Birthdays and Broken Cisterns

A recent study conducted by two professors at New York University revealed that people are more likely to make big decisions or create big regrets just before milestone birthdays. The study divined that "people audit the meaningfulness of their lives as they approach a new decade in chronological age, further suggesting that people across dozens of countries and cultures are prone to making significant decisions as they approach each new decade.” 

This study, in a long tradition of academic banality, tells us what we already know: as people face milestone events, they often review their lives and make adjustments. And often, their review yields troubling results. The professors say it this way: “Entering a new epoch...leads them to behave in ways that suggest an ongoing or failed search for meaning."

The first three such big decisions noted by the study were these: as people approach decade birthdays, they are more likely to

  • exercise more vigorously
  • seek extramarital affairs
  • end their lives

One of these things is not like the others! Exercise is good, but the latter two in that list are really bad decisions! The list highlights a Christian truth. Without God, people don’t always seek meaning in bad things, but seeking meaning without God is always a bad thing. 

Let me unravel that. 

If you’re approaching a decade birthday, you aren’t destined to celebrate with illicit affairs or some other immoral activity. People seek meaning in all manner of really healthy pursuits — exercise, art, parenting, humanitarian projects. But the Bible teaches that none of those pursuits leads to a life of eternal meaning apart from their connection to the eternal God. Exercise is a good thing, but by itself it isn’t an expression of ultimate good. Feeding the hungry is a good thing, but doesn’t connect us with the transcendent unless it’s done in the name of the Transcendent. 

The Biblical prophet Jeremiah uses a metaphor of cisterns to illustrate this. In Jeremiah 2:13, God is described to have said:

My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

In other words, people have a tendency to seek what they need (water / meaning) from unreliable sources (broken cisterns / gym memberships). Cisterns are good things. Without them, ancient people could not have lived. But all of our efforts to search for meaning in places besides the spring of living water are destined to fail. 

It’s more complicated than that, of course. A person doesn’t create a meaningful life as easily as he scoops water from a stream. There are obstacles — personal, relational, cultural, religious, psychological, and spiritual — to our even finding life-giving water. But its elusiveness isn’t a reason to abandon the search. If anything, it should make the quest even more important. 

At some point in our lives, we will all stop and assess our progress. At a decade birthday, at the birth of a child, at the death of a loved-one, at the end of a project, at the rim of the Grand Canyon, we all have those moments when we ponder the meaning of life and wonder if we’re doing enough. The answer to our questions — whispered to us as softly as a rippling stream of living water — carried in a time-worn ancient script — is that meaning is not to be found in  drastic action or vigorous exercise. The purpose we were made for can only be found in the God who made us on purpose.