The ‘Why?’ of Life

Ebensee concentration camp prisoners 1945

Prisoner 174517 was one of only 3 survivors out of a group of 650 Italian Jews transported to Poland in 1944. One day in the Auschwitz death camp, prisoner 174517 was thirsty.

“Seeing a fat icicle hanging just outside his hut in the Auschwitz extermination camp, he reached out of the window and broke it off to quench his thirst. But before he could get the icicle to his mouth, a guard snatched it out of his hands and dashed it to pieces on the filthy ground.”

‘Why?’ the prisoner burst out instinctively—’Why?’ the guard answered with brutal finality, ‘Here there is no why.’”

To Prisoner 174517, the “Italian Jewish scientist and writer, the guard’s answer was the essence of the death camps—places that defied all explanation for their absolute evil. In the face of their horror, explanations born of psychology, sociology, and economics were pathetic in their inadequacy” (Long Journey Home: A Guide to Your Search For the Meaning of Life,” Os Guinness).

The ‘Why?’ Question:

Some things defy explanation. Yet we still ask “Why?”

It is a question we feel compelled to ask. It penetrates the heart—beyond the public façade we offer to others. It looks for a reason, a purpose, a motive– an explanation for the way things are.

“Why?” was a question God began asking in the earliest days of human history. To Cain—“Why are you angry?” To Abraham—“Why did Sarah laugh?”

Moses asked, “Why is the bush not burned up?” Nathan asked David, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?” Job asked, “Why did I not die at birth?”

Jesus repeatedly asked “why” questions: “Why are you anxious?” “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye?” “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?” “Why do you not believe me?” Most dramatic of all: “Why have you forsaken me?”

Here there is no why

“Why?” cuts through the superficial and requires an explanation, a reason, a motive, a cause, a purpose. Without experiencing anything close to the horrors of the Auschwitz, people all over the world—out of a frustrating emptiness of life, embrace the brutal finality of the guard’s answer, “Here there is no why.”

What a sad conclusion!

Evidently, Job felt this despair when under the unspeakable weight and misery of his suffering, he cried out, “Why did I not die at birth?”  Sometimes life hurts so much, and seems so unexplainable that we cannot see clearly enough to answer the ‘why?’ question. But we go on asking because we are compelled to find answers.

We seek a final explanation

“Unique among living species, human life is aware of itself, yet we find ourselves in a world that doesn’t explain itself. So we’re impelled to ask why things are as they are and how we fit in. What gives life to life? Why is there something rather than nothing?”

“Deep inside us we know the facts of the matter are not the end of the matter. So we seek a final explanation, a source of meaning that goes as far back as one can go, an ultimate answer before which all questions cease.”

“This will to find meaning is fundamental. It is ‘the primary motivational force in man,’ according to psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. ‘Meaning is not a luxury for us,’ says philosopher Dallas Willard. ‘It is a kind of spiritual oxygen, we might say, that enables our souls to live.’”

“Abraham Heschel expressed it from his Jewish viewpoint: ‘It is not enough for me to be able to say ‘I am’; I want to know who I am and in relation to whom I live. It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for?’” (Long Journey Home: A Guide to Your Search For the Meaning of Life,” Os Guinness).

It has been said that there are three requirements for a fulfilling life. Are you listening to me?  High school graduates?  College students? Those starting life? Those in mid-life? Those in golden years?

3 Requirements for a fulfilling life:

  1. A clear sense of personal identity: Who am I?
  2. A strong sense of personal mission: Why am I here?
  3. A deep sense of life’s meaning: What is the purpose of it all?

If we settle for superficial answers to these questions, we will be disappointed and face the threat of a cynical or delusional life.

A cut and bleeding soul

Describing the frustration of his own search, Augustine wrote:

“I carried about me a cut and bleeding soul, that could not bear to be carried by me, and where I could put it, I could not discover. Not in pleasant groves, not in games and singing, nor in the fragrant corners of a garden. Not in the company of a dinner table, not in the delights of the bed: not even in my books and poetry. It floundered in a void and fell back on me. I remained a haunted spot, which gave me no rest, from which I could not escape. For where could my heart flee from my heart?  Where could I escape myself? Where would I not dog my own footsteps?”

Our hearts are restless until…

It is of great importance that we look for answers in the right place—and recall the great prayer of Augustine: “Dear Lord, You have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” Here is the answer we need.  Here is the answer that cuts most deeply into matters of identity, mission and meaning.

“At the funeral of his father, management consultant Charles Handy suddenly realized how this modest man had affected the lives of hundreds in ways he had never imagined. ‘I realized that what one believes about life, and the point of life, does matter. I had put my faith, until that moment, in success, money, and family, probably in that order. I still think these things are important, although I would now reverse the order, but I hanker after a bigger frame in which to put them’” (Long Journey Home: A Guide to Your Search For the Meaning of Life,” Os Guinness).

This describes most people. They are missing the larger frame of life—into which all of life fits. And what is that larger frame? It is taking ownership and personal application of the way God describes His people in Isaiah 43:20b-21: “I give water in the wilderness, 
rivers in the desert, 
to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself 
that they might declare my praise.

Generation 268

We belong to God—He formed us for Himself.  We exist to glorify Him—to declare His praise.  Look at Isaiah 26:8. “Yes, LORD, …..we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.” This text is the basis for a movement known as Generation 268. Adopting Isaiah 26:8 as the defining purpose of their lives, these mostly young people confess: “Lord, Your Name and Renown are the desire of our hearts.”  They’re saying, “We exist for You God– for Your glory, honor and praise!”

Lifted from the horizontal:

This is the “why” of life and it clarifies and injects meaning into everything else.  It lifts us from the horizontal to the vertical, from the temporal to the eternal, from the me-centered to the God-centered life! It is the larger frame to fit everything else into. “I plan to live for God and His name and renown—His glory—no matter what I do!”

The theater of God’s glory:

“Creation is the theater of God’s glory” (John Calvin) (see: Psalm 19:1). Among God’s creatures, He chose human beings to be His image-bearers, uniquely made in God’s likeness with a unique capacity to glorify God.  Though made a little lower than the heavenly beings, He crowned humanity with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5). He made us to bring glory to our Maker and when we refuse to glorify Him, we exchange His glory and degrade ourselves (Romans 1:20-25, 28).

Consider: I Peter 2:9-12

verse 9 – identity and purpose: Praise (cf. Romans 15:5-6, Psalm 50:23; 66:1-3; 34:3), verse 11 – passions (cf. I Corinthians 6:19-20), verse 12 – actions/deeds (cf. Matthew 5:16)

3 Requirements for a fulfilled life:

  • A clear sense of personal identity
  • A strong sense of personal mission
  • A deep sense of life’s meaning

Isaiah 26:8 “Your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.”

Reflection and Discussion:

Can the horrors of Auschwitz take this answer to the “why” of life away?  Is this meaning large enough to involve suffering and death?  (see: Job 1:20-21; I Peter 4:16, 19; John 21:18-19; Philippians 1:20-21)

Steve Cornell

This entry was posted in Meaning of life, Mission statement, Philosophy, purpose, Suffering, Worldview. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The ‘Why?’ of Life

  1. Ken Killen says:

    Great piece as usual Steve. I thouroughly enjoy your site and the thinkspots articles. I’m a thinkspots reader, not a writer so much but I do enjoy those that are. You are one of those that stimulates my thinking. This entry cause me to think of another why question. “Why do I /we even ask WHY? I think maybe Eccles 3: 11 is the answer to this question. I’d love to hear/ read your thoughts regarding the answer to this question.

    I’m thankful for your willingness to share your thoughts and gifts.

    Ken Killen
    Pastor @ Maxwell Hill Baptist Church
    Beckley WV

  2. thinkpoint says:

    Thanks Ken,

    I think your right about Eccl. 3:11. I also think that Os Guinness answered your question to a degree when he wrote, “Unique among living species,” wrote Os Guinness, “human life is aware of itself, yet we find ourselves in a world that doesn’t explain itself. So we’re impelled to ask why things are as they are and how we fit in. What gives life to life? Why is there something rather than nothing? Deep inside us we know the facts of the matter are not the end of the matter. So we seek a final explanation, a source of meaning that goes as far back as one can go, an ultimate answer before which all questions cease.”

    “This will to find meaning is fundamental. It is ‘the primary motivational force in man,’ according to psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. ‘Meaning is not a luxury for us,’ says philosopher Dallas Willard. ‘It is a kind of spiritual oxygen, we might say, that enables our souls to live.’ Abraham Heschel expressed it from his Jewish viewpoint: ‘It is not enough for me to be able to say ‘I am’; I want to know who I am and in relation to whom I live. It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for?’” (Long Journey Home: A Guide to Your Search For the Meaning of Life,” Os Guinness).

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