You’re not supposed to experience existential angst if you’re a Christian. Existential angst is the despair that stems from the conviction that life lacks meaning. We believe life has meaning, and therefore the suffering from existential angst is not suffering Christ experienced or shares in. Simple as that, right?
However, there is a paradox in the “meaningfulness” of the world in Christianity. “Meaningless, meaningless,” says the Preacher, “everything is meaningless.” As Christians, we recognize the futility of our toil under the sun. We build houses, which fall into ruin. We attempt to begin relationships, and never see the person we connected with ever again. We struggle to overcome our faults, and see no progress. We fail at our jobs. We make no progress in life.
On one hand, Christians recognize that this world is subject to futility. Everything is broken. When we see things fall apart, it is only what could be expected. When there is nothing to live for, it is only logical, because outside of God nothing else is worth living for. A house isn’t our purpose, and our relationships can be idols, and our abilities can be taken away at any moment. None of this is “the point.”
And yet at the same time we hold to the fact that God ultimately works everything for good. Futility is woven into his pattern by him in a way that removes the ultimate sting of it–there is an ultimate goal in the end.
I have a deep desire to do something that matters. To live for more than merely the purpose of lifting food to my lips each day, to go on breathing air, to get myself through the next day and week and year–but rather to live for something that is directed to a goal, that builds towards a greater end. And yet more often all I see is the futility. I see myself succeeding in bringing food to my lips, and working to bring the next bite of food to my lips, and I wonder, is this all I was made for? Is not life more than food?
What DO we do when confronted by our lack of progress? The business we poured years of our lives into, and all of our money, might be disintegrating in front of our eyes right now. What was the worth of all our sweat? Or the degree program we were working on and took such joy in is abruptly cancelled and we’re sent home to huddle in the basement of our parents’ house. Or if we’ve been laid off of the last in the string of a dozen jobs. Or we’re dating someone who just isn’t working out for us, despite our best efforts, and this chaotic time is revealing that too clearly. We thought we were able to buy a house, and now we can’t. And so on, and so on. It could be me, wondering why God would so obviously bring me to Ontario, and then make it clear I could’ve stayed home after all.
We feel like we’re spinning our wheels, with no where to go. We work madly towards what ought to matter, and it disappears. There’s no foundations to build on.
It seems silly. Of course there’s more to worry about than food–there’s “the poor,” there’s “the lonely,” there’s “injustice.” There’s these vague descriptions of concepts outside myself that we ought to be directing my life towards. And yet, I fail to make progress towards these things that supposedly really matter. If God closes the doors to places I thought I could really make a difference, then perhaps I was too self-centered in thinking I could contribute after all. And this is what we do hear from time to time from experts about our attempts to improve the world: that we’re more likely to make a mess than we realize, and that our “obvious” solutions are usually not taking a piece of reality into account. When I look at myself, I am weak, helpless, frail, unskilled. I have failed. I do not help.
So what is there to do? Is there an escape from the existential angst of not living for any concrete purpose? Is there an escape from the endless strain of moment-to-moment decisions–should I take this step or that step, since neither one appears any more important or useful than the other one? If God removes tasks and goals and abilities from you, is there any way to reorient yourself and submit to him in a way that is not despair? There must be. There has to be.
Only through God is the work of our hands established. Only as a result of eternity, do our actions in this day matter.
But this still leaves the question–Christ shares in all our sufferings. He wipes away the pain from our sickness, our experience of death, our sin. But can he relate to this existential angst, this void of meaninglessness, this lack of purpose for living? How can he relate to us in this? Perhaps, in this experience, we truly are all alone.
Is this the root of some of our depressions, the pit we struggle to climb out of? The feeling that perhaps nothing really matters after all. In the end, everything will turn out to ultimate good, but our silly wants and activities and irritations will be nothing but chaff that drifts away in the light of ultimate reality. And that no one knows what it is like to feel this way. Others do know what matters in their life. And worse, God does not know what this is like, because he always knew what mattered, and always existed in direction to his goals.
There’s an answer to what we should do when we don’t know what to do, of course. I’ll write it out, because to leave it out is to be irresponsible in regards to what hope I have to offer, though I do not know yet how it heals our aloneness in our existential angst. Our chief end is to glorify God. That is enough for our existence. When we do not know what to do, we can praise him. The psalmists remind God of this over and over–oh Lord, why destroy me, because then I cannot praise you? And this is an integral part of the Christian message. We do exist and draw breath in order to praise him.
And maybe I can offer a few more thoughts:
- We can’t establish our identity on what we do, on being goal-directed, on getting things done. That’s not to say these things are not important, but sometimes we’re called to live without goals and not getting anything done–we need a Christianity that can address these situations and bring hope to them
- We need to learn to glorify God and find that to be enough for us.
- We can’t build our theology of how God understands our feelings on the basis of the incarnation. God knows what we feel when we feel existential angst because he is all-knowing, but not because he can personally experience what it’s like to not know the future. The solution to feeling understood and known by God is not to look at our own experience and then search Christ’s human life to see whether he experienced the same thing. There is more to his knowledge of what we experience than what occurred in his human life.
- To some extent, we are in exactly the same position as God, only we don’t know the “how,” and we lack the control. God sees the same futility we see, and he has the same knowledge that everything ultimately will be good that we have. And yet we want the “how” as well, and imagine knowing the how would heal our angst.
- Maybe the suffering from our angst is as necessary as all the suffering that happens in the world.
- One strategy that can really help is to read Ecclesiastes several times over.
May God be with you.
A previous post I wrote on the experience of existential angst can be found here: How to Find the Meaning of Life