Franz Kafka (1883–1924) once said of life, “The true path along is a rope [that] seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope.”
The novelist suggests existence is not just a precarious balancing act, but one fraught with snares set up as a sort of cruel, cosmic joke. Due in part to Kafka’s famous stories, this idea now pervades our “social imaginary.” People don’t need to be self-proclaimed nihilists or absurdists—or even know who Kafka is—to respond like him to personal and cultural crises. The reaction is now instinctive: when things go haywire, people shrug, “Nothing matters anyway.”
As Christians, we know life has meaning. We want others to know this, too. But it’s not enough to just respond to the Kafkas of the world by simply asserting, “Life does have meaning!” To the growing number in our families, classrooms, and relational spheres who struggle to find meaning in the “tripwire” nature of existence, there are better ways to respond. Here are three.
1. Engage Empathetically
We won’t help people if we are condescending about their plight; we must condescend to it. H. R. Rookmaaker said it well when he urged Christians to do more than offer vague platitudes in answer to the “chilling questions being cried out in agony.” We need to be close enough to feel the chill.
In a diary entry, Kafka wrote, “I write this very decidedly out of despair.” Then he asks, “Do you despair? Yes? You despair?” In his private thoughts, he ached for someone to understand his plight.
The hopeless world needs to know the hopeful church struggles, too.
Is joining someone else’s woe antithetical to the hope of Christianity, contradictory to faith in God? Moments before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he wept (John 11:35). Jesus’s weeping indicated not a lack of faith but an abundance of compassion for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
We can also be empathetic by sharing our own stories. The Bible never promises the Christian life will be without despair. Despair is a part of life, and the Bible teaches God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life” (1 Pet. 2:3). In Christ, we are equipped to handle whatever comes our way.
Christian, you might have a history (or present) with despair. Being in Christ, you have found comfort amid the crisis. What did that look like for you? The hopeless world needs to know the hopeful church struggles, too. Your experience wrestling with existential angst or life’s tough questions can be helpful for others facing despair.
2. Challenge Self-Centeredness
Both Paul and Jeremiah heard the chilling cries of their people. Paul wrote, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Rom. 9:2). Jeremiah said, “My anguish! . . . Oh the walls of my heart!” (Jer. 4:19). These men cared deeply for their people, but they also acted on that care by calling out sin.
Both biblical authors show how self-centeredness leads to epistemological instability. About those wanting to live their own way, Jeremiah says, “While [they] look for light, [God] turns it into gloom, and makes it deep darkness” (Jer. 13:16). Paul says of the same people: “Their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21).
If union with Christ properly equips you for “all things that pertain to life” (1 Pet. 2:3), then worshiping “the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25) takes the ground out from under you. Maybe Kafka was right when he described life as a tripwire. He felt deeply that something hindered him from knowing more, from living well.
And something did—his own sinful self-centeredness.
Don’t discount the despairing person’s intuitive resonance with the idea that the answer he seeks won’t be found by looking within.
For our engagement with culture to be helpful, then, our empathy must entail more than mere validation or relatability. We must be willing to talk about sin—the blinding power of a wrong posture toward God. Granted, claiming that one’s ability to think rationally depends on a right relationship with Jesus Christ will initially sound silly or bigoted. But don’t discount the despairing person’s intuitive resonance with the idea that the answer he seeks won’t be found by looking within. Even Kafka sensed it was all man’s fault, not God’s: “The original sin . . . consists in the complaint, which man makes and never ceases making, that a wrong has been done to him, that the original sin was once committed upon him.”
3. Point to God’s Word
Kafka knew of his own existential wrongness, but he didn’t believe there was anything else to do: “Can you know anything that is not deception?”
Thankfully we do, and we can point the Kafkas of the world to something definite that is not deceptive, not devious, not absurd: the Word of God. Only this “gives light” and “imparts knowledge to the simple” (Ps. 119:130). Only this revives (Ps. 19:7), guides (Ps. 119:105), and teaches (2 Tim. 3:16). God’s Word is always successful, always powerful (Isa. 55:10–11). Embracing God’s Word gives us meaning.
God’s Word is all of these things because it is all about Jesus Christ, “the light of the world” who died for self-centered, God-rejecting, gloom-bound sinners so that we will “not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
We can point the Kafkas of the world to something definite that is not deceptive, not devious, not absurd: the Word of God.
This light isn’t only about the hope of heaven, either. As Rookmaaker observes, it’s also about how Jesus’s “saving grace redeems us here and now, and gives answers to the problems of today.” In other words, Scripture soothes a sorrowful world. As we engage a culture in crisis, then, Christians must not minimize or forget Scripture’s power to speak into the hopes, fears, and depths of human existence. The Bible may at times feel familiar, cliched, or embarrassing to some of us, but to unbelievers mired in despair and looking for something solid, it can be a lifeline.