The Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl asserted that humanity’s primary motivation is to find meaning in life.1 While other psychological theories present people as driven chiefly by a desire to gain power or pursue pleasure, Frankl maintained that our deepest need is meaning, to know that our life has purpose. Finding meaning in the events of life is more crucial than the circumstances of life. Even in the darkness of a concentration camp, he said that the most basic question was not whether or how to survive, but why to survive, survival for something.2 Frankl’s work affirms people’s capacity for self-transcendence, the ability to look beyond our immediate desires and be part of something greater.
The idea that, as humans, we not only can but must connect with something beyond ourselves testifies to our creation by a loving God. Indeed, the Bible confirms that God created humans with purpose—to love him, each other, and the earth (Genesis 1:28). He created us in such a way that we are not satisfied with only fulfilling our physical or emotional needs. Unlike plants and animals, we are endowed with a fundamental longing for something more, ultimately for God himself.
The first humans lived harmoniously in close companionship with God, but then they rebelled. Ever since that sad moment, humanity has chosen to live life on our own terms instead of living the kind of life God intended. This includes our search for meaning. We grapple for a sense of purpose in our studies, careers, and relationships. In such a competitive, technology-saturated society, it is all too easy to feel a sense of emptiness or to just go through the motions, focusing on getting things done instead of knowing why we do what we do.
Frankl, whose words ring even truer in the age of social media, referred to the widespread “existential vacuum,” a sense of meaninglessness primarily brought about by boredom. 3 The video-streaming programs, memes, and funny cat clips vying for our attention speak for themselves. We have easy access to more forms of entertainment than any other society in history, but they often leave us feeling even emptier than before. A constant need for diversion masks a deeper longing that denies superficial remedies.
The good news is that God has provided a way to fulfill our need for meaning, a need he gave us in the first place. He sent Yeshua, the hope of Israel and the nations, who lived in perfect obedience to his Father, died for our wrongdoings, and rose from the dead to bring new life to all who believe in him (Isaiah 53:5; John 3:16). Through Yeshua, we can enjoy the loving relationship with God we were meant to have. Our very purpose as human beings—to love God and love each other—is realized in him. When we devote our lives to Yeshua, we have the assurance that he will never leave us (Matthew 28:20). Rather, his loving presence helps us grow in knowledge of God and compassion for other people. Whatever the circumstances, we who follow Yeshua know why we are living.
Ultimate meaning can only be found in a relationship with the God who created us. We were made to love God and love others. Still, we face daunting questions that profoundly affect our daily lives: what kind of job should I pursue? Where should I live? Do I want to raise a family? Each one of us is endowed with unique talents, interests, and stories, and we yearn to live life well. Finding answers for our individual purpose in life can be a long struggle, but the struggle is made much easier when we place God at the center of everything we do. He gives a deeper, eternal sense of purpose, even when our careers or family lives are less than ideal.
The Bible is not a magic eight ball, providing supposedly clear-cut answers about our future, but it does provide perspective for grappling with these questions. Whatever our job, family, and income level, our meaning is given by God and fulfilled in Jesus. Living for him gives us a sense of purpose that can never be extinguished or replaced (John 14:6).
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 99. Frankl called this focus the “will to meaning,” contrasting it with the “will to pleasure” of Freudian psychology and the “will to power” of Adlerian psychology.
- Noetic Films, “Viktor Frankl: Why Meaning Matters,” 19 April 2019, video, 12:51, https://youtu.be/BB8X-Go7lgw. This fascinating 1963 interview with Frankl offers a concise introduction to his “will to meaning” and how it differs from much of contemporary psychotherapy.
- Frankl, 106.