The Courage to Be Meaningful

In his book The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich memorably divides theological periods of history into existential struggles: the fear of death marked the early centuries of the church; the late medieval and Reformation eras struggled with moral anxiety—the question of how one can stand before a holy God; and in our modern period we find ourselves wrestling with spiritual anxiety, that is, the question of life’s meaning.

From a modern, secularized point of view, the question of how sinners acquire divine acceptance appears irrelevant. After all, no one is perfect, and who can agree on justification anyway? Contrast this, however, with the problem of depression and the overall sense of nihilism in contemporary life and Tillich’s thesis appears to be onto something.

Faced with our modern epidemic of depression and burnout, some church leaders have proposed a shift of attention from the question of how God justifies sinners to the existential challenge of finding life’s meaning. “Why talk about sin and justification,” they say, “when the world is no longer consumed by these questions?”

The Bigger Picture

In actual fact, the questions of meaning and justification cannot be separated. Even though moderns tend to think of life’s meaning in terms of personal success, the question of life’s meaning belongs to a larger fabric, one that involves life before God. There is, after all, the question of whether one’s goals are worth pursuing in the first place. And after one has achieved them, what then? This is where the doctrine of justification becomes more significant.

Let’s consider a hypothetical example. A person in his forties wakes up one morning and realizes that he has successfully achieved all of his major life goals. He is rich, surrounded by a wife and children, and has meaningful friendships. And yet deep down he lacks joy and has a growing sense that he can’t make himself into a “good person.” While congenial on the outside, he knows the selfishness his own heart and has a nagging fear that God knows it too.

Our little example illustrates what is true for everyone on some level. We may be “successful” in terms of personal and career achievement, but we all lay our heads upon our pillows at night and stare up into the darkness. It’s in these moments when the Spirit works on our hearts, revealing a deeper need than what Mercedes-Benz or Tesla can provide. It’s a need for our souls’ God-shaped vacuum to be filled with the indescribable peace of the triune God, the one peace that ultimately satisfies.

The Courage We Need

I happen to think that Tillich was generally right. Time periods of human history have a certain Sitz im leben (situation of life) in which particular needs predominate, and the taxonomy that Tillich proposes appears to capture the broad movement of culture in the West. This is at least true in the suburbs of Chicago where I live. However, just because history has moved into a different kind of existential struggle (from spiritual anxiety to personal meaning and happiness) doesn’t mean that the issue of justification is now therefore superseded or irrelevant. Our need for divine acceptance remains crucial as ever. Why? Because we are created for relationship with God.

It’s at this point we return to the proposal of some church leaders to shift the spotlight from sin to the enterprise of discovering life’s meaning. Rather than driving a wedge between the two, we ought to recognize the search for meaning assumes the doctrine of justification. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” In other words, personal meaning and personal destiny are inextricably bound together.

Because the supreme benchmark for success is at the throne of God, we who preach must honestly communicate the bad news of sin so that we may proclaim the good news of forgiveness and the ultimate meaning of human life—peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Anything less is ultimately meaningless.

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