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The One Question the Dalai Lama Couldn’t Answer. Can You?

The Dalai Lama giving a talk, pic by Bruce Bortin
Picture by Bruce Bortin, cc by-nc 2.0

A few years ago I went to hear the Dalai Lama speak at a public meeting. He lectured on the importance of having compassion, then took some questions from the audience. As the event was about to end, the MC said: “Your holiness, here is one final question—What is the meaning of life?”

Muffled giggles murmured through the crowd. For some, the question was a cliché, but others waited for his reply. How would this famed religious leader answer life’s ultimate question?

Does life have any meaning? Does my life have any meaning? All of us at some stage ponder such questions. When the producers of BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought segment asked for my answer, I ventured out with this reply.

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The Biggest Question There Is

Man in cafe searching for meaning on laptop

Picture by Hannah Wei

After the MC’s question the Dalai Lama gazed at the ground for some time, gave one of his customary chuckles, then said, “The precise answer is… I don’t know.” Everyone laughed. He had spoken for many. Trying to reconcile life’s joys, sorrows and hopes can leave us bewildered.

That doesn’t stop us searching for answers though. Each month at least 100,000 people type ‘meaning of life’ into search engines like Google. They’re not all looking for the Monty Python film. Psychologists like Martin Seligman tell us a sense of life’s meaning is essential to well-being: We all need to feel we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. We all need a story that makes sense of our lives.

Finding Meaning in God’s Great Story

Man searching the night sky with torch

Picture by Martin Sattler

It was a great discovery for me a few years ago to realise the Christian faith doesn’t just offer me a way to heaven when I die, but is itself a story, playing out in history, that helps make sense of those joys, sorrows and hopes. It describes life as a drama in four acts.

  1. In Act 1 God creates a world teeming with creatures, flowers and light, and humanity to enjoy it with.
  2. In Act 2 a great rebellion takes place unleashing evil and pain into the world, tearing our relationships with God and each other apart.
  3. In Act 3 God launches a recovery mission, ultimately visiting earth himself, getting crucified at our hands, but rising again to offer us forgiveness and restoration of life.
  4. And in Act 4 the story will end with this restoration complete—the world returned to a place of radiant beauty and harmony.

This story helps me make sense of things, like the joy I feel at nature’s beauty and the wonder of human love—both are divine in origin. It gives sorrows like war and famine some context—they are intruders that were never meant to be here. It gives me hope—we may be in Act 3 now, but Act 4 is coming. And it gives me a purpose to live for—God reserves a role in the story for all who opt in. We get to take part in his transforming work using our gifts and talents.

As the Dalai Lama showed, it’s wise to stay silent on things we don’t know, so what I’m about to do may be an act of folly. But here’s what I think the meaning of life is:

To live with God, and play our part in his unfolding drama.

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How would you answer the question of the meaning of life? Leave a comment below now or call me using the ‘Send Voicemail’ button on the right. Please also rate and share this podcast on iTunes to help others discover it!

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  • Arul John

    Thanks for this sharing Sheridan! And your answer is spot on! I may add in a few more words, but your answer has the essence of the meaning of life – To live with God, and play our part in his unfolding drama.
    Many thanks again!.

    • Thanks Arul! Now we go and live it out…

      • Arul John

        Yes, that’s right. And God will qualify those whom He has called.

  • Vicki Nunn

    I would possibly say that the answer is – it’s not about me. It’s about finding our place in God’s plan, and being willing to give of ourselves to whatever and wherever God calls us in His service. That’s one of the toughest things we are called to do, to override our natural inclination to focus on ourselves, particularly when we are going through trials or living with long-term problems. I’ve lost count of the times that the Holy spirit has prodded me and pointed my own pride, self-centredness or my lack of compassion for others.

    • So true, Vicki. The greatest saints were ultimately people of obedience rather than career-oriented ambition. It’s easy to make it all about us when it’s His story in the first place. We then get to play a part!

  • Jim Hetherton

    the meaning of life? = Is to live a life of meaning. And as you said Sheridan it Gods meaning that counts, see Matthew 22:36-40 this type of love/ charity my mentor Stephen Covey said is defined as a verb.

    • That’s it, Jim. Loving God and others was the original plan, and the plan that will last into eternity.