Breakfast talk audience
Breakfast talk audience

The Search For Meaning In A Chaotic World

I really do want to welcome you to our breakfast this morning. What I’m going to be talking to you about is, and I didn’t realize it until I started the preparation, but this is a very serious subject. In fact, you are going to see, this is a very heavy message, but it’s really important and I really believe that this message explains a great deal of what’s going on in our modern secular culture. I have titled it, The Search For Meaning in a Chaotic World. This is something I truly believe that men and women, but we’re focused on men, that men struggle with this issue. Now I want to start, you’ve just got to bear with me, for the first 10 minutes of this presentation, I’m going to give you just a number of examples of kind of what I’m talking about. It’s a great way to kind of introduce before we get into the heart of the message. Now a couple of these illustrations you may have heard, but I want to share them with you because it’s a very appropriate way for me to introduce my message.

Several years ago, Oprah Winfrey had a week-long series, and in the series, they were going to answer life’s great questions. I ask you to hold that thought in your mind, this idea of life’s great questions, and on this particular show, they were going to look at and consider, “What is the meaning of life?” I’m not sure how many in this audience have ever seen the Oprah Winfrey show, it’s not on the air anymore, but she would have a big audience and then she would have a panel of people, or a guest, special guest, and for this special session, she had some, supposedly, experts on dealing with the questions of the meaning of life, and they got in the discussion, and they get to the first commercial break, and then Oprah says, “stay tuned, because when we come back, we are going to answer the question, ‘what is the meaning of life?'” They get to the second commercial break, and she says the same thing. They get to the third, and the fourth, then the final, and then, there’s about 15 seconds left in the show, and the camera hones in on Oprah’s face, and she closes it with these words. She said, “Well, I guess you’re just going to have to look within yourself to find the answer to that question.” Now what strikes me, what Oprah was really saying was, I don’t know the answer, because if I knew the answer to that question I would have told you on the show. You see this is a real problem for modern people. It’s a great sounding question, what is the meaning of life, but people are having a real hard time getting an answer, or finding an answer.

I don’t know if you remember back in the 1990s, this made the news, in a major way. President Clinton did a press conference on MTV, do you remember, and they had a bunch of teenagers asking him questions. Do you remember the first question? What kind of underwear do you wear, boxers or briefs? Then they start asking about his favorite rock groups from the past, what were his favorite songs. It was a very funny lively show, and then out of the blue a 17-year-old girl whose name was Dahlia Schweitzer asked, “Mr. President, it seems to me that Kurt Cobain”, and if you remember Kurt Cobain, if you’re familiar, he was a very famous rock star in the group Nirvana, she said, “it seems to me that Kurt Cobain’s recent suicide exemplified the emptiness that many in our generations feel. What would you say to our generation about that?” As you can imagine, there was dead silence. And President Clinton almost gagged over the question, and when he tried to answer, he was tongue-tied, and finally he said, “Well, you are important to many people in this life.” That was the only thing he could come up with. I mean, she was really asking a very serious question on the emptiness and meaninglessness of life, and he didn’t have any real answer for her.

You know, I do truly believe guys, there is something terribly wrong in our land and I’m not sure where it’s going, but as I make the presentation, I think you’ll see what I’m talking about. Now one of the authors that I read, I’ve read a number of his books, I don’t know that I’ll ever read all of them, he’s written 48 books, they’re all very, very well-written. He’s a guy by the name of Dr. Peter Kreeft, he’s 78 years old, he still teaches philosophy at Boston College, and he writes a book on the teachings of C.S. Lewis. I think it’s called “C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium”. And this is a quote right out of the book, he says, “We’re the first civilization that does not know why we exist. Every past civilization had some religious answer to that question, but the essence of modernity is the abandonment of that religious foundation and so our civilization has no idea why we’re here.”

And maybe this explains, I shared this, I think two years ago, at a meeting here at the club, this explains something that Martin Seligman says. I don’t know if you know Martin Seligman. He is a very well known psychologist, he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, his area of study has to do with the meaning of life, what they call the science of happiness, and he has paid particular interest and attention to the baby boom generation. You’re a boomer, I understand, if you were born between 1945 and 1964. In fact, I am curious how many boomers do we have here. Quite a few. Well, let me tell you what he says about us. He says we are 10 times more depressed than our parents’ generations and the generations that came before them. Now that seems somewhat outlandish how does he make a statement like that, but all I can say is, he’s got the credentials to make it. So think about what I’ve just said.

We’re one of the first civilizations that doesn’t know why we exist, so many of us are so much more depressed than anybody that’s come before us, and maybe this explains, I just read this the other day, why suicide has surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of death due to injury. I have to say, I’m very sensitive to this issue of suicide. In fact, I would bet every person in this room has somehow been touched by it, and I’m not here to give a bunch of pat answers because depression that leads to suicide is very complicated, and there are not any pat answers, but I do think there is something to this about despair and depression, and the meaninglessness of life. In fact one of the great novelists, Albert Camus, he won the Nobel Prize for a novel that he wrote, he was a French novelist, and listen to what he says, this guy was an atheist, listen to what he says, it is so pertinent to this message. He says, “There is but one truly philosophical problem that I see out there, and that’s probably the problem of suicide.” He said, “Judging whether life is worth living amounts to answering the fundamental questions of philosophy. I see many people take their lives because they judge life is not worth living,” and listen to this, this is the heart of the message this morning, he says, “I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions because everything else is secondary.” I wonder if he’s right. Victor Frankl thinks he’s right. Victor Frankl was the famous psychiatrist who wrote the book “Man’s Search For Meaning”, one of the most significant books ever written in our country. He was a Jewish psychiatrist who in 1942 was put into a Nazi death camp. As soon as he came out, he wrote this book in 18 days, sold millions of copies, but he says that, “the will to find meaning is the primary motivational force in man”, and he says, “I witnessed this in the death camps.” He said those who stayed alive and were able to endure the horror lived with a sense of meaning that propelled them on. And in the book he speaks of two prisoners who have basically thrown in the towel. They were ready to go in the fetal position and just die. They had given up. They had no hope and Frankl met with them and talked to them, and counseled, and convinced them that life was still expecting something from them, and that their lives would really matter if they could just make it through the death camps, which apparently they did.

This is what Dallas Willard the great philosopher from USC said, “Meaning is not a luxury for us guys”, he says, “It is a kind of spiritual oxygen that enables our souls to live.”So I would ask you today, based on just the material that I just shared, do you live your life with a sense of real purpose? Does your life today have a deep sense of meaning? You know, this isn’t something we talk about much. I’m not sure how much we even think about it, but I’m convinced it’s very difficult to live a healthy, vibrant life without the thought, without the knowledge that my life does have a sense of meaning.

But that’s what I have discovered in the work that we do here at The Center. I think every single man in this room wants to believe that his life really matters. Every single one of us wants to know that my life counts for something, and that when I breathe my last breath, I can die knowing that my life made a difference, that my legacy will live on after I’m gone. I think that deep down, guys, every single one of us desires that, but we’re having a hard time making it happen, we’re having a hard time making it a reality. What I find, as time goes by, so many men find, and feel like their lives are inconsequential, and the thought that 100 years from now, nobody is going to remember that I ever even existed. When you start thinking those kind of thoughts, it is quite depressing. In fact, you might be wondering, is he going to say anything that’s optimistic this morning?

You know, I thought about that but I’m not here to give you a pep talk today, this is not a feel-good message, it’s a real serious message. My desire, I want to try to speak the truth in your life this morning, and answer that question that Oprah couldn’t answer, that Bill Clinton struggled to answer, “What is the meaning of life?” Recently one of the group, one of the groups that I lead, we had a really great study as we went through and looked at the book of Ecclesiastes, I don’t know if you ever read the book of Ecclesiastes, it’s a very unusual book, in fact some people ask why is this book even in the Bible, because it’s very philosophical, and, to be quite honest, it’s kind of depressing when you read it. Most scholars believe that Solomon wrote it, and Solomon writes about a time in his life when he had pretty much abandoned God, and he writes this now as an old manlooking back on this period, and he refers to it, as he uses this term, “life under the sun.” Now when he says “life under the sun,” he’s trying to understand the meaning of life if there is no God, if we live in a Godless universe. I mean, this is how people wonder, how did this end up in the Bible? But as you read about his search for meaning, it becomes apparent the Solomon has had everything, he’s done everything, and he’s experienced every pleasure in life, intensely. In fact, in the book he says, I did not withhold any pleasure from my life, and then he says, in the end, I came up empty. And then he says if there is no God that stands behind our earthly existence, then life is pointless.

And he starts off the book with these words, meaningless, everything is utterly meaningless, and he says finding meaning in life is like chasing after the wind, but the great thing about the book of Ecclesiastes is at the very end, he pulled it back together, and he says, there is nothing to live for under the sun unless you get some type of connection to what is above the sun. He is saying all is meaningless unless there is a God. Albert Einstein said the same thing. But another way of putting it, what Solomon is saying, when you have a vertical connection with the Divine, it changes everything about how we interpret life on the horizontal level. And you know, if you think about it guys, this is quite logical, this really is quite logical, because the idea of purpose and meaning implies design. Now take my iPhone. I think every single one of you would agree that this iPhone is not just a blob of plastic, and that it didn’t just kind of pop into existence, or accidentally come into existence. I mean, somebody designed it; it’s a little computer, that’s what it is. Somebody clearly designed it, intricately designed, and then mass-produced it, and therefore, I think every single one of us would agree, this iPhone has a purpose. And the point I want to make again is that purpose implies design, but in order to have design, you have to have a designer. And this is clearly and obviously true when it comes to an iPhone, but you know it’s also true when it comes to human life. If there is no designer, then what are we, and why are we here? You see, that’s the conclusion all the great atheist thinkers have come, to there’s no designer, there’s no design, and life is meaningless, we’re all alone in this universe, and when we die we go into everlasting nothingness. And they’re right, if that’s true, and I don’t have time to go through all the documentation I have on this, all the great thinkers and philosophers, who acknowledge this from Sartre to Freud to Darwin to Tolstoy, before he became a Christian. I even read that C.S. Lewis said the pessimism and gloom he experienced the first 30 or 31 years of his life were clearly related to his atheistic view of life. I was just reading two days ago an article out of the New York Times interviewing the great movie director and producer Woody Allen. You may not like his movies, but he’s considered truly a great, great artist. And listen to the words from this interview. He said, “I still lie awake at night terrified of the great void that is out there.” He said, “I can’t reconcile my strident atheism with all the superstitions I have in my life,” and then he says, quote, “I make movies not to make any type of grand statement, but simply to take my mind off the existential horror of being alive.” I know this guy sounds depressing but you know what? It’s the logical natural outworking of life under the sun if God does not exist in the universe.

Now I know you may be thinking, well I don’t know if this applies to me because I believe in God. The problem that I’ve discovered in living in this modern secular world, it’s so easy to believe in God, it’s so easy to believe in a spiritual world, but what I find in the lives of so many men, I believe He’s there, but I believe He’s irrelevant in my life. He doesn’t impact my view of life and my search for meaning. Put it this way, we are a nation full of practical atheists. We believe in God but we live as if He doesn’t exist. He has no impact on my life and so, I would ask you this morning, could that be true in your life? It’s a good question to consider. Does God play a role in helping me find purpose and meaning? Is He a part of the answer? Yeah, I think so many of us are like Woody Allen. I’d rather just fill my life with activities so that I won’t have to think about these things, and we’re very good at it. I mean, we have so much that we can fill our lives with, particularly the pleasures of life, and like Allen, with our work. It enables us to divert the mind from having to think about issues like this. You know, I wasn’t sure I was going to share this with you, but I think I will.

This is something that I stumbled upon as I was doing my research and it came from two books that I read. The first is a book that you’re familiar with, I quote it often, and it’s called The Question of God by Armand Nicolai. He’s the psychiatrist that teaches at Harvard Medical School and that for 35 years taught in the undergraduate school, as well. The second book is one that you’re probably not familiar with, it’s called Finding God Beyond Harvard. It’s by a woman by the name of Kelly Kullberg and she started what was called The Veritas Forum at Harvard, which is a ministry there at Harvard, and she has served somewhat as a chaplain, and I want to share this because this is a real-life example of everything that I’ve said thus far. And, I need to say this up front. I do not have an axe to grind with Harvard, but listen to what, listen to what I read. Harvard was founded in 1636. This was one of its central bylaws. “Let every student be earnestly pressed to consider well that the main end of his life and studies is to know God in Jesus Christ who is eternal life … and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” When Harvard was founded, it was a spiritually vibrant place for people to get educated, but clearly Jesus has been expelled from this institution. In fact, Henri Nouwen, the famous author, when he resigned from Harvard, he worked there at the Divinity school, he said, I’m leaving because this place is a spiritual desert, it’s a spiritual wasteland. So, God is dead at Harvard, and look at the consequences.

Back in 1993, I had the opportunity to go to the president’s prayer breakfast and hear Billy Graham speak. Bill Clinton had just been inaugurated. It was February. Billy Graham, I don’t remember anything else he said except this one thing. He said, prior to coming here to Washington, I was in Cambridge Massachusetts meeting with Derek Bok, who was the president of Harvard at the time. He said, we had a wonderful conversation. He said as I was getting up to leave I asked him this one final question. President Bok, what do you think is the number one struggle or the number one issue that the students of Harvard struggle with? And he said, Bok didn’t even have to think about it. He said, living with emptiness, living purposeless, meaningless lives. Kelly Kullberg asked a great question. She said, “How did such a great institution like Harvard become a place of emptiness?” Great question. Nikolai says this is true in his classes. He asks students how are their lives at Harvard, and he says you see nothing but emptiness, and these are supposedly our best and our brightest. And then Kelly Kullberg, I’m almost hesitant to share this, but she was seeking to work with a number of women at Harvard Divinity school, and so she went to an event that they had, women only, it was in the chapel, it was called the Full Moon Circle. She didn’t know anything about it, but thought this is a way to reach out. She learned that this is how they define themselves; we’re your neo-pagan pre-Christian eco-feminism Wiccan society. You know what a Wiccan society is? They practice witchcraft. Kullberg said that they met in the Chapel and it was packed. She said they chanted to the spirits, they worshipped the moon, many of them were crying out to their dead ancestors. I mean that’s shocking. Now where is this leading? This is the point I want to make. In 2006, the cover story of the college newspaper, it’s called The Crimson, the cover story was on the rampant student depression at Harvard, and these are their statistics. 80% have experienced depression at least once during the school year. 47% found themselves depressed to the point of having a hard time functioning. 47%. And that 10%, of 6700 students, about 670 students, have seriously contemplated suicide. It makes me wonder, can they connect the dots here? As we look back over the history of Harvard, as Camus said earlier, when you can’t find meaning in life, suicide is a logical option. Now I want to transition and really, kind of close this up by sharing the real positive, the optimistic side of this message. It’s hopeful and I want to start with some words, it’s a great introduction by a man by the name of Dr. John O’Neill. He’s president of the California School of Professional Psychology and he consults CEOs of large corporations. He is not a Christian, in fact I don’t think he’s a man of any faith and this comes from his book called The Paradox of Success, and in there, he gets to a point of examining work and how it provides meaning in our lives, and he makes this incredible admission. Listen to what he says. He says, “The basic questions we encounter when we look deeply into the shadows, they’re all spiritual questions.” He says, “They concern our place and purpose in the world, the significance of our lives, and our personal connection to whatever force is out there that keeps the world humming along.” He doesn’t know what that force is but he says that there is some force out there, and then he says, “Most of us today have moved away from the religious structures that once supplied answers to these questions,” he says, “but the problem is that the questions never go away. They are always staring us in the face.” And then he says, “Our compulsive busyness, our dread of unstructured time, and our reluctance to be alone with ourselves are rooted in the uncomfortable sense that our lives lack meaning and that we’re disconnected and are all alone out in the world.”

I don’t know if you’ve picked that up but the big questions of life that are always staring us in the face, but never seem to go away even though we do our very best with pleasure and work, tonight think about them, but guys, they are always there. Now, I want to close, real briefly by looking at the three great questions of life that philosophy has always asked, but no one seems to be able to answer, but I’m going to compare, real briefly, “life under the sun” with the Biblical worldview and you’ll see that the Biblical worldview confronts the questions and answers them clearly and gives us a real sense of coherence. The first question: Who are we? Think about it. If there is not a God out there, how did we get here? We’re here by chance, isn’t that true, we’re here by chance. We’re nothing but a mass of chemicals that under the right circumstances evolve into certain life forms and here we sit today at the Birmingham Country Club and so some people would say were just advanced animals.

B.F. Skinner says we are sophisticated machines and that there is no reason to regard human beings as having any real value when we’re nothing more than a product of nature, and therefore, if we’re just a physical being, that also means we have no spiritual dimension to us. We’re soulless. And as you look at your life today, you look at your wife, your children, it’s hard to imagine, hard to believe that we’re just products of nature, we’re just sophisticated animals. Advanced machines. That’s why Solomon says we are meaningless beings in this random universe. But on the other hand, the Bible paints a completely different picture of who we are, because God stands behind our existence. He put us here. He designed us. We’re designed in His image, which means we possess many of God’s characteristics, and therefore, we also possess an immortal soul, and therefore, every single man in this room is of infinite significance, of infinite value. Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are God’s workmanship,” and that word workmanship comes from the Greek word poíēma, which means “work of art”. You are God’s masterpiece. You have incredible value, because you’re His work of art. You see, your worth as a man has to do with your value, and your value is not based on what you do, or what you accomplish, or how successful you are, it’s determined by Who made you. The second question: Why are we here? Why do we exist? What is the reason for life? If there is no God that stands behind our existence, there’s no reason for it, we’re purposeless, we’re here for no reason, and we’re here by chance. Our life under the sun is pointless. But the Bible, on the other hand, answers this question in a very powerful way. Since we’re made in the image of God, one of the things we learn is that we are relational beings because God is a relational God. We are able to love because He first loved us, but there is something else we learn as relational beings. He gives us this clue. In Colossians 1:16, he says, “For by Him, all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or rulers, or authorities, all things have been created by Him, and for Him.” Did you get that last part? All things are created by Him and for Him? Do you see your life that way? That I was made for God? In I Corinthians 8:6, it says, “We exist for Him.” In I Corinthians 1:9, it says that you and I have been called into the Fellowship with Jesus Christ. That’s why we’re here. To live in a relationship with Him, to know Him personally. And Paul says in Colossians 2:10, it’s in this relationship that you are made complete. This is why Augustine said, “God you have made us for yourself and our hearts will not find rest until it rests in thee.”

Again, guys, when we connect with God vertically, we find meaning in life horizontally in the world that we live in. And one final point on this, and I’ll answer the last question, and we’ll be done. Back in Ephesians 2:10, “We are His workmanship”, the second part of the verse is, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which He prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” You know what he’s saying there? God has something He wants to do in, and through, every man in this room. Whenever I share that, people get nervous, but really, what that means is that He wants to do something in and through your life as a businessman, as a husband, if you’re married, as a father, as a grandfather, he wants to use you in your sphere of influence, here in Birmingham Alabama. And Max Anders said this very well, he says, everything that God does is eternally significant, and when we, you and I, are submissive to what he is seeking to accomplish, we find ourselves participating in the eternal. And guys, you want to find a real sense of meaning? When you know that you are participating in the eternal, it gives your life a real sense of meaning. Now the final question is the biggie. It’s the real biggie: What is my ultimate destiny? What is my ultimate destiny? What comes after this life? I wonder how much thought we’ve given to this, because what I find is that we’re so easily like Woody Allen. We look for ways to divert the mind, so we don’t have to think about our mortality. You know it strikes me, you would think that if life under the sun is true, and there is no God, we just die and go into an everlasting sleep. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. You know, ten years ago I wrote a book called “Safe Passage: Thinking Clearly About Life and Death”. It’s a book about human mortality. In all my research, I kept reading about prominent atheists and how terrified they were of dying, and I documented a lot of it in the book, and that’s what you see in Woody Allen, “I’m terrified of the void that’s out there.” It’s as if they don’t have much confidence in their atheism, and one of the reasons I think is they are painfully aware of the fact that, “I might be wrong.” But you know what I think another part of it is, is that you and I are everlasting beings, and I think we sense that deeply. Therefore, the approach of death can be terrifying because of that. Then, of course this question about our ultimate destiny is the main theme of the New Testament. It tackles the question head-on. Recently I’ve been reading through the book of Luke and this is what I’ve noticed. I’ve been reading the Bible for a long time. I’ve noticed there are two phrases that are used over and over and over, so yesterday I opened my concordance, and I realized that Jesus uses these phrases 40, 50, 60 times in the Gospel and one of those two phrases, one of them is the phrase “eternal life”. The second phrase is “the Kingdom of God”, and when you read these phrases, the emphasis is on the importance of obtaining eternal life, and the importance of entering into the Kingdom of God, and what’s crystal clear is Jesus says you enter through me. For instance, He says, “I am the door”, “I am the way” to enter into God’s Kingdom. So what is our final destiny? Eternal life in the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. And so guys, when it comes to the big questions of life, I think it’s quite clear, Christianity answers them all. It gives life coherence. It gives us a unity. In Christ, life makes sense. In Christ, in a relationship with Him, we find the answer to “what is the meaning of life?”

And so I leave you with a final question as we think about this issue of destiny. If you died tonight, and you stood before the judgment seat of Christ, which the Bible says clearly we all will one day, do you know with assurance that you would be given entrance into the Kingdom of God? There’s no more important question in all of life, and if the answer, if your answer is no, or I don’t know, I ask you to consider the Investigative Study. I mean, we’re here to help you. We’re here to help you figure this out. In fact, The Center For Executive Leadership exists to help men find their faith, understand their faith, and grow in their faith, to become the men that God intended for you to become, so that you could be a better husband, a better father, a better businessman. And so I would just say this, we’re here to serve you, and so if there’s any way we can help you, if there is any way you would like to be involved in our work, leave your card on the table, or later you can mail it in to us, but it would be a privilege for any of us to help you, to work with you in any way we can. Let me close in prayer. Father, we so thank you that we can live this life with great hope, with great optimism, and that You clearly answer, really are the answer, to all the great questions of life, that men and philosophers have asked throughout the centuries. We thank You that You give us coherence, that You give us meaning. I pray Your blessing on every man here, all the men here, all their families, pray Your blessing on their marriages, their work. I pray, Father that every single one of us would take all of these questions seriously, because there’s nothing more important in life. We do thank You in Christ name. Amen.

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