Shortly before his death Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography:
Men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread;…
age creeps upon them; inﬁrmities follow; those they love are
taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief…
Death comes at last—the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had
for them—and they vanish from a world which will lament
them a day and forget them forever.
The Preacher’s opening verses in Ecclesiastes are similar to Twain’s sentiment:
toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes… There is no
remembrance of former things” (Eccl 1:2–4, 11). Both Twain and the Preacher
voice questions our souls long to have answered: Where does one ﬁnd enduring
meaning, life purpose, and sustainable joy, and why do so few seem to ﬁnd it?
Psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl also wrestled with such
questions. He searched for answers after watching fellow prisoners “run the
wire”—a common form of suicide whereby a prisoner would intentionally run
into the electrically charged barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp. With no
hope of the war ending before they slowly starved to death, many prisoners gave
up the will to live. For Frankl, clinging to images of his wife is what kept him
Mark Twain, My Autobiography: “Chapters” from the North American Review (Mineola, NY: Dover
Publications, 1999), 29.
Man’s Search for Meaning:
Viktor Frankl’s Psychotherapy
by KRIS HEMPHILL
Kris Hemphill (MBA) is a counselor for SoulCare, a ministry of Calvary Baptist Church in Easton, PA. She
is pursuing a Master of Arts in counseling at Westminster Theological Seminary.
MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING: VIKTOR FRANKL’S PSYCHOTHERAPY | HEMPHILL
from doing the same. Many mornings while marching to the day’s worksite in
bone-chilling temperatures, he’d engage in imaginary conversations with his wife.
He’d ask her questions, and she’d answer. “In my mind I took bus rides, unlocked
the front door of my apartment, answered the telephone, switched on the lights.”
Imagining such everyday scenes took on new meaning for Frankl. They oﬀered a
Frankl’s experiences at Auschwitz impacted him signiﬁcantly, and after the
war he developed an existential psychotherapeutic model called logotherapy.
Its central focus is man’s desire to ﬁnd meaning.
Although less utilized in the
particularly Europe and South America. Clearly it resonates with people. In fact,
Jimmy Fallon, the popular TV host of NBC’s Tonight Show, recently shared on
his show that he read Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, while recovering
from surgery. Holding up the book to the camera, he described how it greatly
encouraged him by showing him the meaning of his life: “I belong on TV…
talking to others…and if anyone is suﬀering at all, I’m here to make you laugh.”
Why is it that Frankl’s system continues to impact so many lives today?
And what can biblical counselors learn from it? How should we critique it?
Before delving into these questions, I will summarize Frankl’s conceptualization
What Is Logotherapy?
The term logotherapy derives from the translation of the Greek term logos, which
As a meaning-based therapy, its methodology is future-
because “ﬁnding meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”
Frankl believes that ﬁnding meaning is man’s greatest motivation, and he stresses
Jesus Christ, as in John 1:1.
Frankl believes that ﬁnding meaning
is man’s greatest motivation.
man’s responsibility to actualize it. This goal makes logotherapy less retrospective
and less introspective than psychoanalysis.
It is also much less concerned with
In logotherapy, meaning is unique for each person and can change over time.
Even so, Frankl identiﬁes three sources where people commonly ﬁnd meaning:
1. work and achievement;
2. love and relationships; and
3. the attitude one takes toward unavoidable suﬀering.
The logotherapist’s job is to help people discover a meaning for their lives in one
or more of these three areas.
Finding meaning enables a person to say “yes to life,” even in the face of great
diﬃculties. Frankl identiﬁes these diﬃculties also as a triad: the “tragic triad”
of pain, guilt, and death. People who are searching for meaning may come for
counseling because their struggle with one aspect of the tragic triad has unsettled
them. Frankl would use people’s present diﬃculty to help them ﬁnd future
meaning in either work, relationships or their attitude toward suﬀering.
The goal then is to develop what Frankl called “tragic optimism” in the face
of pain, guilt, and death. This positive view is rooted in the belief that there is
potential meaning to be found even in the most miserable of circumstances.
“What matters,” noted Frankl, “is to make the best of any given situation.”
facing it with dignity and honor. “In some way, suﬀering ceases to be suﬀering at
the moment it ﬁnds a meaning.”
To make the best of guilt is to welcome it as an
make the best of death is to embrace the challenge it poses and to make the most
out of every moment of our lives.
To gain a better understanding of how logotherapy works, let’s look at three
of Frankl’s case studies.
Logotherapy Case Studies
Consider the diﬀerent ways Frankl helped his patients. Though each person was
facing an aspect of the tragic triad, he guided them to discover one or more
potential sources of meaning by applying logotherapy.
. A mother was suicidal after one of her sons died at age eleven,
leaving her with one remaining son who was paralyzed since birth. Grief stricken,
the mother tried to convince the disabled son to commit suicide with her. He
refused. “For him, life had remained meaningful.”
To help the mother ﬁnd
caring for her disabled son spared him a life of institutionalized care. The woman
burst into tears. “I have made a fuller life possible for him… I can look back
peacefully on my life for my life was full of meaning, and I have tried hard to
Speaking to a group of prisoners at San Quentin Prison in
California, Frankl said, “You are human beings like me, and as such you were
free to commit a crime, to become guilty. Now, however, you are responsible for
overcoming guilt by rising above it, by growing beyond yourselves, by changing for
the better.” Years later, Frankl received a letter from one of the prisoners showing
how he had risen above his guilt. He shared that following his release from prison,
he started a logotherapy group for ex-felons. “We are twenty-seven strong and
newer ones are staying out of prison.”
By helping each group member identify
one were able to stay out of prison.
. A rabbi who had lost his wife and children in the concentration
camps despaired further when he realized his second wife was sterile. The rabbi
believed that because his children died as innocent martyrs, they were given the
highest place in heaven. He, a sinful man, could never expect to join them because
he believed that he needed a son of his own to say Kaddish
for him upon his
it not conceivable, Rabbi, that precisely this was the meaning of you surviving your
children: that you may be puriﬁed through these years of suﬀering, so that you,
too, though not innocent like your children, may become worthy of joining them in
say Kaddish for eleven months after the death of a parent, in part to increase the merit of the deceased
parent in the eyes of God.
There are ways we can be stimulated by Frankl’s
model, even though we would not replicate its
core elements due to our scriptural convictions.
The perspective that Frankl oﬀered not only made meaning out of this
According to Frankl, these people found relief through the new point
of view he opened up to them. All were able to move forward as they found
meaning in achievement, or love, or a positive attitude toward suﬀering—or
some combination of these. But this raises several questions. Is the hope Frankl
oﬀered his patients of lasting value? Is any source of meaning fair game as long
as it instills feelings of hope for the patient in the here and now? How should
Christians think about logotherapy as a model of care?
Frankl was an excellent observer of human behavior. Though he was not a
Christian, his resultant theory comports with certain aspects of biblical truth.
There are ways we can be stimulated by his model, even though we would not
replicate its core elements due to our scriptural convictions. Let’s explore what we
can take away from Frankl’s model and what we must leave behind.
. Consider some of the ways logotherapy maps
onto biblical realities.
It acknowledges a question that is on all people’s hearts: What is the
meaning of my life?
It observes a longing of the human heart: I want to ﬁnd meaning,
identity and purpose.
It validates our desire to ﬁnd meaning in our pain and suﬀering.
It recognizes that meaning can be an issue of life or death by passionately
acknowledging that the pain of hopelessness is deep and visceral.
It aﬃrms the dignity of man. Every person is unique and has value. The
totality of our being is not merely physical, but also spiritual, and we
possess the capacity and freedom to respond to our environment rather
than simply being subject to it.
It seeks to oﬀer practical help to those who struggle with meaninglessness.
We can also aﬃrm other aspects of Frankl’s work, including the thoughtful
summary he devised for helping us think through areas of human suﬀering (i.e.,
the tragic triad of pain, guilt and death). In addition, he correctly recognized
that there is meaning to be found in honest work, loving relationships, and
learning how to suﬀer well. Despite these strengths, the scope and depth of
Frankl’s help is limited and cannot have everlasting value in the lives of those
he seeks to help.
As with any secular model, the underlying
presuppositions of Frankl’s model are inherently ﬂawed, and his solutions to
human suﬀering do not go deep enough. Consider these limitations:
Frankl leaves the door open to the possibility that some higher power
may exist to explain “ultimate meaning” in human suﬀering, he considers
anyone’s deﬁnition of higher power as equally valid for therapeutic
purposes. But if there is, in fact, one true and living God, then attempts
to garner power from a source or reason other than the true God is
ultimately hebel, the Hebrew word for “vanity.” Finding meaning apart
from God is altogether futile.
“the option for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be
Failing to understand human responsibility before God,
but only these two—the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the
Frankl’s belief that man is either “saint or swine” denies
against God. The decent may rebel and the indecent may repent and
believe, as in Jesus’ parable of the decent Pharisee and the indecent tax
collector (Luke 18:9–14).
his speech to the San Quentin prisoners, Frankl said that man can “rise
above his guilt” by choosing to become a better version of himself and
by acting on his freedom to behave better in the future. While Frankl
is able to partially recognize man’s guilt, he oﬀers an idea that surely
sounds good to its hearers but that is wholly ineﬀectual in reality. Only
God oﬀers a true solution to our guilt.
I am struck by Frankl’s passionate desire to share with others what he learned from
his own unimaginable suﬀering at the hands of wicked men. However, any system
that erases God and elevates us by denying our sinful nature ignores the necessity of
the cross. It cannot oﬀer lasting meaning. True hope is found in the biblical Logos,
Jesus, who meets man’s most fundamental need and not his perceived need for
meaning. Jesus meets man’s deeper need to be ransomed and rescued.
As Christians, we can oﬀer suﬀerers something far better. We oﬀer them
a person, the One who is well acquainted with grief, guilt and death. Christ
corrects and informs our distorted understanding of where true meaning is
found. He teaches us that meaning cannot be found in anything under the sun.
Though people long to ﬁnd meaning in their work, relationships and suﬀering,
it is only when we are in Christ that we will be able to answer the question: Why
am I here? We ﬁnd meaning in the context of work, relationships and suﬀering
as we live vitally connected to our God and Savior.
Consider how Scripture addresses logotherapy’s three sources for meaning:
Work. God calls us to subdue and have dominion over his creation (Gen
1:28). Moreover, we are created to do good works (Eph 2:10) in worship
Relationships. Because we are created in the image of God, we are
designed to be in relationship with him and to reﬂect that intimate
union in our relationships with others. We are called to imitate God’s
selﬂess love toward us by serving one another (Matt 20:28).
our need for him, and to conform us into his image (Isa 48:10; Rom
Only when we understand meaning in light of the Son will we experience lasting
joy in life under the sun.
Can Logotherapy Be Useful to Biblical Counselors?
In a sense, yes—logotherapy can be useful. In a deep way, no. God often gives
certain insights to secular people that can sharpen our counseling. The call to
pay attention to where people look to ﬁnd meaning is one of those insights. Let’s
revisit each of Frankl’s three case studies. We will look at both what Frankl did
that was helpful, and how biblical counselors are able to go deeper by pointing
each person to a fuller and more lasting meaning.
Facing pain: the case of the suicidal mother
. Frankl helped this woman view
her future in a new way. He eﬀectively located a reason for her to live and not
commit suicide. He began to move her through the grieving process by directing
her focus from the pain of the present to the future meaning found in the care
Christ corrects and informs our distorted
understanding of where true meaning is found.
of her disabled son. He creatively helped her visualize what her son’s life would
be like in two scenarios: one with her in it and one without her in it. Frankl
made her feel understood, needed, and loved. By meeting her immediate need
for meaning, Frankl helped her choose life. But what happens if a day should
come when she can no longer care for her son? Or what if she outlives him, or
becomes too ill to oﬀer care, or he rejects her because of some unforeseen conﬂict
that erupts between them? Would her life again collapse into meaninglessness?
As Christians, we agree that motherhood is a high calling by God—one that
oﬀers legitimate meaning in service to her son. However, we would not serve her
well if we did not connect her with the source of all meaning—the author of life
who blessed her with the gift of motherhood. We help her see that motherhood is
meant to point her to her heavenly Father—her eternal caretaker—who tenderly
and lovingly meets her every need. His care of her will never end, even if her care
for her son does end. Motherhood is a practical way for her to enjoy and adore
Christ, not to satisfy her desire to feel needed. God warns that such desires can
serve as a snare if elevated as an object of worship.
We would help her see that her identity—the essence of who she is—cannot
be found in anything tied to this world, no matter how noble. Regardless of
which meaning source she chooses, it is subject to change. Meaning is transitory,
based on one’s circumstances. Ecclesiastes describes this as a chasing after wind
(Eccl 1:14, 17; 2:11). Lasting identity must be ﬁrmly planted in the Lord who is
her rock (Ps 18:2) rather than the shifting sands of earthly treasures.
achieved a measure of success for some of the prisoners at San Quentin. All but
one of the twenty-seven ex-prisoners attending the logotherapy group stayed out
of prison. Elements of Frankl’s system appear to have helped the prisoners. But
which ones and why?
First of all, Frankl treated them with dignity and respect. He related to them:
“You are human beings like me.” They likely felt accepted and not shamed. He
wisely counseled them to take full responsibility for their actions—and not blame
their wrongdoing on society, their upbringing, or any biological, psychological,
and/or sociological factor. To do otherwise, he said, would be tantamount to
explaining away their guilt, as if each person is “a machine to be repaired”
Frankl sees the dignity, freedom and responsibility of man, but his inaccurate
view of guilt and hope has consequences. Guilt equates to feelings of remorse,
despair and hopelessness that stem from knowing one has done wrong in the
past. But the new hopefulness these prisoners reported gaining from logotherapy
was rooted in the idea that future good works can make up for, or assuage, the
guilt of past actions. When Frankl tells the prisoners, “You are responsible for
overcoming your guilt by rising above it,” he is promoting a classic humanistic
belief. As fallen people, we crave self-empowerment. We want to solve our
own problems without the help of God. The self-help genre and the “I can do
anything” mindset are hebel—vanity. Only God can oﬀer a deep solution for
man’s guilt because our guilt is before God. Although Frankl rightly asserts that
the prisoner’s guilt cannot be explained by seeing him as a machine broken by
outside inﬂuences, the prisoner is nonetheless broken—spiritually broken. He
needs restoration, to be made whole, by the saving work of Christ.
Facing death: the case of the grief-stricken rabbi
Frankl sought to oﬀer
compassion and understanding as he listened well to the rabbi’s deep pain of
loss. Frankl asked good questions. He worked hard to know the rabbi well.
He saw the importance of taking into account this rabbi’s belief system as an
orthodox Jew, knowing that it would have important implications for how he
responded to his present struggle. Yet this very premise is troubling. Frankl states
unequivocally that logotherapy is open to working with anyone’s belief system,
thereby becoming a means to an end—a false one.
While Frankl seeks to help this man grieve his losses, his understanding of
what it means to suﬀer well is in direct opposition to ours who know the risen
Christ. “When a patient stands on the ﬁrm ground of religious belief, there can
be no objection to making use of the therapeutic eﬀect of his religious convictions
and thereby drawing on his religious resources.”
As an orthodox Jew, Frankl
to pray him into heaven. Frankl then set out to convince the rabbi that his tears
from grieving could earn him merit with God, thereby improving his chances to
join his children in heaven. To support this, Frankl quoted Psalm 56:8: “Thou
has kept count of my tossings; put thou my tears in thy bottle! Are they not in
thy book?” Frankl took this Scripture out of context, but this would be of no
consequence to him. It achieved the goals of his counseling—to oﬀer this man
relief from despair and a way to suﬀer well. Frankl’s “anything goes” methodology
is troublesome at best.
We would show this rabbi how the Messiah oﬀers the true answer to his fears
about eternity. Through Christ, he can have assurance of salvation and not rely
on the wishful (and false) hope Frankl oﬀers. For no man can have enough sons,
who can say enough Kaddish, that will earn him enough merit in the eyes of a
just and holy God. Only the merit of Christ’s sacriﬁce, God’s Son, will suﬃce.
This same Savior also oﬀers meaning to the rabbi’s suﬀering. God can actually
use it for his good here on earth. For Christians, suﬀering is a way to identify
with Christ as our Suﬀering Servant, the Man of Sorrows. He uses it to increase
our awareness and need of him (Ps 68:19), to reﬁne, strengthen and perfect us
to keep us from falling (Ps 66:8–9; Heb 2:10), and to draw us into a deeper
relationship with him (2 Cor 4:16–18).
God oﬀers a better solution to each of Frankl’s three case studies. He oﬀers
them a relationship, not a self-generated system. His divine grace sets their
aﬀections on a new trajectory through repentance and faith. He oﬀers them an
eternal perspective, one in which the cross mercifully sheds new light on existing
struggles. And as they seek ﬁrst to covenant with God, meaning and purpose will
be added to them (Matt 6:33).
The End of the Matter
Mark Twain, Viktor Frankl and the Preacher in Ecclesiastes have much in common.
They lived in very diﬀerent times and had very diﬀerent life experiences, but all
three described many of the same realities of living in a world corrupted by evil.
All three acknowledged the brevity and futility of life. Each shared a yearning to
ﬁnd meaning, a way to make sense of the pain and suﬀering of this world. Yet, as
each one neared the end of his life, each arrived at a diﬀerent conclusion to the
question of meaning. Mark Twain deemed that the world was devoid of all hope
and meaning. Frankl said there is meaning to be realized, but it is self-generated.
Only the Preacher oﬀers a complete answer that goes deep enough and lasts long
enough. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of
man” (Eccl 12:13). This will withstand any tragedy that besets us because the true
Logos never wavers, never sleeps, never leaves and never forsakes.
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