That's a question only rich people have time to ponder, some folks say. The world's poor are too busy struggling for survival to think about something as nebulous as the "meaning of life" -- unless it helps put food on the table.
Not true, according to a recent study published in the academic journal Psychological Science.
The study analyzed Gallup World Poll data from more than 130 countries, including the bottom 50 in gross domestic product. Citizens of poorer countries actually ranked the importance of meaning in their lives higher than those in more prosperous nations.
The study looked at multiple factors contributing to this phenomenon, but in country after country, a common element emerged: faith.
"In part, meaning in life was higher in poor nations because people in those nations were more religious," the study's authors reported. "The mediating role of religiosity remained significant after we controlled for potential third variables, such as education, fertility rate, and individualism. As Frankl stated in Man's Search for Meaning, it appears that meaning can be attained even under objectively dire living conditions, and religiosity plays an important role in this search."
They meant Viktor Frankl, the renowned psychiatrist and author who said, "Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose." As a survivor of Nazi death camps, he had authority to speak on the subject. Echoing Nietzsche, Frankl wrote, "Those who have a 'why' to live can bear with almost any 'how.'"
I can hear the skeptics now: Faith is a rickety crutch the poor lean on -- and an opiate the powerful use to lull the weak into accepting their lot. That might apply to certain lives or particular moments in history, but it can't explain the power of faith in the human heart through the ages.
Even in affluent societies where secularism and materialism appear to be prevailing, people want something more, something deeper, so they look for God substitutes. "Instead of relying on religion to give life meaning, people in wealthy societies today try to create their own meaning via their identity and self-knowledge," the study reported. Materialism and self-worship have become the "religions" of the rich, but they're counterfeits of the worship of God.
When Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, the devil challenged Him to prove He was the Son of God by changing stones to bread. Jesus answered from the Scriptures: "It is written, 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God'" (Matthew 4:4, NASB).
Humanity needs bread to sustain life. But bread isn't enough. People crave the Bread of Life: Jesus Christ. That's why the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ and the making of disciples among all peoples are the primary mission of God for His church in the world.
There are many ways to carry out that mission -- including feeding the poor, ministering to the sick and needy and seeking justice for the oppressed. Fair-minded observers who put aside stereotypes of evangelical Christians long enough to examine evangelical activities in the world quickly discover that they are doing all of those things (see some examples here: https://gobgr.org). The love of Christ compels them. Above all, however, the Great Commission command of Christ and the mission of God compel them. There is no artificial division between the Word of Christ and the love of Christ in authentic ministry.
It's the Gospel that gives hungry souls ultimate meaning.
Erich Bridges is the International Mission Board's global correspondent. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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