Our world and culture today, especially in big modern cities, can tend to draw us all into the ‘rat race’ of careers and achievement. We find ourselves running after the images of the good life that are shown to us on TV, billboards, movies, tabloids and social media. Every day we are being trained to desire a certain ideal of the good life - that which will bring us ultimate happiness and fulfillment. Perhaps without realizing it, your whole life is built around the things our culture promises will bring true meaning.
Yet, does this actually bring us true meaning in life? Is the point of life that the one who dies with the most toys wins? Why do we work ourselves to the bone to achieve these things we think will bring our lives meaning? Why do we try to find meaning in the things that our culture says are symbols of the good life?
It was the Jewish psychotherapist, Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi concentration camps of World War 2, after reflecting on finding meaning in the face of incredible suffering remarked:
“For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socio-economic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Even more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” (The Unheard Cry for Meaning, p.21)
This rings eerily true today. We live in times not too unlike those of the mid-1900s. Many believe that a utopian society is achievable if we only could achieve better economic equity through wealth redistribution. Many today are concerned with survival and their own economic means as the world endures the onslaught of the tolls of the pandemic. However, two years of lockdowns later, I think many of us are realizing more clearly that life is not merely survival and survival is not necessarily living - at least not in any meaningful sense.
So, can material ease and wealth solve the world’s problems and help bring meaning to our lives?
The Futility of Materialism & Wealth
The seven most successful millionaire financiers in the world met in a Hotel in 1923. Collectively, these tycoons controlled more wealth than there was in the United States Treasury, and for years newspapers and magazines had been printing their success stories and urging the youth of the nation to follow their examples.
Let’s see what happened to them by the end of their lives:
CHARLES SCHWAB—the president of the largest independent steel company—lived on borrowed money the last five years of his life, and died pennilessly.
ARTHUR CUTTEN—the greatest wheat speculator—died abroad insolvent.
RICHARD WHITNEY—the president of the New York Stock Exchange—was released some time ago from Sing Sing.
ALBERT FALL—the member of the President’s Cabinet—was pardoned from prison so he could die at home.
JESSE LIVERMORE—the greatest bear in Wall Street—committed suicide.
LEON FRASER—the president of the Bank of International Settlement—committed suicide.
IVAR KRUEGER—the head of the world’s greatest monopoly—committed suicide.
All of these men had learned how to make money, but not one of them had learned how to live.
It was the Notorious B.I.G. who observed, “More money, more problems.” Many of the world’s rich would testify to the truth of this statement. With more things of this world come more cares of this world.
But I’m not rich
Many of us may be saying to ourselves, “well, I’m not like those guys - I’m not rich.” But before we go too far with that thought, let’s put things into perspective.
According to World Bank data, “35 percent of Mexico’s population lives on less than $5.50 per day…” and “Even if you're stuck in the bottom 5% of the US income distribution your standard of living is about equal to that of the top 5% of Indians.” However, this doesn’t just hold true for Americans. According to Business Insider, Canada is #6 in the world in terms of average wealth per adult. And according to a 2019 New York Times article, “Canadians’ median wealth of $106,342 is significantly higher than the comparable figure of $61,670 for Americans.” The truth is that for the majority of us, if you have a roof over your head and you’ve eaten one full meal today - you are actually wealthier than a large majority of the world’s population.
However, this is not to say that there aren’t people who are truly poor here or to minimize the financial struggle of many - especially in these days of pandemics and restrictions which make it harder for many people to earn a living. This is simply to put it in perspective, that on average, we in North America and the developed Western world in general have a higher standard of living than the vast majority of the world yet we still struggle with a lack of meaning and purpose.
It has been noted that suicide is a prevelant struggle among the upper classes. The poor of the world aren’t necessarily the ones killing themselves. The New York Times Business editorial, citing a new paper from the San Francisco Federal Reserve shows that, “all else being equal, suicide risks are higher in wealthier neighborhoods, a morbid demonstration of the folly of trying to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’”
Even with all of this comparative wealth, many of us can still think that we are poor or don’t have enough. Why is this?
Most of us think that materialism or greed is the desire to have many nice or expensive things. However, the truth is that you can be materialistic at any income level. The only thing required is that you look for your life’s happiness and fulfillment in material comforts or commodities.
In Matthew 6:19-24, we read some of Jesus’s teaching on money. He says:
“Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. So if the light within you is darkness, how deep is that darkness! “No one can serve two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Most of what he says here is pretty clear for us to understand on the surface. He’s making a logical case not to lay up treasures that can be corrupted and fade, but instead, it makes more sense to lay up treasures that don’t. We understand the last bit, that if money masters you, that’s your true god - and you can’t serve two masters.
Healthy vs Bad Eyes
What does Jesus mean about your eye being a lamp and what is a healthy versus a bad eye?
Jesus is saying that materialism is hard to spot in your own life because it darkens your eye - the primary way you perceive the world. You can be greedy and not know it. Other sins aren’t like this - you don’t commit adultery and be like, oh wait - you’re not my wife!
Materialism and greed keep us from asking hard questions about our lifestyle. It keeps us from asking about how we spend money and how we make it. We live in the most wealthy time and place in history yet we don’t even think about the possibility that we might be materialistic.
Materialism resides in the heart. So, even for the person who is poor and does not have much by this world’s standards - their heart can treasure something as giving their life ultimate meaning. Materialism isn’t only expressed in the desire for lavish quantities or qualities of goods, but by locating fulfillment or meaning in the things of this world. You may not be able to afford a yacht, designer fashion, or expensive jewelry and you may not even desire those ‘finer things’. But ask yourself, how much of my life’s meaning and contentment is based on having __________? What possession, achievement, or title - if you were to lose it would absolutely destroy you and make life feel not worth living?
We must be clear though... there is no such thing as justification by poverty. Being poor in worldly terms does not automatically make a person righteous. Also, being wealthy doesn't automatically make someone evil.
What’s the Danger?
But why is it dangerous to live like this? Is there anything wrong with liking nice things or wanting to work hard to be successful financially?
Mishearing the lyrics
Have you ever sang along to a song you loved on the radio, only to find out later that you’ve been singing the wrong lyrics because you’ve misheard it? I think of the Taylor Swift song, Blank Space, that many people swore they heard her singing about “all the lonely Starbucks lovers” when in fact that was not the lyrics of the song. Or there’s Starship’s song, “we built this city on sausage rolls”, or the Eurythmics, “Sweet dreams are made of cheese”, or my personal favourite, “Kicking your cat all over the place” from Queen’s epically famous song, “We Will Rock You.”
Many people today reject Christianity because they’ve misheard the lyrics and I don’t want you to mishear the lyrics on riches or wealth. There is nothing inherently sinful about success or wealth itself. In fact, the Bible often speaks of the blessing that it can be.
God loves rich and poor - look at rich people in the Bible like Abraham, Job and Zacchaeus who were loved by God. Proverbs 13:22 extols leaving an inheritance for your kids, Proverbs 10:22 says that it is one of God’s blessings. Numerous other passages encourage hard work and wise management of money. So, please understand that I am NOT saying that money, wealth or even material possessions are themselves evil. Material impoverishment is no more intrinsically spiritual than material abundance. The same Jesus who taught about the dangers of wealth to the human heart also said in John 10:10 that he came to give us “life to the full”!
The true danger
Instead, the Bible says that it is the “love of money” that is dangerous (cf. Hebrews 13:5; 1 Timothy 6:10). “It’s OK to have nice things; it’s not OK for nice things to have you.”
The old saying that “you can’t take it with you” is true, but perhaps we should add to it that, “you can’t even hold onto it in this world!” We all have experienced how fleeting those things which promise "the good life" can really be and how empty they can leave us. And if you haven’t as yet, just wait.
At the end of life, no one on their deathbed asks to see their bank account or titles or the finer things they have acquired. Death puts into perspective the emptiness of these things to find true meaning in life.
“Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. There is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one. If it satisfies one want, it doubles and trebles that want another way. That was a true proverb of the wise man; rely upon it: “Better is little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure, and trouble therewith.” —Benjamin Franklin
Jeremiah Burroughs said that the Christian’s way to contentment is to bring his desires down to his possessions. G.K. Chesterton agreed and said, “There are two ways to get enough. One is to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” This is why the Bible directs us toward a balanced view of material possessions as we see in a poetic prayer in Proverbs 30:7-9,
Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.
You see, the true danger is not that money itself is bad or evil. It is that our hearts are. Our hearts can take good things, like money and material success, and turn them into ultimate things that we put all of our hopes in. In effect, we idolize them. But when we do this, just like seven millionaire financiers, we never learn how to truly live and these idols crumble and leave us empty.
An Anticlimax of Success
So, why am I concerned about the search for meaning in materialism and wealth?
I didn’t always work for the church. Once upon a time, I had a full-time job as a Character Artist at one of the biggest video game studios in the world working on world-famous titles. I ended up working on some of the lead characters in these world-renowned billion-dollar selling games. My dream had come true. I wasn't filthy rich, but I had made it to be a successful Character Artist making great money, going out to nice places, partying, and being admired by my peers. Yet the success rang hollow.
What I thought would give my life ultimate meaning and fulfillment ended up being anticlimactic.
It is said that true meaninglessness isn’t when you fail to achieve what you wish you could. Instead, it is when you achieve that which you thought would bring you ultimate fulfillment and it lets you down. That was me.
Every earthly pursuit of material gain will let you down if you put all your hopes in it. They simply aren’t big enough to fill the eternity in your heart. Take it from someone who tried. And if you don’t believe me and my puny attempts at hedonism, trust the testimonies of so many of the rich and famous. And if those aren’t enough, trust the God-inspired author of Ecclesiastes who tells us the story of the Preacher who was way more successful than any of us can ever dream to be by this world’s standards. It’s all chasing after the wind and like trying to grasp a mist.
My journey led me to ask the big questions about life’s meaning and I found that meaninglessness in life is not trying to succeed and failing. It is actually succeeding at the things that don’t matter for eternity. Only in Christ Jesus can you find hope that what you do today in this life will matter for eternity.
In the book of Matthew - another account in the Bible of Jesus’s life - after foretelling his death and resurrection to his disciples, Jesus said this:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26)
What profit is it to gain the whole world and lose your eternal soul?
Jesus calls us to stop trying to gain ultimate meaning in the things of this life. Stop trying to save your own life - you’ll lose it. The promises of wealth, materialism and fame are empty and will all turn to dust in your mouth. They never satisfy the eternity in your heart. Instead, the way Jesus calls us seems counterintuitive to our culture’s wisdom. However, all the ways that the world offers to us to find meaning have been tried over and over for centuries now and never once has it delivered on its promises. History is strewn with the stories of millions of the wealthy in this world who have tried that path over and over. What’s the definition of insanity again?
Putting your faith in Jesus for salvation is free, but it’s not easy. Jesus says to lose your life for his sake. To deny yourself and follow him. It’s a way that will mean suffering in this life (it is after all a cross that he calls us to take up), but it leads to ultimate gain in the end. Jesus calls to you:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Earn this... or not...
The ending of the movie, "Saving Private Ryan" left a powerful thought ringing in the minds of many. Those words by the dying Captain Miller, “Earn this” haunted Private Ryan his whole life. Even in his old age, he desired to hear the affirmation from someone that he had lived a life worthy of Captain Miller’s sacrifice. He had lived his entire life trying to earn it, to be worthy of it.
The idols of wealth and material success say you’ve got to earn it… We never know if we’ve earned enough, so we look to others for that affirmation, for absolution because we know that we cannot grant it to ourselves. This is inseparable from our search for meaning.
In our search for meaning, every one of our hearts is longing to hear affirmation, acceptance and absolution that our life was worth something. However, as much as our culture tells us that you determine your own meaning and assert your own affirmation - deep down we know that self-affirmation is hollow. Even the affirmation of other people holds no eternal or transcendent meaning because they are just like us - time-bound, passing away and chasing after the same things.
However, Christianity gives us a very different story and a way to life's true meaning. While our culture says, “you’ve got to earn it”, Jesus says, “I’ve earned it for you.” Jesus says, “come to me with empty hands - give me all that you have because I’ve got what you need and it’s a gift.”
He offers us true affirmation that doesn’t puff us up - because it’s not based on our own achievements but on our behalf.
Jesus offers true acceptance, the only one that will matter in the end that is based on his work.
He offers us real absolution, we look to him to see that our life is worth something because we are treasured by God because of Jesus.
The Christian life is all of grace - it is an unmerited, unearned and undeserved gift.
C.S. Lewis once said,
“The Christian way is different - both harder and easier. Christ says, "Give me ALL. I don't want just this much of your time and this much of your money and this much of your work - so that your natural self can have the rest. I want you. Not your things. I have come not to torture your natural self... I will give you a new self instead. Hand over the whole natural self - ALL the desires, not just the ones you think wicked but the ones you think innocent - the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead."
“The almost impossibly hard thing is to hand over your whole self to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is remain what we call "ourselves" - our personal happiness centered on money or pleasure or ambition and hoping, despite this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you cannot do. If I am a grass field - all the cutting will keep the grass less but won't produce wheat. If I want wheat... I must be plowed up and re-sown.”
This is what Christ calls us to. After all of our striving to find meaning in the short time and in all the material comforts of this life, are we ready to be plowed up and re-sown anew?
Time is short and we can’t hold on to it. Materialism and wealth cannot offer us true meaning. Only Jesus can, and he will if you would only give up your own autonomous pursuits to make your own meaning and turn to him to find the only affirmation, acceptance and absolution that matters.
Given, not made
Here’s the big point I want you to take away from this article: TRUE MEANING IS GIVEN.
Our world today tells us that we must MAKE our own meaning. However, we are simply not big enough to make anything bigger than ourselves. Thus, any self-made meaning will fail to give you any significance beyond yourself and your end.
I was walking around on the beach and found a smooth rock one day. I really liked its shape and the colours of the layers of strata in it, so I decided to take it home and use it as a paperweight. Now, before I picked up that rock, it just lay there. It had no greater purpose than just taking up space on the beach and perhaps being eventually worn down by the beating of the waves until it was reduced to thousands of particles of sand. Its existence was purposeless in the grand scheme of things up to that point. However, once I took it up and gave it a purpose, now it had some meaning and served a purpose. The rock didn’t choose that purpose.
Unless our purpose is provided from OUTSIDE ourselves, we’ll never have one that is greater than ourselves. This is why we need God to give us purpose. In an infinitely greater way than me and the rock paperweight, God has created us and given us a purpose to fulfill in His world according to His plan. And just like that rock, the significance and value of that purpose are directly related to the person who gives it. The higher that person’s honour and dignity, the higher the purpose. If that rock were picked up by a world-famous author or President, its purpose finds much more significance. How much more if that Person is God Himself?
All meaning is given. God is the only One who can give your life truly transcendent meaning.
Take some time to consider these questions:
What possession, achievement, title or thing - if you were to lose it would absolutely destroy you and make life feel not worth living? Is there something that you say in your heart, “if only I had/achieved ___________ then my life would have meaning!”
Have you ever experienced a sense of meaninglessness after being successful? How?
Do you think there is an objective purpose or meaning to life for us to find or do we just make up one for ourselves? Why?
What do you think of Jesus’s call to follow him? What about it is compelling? What about it is not?