Nihilism | Why We Have Everything Except Joy (2 of 2)

Why do humans crave purpose? What is it inside us that drives us to find meaning in the world, in existence, in what we do? The human is an odd animal. We’re the only ones you’ll find raising banners above our dwellings signifying allegiance to something greater than ourselves. Sure birds make nests, but have you ever seen one form a nest in Gothic style with gargoyles planted to ward off evil spirits? Humans have the unique capacity to postulate metaphysical questions of existence. You’ll be hard pressed to find a single ancient culture that cropped up anywhere on Earth that didn’t propose the Divine exists.

I struggled to find a way to tell you, as Sam Harris (a renowned atheist speaker) might, that you can create meaning and purpose for yourself. I would love to tell you that if I could, but the joy you’d find there would be like a dust covered mirror reflecting poorly back to you what true Joy is. So let’s define it shall we? Joy, as opposed to happiness, is a desire. There is something out there you wish would be true so much so that perhaps you have a suspicion it might just be. I have plenty of friends that love Star Wars. I remember as a kid running around pretending I had Force powers. In High School I actually shot a video where I finally did have Force powers due to movie magic – it was great!

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a two-part series. Read part 1 here.
Op-Ed Note: This Rebuttal is missing an Op-Ed. If you would like to write one to be published on, please let us know in the comments, or simply sign up and publish it.

My wife is enamored with the world of Harry Potter. She would like nothing more than to receive a letter from Hogwarts detailing that she had been accepted into the school and expected to hop on the Hogwarts Express first thing tomorrow morning. For me, I love fairytales. I get slightly choked up when Charming wakes Snow White with a kiss on the pilot of Once Upon a Time. I do so because I have felt like Snow White before. Asleep, under a curse, and listless – laying in a state of limbo, waiting for someone greater than myself to save me.

Other times, though, I think about Lord of the Rings and how I desire to be one of the Hobbits – to go on a grand adventure, to fight evil alongside Gandalf. I want to be the one freeing others from the slavery of the One Ring. Then I might read Narnia and let my imagination run wild envisioning the islands, castles, fields, and under-realm of that world. All of it seems brighter, more adventurous, and more romantic than our world. I often gloss over that these characters face real struggles. Frodo is stabbed by a ring-wraith and is never the same. Luke has his hand chopped off by his own father. Both Gandalf and Harry die – falling victim to dark forces. Susan forgets about Narnia. One thing is clear though, all of these characters have real purpose and real meaning. They are all guided on by something metaphysical – something outside themselves.

If you’re really honest with yourself, this is what you want. You wouldn’t mind the danger and difficulty of adventure if it meant you at least had an adventure to go on. You desire to be part of something greater, something with meaning, something more valuable than yourself.  If only someone would tell you what you were meant to do, and where you were meant to go. Luke had Obi-Wan, Harry had Hagrid, Frodo had Gandalf, and Gandalf had Eru Ilúvatar. At least Susan had Aslan, even if she eventually rejected him. But you, when you seek your purpose, who do you have?

See, Nihilism is hard. It is very difficult to hold the belief that life is without meaning when at the same time everything inside of you not only desires it to have meaning, but has a secret suspicion that it must. You’re a lot like a fetus rolling around your mother’s uterus. All you know is darkness, and you never have quite enough room – but occasionally you hear something on the outside. You don’t know what it is, but it sounds like singing and you delight in it. After you heard it the first time all you wanted was to hear it again to prove to yourself that maybe there is something more to existence than this darkness you’ve only ever known. That sweet sound offers some validity to your suspicion that there is more to life. On the day of your birth it is traumatic and painful and you come out crying. The light burns because your eyes have never seen it before, but in the midst of the chaos you hear that same sweet voice again and meet your mom for the first time. See, the whole time you were in the womb you were destined to meet her, but you just weren’t ready yet.

What if I told you that this life isn’t all there is, and that all of your romantic notions of fairy-world were like hearing a sweet song that you couldn’t get out of your head? Posit for a moment that you aren’t the byproduct of the random colliding of stars, but rather you were known before you were formed by a Creator. If that were the case, if He named you and called you into existence – then your purpose could only be found in Him. Why? Because things that are designed always have an intent behind them. A microwave microwaves and an automobile drives. Those objects don’t make purposes for themselves – they are specifically designed to fulfill the purpose their creator gave them. In the same way, what if you too have a purpose which has been given to you by your Creator?

I contend that this is the truth and the source of Joy. 

In Part 1 we examined how having everything does not necessarily translate into joy. What typically happens is once we’ve achieved our goal we feel dissatisfied and seek to broaden the goal – which once achieved still fails to fulfill us. Eventually, as GK Chesterton noted, this leads to pessimism – the blessings fail to produce the good we expected. If this happens enough, we may fall into disillusionment with life itself and Nihilism.

What if, though, we don’t need everything, but just the right thing? C.S. Lewis compared humans to cars. He said that cars run on gasoline because we designed them to, and that in the same way humans need God because we’re designed for Him.  Jesus astutely pointed out “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). The bottom line is, things, experiences, vacations, trips, spouses, children, and not even the entire world is enough to satisfy us. Our desire is to be with our Creator, it is to be filled and powered by our Creator, it is to be given a purpose, meaning, and adventure by our Creator. This desire for Him brings us joy – eternal Joy that can’t be put out by the pain or the mundane of this world. This Joy is like nostalgia in reverse. Nostalgia always points us back to a point in time when we knew happiness. Joy directs us to a future point where we’ll revel in our God. That place will reflect our fairytales. It will be like the baby seeing its mom for the first time – the one it had only heard of before.

Don’t give into Nihilism. Life isn’t meaningless. So long as you’re still breathing, God has a purpose for you. With every breath you take it is a rebuke to the thought that your life is pointless. Find your purpose and joy in Him and you’ll find that it can never be taken away no matter how difficult life becomes.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – Jesus (John 15:9-13)

Photo by Preslie Hirsch on Unsplash

Written by James Thayer