We are born with a broken heart,
Born with a sorrow we can only later articulate,
Born missing the most essential aspect of what we need to live a fulfilling life...
Born without a sense of meaning.

We begin our lives learning what life is, only to be drawn inexorably to the question of what it is meant to be. 

The moment we become aware of ourselves as selves, this question stands out above all others. Before it, all other questions diminish. Beside it, all others become inconsequential—of secondary, merely pragmatic, importance. Yet without an answer to the question of meaning, it’s not simply that it is impossible to make sense out of the practical details of our lives or that such details become a burden, as we are left pondering why we should do what we do. Rather, in the absence of an answer to the question of meaning, another question looms: why should we do anything at all? Why should we get up and, despite the heartache of this world, struggle through another day? To those for whom life is meaningless, existence is reduced to a single question: why live at all?

The search for meaning is the search for a reason to live. It is the single most important question we will address, the one that will most determine the quality of our lives and the one that has most haunted human beings since we possessed the power of introspection. Yet meaning is the one question for which our psychology provides no understanding, our biology no adaptive response, our instincts no insight, our emotions no motive power, and our institutions no program of formal instruction.

Apart from genetically determined psychopathology, the failure to find a satisfactory answer to the question of meaning is perhaps the single greatest determinant of psychopathology. Those whose lives are without meaning find it difficult to live in and enjoy the present. Instead, they are drawn emotionally either to the past, becoming mired in regret, or to the future, where they are consumed with anxiety. The meaningless life isn’t merely empty emotionally; it is emotionally tormenting. Such individuals find it difficult to face their emotions, to live with the realization of what is lacking in their lives. They tend, therefore, to engage in distracting pursuits, fill their lives with trivial detail, or subdue their distress through various forms of self-indulgence or addiction.

Secular education, as it is currently taught in most settings, trains us to think critically about what we do and to do what we desire skillfully, but it does not see its purpose as cultivating the insight to understand which desires are wholesome and likely to lead to a life that is meaningful, or fostering the understanding of what it is about meaning that makes it meaningful and therefore attainable. Secular education provides a road map to the productive life but not necessarily the meaningful one.

Ethical instruction, when it is emphasized, is rooted either in the pragmatism of the population or in the harmonious well-being of the individual without exploring or explaining the “harmony” or “well-being” to which these pursuits are intended to be the end. Such instruction is tactical but does not discuss how or whether such states contribute to a sense of meaning.

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Evolutionary biology may inform us as to the adaptive advantages of certain mind-sets over others or certain ethics over others, but I would doubt that those who practice such strategies would describe them as intrinsically meaningful. Such a physiological orientation (as we will explore in some detail) cannot answer what is fundamentally a spiritual question.

Religious education teaches us about who God is and how we are to properly relate to Him, often without instructing us as to why and in what manner that relationship is meaningful. Frequently, such education is proscriptive and imperative, focusing exclusively on the debt and therefore the spiritual and behavioral obligation we incur by being what we are, without illuminating the debt God incurred in creating us and the love these debts are meant to reciprocally express. Too often, religious education reasons from man to God, whereas if God is relevant to the question of meaning, the answer will be found in the nature of the relationship of God to man. If God is germane to the question of meaning, then the answer will be found less in the fact of His existence than in the character of His person and the nature of His relationship to His creatures.

Meaning is one of those words whose meaning is itself maddeningly difficult to define. Traditional definitions resort to the use of nouns such as “significance,” “value,” “quality,” or “implication”— which, far from illuminating the underlying concept, beg further definition. The proper direction of inquiry and the nature of the answer become clearer when we appreciate that the more accurate question isn’t “What is the meaning of life?” but “What is it that makes life meaningful? What yields a life full of meaning?” The distinction is between noun and adjective. Meaning isn’t something that can be possessed (a “thing” that can be touched, held, taken, or given away, which is also why it cannot be found in the externals of material pursuit or accomplishment) so much as it is an emotion experienced or an attribute acquired when life is lived in the appropriate or proper fashion. One then wants to understand what it is about this emotion that makes it meaningful. What is the essence of that emotional experience? What does it communicate to the psyche? Too often meaning has been discussed as a means to an end or the consequence of a way of life without actually clarifying what meaning means. If the essential nature of meaning remains unclear so, too, will be the means by which it is to be experienced. We will explore these issues in detail.

If meaning is something we experience as a result of living life in the appropriate or proper fashion, then the next question is obvious, even if the answer is not. What sorts of actions or pursuits will lead one to feel that life is meaningful? Action implies a direction, at the end of which lies a destination, so the question can be asked more precisely still. Toward what end should life be lived so the journey will be experienced as meaningful?1 That end, I would suggest, is our “hope,” and the means to that end (the principles that direct our actions to achieve that destination and as a result find that life will be experienced as meaningful) can be considered our “purpose.”

The answer to the question of meaning can be seen, therefore, to depend on the answer to two others. First, what is the nature of hope, and does a meaningful life admit to multiple destinations, multiple hopes, or only one? Next, what is the nature of purpose, and can the correct hope be achieved by multiple codes of conduct, multiple value systems, or only one? Whatever else meaning may be, I have come to believe it is the experience of the journey to our hope, which we achieve by means of our purpose. If one is to understand the nature of meaning, therefore, one must first understand the nature both of hope and purpose.

Like many young men, I looked for meaning in all the wrong places: the ego, the emotions, and the senses. The emptiness of hedonism, however, forced me to consider why pleasure doesn’t bring contentment. This conclusion, in turn, led to a consideration of the important differences between happiness and meaning. Both philosophy and theology often fail to make a distinction between the two. This failure leads, on one hand, to less-than-articulate discussions of the difference between a “true” and “false” happiness, which aren’t as instructive and helpful as they might be. On the other, it leads to apparently self-contradictory musings on the extent to which happiness is independent of circumstance, yet is, in some fashion, contingent upon it. Such discussions, because they attempt to reconcile irreconcilable positions, wind up giving no clear direction as to how one may find “true” happiness, which, because it is true, cannot be assailed by circumstances. By drawing a clear distinction between happiness and meaning, we will resolve this apparent paradox and in the process explain why happiness is contingent upon circumstance while meaning is not.

In religious circles, happiness is often devalued in favor of meanng, although as I came to understand the distinctions between the two, I realized that both play an essential, albeit complementary, role in the healthy life. One fact, however, became abundantly clear: no amount of happiness will make life meaningful, and the person who fails to understand the differences between the two and pursues the former as a means to obtain the latter will experience no end of frustration and misery, not to mention discontent.

We are born with the skills to be happy. Happiness is an emotion built into our biology for specific adaptive purposes we will discuss. Meaning, however, is an acquired skill, the mean or perfect balance between the extremes of self-exaltation and self-contempt. This bal- ance requires considerable self-awareness and a specific mind-set predicated on an appropriate degree of self-denial. This mind-set goes very much against our natural grain, and learning the selflessness on which meaning depends led me on an altogether different sort of journey.

This book begins from the perspective of one man who was, at first, less interested in finding God than in discovering the meaningful life. It begins with a consideration of the difference between happiness and meaning, the dependence of meaning on hope, and the role that purpose plays in achieving one’s hope. It ends with the realization that faith has a lot to say that is pertinent to hope, meaning, and especially purpose.

Everyone has a purpose in life, whether he or she is conscious of it or not.

The absence of purpose is not the chief existential dilemma in life, and the creation of an arbitrary sense of purpose will not resolve it. The question isn’t whether our lives are purposeful but whether that purpose leads to a hope that is proper to our nature as human beings, for only then, I would assert, will life be meaningful. We will examine how the two views that dominate this world—humanism and faith— answer this question and discuss why I believe the latter provides the better response. This assessment is neither antithetical to the premise of biology nor hostile to the findings of science. Indeed, it is rooted in both, for it is only when the relationship between the spirit and the mind, cognition and emotion, and psychology and physiology is properly understood that the origins of, differences between, and functions of happiness and meaning can be correctly understood. Only then does it become clear why a hedonistic lifestyle can never be meaningful and why the ascetic denial of happiness isn’t necessary to secure meaning and is most likely antithetical to it. We will explore the physiological basis of happiness and the spiritual origins of meaning, and we will examine the relationship between purpose, meaning, and hope as well as the facets of faith that realize each.

Although God was the last prerequisite I thought would be necessary for the meaningful life, my journey brought me 360 degrees around to the conclusion that without God there can be no such thing as the meaningful life. This was a result of the realization that without God the sort of hope on which meaning depends could not exist and that all other formulations of hope are nothing but a mirage predicated on a misunderstanding or distortion of the truth.

Furthermore, I realized that not simply any deity would do. The only God in whom a legitimate hope can be found is One who is singular in His presence (though not necessarily in His being) and could, therefore, relate personally to His creatures. Hope is both personal and relational, but a personal God is not enough to provide a legitimate hope. He must also be transcendent, eternal, true, holy, just, trustworthy, and unchanging. That left me with only one possibility from all the world religions: the God of Israel.

The necessity for God, however, doesn’t prove His existence. At first I was indifferent to God. Then I needed Him to exist. There is no fulfillment to be found in living a lie, however, and it was at this point that I became sensitive to the conventional proofs for God.2 The intellectual portion of my journey taught me who God had to be for my life to have meaning. My heart then needed proof that He was real before I could confidently commit myself into His keeping. I discuss those proofs that meant the most to me in the prologue. Others may be moved by different proofs.

This book, however, doesn’t end there.

Coming to faith is perhaps the easiest part of the journey. The more difficult question then ensues: what am I to do with this faith? There are many implications of faith, and many books have been written on this topic alone, but perhaps the most basic consider- ation, the one that precedes contemplation of all the others, is this: what is the character of the heart God has made new, and how does this transformation change one’s self-perception and values as well as one’s consideration of, and conduct toward, others. This book begins and ends with the search for meaning but delves deeply into the latter topics.

Belief in God changes everything.

To say that one has “come to faith” is to say that God has become one’s source and definition of truth. One set of premises is exchanged for another, one world view for another, and there is no quarter in one’s life where the shock wave isn’t felt. It is difficult to overstate the far-reaching consequences effected by this shift in world view, for when the law of love replaces the law of self, when humility seeks to replace pride, and when gratitude replaces envy, one must rethink everything one values.

My journey has changed the way I think about many of the experiences on which meaning is held to depend or is believed to be antithetical to it. In this journey, I have had occasion to consider such things as the following:

  • The role of hardship in the birth of faith

  • The role solitude plays in spiritual growth

  • The role reconciliation, loss, remembrance, and forgiveness play in love

  • The nuances and challenges that present themselves as one seeks to love as God does

  • The importance prayer and supplication play in deepening one’s relationship with God

  • The ways trials and reprieves promote spiritual validation and growthThe relationship between love, happiness, meaning, and marriage

  • The insights that the triune nature of marriage may provide into the triune character of God and into marital roles

  • The relationship between the mind and the body, holiness and sin, and spiritual and behavioral transformation

  • The means by which we should understand God’s will and the essence of it

  • The burden earthly fathers bear as they represent our heavenly Father

  • Above all, the nature of the longing within our souls, which is meant to lead us to God and in Him discover a life that is purposeful because it is hopeful, and meaningful because it is purposeful

In contemplating such topics, I have learned that meaning is fundamentally a spiritual question; as such, it must be spiritually discerned. We are born seeking meaning within ourselves, and it is only when circumstances drive us to despair in the ability of our spirits to create a life that is abundant and fulfilling that we become open to the possibility that these are to be found elsewhere.  Abundant life is a gift of God’s Spirit, and until one reckons with the necessity for, and implications of, faith, true fulfillment will never be experienced. We may be born into this world, but our hearts long for another. Our earthly days may be numbered, but our souls instinctively know that eternity exists and that we are eternal beings. We may suppress that awareness in a nihilist pessimism, which leads to despair; or we may grapple with the meaning of our mortality and discover the genuine hope of faith.

I have found that the philosophies of this world evade or cannot provide positive responses to the most important questions in life, whereas faith meaningfully answers them. By what principles should I live? To what end should I do so? In what or in whom should I place my trust? Is there a source in which I may have absolute confidence? Answer these questions, and nearly everything else in life falls into place, as the distinction between wants and needs becomes clear. My journey has taught me that there is only one person discerning enough, loving enough, and trustworthy enough to answer these questions. I have learned that it is only in spiritual fidelity to God that one finds purpose, meaning, and hope.

There is still more to this book.

The journey to faith may begin in the mind, but it ends in the heart. Life may be analyzed conceptually, but it is experienced lyrically. The intellect may direct it, but the passions power it. This book is meditative, but it is also lyrical. The rational arguments it presents for how the heart, once God renewed, now considers itself and others is accompanied by poetic interpretations of those arguments. Life’s most profound moments are deeply emotional, and these poems are meant to bridge this gulf by evoking the personal—dare I say, numinous—in a fashion I hope is musical and incantatory, contemplative and thought provoking. By engaging the mind and the emotions, they are meant to reunite the head with the heart.

The journey to faith is the most marvelous and sobering of all journeys, for the transformation of one’s heart transforms the questions one asks, the values one holds, the world one perceives, and the life one lives. This journey is christened in pain, sustained in longing, refined in trial, and concluded in love. Yet it is not a journey we make alone. Humility is our guide, forgiveness is our porter, and contrition and gratitude are our traveling companions. The sinful heart is hard, which is why God must so often break it before He can remake it. Yet I believe God mends hearts so He might fashion them into radiant jewels, for those with His love in their hearts heal the world around them.

In our journey, those who have already made this pilgrimage meet, guide, and inspire us. Such individuals provide a glimpse into the heart of God, and in so doing, they transform the theological into the intensely personal. Indeed, it is through the godly heart of another that we first meet God and are inspired to know Him. God makes Himself known to those who don’t yet know Him by the love contained in the hearts of those who do. In these mediations you will meet one woman (my beloved H) and her father (G), who have made God’s care manifest and tangible. And by illustrating a love that is as irresistible as it is indescribable, they have led my mind and heart to God, as I’ve sought to articulate that love and understand its author.

In sin we are born with one conception of love. When we are reborn, God gives us a new definition, and this definition is the first principle from which all others follow. For life to be hopeful, we must be reconciled to God. For it to be meaningful, we must understand the love that makes this hope possible: agape. We will explore this love conceptually and poetically.

I am not a biblical scholar. I’m simply one man in love with God who has sought to drink deeply from the well that is His Word. I cannot speak to the theological mysteries of God, but I can speak to the mysterious fashion in which He mends and renews broken hearts and, in so doing, transforms lives. This book is a meditative and lyrical account of one man’s grateful journey into the arms of his God. It is my sincere hope that as you read these reflections, you will experience at least a measure of the challenge of the questions asked, the joy that arises from receiving and expressing devoted caring and affection, and the gratitude I feel at being given a love I do not deserve.

I have known such despair that hope seemed like a fool’s errand. I have known days when I wished tomorrow would never come. Come, “reason with me,” engage your mind and your heart, and let me introduce you to the God who made you, who loves you, and who wants to give you everything, including the only things, you will ever truly need: purpose, meaning, and hope.

James Michael Castleton, MD
 Mammoth Lakes, California
February 14, 2015


Book Reviews:

“His insight ... rings humbly and true ... Rich in metaphor, Mending of a Broken Heart is heartfelt, poetic, and beautifully written, offering wise reflections on the nature of life, death, suffering, and trying to find our way through an often-challenging world. Readers of Robert Wicks, C.S. Lewis, and Henri Nouwen, will find much to appreciate here.” ~BlueInk

“graceful” ... “an elegant and weighty theological memoire”. ~Kirkus

“A search for answers to timeless questions leads to enlivening theology from a lay perspective ... Familiar concepts are eloquently drawn to show the need for God... Nearly aphoristic gems reveal a talent for distilling complexity. The theme of agape... build[s] a case for seeing others from a radical perspective ... God is portrayed in the multifaceted and challenging way that the topic deserves.”
~ForeWord Clarion


Overcoming Temptation — Lessons from Gesthemane, Part 3
The Disciples’ Failure and a Prescription for Success

This series is for anyone who has ever struggled with temptation and would like to find a better way. 

In Part 1, we learned that Jesus’ suffered in the garden of Gesthemane, not as God, but as a man, and revealed just how severe His was. In Part 2, we discovered the resources Jesus brought to bear to triumph over temptation. In this Part, we’ll look at why the disciples failed in their own Garden temptation for insights into why we so often fail in ours, and then close with some thoughts about what we can do to better cope with trial.

5 minute read.

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