Meaninglessness. It’s a cardinal sin, and a personal demerit, right next to it’s close cousins despair and depression….
As an American Christian, I was brought up under the idea that THERE IS NOTHING MEANINGLESS in the faith. In other words, any which way you slice your Christian beliefs, there should be nothing left over, and all can and SHOULD be used for some divine reason or purpose.
This sentiment is often present when we describe recent physical and/or emotional trauma we (or someone we love) has recently suffered through:
•”It’s ok, God is in control and has a plan.”
•”You see, if God hadn’t allowed ‘X’ to happen, then I would never have learned ‘Y'”.
•”It’s ok, because God is good…..all the time.”
•”God put this event in place to keep me from experiencing a greater evil.”
•”If I hadn’t experienced this event, I’d been right in the path of something even more dangerous.”
•”God was only using these negative experiences to give Himself the greater glory.”
•”I don’t know what the answer is, but I know God has a plan.”
The problem with these kind of statements is they incorporate a watered down “half-truth” about God, the character of God, and our relationship with God. Typically, these half-truths become weak and impotent in the shadow of life’s darker moments (children with cancer, WW2 concentration camps, genocide, suicide, chronic pain, and almost all tension areas between class, race, gender, etc.).
“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Isaiah 45:7 KJV
There seems to be absolutely no room in American Evangelicalism for the belief in a God who allows chaos and disorder in our personal lives. No space to believe God’s plan might be to NOT have a plan…at least that we know of.
Sure, we believe He has no problem allowing chaos and disorder as a result of our personal sin (again, not necessarily true), yet in areas we feel innocent of sin, we immediately seem to scramble to find meaning, instead of allowing the meaningless to work it’s course through us.
Our pastors preach of the meaning of the cross, and how it brings such purpose and vision in our lives, yet Jesus’s last hour was blanketed by darkness and confusion…even in His relationship with God.
We talk about how doing great things for the Lord takes a devoted life, yet many of the great Old Testament prophets found themselves alone, in the wilderness, questioning their very life.
We talk about how pain and suffering gives us character and hope, but the only hope we have sometimes seems to revolve around whether or not God will take away our pain and suffering.
The more our pastors and leaders exhort us to evangelize, the more we can’t help but hearing their undertones of self-interest (ex. “growing” the church). Even still, the more we wait in poised anticipation to testify of the “gospel of truth” to our neighbors and coworkers, the more we alienate ourselves from them.
Even our political and social leaders, in this age of reason, affluence and entrepreneurship, make lofty, swooning allusion to ALL things being accessible to ALL people of our nation. Yet how many of us are falling through the cracks and seem to come out on the shorter side of good fortune, despite our efforts to succeed?
We are lost sheep without a shepherd….
In my own life I’ve experienced the hovering sense of purposelessness, always gnawing away, haunting, and buzzing in the back of my mind. I experienced it as a pastor, I know it even more now, as I’ve entered the 9-to-5 professional world. I catch glimpses of it in the highways and byways and back alleys of my life. The fleeting shadow, or quiet terror lurking, telling me that all is null and void, and in the end, means nothing. All my work, all the time I’ve put in, all the directed momentum……was it all for naught?
“To die, to sleep –
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,
For in this sleep of death what dreams may come…”
― William Shakespeare,
I used to rail and writhe and kick every meaningless, chaotic thought out of my mind, until I became too tired to keep up with it anymore. Now, instead of holding the door closed, I’ve unlocked it and let it in….as if, only for a moment, briefly, I let the sense of chaos and disorder and nothingness wash over me…knowing that it comes, and it goes, just as the rising and receding tide.
And it feels…..freeing.
A story I once heard told of Aborigines and white men traveling through the wildernesses of Australia speaks of the feeling. The convoy was overtaken by a large swarm of flies while traversing through the open plains. Instinctively, the white men swatted, ducked, and hid for cover from the black cloud of insects. However, the Aborigines did nothing, just stood with arms outstretched, allowing the flies to swarm over, around, and on them until all had passed. One group of men chose to see the flies as a threat and strove, futilely, to escape. The other group (Aborigines) saw the flies as part of the process and let themselves be swarmed by them as an act of self “cleansing”.
Who else can testify to the goodness of chaos?
Don’t take my experience as gospel, here’s how other religions handle the idea of meaninglessness and how nature itself exhibits purposelessness (especially in areas such as Chaos theory). Even scripture itself testifies the earth was formless and void in it’s very beginning.
Maybe purposelessness and absurdity are embedded in our primal DNA and, in the end, nothing to be ashamed of……
But, isn’t God LOVE and doesn’t love have purpose?
Yes, I believe God is LOVE and yes, I believe God’s love serves a purpose in my life. However, the only unilateral consistent I’ve ever come across in my entire walk of faith is His/Her purpose is to intently love me, NOT give me select reasons for why He/She does things. In fact, many decisions I’ve made in my faith seem to almost directly push against me gaining any understanding of why things happen the way they happen. In other words, God’s Will is rarely revealed to me, as compared to His loving character. It’s almost as if every time I pray for understanding, He/She responds with, “Just come close and love me, that’s all the understanding you need for now.”
So, if you find yourself alone, afraid of chaos, purposelessness, absurdity, and meaninglessness in this life, know this: You are loved, both by God, and by those around you (who often embody Gods’ love). Sometimes, there’s not much else you really need to know.
Rumi, the Islamic mystic of the 13th century best described it in his poem Guesthouse:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.