Discovering Purpose in Living
Richard Lieder and David Shapiro in their book, Replacing Your Bags, tell of a middle-aged man who spent several years making the transition from being laid off as the head of a staff department in a private corporation to teaching at a small liberal arts college. He talked about his future. He had tears in his eyes as he said, “Some people when they realize they are about to die, say, ‘Oh no!’ I’m not going to be one of those. I’m taking the risk now to create the second half of my life. I had success before, but I wasn’t fulfilled.”
Which is more important, setting lofty goals for your life or discovering a purpose for your life? This is the question I posed recently in a sermon primarily for students. They are about to enter the world of adults out from under the shadow of their parents. They have to discover who they are and why they are here. Otherwise they fall into the trap of simply planning life around some goals relating to financial achievement or social status, neither of which are necessarily fulfilling. All one has to do is look at the wrecks of lives and unhappiness many find when they arrive at those lofty, but often empty places.
To appreciate the importance of distinguishing between the two, perhaps we should consider the meaning of finding purpose in life. Purpose is identity. It is one’s reason for being. If I look around at the multitude of problems in society today it seems that many of them come from this subject alone. Without purpose life drifts along with whatever comes along like a leaf on a stream. There will always be an undercurrent of ease and self-centeredness which comes from the fact we live in a lost and sinful world.
The Christian’s identity is not of this world and what it offers, but rather, found in Jesus Christ. Not only do we bear His name as Christians, He called us to be salt and light in the world in which we live. Therefore, our foremost reason for living is to give Him glory through our lives. This becomes the Christian’s purpose.
The difference in goals and purpose now comes more clearly into focus. Setting good goals in life is important. However, a goal is something which can be achieved, while purpose always exists. The ideal life is one where goals grow out of a well-understood purpose in life.
Finding our purpose and sticking to it is not easy for students entering adult life or most any of the rest of us. Nothing about society is making it easier to live for Christ. “For example, between 2007 and 2014, when Pew conducted two major surveys of U.S. religious life, Americans who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or of no particular faith grew from 16 percent to nearly 23 percent. Further, findings "point to substantive changes among the religiously unaffiliated, not just a shift in how people describe themselves. Secular groups have become increasingly organized to counter bias against them and keep religion out of public life through lawsuits and lobbying lawmakers.”
Purpose must not only be a matter of identity, it is a direction. Christianity is not a status to achieve, but a life to live. We must determine a world view which sets the tone for the rest of life not unlike a compass for a journey. The wrong direction leads to a wrong destination. Christianity must be our personal compass for truth.
Some of you will remember the insightful words of Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
Developing a Christian world view is the most critical factor in anyone’s future. It is up to us to decide why we are here and who we choose to become. You can call it a philosophy or a mindset or Christian world view. It is that “conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret or judge morality.” Moral, political, social and financial decisions are bound up in what you believe and how it affects your life. Good thinking translates to good living and good living is the best or only reliable indicator of good thinking.
Today’s Christian cannot relegate faith just to Sunday morning church attendance or an affiliation with the church. Today we deal in society and business with terms like pluralism, multiculturalism, relativism and assimilation more than any generation before us. The question is whether we will capitulate to a corrupt culture or embrace it socially while keeping religion in our back pocket as the insurance policy against eternity. Not all the changes in society are negative, but neither are many of them being challenged by Christian thinking.
The great problem today is the lack of critical thinking about the issues of the day from a Biblical perspective. Those who do are greatly challenged in the media and sometimes among their peers. Let me remind you that Christ said that we should love the Lord our God with our minds as well as soul and body. Paul said, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” We will not experience personally nor pass on to those who come after us a vital faith with minds in intellectual neutral when it comes to spiritual matters.
It’s not hard to see how or why we have some of the problems evident in our society. “In a recent Barna survey, he found that 22 percent of those who identify themselves as “born again” Christians said they made decisions based on principles taught in the Bible. He also found that 24 percent said they made choices on the basis of whatever felt good or comfortable in the situation. The situation is even worse in the younger generation. He found that among American teens only 6 percent said they believed in moral absolutes and 83 percent said that moral truth is dependent upon the circumstances.” It is for that reason we have to decide what we believe about moral absolutes. That is why we have the efforts to pass laws in spite of what the Bible says about all manner of life issues such as abortion and gay marriage. These are not the end, but rather, the tip of an ever increasing iceberg to come in terms of what is considered legal, but for a Christian, are wrong.
The world will tell us “there is no truth, only truths.” The issue for the world is not truth, but power. He who holds power can determine the truth. We can no longer expect the laws to set the boundaries of Christianity for us. Being a Christian means that more and more we will be a counter-culture than in the mainstream of culture.
In order to give these thoughts on purpose some perspective, let’s transition in thinking back to far before the time of Christ to a man who had more power than a President, more wealth than a Saudi Arabian sheik or a famous athlete. His name was Solomon. He wrote the book of “Ecclesiastes” in our Bible. He was the richest, most powerful man of his day. Suddenly he reached mid-life and realized the passion of his youth was gone. He became cynical and unhappy. He began to question the reason for being and the meaning of life.
If you read the opening words of the first chapter of “Ecclesiastes,” you will hear his frustration with life. He asks, “Does anything really matter in life? I think what he was asking was this, “When you turn the light out at the end of the day, did the day have any meaning or are you satisfied with life?”
In other words, Solomon had success from the world’s view, but he wasn’t fulfilled as a person. Someone told me one time, “Success is getting what you want. Fulfillment is wanting what you get.”
One of the most often used phrases of Solomon in this book was “under the sun.” He claimed to have searched for meaning in life everywhere “under the sun” and found none.
Why did he have that happen? Why did he come to that conclusion? Was he looking in the right place? Perhaps he had his focus all wrong.
Here’s the key phrase, “under the sun.” He was looking only at what he could see. God’s purpose for our lives is in what we cannot see with our human eyes and touch with our human hands. The ultimate answer to the meaning of life is something beyond the realm of earth, beyond the realm of our time and beyond the realm of the visible. C.S. Lewis said, “That which is not eternal is eternally obsolete.”
Real purpose is invisible but known in the heart. It is not dependent upon what we possess but what possesses us. Perhaps Augustine said it best centuries ago. “He who has seen God has seen everything. He who does not have God has nothing. He who has God and everything has no more than he who has God alone.”
If you had to answer the question as to which seems most important to you, success or fulfillment, how would you answer? It would be a shame to turn the light out at the end of the day and fail to find fulfillment and meaning in that day. It would be a tragedy to get to the end of life and have nothing but earthly efforts or successes with which to step into an eternity without eternal preparations. These can only be made in Jesus Christ, the author of truth and purpose in living.