Reading Time: 4 mins

In Search of Significance

Reading Time: 4 mins

This article is written by guest contributor, Christopher J. Richmann.

Americans suffer from widespread lack of purpose and meaning. This is evident in many of the problems we hear about regularly in the news, in fiction (which always reflects current social realities), and on social media. Two conspicuous examples will suffice to illustrate. 

First, we have what some have called the “male malaise” or “crisis of masculinity.” [1] Young men are doing worse in school than ever, and they are increasingly unlikely to go to college. Combined with the collapse of blue-collar industry (traditionally male-held jobs), men experiencing the resultant underemployment and joblessness cannot assume the traditional self-image of provider. Even when they find suitable jobs, the decline of both marriage and the associated role of involved father threatens the traditional image. In response, many men choose other, problematic, roads to a feeling of manhood that have fewer obstacles, like guns, misogyny, and political intimidation. Tragically, men are dying in unprecedented levels from deaths of despair—drugs, alcohol, suicide. [2]  Clearly, they lack purpose.     

Apparently, the worst fate that can befall a human is to suspect that I am all there is to me. 

Another problem revealing widespread lack of meaning is burnout. The World Health Organization defines burnout as “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.” [3] Burnout experts agree that one of the major factors is a lack of support, control, and understanding expectations (read meaning). Just over half of American workers exhibit some feature of burnout, with perhaps a tenth of workers fully burned out—that is, being so emotionally dissatisfied with your job that you are on the verge of leaving or resort to “phoning it in” because you can’t handle being invested in it. [4]

Another way to describe lack of meaning or purpose is insignificance. These two social problems reveal that our great fear is that what we do or who we are don’t signify anything greater. Apparently, the worst fate that can befall a human is to suspect that I am all there is to me.    

Although there are all kinds of economic, demographic, and cultural reasons for feeling insignificant, ultimately this is a theological issue. People looking for significance are always trying to find some version of God’s law that they can work in harmony with (do this, and be rewarded, be told you are significant). Of course, this will always disappoint, because that is not the law’s purpose (Rom. 5:20, Gal. 3:19-24).  

In this pinch, well-meaning Christians turn to Scripture to reaffirm personal significance. They may sport Bible verses on coffee mugs, wall-hangings, and T-shirts. Typical in this regard is Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord.” Thay may also turn to Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13. With imagery of mustard seed and yeast, Jesus would have us contemplate things that, on the surface, seem insignificant. A common move is to suggest that because the seed and yeast grow into—and thus signify—big and important things, by analogy, we too should not judge our own significance by the current sight of things. Your significance is certain, even if it is not yet apparent to others.   

But as with so many of Jesus’ parables, there’s a twist here. Our problem is that we rush so quickly to find a word of surface-level encouragement that we miss Jesus’ deadpan facial expression as he delivers these parables.   

Sure, a mustard shrub is much bigger than the seed that was its origin. And a loaf of bread is larger than the measurement of yeast one puts into it. But let’s not kid ourselves. The mustard shrub is not a redwood. It’s not a live oak. It’s not even a maple tree. It’s a shrub—good for a few things, yes, but nothing to really admire. If it were a vehicle, it wouldn’t be a Texas-edition or Ram 3500 truck. It might be a Kia Rio. 

The same thing goes for the bread. A loaf of bread certainly serves its purposes. But it doesn’t change the world. At best, it feeds a family for a day. And then everyone is hungry again. 

In other words, the little things that begin these parables—seed and yeast—create slightly less little things. Is that supposed to be a big inspiration about our own significance? 

Despite our understandable hopes that Scripture would give us resources for treating our insignificance syndrome, these parables cannot be used as an analogy for personal significance.  Jesus says clearly that he is describing the kingdom of heaven. And the kingdom of heaven will always seem insignificant to the world. “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed” (Luke 17:20). Christians don’t seem to matter in this world. They don’t make a difference. Or if they do make a difference, it is as small as a shrub or a loaf of bread. Hardly worth noticing, let alone mentioning.    

We distort the gospel if we package it as a fix for our modern psycho-social troubles.  

Nor should we expect that it makes a difference, psychologically, to be a Christian. We need solutions to the problems of lack of purpose and meaning evident in unhealthy masculinity and burnout culture. But even though an evangelical understanding of vocation can clear up much of the confusion that contributes to these problems, we distort the gospel if we package it as a fix for our modern psycho-social troubles.  

Instead of giving us a lesson on significance (as we normally think of it), Jesus’ parables are giving us a lesson in faith. The word used for the woman “mixing” yeast into the flour is actually “hid.” She hid the yeast in the flour. Just like a gardener hides a seed in the ground.  

And this hiddenness persists. Yes, it might sprout something you can technically see. A good work here or there. An encouraging word now and then. Occasional gratitude for your time volunteering. But nothing to write home about. For the most part, it all remains hidden. Even after “becoming” something greater, it is still rather underwhelming. From the beginning, it is about faith. It is about believing, not seeing.  

But don’t take this as a task to complete. Jesus is not telling you to start your faith engines and will yourself to believe that a mustard bush is really significant. He’s telling you that the word of the kingdom of heaven creates faith that believes in the kingdom’s significance—and only by extension, the significance of those who believe. 

This belief will look silly to the rest of the world, for sure. Just as Jesus says in the other parables of Matthew 13. After all, who in their right mind would sell everything to buy a field with one treasure (at least not before it was properly appraised)?

But this unreasonable faith drives those who belong to God’s kingdom. The significance is found in believing that God has relieved you of your endless search for significance, or your recurring fears that you are insignificant. The purpose is discovered in the field where the treasure is God’s purpose.

Christopher Richmann is assistant director for teaching and learning for the Academy for Teaching and Learning and affiliate faculty in religion at Baylor University. He is an ordained minister in the ELCA and has written on American religious history and Lutheranism. His most recent book is Called: Recovering Lutheran Principles for Ministry and Vocation.