Sigmund Freud was one of the principal founders of the science of psychoanalysis and human psychology. He was an atheist who believed humans were evolved animals motivated by sex and food, pleasure and pain. So he thought that if you stripped a person of delight, he or she would lose the desire for life.
But then another psychologist by the name of Viktor Frankl* challenged Freud’s theory in the laboratory of real life. Frankl was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps during WWII. And he observed that even after the Nazis stripped the Jews of food, sex, and pleasure, they remained motivated if they believed their lives still had a purpose. Frankl said that when people had a reason or a “why” to live for, they could endure. In other words, Frankl proved that humans are not just pleasure-driven but purpose-driven creatures.
Frankl treated the camps like his therapy practice. He listened to the inmates who wanted to give up and counseled them to see a larger purpose in their suffering. He reminded them that many still had families who needed them. He encouraged them to fight for their survival so they could tell the world of their unjust suffering. He wanted them to see that their lives always had meaning and purpose, especially when they suffered.
Not only did Frankl’s advice keep many Jews from “running into the wire” (a form of suicide where someone touched the electrically charged fence around the camp); his “theory of meaning” saved many lives after the war. After Frankl survived the Holocaust, he took over a psych ward with a high suicide rate, reducing the number to zero. He experienced such success because his ideas were not just mere theories but facts based on real experiences.
I find Frankl’s perspective life-giving, and I believe it points to a larger truth: We are not evolved animals that just so happened to appear spontaneously by chance. We are created by God for a purpose. Humans are not motivated primarily by procreation and survival but are extraordinary inventions of God, searching for meaning. We were made in the image of God, commissioned by God to rule and care for his creation (Genesis 1:26-30).
What are the implications of these ideas?
First, Frankl’s findings point to the existence of God. God has given us these deeper desires for meaning and purpose. Or, as Solomon said, “He has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
Also, because we were created by God for a purpose, we must continue to believe our lives have meaning. If we forget this fact, our lives will stall at best; even worse, we will want to give up altogether.
Finally, when we believe our lives have purpose, we see life as a gift from God, giving us something good to do for his glory.
As we begin a new year, I hope you see the God behind your deepest desires to do something that matters. And then, I pray that God would give you the gift of carrying out such purposes in his name.
*You can learn more about Viktor Frankl by reading his incredible book Man’s Search for Meaning.