – Obtain an ‘organizing idea’ – an ultimate goal to work towards. The more difficult the goal, the greater one will have to become to accomplish it.
  • – If one doesn’t have a dream, we are to look inside ourselves and identify our deepest desires. What you truly love will point the way.
  • – Embrace the pain and suffering and difficulties that we face in life as opportunities for growth as a human being (nothing new there).

While on the surface, Nietzsche’s path to finding meaning and purpose sounds good, and even similar to the Christian view, I see several flaws with his approach. I will mention two here.

One problem with making the individual the measure of their own happiness and fulfillment is, what if what truly elevates your soul and gives meaning to your life is evil? According to Nietzsche’s recommendations, Hitler was actualizing his deepest darkest dreams by exterminating the Jews and creating his own empire where he could be admired and worshiped. In other words, if there’s no objective morality that transcends the “herd,” then an individual’s or even a nation’s dreams may become a nightmare for everyone else.

The second major problem is that this only works for a relatively small slice of the human race. While Nietzsche’s “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” offering resonates deeply with the modern West’s intellectual, self-motivated, entrepreneurial self-starter with above average intelligence living in a land of unlimited opportunity, it falls flat in the world of the marginalized, the weak and the extremely poor deprived of opportunity and lacking even the basic skills to come up with such a scheme, let alone even have a bootstrap to pull up on.

In stark contrast, the Christian “becoming who you are” means moving away from our navel-gazing, self-absorbed lives to one tempered and fueled by God’s other-centered, self-giving love (John 15:9; 2 Cor.5:14-15).

Following Christ works for anyone who has an open heart. He’s an equal-opportunity provider, inviting all humankind to “come follow Me” regardless of their situation or capabilities. This works for both the poor and simple and the rich and powerful.

For Christ has come to restore that which was lost, to set the captives free from their own dark and foolish thoughts, empowered by His grace to actually fulfill who we really truly are, because the One who designed us is the One helping us!

The result of this process is to become Christlike, being grounded in other-centered, self-giving love. We’re leaving behind our immature, self-absorbed lives to become fully human. And the fruit of this endeavor is always good.

2–23 But the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit within you is divine love in all its varied expressions:

joy that overflows,
peace that subdues,
patience that endures,
kindness in action,
a life full of virtue,
faith that prevails,
gentleness of heart, and
strength of spirit.

Never set the law above these qualities, for they are meant to be limitless. (Gal.5:22-23 TPT)

Be really brave…follow Christ

In our postmodern Western culture running headlong into the fog of subjectivism the most radically brave and clear-thinking thing you can do is to leave the herd and follow Christ. Just about everyone is trying to create their own happiness these days…nothing new there. My question is, how are we doing? My advice…follow Christ.

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About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 38 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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29 Responses to Two paths to finding meaning and purpose

  1. tildeb says:

    Now this is MUCH better!

    But go one step further: realize the same message comes from Frankl and Nietzsche! Frankl goes one better and describes three ways to create meaning no matter how fortunate or dire one’s circumstances may be, which is far, far superior to the idea of ‘happiness’ alone (meaning more along the lines of ‘satisfaction’ as a meaning-making pursuit in Enlightenment language).

    Biologically speaking, humans are meaning-making machines (that’s what our brains do) so seeking meaning for ourselves from somewhere ‘out there’ – including some god – is a guaranteed method according to both of these Big Brained people to invite nihilism, so the locus of control to create meaning and happiness – our unique selves – from both Nietzsche and Frankl is vital to their philosophies. To then point to some god is diametrically opposed to and incompatible with their central ideas.

    • Mel Wild says:

      I see your point. Jesus and the New Testament actually addresses these things more than they address the afterlife. I think part the problem comes from bad “sweet by-and-by” religious theology, not understanding how to deal with pain and suffering and disappointment, and how to overcome it in this life.

      So, I agree with the “Big Brained” people that we shouldn’t wimp out and seek escape from this life, and I also agree that a lot of religious people do just that. We should take responsibility and realize our full potential and work together. But which method is better is a matter of debate that won’t get resolved here. I just think their solution doesn’t work for a lot of people, among other reasons.

  2. tildeb says:

    And this locus of control for meaning is then central to logotherapy; we and we alone are responsible for making our lives meaningful. As Frankl says (I’m paraphrasing from memory because I’ve loaned my copy) asking what is the meaning of my life is backwards to the important question: how well have I answered the questions life has asked of me? Frankl then writes at length about his therapy’s successes addressing a host of unhealthy problems once the locus of control and acceptance of responsibility for how we respond to life is assumed.

    • Mel Wild says:

      And this locus of control for meaning is then central to logotherapy; we and we alone are responsible for making our lives meaningful.

      And Jesus would say the same thing. We’re all in agreement there. Jesus is not a crutch to escape responsibility, especially reality. That is unhealthy. Jesus helps us face it more powerfully.

      My point here is, following Christ does not mean relinquishing our responsibility to be a better human being. But it is arguably a more effective method (in my view) than simple human willpower that only a relative few possess enough of to overcome without this empowerment. You are free to disagree, of course.

  3. John Branyan says:

    The fact that humans strive to make life meaningful is puzzling. How would such a sense evolve in a universe of unconscious chemistry?

    I know…I know… Science will someday tell us. We just need to have faith.

  4. Well said, Mel. I really appreciated Nietzsche because he was brilliant and he would come so very close to the truth….but then pull away. I think one challenge he had was that he lacked enough intellectual humility to let himself go just a few inches farther. He had such great spiritual insights….without quite sticking more than his big toe in the spiritual waters before he would turn away. There are also some people who think of him as a prophet, mostly because of the way he predicted what was coming our way as a culture.

    • Mel Wild says:

      It’s interesting about the prophetic aspect of Nietzsche. Many prophets deal with various forms of mental illness. It’s like they see too much for their own good. Of course, he had a lot of physical ailments to contend with, too. But he had amazing ability to see beyond his culture (the “herd”) to where things were headed. I agree about the pride thing. It’s a show stopper. Our greatest strength can also be our greatest weakness. His pride just wouldn’t let him see anything beyond his own brilliant thoughts. I think the other problem might’ve been that the popular Christianity of the 19th century was more Gnostic in flavor, which is not a compelling theology.

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