‘”Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ‘The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ There is no other commandment greater than these”‘
‘And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it”‘
‘And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me’
There seems to me anyway to be an apparent antinomy between the Biblical verses quoted above the image and those quoted below it. An apparent antinomy is where you know that two seemingly-mutually exclusive things must both simultaneously be true. Those above it state that the second most important commandment in Christianity is to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. This suggests that we ought to love ourselves and care for ourselves. However, the verses below the image talk of dying to self, denying ourselves, not yielding to our internal, inherent desires and surrendering to another. How do these two apparently-contradictory statements cohere? How can one deny the self he/she ought to love? Maybe Jesus is saying not that we ought to love ourselves, over and above caring for ourselves, but instead that we inevitably will do so. Maybe Christ means that we ought to love our new, fresh, reborn Christian selves, not our old unregenerate selves.
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Why did I decide to write this article?
So I asked readers of this blog which topic they would like me to write on next and they replied, “Christian Theology’s response to mental health” so I’ve written due to popular demand. Additionally, I think it is a very important, topical issue which can sometimes sadly plague an individual’s life and negatively affect their spiritual life. Finally, I have been inspired by other people, both friends and public figures such as Matthew Stadlen, openly writing about their mental health and agree that it is important to talk, discuss and share with others on these issues and questions.
Mental pain is very different from physical pain. It sticks in the mind and has no clear, initial root cause. With it, it is very hard to know if or when it’ll get better or worse, how long it will last and why it occurs in the first place. It is tougher than physical pain which you can almost always see, recognise, acknowledge and identify the causation of. A major challenge for sufferers of mental illness is that those around you don’t see it or recognise it as they do with physical pain. If you have a broken leg, everyone knows and sees why you have to walk in a certain way while it is healing, but with mental pain, people don’t see it unless you tell them and are clueless as to why you act and behave as you do.
Disclaimer and what the intended purpose of this article is and isn’t
I’d like to note that this article merely contains my own humble thoughts which have grown out of my own personal experience of this particular issue. It issues ideas about things which may perhaps for some people exacerbate or worsen already existent issues. I am not a doctor, a medical student, medically-qualified and so have no idea about what the initial, root cause of mental illness is and make no attempt to pretend I do have an idea. This article is not an answer, a solution, a cure, a course of treatment, or even a set of recommendations. It is merely my own thoughts, musings and opinions. Nothing more and nothing less. It is an attempt to encourage those who suffer to speak out to others for two are stronger than one. Some of this article will simply be saying in a long, complex way “I feel your pain, brother”, and will be trying to put words to and inadequately describe my experience of mental illness. The unknown, unspeakable, indescribable monster and villain is much worse than the described one. To talk, speak and write of a demon is to begin to slay it. I will inevitably and necessarily have to make some generalisations in this particular post but will signpost them when I do and make clear that they are just that, generalisations. I have tried to set out my views in as delicate and courteous a manner as I can as I know how sensitive this issue is, but if I make an unjustified generalisation or if my tone is slightly off, please forgive me and let me know so I can edit the post. Please grant me grace as that is, after all, what Christianity is all about! With that said, let’s dive in!
A Picture and Description of a Case Study in Mental Illness
What follows in this section will be a case study based on my own personal experience of mental illness. I have suffered from depression, anxiety and probably have mild Autism and so will limit my study to these areas. Sometimes it is just helpful, calming, cathartic and therapeutic to put words to our pain, even though we know that this will not solve the problem. Below is a poem C.S. Lewis wrote to my maternal great grandmother, Mary Myvanwy Somervell (née Beresford), when she was experiencing a period of mental ill-health:
‘No! The sky will not break,
Time will not stop.
Never for the dregs mistake
The first bitter drop.
When first the collar galls,
Tired horses know
Stable’s not near; still falls
The whip; there’s far to go’
(Poem written by C.S. Lewis to Mary Somervell)
Here’s a poem I recently wrote retrospectively about my experience of depression:
To be Depressed
To be paralysed by a feeling,
to be left reeling,
to be crushed by a falling ceiling,
that is to be depressed.
To be trapped under a wave,
to feel like a slave,
to not know how to behave,
that is to be depressed.
To cease to care,
to cease to dare,
to cease to do,
that is to be depressed.
To be battered,
to be shattered,
to be splattered,
that is to be depressed.
To lack much energy,
to stop singing life’s liturgy,
to find yourself in jeopardy,
that is to be depressed.
that is to be depressed.
I know your pain, brothers,
as do so many others,
we will act together as buffers.
(Poem called “To be Depressed” by Ben Somervell)
Often, when I have experienced depression it feels like there is a constant Third World War going on in your brain between who your self and your internal critic. You cannot even go for a walk or to the shops without going through a fierce, vicious and eternal row in your brain between these two warring factions and fixated personas. You feel as if you are walking through a no man’s land between the trenches of these two armies, both committed to the eradication of the other. Always in the firing line, the wrong place at the perpetual wrong time. Often the critic attacks you for inconsistency in your actions or a deed of past time and slays you with the cool, calm force of raw logic and reason. Your emotional self cannot put its linguistic finger on what it feels and so cannot quickly respond on the spot. Often I found that my social anxiety, my likely Autism, physical illness and my general anxiety just served to compound my depression. We fight a war to try to become, or at least work towards becoming, that which we are not and that which we know we will never be in this passing, temporal, Earthly life. Paul declares in Galatians 2:20 that mystery: “I live, yet not I”. He has been reborn, born again, into a second, new, free life and yet he is still tempted by sin, still strays from the narrow path and still gives in to the temptation to sin. Paul speaks eloquently of the internal war between the Law of Sin and the Law of Christ in Romans 7:14-19:
‘For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing’
How often do we metaphorically kick ourselves and regret our deeds, actions, thoughts and desires? How often are we ashamed of ourselves and who we have become? Jesus describes the daily struggle Christians must undergo and how they must constantly choose life in Luke 9:23-25:
‘“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”’
How often do we go to the extreme and say with Joseph in the musical of his name,
“If my life were important
I Would ask will I live or die
But I know the answers lie
Far from this world”
(From the song “Close Every Door” from the musical “Joseph and the Technicolour Dream Coat”)
Or with Mary Magdalen declare:
“Hurry up and tell me this is just a dream
Or could we start again, please?”
(From the song “Could We Start Again, please?” from the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”)
Or with her again:
“I never thought I’d come to this
What’s it all about?”
(From the song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar)
Or maybe even with Esther:
“[I]f I perish, I perish”
We are tempted to ask what the purpose of our rebirth was if we still sin and still condemn ourselves. We want to be the change we wish to see and know that that change must start with us but see the first step as being so difficult.
Christianity and Mental Health
My mental and physical brokenness has served to prevent me from frequently being puffed up with pride and arrogance and has forced me to acknowledge and recognise my need for God and to humbly, meekly come to Him on bended knee in prayer.
Revd Simon Tillotson very successfully used the analogy of spiritual flight when talking about the difficulty a mentally-ill individual may have in truly connecting with their Christian spirituality during the difficult times. When we experience depression or mental illness, our wings become damaged and our flight is impeded, less effective and slower. We lose momentum and the goal/end seems impossibly far away.
Personally, I feel that there can sometimes be an almost symbiotic relationship between a Christian’s personal faith and their current mental health. Often when a Christian is low, they feel less sure and confident in their own personal faith and less eager to act upon and carry out good works and fight for justice, love and truth. Please do not misunderstand me here though, the causes of mental illness are vast, broad, multi-faceted and complex so I am not saying that this symbiotic relationship is anything like all there is to it.
In times of depression, a Christian tends to perhaps rely on other Christians or their Church community more than usual. This is perfectly normal and, after all, is at least partly what the Church is for, to sustain individual Christians through both good times and bad times and to encourage them to keep the faith, even when they really do not feel like it. This also occurs in secular contexts. For example, if you are struggling in life or mentally, hopefully your close relatives will try to help you through this as much as they can. In this way, the Church is like a Christian family and community as well as a group of friends. We do not choose who goes to our local Church, just as we do not choose our relatives but equally we can choose who becomes are close friends. This is perhaps the best of both worlds. It ensures that (hopefully) no one falls through the cracks as we Christians especially have to and should look after ALL of our neighbours and even our enemies and those we are jealous of. This also means that we have a duty to help non-Christians in their struggles with mental health.
When one is happy, one has a great many reasons to praise God, for his universe, creation, natural gifts, gifts of the Spirit and all He has given us. This is played out in both special and general revelation and is at the heart of Christianity, the uniquely Incarnational religion. God humbles Himself in order to reveal Himself and give us a glimpse and reflection of Him. This is shown in Matt Redman’s great modern worship song, “Seeing and Singing”:
‘This is a time for; for seeing and singing
This is a time for breathing You in
And breathing out Your praise
Our hearts resond to Your revelation
All You are showing, all we have seen
Commands a life of praise
No one can sing of things they have not seen
God, open our eyes towards a greater glimpse
The glory of You, the glory of You
God, open our eyes towards a greater glimpse
Worship starts with seeing You
Worship starts with seeing You
our hearts respond to Your revelation
Worship starts with seeing You
Worship starts with seeing You
our hearts respond to Your revelation’
(Lyrics from the modern worship song “Seeing and Singing” by Matt Redman)
However, it is more challenging to praise Him in times of difficulty, hardship and need. This is detailed particularly well in the Books of Job, Psalms, and Lamentations. I have often found the following Biblical verses useful in times of mental pain:
‘We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honour and dishonour, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything’
(2 Corinthians 6:3-10)
Psalm 88 is also useful here:
‘O Lord, God of my salvation;
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness’
These verses identify well with and describe brilliantly our pain, but also shed light on the paradoxical middle path, valley or stage on which we must live out our lives. Chris Tomlin describes it as “this passing time”. A well-known Christian saying, popularised by John Wimber, for this area is that “We live in the now, but not yet”. This seems paradoxical but is sensical. Due to the crucifixion and subsequent glorious Resurrection of our only Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the victory over sin, evil, the Devil and death has already been won. The battle is won and the great divide crossed. However, we are yet to realise that victory and must thus be patient and preserve to the end. We must, in the meantime, live in an imperfect, fallen, sinful, broken world in which we often gain magnificent glimpses of God but where his “epistemic distance” and apparent “hiddenness” can sometimes make us feel sceptical. As the following verses show:
‘“[Y]ou will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved”’.
‘“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin [….] But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause’”’
Now, this may seem like an odd, “half-in-half-out” intersection to live in and I think it is indeed mysterious in some aspects. There is also another mystery to deal with: the apparent antinomy between the Holy Spirit lives in us but where we also have free will and are morally responsible. As St Paul put it in Galatians 2:20, ‘I live, yet not I’. However, we have a key advantage on those living before Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection which is that we know that the battle has already been won. I think we often fail to imagine just how difficult it was for the disciples in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion. They were scared, fearful, hopeless, directionless, puzzled, bewildered and apparently lacking a clear future all at the same time.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice expressed it very well in the following lyrics:
‘I’ve been living to see you
Dying to see you, but it shouldn’t be like this
This was unexpected, what do I do now
Could we start again, please?’
(Lyrics from “Could We Start Again, please?” from the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”)
This paradigm shows us that hope is always justified and will ultimately prevail, even in the darkest of times.
Malcolm Muggeridge excellently expounded upon the Earthly, via media or veil in which we must currently live when discussing the differing focuses and motivations of the extraordinary Russian authors, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky:
‘[S]omehow these two great Russian thinkers seem linked together […] Tolstoy aspiring so ardently for his Kingdom of Heaven on Earth […], Dostoevsky plunging down so frenziedly into his Kingdom of Hell on Earth and arriving at Golgotha. Two parallel lines, which Euclid told us never meet, but which Einstein discovered, after all, do meet. It’s where they meet that we mortals must live’.
(Malcolm Muggeridge in his 1975 documentary entitled “Dostoevsky”)
When we are in great periods of suffering, it is almost a situation of a process of elimination. We know, as Christians, that we must and cannot but rule out God’s abandoning of us. This is shown in Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the Cross:
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
YET you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame’
Now Jesus’ quoting of these verses show us that He has gone through the worst suffering of all for no reason as He was completely innocent and sinless. He can clearly identify with our pain and knows us and our pain better than even we know ourselves. He is always immanent, listening, hearing, caring and here with us. If even Jesus Himself felt as if it seemed that God had forsaken Him, how much more are we fallen humans going to be bound to feel that? John Piper sheds some light on this in the below video:
However, we know deep down in our hearts that He has not forsaken us and this is demonstrated well in the following poem:
‘One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”
He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
(“Footprints in the Sand” poem)
This is also reflected in the liturgical constant return after lamenting Scriptural verses to the lines, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen”. These lines show that, even so and despite all of the strive, we know we must give glory to God. As is shown in Matt Redman’s song, “Blessed Be Your Name”:
Although it can sometimes seem difficult living with this mystery and theological tension, we know in the meantime that “Christ is enough” and He is and must be sufficient if we believe in Him at all. Otherwise, that belief is ultimately in vain.
His sufficiency and the fact that He is indeed enough, causes us to praise Him and long for the Afterlife which will be spent with Him. We long for that, instead of material prosperity in the here and now, that would be the erroneous “Prosperity Gospel”. As Revd Simon Tillotson has pointed out, Heaven is viewed, especially by non-Christians as merely being a back-up or contingency plan, a Plan B, a safety net/valve. Well if this Earthly life doesn’t work out, then I’ll just have to wait for the Afterlife. In fact, the Kingdom of Heaven underpins the whole Christian Gospel and is the very foundation and basis of Christianity. It is the ideal we long and strive for. The reason we refuse to give in to despair. This is, I think, shown well in the following hymn:
It is important to remember that Christianity does not offer and has never claimed to offer material wealth or temporal happiness. What it does instead offer, as Matt Chandler astutely points out, is the assurance that “He is enough, no matter what happens”:
Matt Redman also inspiringly demonstrates this in his song “Never Once”:
The Bible teaches us that Jesus Himself is the “Bread of Life”, “the Resurrection and the Life”, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, “the Rock” and our salvation, and “the True Vine”. True stability and permanence and perseverance comes from him and him alone. We see this in John 15:
‘Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, it is he that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing’
Removing God from the equation (as Dr Medi-Ann Volpe points out) does not solve the problem/mystery of evil. Quite the contrary, it provides us with no help at all. If we deny God’s existence, we have no hope of future eschatological justification (explanation of why we had to suffer in this life), no hope of explanation or meaning in our suffering, no hope of restoration, redemption, renewal or the new creation, no Afterlife, no eternal justice, no eternal life, no reuniting with friends and relatives who’ve passed away. There would be ultimate justice in the world. There would be no one who hears, is always there, is always sufficient and enough and always cares. There would be no recommended way to respond to suffering or pain.
Although in the moment of pain, removing God may seem like the short-term quick fix, it is worth remembering that the problem of evil still remains a mystery for atheists. They still need to work out how to respond to suffering, how to find meaning along the sometimes painful journey, they still do not know how anyone could intentionally choose to cause others such deep suffering. They still, even with all the world’s psychological advances, cannot fully get inside the mind of, for example, a suicide bomber and understand why anyone would want to carry out such a despicable deed. The difference for the atheist is that, on top of all of life’s pain, they must live with the constant, conscious knowledge that we human beings and our universe is all merely the arbitrary result of a random, meaningless, purposeless, accidentally cosmic car crash, as Peter Hitchens has put it. Additionally, the atheist has to deal with an added mystery, namely the mystery of good. Why does goodness exist at all or in the first place? Why isn’t there just evil? More than just that, why does such great goodness exist in our imperfect world? To give just one extraordinary example, why did Maximilian Kolbe who voluntarily choose to take the place of another Auschwitz prisoner in being starved to death. He did this to emulate the example of Christ giving up his life for others, and for no other reason. Only that radical example of Christ, the only innocent and sinless man, giving up His life, could inspire such bravery and self-sacrificial, vicarious suffering and death. Even the well-known New Atheist Christopher Hitchens admitted that he could think of an example of a good moral deed that only a Christian would do.
Dostoevsky suffered considerably more than I have ever so far myself. Yet, his deeper, stronger and more fervent, the older he got. The roots of his faith sunk deeper down and become firmer, sturdier and more robust. Tim Keller has spoken well on this subject. The real question is not whether we suffer, how we suffer or how deep and painful the suffering is. The true question is how we respond to it and whether or not we deprive suffering of its detrimental power on us and exploit its occurrence to channel its impact into a positive response for the good. As the London 7/7 bombings survivor, Dr Gill Hicks MBE, has often stated, I am often angry but channel my anger into good. To surrender to suffering is to, as Jean-Paul Satre once famously said, is to have “bad faith” and to become a hard determinist and a fatalist who says, “Whatever will happen, will happen and I am powerless to do anything about anything”. Obviously, this is not always possible and the positive, beneficial bi-products of suffering do not in any way justify, excuse or explain the suffering. and sometimes we all, Christians and atheists, just have to live with the mystery of apparently meaningless, inexplicable suffering. Sometimes, when one looks back, it can be possible to see a positive, long-term effect of a period of pain. As Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards, but only lived forwards”. However, these possible, potential positive effects or bi-products of suffering do not justify it, excuse it or fully explain it happening in the first place. We will have to wait for eschatological justification in Heaven for an answer to that. When I was in the deepest times of my depression, I remember finding myself in the curious position of defending the Christian faith even though, at that particular moment, I wasn’t really sure if, in my heart, I believed it anymore. There was no rationale for this, it was an action, I believe, of trust and faith in God’s power and the ultimate knowledge that He is always with us.
That Christ had to go through struggles should comfort us and assure us that our suffering is not needless and unnecessary. By Christ’s physical and mental wounds we are healed. Mental illness allows us to identify with non-Christians going through the same struggles and to minister to them, which can sometimes be a long-term opportunity for mission. It shows us that when one becomes a Christian, everything does not suddenly right for an individual, the trials still remain but we believe in a God who always listens, hears and cares. As Jesus says:
‘Come to me, all who labour 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’
We believe, as Christians that, if we persevere and keep the faith, we will ultimately and eventually reap the reward. As Jesus said:
‘[E]veryone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last and the last first’
‘”Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”‘
The Meaning of Life Question
‘To study the meaning of man and of life – I am making significant progress here. I have faith in myself. Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man’
(Personal Correspondence by Fyodor Dostoevsky)
‘The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for’
(From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky)
‘Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced’
(Jacobus Johannes Leeuw, The Conquest of Illusion)
‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how’
‘[I]n your hearts honour Christ as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’
(1 Peter 3:15)
I found that the question of the objective, universal purpose of life in general or the purpose of my own life never entered my mind at all before I had my first deep, long-term period of depression. Jordan Peterson and the Buddha both went as far as saying that “Life is suffering”, not just that we will have times within our lives when we will experience some suffering, but that life itself, in its entirety is suffering. As I was unhappy, as others have pointed out to me, I was understandably asking what my life was for, what I was doing and what I was living for. However, the meaning of life question, once discovered, cannot then, I find by brushed under the carpet. The cat is out of the bag, and the genie is out of the bottle. You think and feel that you must explore this question until you are satisfied. This quest for answers is expressed very eloquently by Leo Tolstoy in his excellent work “My Confession”:
‘I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left […] My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfilment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfil my desires I should not have known what to ask […] I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead’
(From “My Confession” by Leo Tolstoy)
I like to say that it is one thing to live with a mystery, but another to live a mystery. To have to deal with mysteries within your life is very different from your whole, underlying life and its purpose itself being a mystery. Creation itself is a glorious miracle and, as miracles are always necessarily mysterious, it thus follows that human life should also be a mystery. 1 Timothy 3:9 commands us to ‘hold the mystery of faith’ and 1 Timothy 3:16 states: ‘Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness’. It’s worth bearing in mind that at the central point of the Eucharist, the key Sacrament of the Church, it is boldly, openly declared: ‘Great is the mystery of faith: Christ has died: Christ is risen: Christ will come again’. In “My Confession”, Tolstoy goes on to conclude in this excellent book the following, as summarised by John G. Messerly on his “Reason and Meaning” website:
‘It seemed then that the meaning of life was not found in any rational, intellectual knowledge but rather “in an irrational knowledge. This irrational knowledge was faith…” Tolstoy says he must choose between reason, from which it follows that there is no meaning , and faith, which entails rejecting reason. What follows is that if reason leads to the conclusion that nothing makes sense, then reason is irrational. And if irrationality leads to meaning, then irrationality is really rational’
(From “My Confession” by Leo Tolstoy)
However, the undeniable fact is that we are here now, as annoying, frustrating and inconvenient as that may sometimes feel, and so we must ultimately make that crucial decision constantly between life and death. As it is expressed in Deuteronomy 30:19: ‘“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life”’. Sometimes this vital question is obscured and minimising by the mundane order of our everyday lives and so it is often most acutely expressed in unexpected, uncomfortable, tragic circumstances. An example of this would be the experience of Dr Gill Hicks MBE. On 7th July 2005, she was stood just a few feet away from suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay on a packed, crowded Carriage 346 at the front of a Piccadilly tube train, travelling from King’s Cross Station to Russell Square Station. She lost both of her legs, 75% of the blood in her entire body, her heart stopped beating twice during the ordeal, and she was the final survivor to be rescued from the Piccadilly Line tube train. Immediately after the bomb exploded, she experienced a moment of revelation:
‘[D]eath’s voice was urging me to come and to close my eyes and sleep and I knew that sleep meant sleep forever […] The only way I can describe what happened for me was that I was being offered a choice of whether I wanted to live or whether I wanted to die. And the voice of life was urging me to remember what’s important about being alive and the people that I loved […] What struck me when I realised that absolutely I must listen to the voice of life, everything suddenly went into, “OK Gill, this is what you need to do”‘
(Dr Gill Hicks speaking in the Channel 4 documentary entitled “The Miracle of Carriage 346”)
There is also another question we must ask ourselves, “Are you living to survive, or surviving to live?” (as I read somewhere recently) While it is true to say that we human beings strictly-speaking need only food, water and oxygen to live, that type of life is merely a biological one, not a meaningful, exciting or thriving life. We also need something to live on and to live for. A purpose, a reason to keep going, even when it seems to be impossibly tough. As Dostoevsky put it at the end of his extraordinary short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”:
‘I have seen the truth—it is not as though I had invented it with my mind, I have seen it, seen it, and the living image of it has filled my soul for ever […] Oh, I am full of courage and freshness, and I will go on and on if it were for a thousand years!’
(From Chapter V of “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” by Fyodor Dostoevsky)
That short story radically changed my outlook, worldview and view of life in general and I would highly recommend reading it and/or watching the BBC’s brilliant half-hour production of it with Jeremy Irons from 1989:
Another excellent must-see video on this is Tim Keller’s sermon on the subject:
Keller astutely points out that if someone were to, for example, ask us to meet them far from our workplace during the working day without giving a reason or explaining why we would refuse to comply with their request until and unless they gave us a reason. Yet, we never normally ask ourselves the reason why we continue living and the purpose of our lives, a much more important question, which surely underlies and undergirds all of life’s individual choices, actions and decisions. Keller comes to the conclusion that the meaning of life cannot be found in a human, rational or logical reason, but that it is instead to be found within the life-giving, divine, Incarnational person of Jesus Christ.
I think the meaning of life conundrum really has to be broken down into two separate and distinct questions. The first is this: “What is the universal and objective meaning of life for humanity in general?” To which, for all Christians, the answer must be “To glorify God”. The second question is as follows: “What is the particular, specific purpose/role of my own individual life?” Or to put it another way, “How does God want me to glorify Him, using the particular gifts He has chosen to give me?” This question must have an answer which is specific to the “fearfully and wonderfully” made person.
What the meaning of life debate really boils down to for Christians is the question of why God chose to create the world and humanity in the first place, as Jonathan Edwards once posed it. There are a number of reasons which we must rule out. For example, it cannot have been because He was lonely as He is entirely self-sufficient and had the other two members of the Trinitarian Godhead. For the same reason, it cannot be that He felt unloved. as God has the attribute of aseity and is entirely self-sufficient, it certainly cannot be that He needed us or in some way depends upon us. All we can rationally say, as Christians, on this question is, as Revd Canon Professor Simon Oliver points out, that God’s act of creating us was an act of pure, selfless, self-giving love and grace. He chose of His own free will to give us a unique and special opportunity to experience reality, as Kierkegaard would say.
It is at this point that we must just accept that there is a clear difference between m as it has often been put, creature and Creator, for all we may sometimes want to fight this fact.
Society tells us that if only we had more money, more possessions, more status, more power and better looks, we would finally be happy. Yet these are all lies. As Marcel Proust once put it:
‘Desire makes everything blossom; possession makes everything everything wither and fade’
Peter Hitchens observantly pointed out the cool pint of beer somehow tastes so much better after a long, strenuous walk then it does immediately. The beer is identical in its make-up, but in one instance, it has been deserved and comes at the end, rather than the start of the journey.
Those who pursue, seek and search for happiness never find it. Only those who do not accidentally find themselves suddenly stumbling upon it unexpectedly. Bill Pratt has written of happiness very well, citing Malcolm Muggeridge:
‘Every day I see people who think that just a little more money, or a little more pleasure, is all they need to be content. How sad and how foolish. Money, fame, and pleasure will never fill you up. Just go ask the rich and famous whether they’re content with their lives. The philosopher Peter Kreeft once remarked that suicide rates are much higher in wealthy nations than poor nations. Think about that for a good long minute. If money and pleasure are truly what life is about, then suicide rates should be lower in wealthy nations, not higher. Something is askew! In any case, please enjoy the quote below from Malcolm Muggeridge:
“I may, I suppose, regard myself, or pass for being, as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets–that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue–that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions– that’s pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time–that’s fulfillment. Yet I say to you — and I beg you to believe me–multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing–less than nothing, a positive impediment–measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are”’
(From a blog post by Bill Pratt entitled “The Meaning of Life according to Malcolm Muggeridge”, https://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2010/05/13/the-meaning-of-life-according-to-malcolm-muggeridge/, from the “Tough Questions Answered Website”, https://www.toughquestionsanswered.org)
Another quotation on this subject from Muggeridge has also helped me:
‘In great wealth, great poverty; in health, sickness; in numbers, deception. Gorging, left hungry; sedated, left restless; telling all, hiding all; in flesh united, forever separate. So we press on through the valley of abundance that leads to the wasteland of satiety, passing through the gardens of fantasy; seeking happiness ever more ardently, and finding despair ever more surely’
A third quotation from him also proved useful:
‘There is something quite ridiculous, and even indecent, in an individual claiming to be happy. Still more, a people or a nation making such a claim. The pursuit of happiness […] is without question the most fatuous which could possibly be undertaken. This lamentable phrase – the pursuit of happiness – is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world. To pursue happiness, individually or collectively, as a conscious aim is the surest way to miss it altogether […] The pursuit of happiness, in any case, soon resolves itself into the pursuit of pleasure, something quite different – a mirage of happiness, a false vision of shade and refreshment seen across parched sand. Where, then, does happiness lie? In forgetfulness, not indulgence, of the self’
(From a Chapter entitled “Happiness” in “Jesus Rediscovered” by Malcolm Muggeridge)
He further notes that happiness is ‘not translatable into a sensation’ and that it is ‘lost to whoever would grasp it to himself alone, not to be gorged out of a trough’. A fourth and final quotation from him additionally helped:
‘The truth is that a lost empire, lost power and lost wealth provide perfect circumstances for living happily and contentedly in our enchanted island.
I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus’
(From William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” interview with Malcolm Muggeridge)
Tim Keller has noted that happiness is not a transient, passing, temporal state or feeling, but that it is instead an underlying, constant and consistent situation of being or condition of existence. It is our rootedness in God’s power, strength and love which gives us hope, courage, resilience, perseverance, robustness and endurance. There is, very definitely, a clear difference between, short-term, Hedonistic pleasure (passing, immediate gratification), and long-term contentment.
By Ben Somervell
Bibliography and Recommended Further Reading
Darkness is My Only Companion by Katherine McCreight-Grenne
“The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami” by David Bentley-Hart
“Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering” by Eleonore Stump
“A Dissertation concerning the End for which God created the World” by Jonathan Edwards
“Either/Or” by Søren Kierkegaard
“The Sickness unto Death” by Søren Kierkegaard
“Fear and Trembling” by Søren Kierkegaard
“Works of Love” by Søren Kierkegaard
“Kierkegaard: An Essential Introduction” by Michael Watts
The Book of Ecclesiastes
The Book of Lamentations
The Book of Job
The Book of Psalms
“Writing in the Dust” by Rowan Williams
“Being Human” by Rowan Williams
“Being Human” by Steve Chalke
“Evil and the God of Love” by John Hick
“One Unknown” by Dr Gill Hicks MBE
“Unbroken” by Martine Wright
“Jesus Rediscovered” by Malcolm Muggeridge
“In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust
“On Suicide” by Leo Tolstoy
“On Life” by Leo Tolstoy
William F. Buckley’s YouTube Firing Line interview with Malcolm Muggeridge
“My Confession” by Leo Tolstoy
“The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“Evil and the Justice of God” by NT Wright