Scriptures for today are here.
Victor Frankl was a prominent Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna – but in 1942, he was arrested, along with most of his family, and sent to a concentration camp. The rest of his family died, but Frankl survived, and in 9 days in 1946, he wrote a book that the Library of Congress in 1991 called one of the 10 most influential books in America: Man’s Search for Meaning. In the book, Frankl wrote about his experiences in the camps and his work counseling other prisoners there.
Frankl concluded that the difference between those who lived and those who died in the camps didn’t have so much to do with their physical condition or the things they suffered: it had to do with whether they had meaning in their lives. Those who believed their lives had meaning and purpose were far more able to bear suffering, had a far greater will to live, than those who didn’t. He told about two people he had counseled in the camps, who in the miserable conditions were both considering suicide. Neither saw much reason to live, because like everyone would be there, they were deeply unhappy.
But Frankl helped them both to see that they had something to live for, a deeper meaning to their lives than what they were suffering right then. One was a scientist and wanted to finish a series of books to help the cause of science. One had a child who had escaped and was living in another country, and wanted to find him after the war. “In both cases,” Frankl wrote, ‘it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in future was expected of them.” Both of those men – and presumably all the prisoners – were deeply unhappy, yet for those who found meaning, there was a reason to live. They survived.
An article in the Atlantic in 2013 talked about this idea of happiness versus meaning. Six out of 10 Americans say they are happy, but 4 out of 10 say they haven’t found a satisfying life purpose. A major psychological study explored this difference. Happiness arises when you are well fed, maybe you are sitting in a comfortable chair, you’re watching a good movie, you have no complaints. Your immediate physical needs are met. Animals can be happy just as much as humans can. So happiness comes from external factors – it’s associated with getting what you want, receiving, taking.
But having meaning and purpose in life, the study found, is associated with giving. And what humans can have that animals don’t have is meaning. The study said: “Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.”
And ironically, just pursuit of happiness, just spending one’s life making sure you get what you want, makes people in the long-term lead a less happy, less satisfied life. According to the study: “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”
For instance, parents of small children aren’t as happy as those without – they get less sleep, they don’t get to eat what they like all the time, they don’t get to go out as much, they have their attention diverted from what they want to be reading or watching or doing to what is good for their kids – endlessly reading Goodnight Moon, for instance. I wonder how many hours I’ve spent reading that book – bored to tears by the book itself, but it was worth it, because to those kids snuggled up in their pajamas, the lesson it taught was not just the book. It was the lesson that I love them, a lesson of infinite value.
And parents of small children unsurprisingly report that despite the inconvenience, they see the children they are pouring themselves into as a big part of their life’s meaning. Raising children is an exercise in giving, not taking.
The study participants in general said they got meaning from sacrificing on behalf of others and being a part of a group. Martin Seligman, one of authors, wrote that in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”
People who have great meaning in life will actively seek out challenges that will bring short-term decreases in happiness – for instance, going on mission trips even though you might be uncomfortable. Having meaning in life brings us joy, as opposed to happiness. Joy means a deep satisfaction that can arise even in the most difficult circumstances. Joy means a person in a concentration camp, or in a hospital, or suffering grief from the death of a loved one, or without enough money to live comfortably, or sacrificing her own comfort for the good of others, has a real sense that her life is worth living, or that he is giving himself to something important.
This difference between meaning and happiness, I think, helps explain what is going on in today’s gospel. Today we finally come to end of Bread of Life story that we’ve been reading for 5 weeks. Remember how it started – Jesus fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish. He satisfied their physical needs, he made them happy.
But it turns out that giving happiness is not the reason he has fed them. It turns out that Jesus wants to give them a deeper meaning and purpose: called eternal life, that starts now and goes to eternity. And that that deeper meaning and purpose will involve sacrifice, it will demand giving of themselves, it will require them to open their minds to uncomfortable truths.
Jesus talks about the bread he gives the people as being “bread from heaven,” like manna in the wilderness. Giving manna to feed the people of Israel as they were escaping from slavery in Egypt was not just God’s way of giving happiness, meeting their immediate physical needs. It was God’s way of giving meaning – leading them to freedom. They had to learn to trust God.
But nevertheless, they grumbled, they complained, they failed to trust. They kept yearning for their old lives in slavery, where they weren’t free, but they knew where their next meal was coming from and where they would sleep each night. God didn’t listen to their complaints, but kept on leading them to freedom instead – which is much bigger than happiness.
In the gospel today we find something similar happening. The people around Jesus hear the teaching about Jesus being bread from heaven, they hear him say to eat his flesh and drink his blood. They hear him demand that they begin to live with his essence as part of their very selves, part of the blood running in their veins. They hear him asking them to abide with him, to take him in as a very part of their lives, flesh and blood, body and soul, in a bond of love that can’t be broken. They hear him offering them meaning and purpose – in this life and to eternal life.
And they want to run back to the simple, the predictable, the known. They have the same basic problem the Israelites had – they don’t trust God. When Jesus says to “believe” – he doesn’t mean believe with your head, adopt a set of beliefs, but believe with your heart. It’s like saying to someone, “I believe in you” – you’re not saying I believe you exist, but rather: I believe in what you are doing, I put my trust in you. The kind of belief Jesus wants from us is an “I believe in you “ belief – a willingness to put our hearts on the line, follow where Jesus leads, no matter how difficult or unlikely his words and his promises seem.
Believing in Jesus means doing things that bring meaning to life – sacrificing yourself, giving to others, devoting yourself to a cause that’s bigger than you. It means I believe in you, Jesus, I put my trust in you, or as Peter says, Where else would we go? I am going to follow wherever you lead because you have the words of eternal life. You have the words of love that bring meaning and purpose to my life.
So where is Jesus going to lead us? Well, Jesus sometimes leads in some difficult directions. Jesus isn’t easy to follow. Jesus will sometimes lead us into unjust situations and call on us to change them. Jesus will say astonishing things like, Forgive others as you have been forgiven. Love your enemies. Don’t judge other people, because you might be judged too. Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Take up your cross and follow me.
Jesus might give us a mission and ministry that could transform lives. Following Jesus might be difficult. But it could also be amazing, it could be fulfilling, it could change us, from the inside out, and it could change the world.
Which brings us back to Victor Frankl and the search for meaning versus the pursuit of happiness. Where is it that you find meaning in your life? Many of us might say in our family, or our work. But something brought you here this morning – even though you had other options. Maybe something said, God, just give me one more hour of sleep, maybe you wanted to linger over breakfast and the paper, maybe it was hard getting the kids dressed and in the car. But you left behind short-term happiness, and came here in search of meaning.
(Not that you won’t find happiness here! Maybe you’ll hear some beautiful music, maybe you’ll hear an interesting sermon – or maybe not – maybe you’ll see people you enjoy.)
But at heart, I believe that the reason people are part of Christ’s church is because as human beings, we need a deeper meaning and purpose in our lives.
So perhaps you came here wondering how Jesus would feed you today, body and soul; perhaps you came hoping that your children would learn the great truth that Jesus loves them, that lesson of infinite value; perhaps you came looking for whatever healing God might bring; perhaps you came seeking a word Christ might speak into your life; perhaps you came listening for a call from the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps you come here because every now and then, there’s a moment when the blazing presence of God is gloriously apparent, and then it fades, but it brings inexplicable tears to your eyes because you have fleetingly touched the divine. And when that happens, when you hear that call or experience that presence or feel that healing or know that Jesus truly, deeply loves you, and abides in you, then you have the deepest, most meaningful, most true thing to believe in, in the world.
That God, our Christ, our beloved Jesus, has the words of eternal life. And in him, we find our life’s truest meaning and purpose.