On Purpose

Rick over at Brutally Honest hooked me with a post on, of all things, zombies:

I question consistently whether I’m living a worthy life. Hence the reference to that ending scene where Private Ryan, now an old man kneeling at the grave of the Captain who saved his life, turns to his wife and pleads “Tell me I have led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” … Indeed, I find [the question of whether am a walking dead man] terrifying. Perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing with its focus on guilt. Perhaps it’s my exposure later in life to evangelical Christianity and it’s focus on being saved. Or perhaps it’s simply something I focus on in case this whole notion of God’s mercy and grace, where I live and hope today, are in error.

Its funny how these things seem to drop in on you when you’re thrashing about mentally on the very same topic — one might almost think it was more than just coincidence.

At the heart of Rick’s post lies the question, “Does life — my life — have meaning?” This is one of those questions which never seems to go away, no matter how much we try to drown it out. We hear, day after day, about how we are cosmic accidents, amino acids and random chance tossed into the whirling blender of evolution to produce a highly sophisticated human Margarita. In such a world, ruled by the cruel logic of cosmic chance, questions of meaning and purpose would appear frivolous and irrational. But nevertheless, they just keep popping up, like moles in the movie Caddy Shack. Even the fundamentalist secularists, the Dawsons and Hawkins and Hitchens of the world, can’t seem to tear themselves away from the language of purpose and intent, as they speculate how random chance and natural selection “choose” to create us and “select” the “best” genetic mishaps to produce that animal which we call man.

Ask your average man on the street what his or her purpose in life is, and expect in response some snide comment, humorous retort, or — if they be halfway serious — something approaching a short-term goal. So their “purpose” might be to graduate from school, or pass their exams, or become an attorney, or get laid this weekend, or get a better job. But in fact, such responses reflect in their commonality a profound shallowness so typical of an age where we have everything but that for which our hollow hearts hunger.

For it seems we often confuse goals with the idea of purpose. For the concept of purpose or meaning in life presupposes something beyond ourselves. It implies that we are fitting into a larger picture, a grander scheme, some overarching game plan vaster than ourselves, yet capable of including us in the fullness of its accomplishment. The idea of purpose does not necessarily mandate believe in a deity — although it leads quite naturally in this direction.

Inherent in the idea of purpose is an innate sense that we are aligned in some way with a greater good, a larger existence than that which we may measure and perceive. It implies simply that we are not merely one small cog in a complex machine, but rather an integral part, even an indispensable one, without which the machine can not fully accomplish that for which it exists.

If we confuse our goals with our purpose, we will inevitably end up frustrated and unhappy. If your goal is to graduate from college, when you graduate, do you now have purpose? Hardly. Instead such accomplishments merely mark a signpost, an indicator pointing to yet another goal, larger and even farther out of reach. Having arrived at our destination, we immediately set out towards a new goal — be it becoming a professional, or a carpenter, or getting married, or making a boatload of money. By simply resetting our goals into the future we believe — or want to believe — that we are moving forward with purpose. But once these newer goals are reached — or equally so if we failed to reach them — there is an inevitable emptiness, a sense of, “Is this all there is to life?” When you are finally successful in that career you have been working toward for decades, why is it that you find yourself so unsatisfied with arriving at this long-sought destination? If your goal is raising children, what will you do when they grow up and leave the house? You have met your goals, but have yet to meet your purpose.

The result is too often seen: the divorce, the new marriage, the philandering, the drinking, the obsessive pursuit of money and prestige and power, and an unholy host of behaviors which are far more destructive than satisfying. Such may serve in the near term to fill the emptiness which comes when goals are substituted for purpose, but they do not fill that inner need for being part of the greater good and accomplishing something of lasting value in life.

In my own feeble experience, having made a myriad of such mistakes myself, I have, I believe, finally stumbled upon the paradox of purpose: I know that I have a purpose in life — and I don’t know exactly what that purpose is. Nor, I suspect, will I ever know it fully this side of the undertaker’s icy slab. This, I suspect, is life in the realm of faith: that mysterious, almost intangible sense that you are on the right road, while being able to see neither your feet on the ground nor the path along which you’re headed.

So for now, my purpose is to serve those who have been put into my life as family, friends, and patients. I fulfill my purpose by being the best physician possible for my patients; by being a good husband and father; by being a loyal friend. It should go without saying that I meet these lofty ideals imperfectly and often poorly. But this is the standard against which I measure my conformity to purpose, a small shaft of light which casts just enough illumination to see where my next step should be.

Yet it is also apparent that my current striving to achieve such high ideals does not encompass a life purpose in its entirety. If I am a good physician, a good father, a loving husband, a loyal friend, I am following my life’s purpose as best I can discern. Yet if my purpose is comprised solely of being, say, a good physician, what then will my purpose be tomorrow should I be injured or incapacitated such that I can no longer practice my profession? My life may change enormously — yet my purpose will not. I will still have an ultimate purpose in life, but the vehicle through which I fulfill that purpose may change radically and wrenchingly, with agonizing violence.

It is here that I must rest almost entirely on the idea of grace — that there is a hand guiding me which does know the path and the purpose, and may in an instant radically change the rules of the game in order to more fully implement that larger purpose. To live in such a mindset requires a confidence in the existence and unfailing goodness of God — even while doubting that very existence and goodness more often than I care to share. Without grace, I am left to the ruthless serendipity of slavery: I am constantly wondering whether I am living up to a standard, or whether God is punishing me because of this change in course, or perhaps simply being capricious or vindictive for some past behavior. If my God is immutably good and gracious, my life’s purpose is will thereby be good by design — and will be — hard as it is to swallow — nearly invisible to my blinkered eyes.

To have purpose in life is to have confidence in the goodness of God, and a willingness to follow and trust in places I do not wish to go. To salve the fear inherent in such an unknown trust there comes a measure of inner peace that arises not from understanding, but from trusting. For is only when we walk by faith, not by sight, that our lives can truly begin to have that transcendent purpose which is the only worthwhile goal.

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8 thoughts on “On Purpose

  1. Outstanding credo. The reference to walking by faith, not by sight, recalls Milton’s timeless line from On His Blindness…”They also serve who only stand and wait.”

    Another Rick, Rick Warren, literally wrote a book about purpose. He was interviewed by Krista Tippett a few weeks back in one of her best programs. I had regarded the man and his book as yet another example of pop faith. To my surprise and deep respect I discovered a man and his wife (she turns out to have been the catalyst) raising the purpose bar even higher. The program takes an hour (accessible on line), but I found it worthwhile.

  2. I thought you might be interested in this comment that I posted over at BrutallyHonest.


    I had a very different take on the post than the good doctor. I heard you asking “am I good enough?” not “do I have a purpose?”

    It seems to me that for a Christian both questions should be settled (but of course life does tend to stir things up!) When the Doctor says “I know that I have a purpose in life — and I don’t know exactly what that purpose is.” I think he must be using a rhetorical device. How does a Christian forget that our chief aim is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”? We glorify God by living like Him, being Godly. That is a very high standard. The doctor says, “It is here that I must rest almost entirely on the idea of grace.” I suggest that he delete the words “almost” and “the idea of”!

    So, the question, “Am I good?” or “Am I good enough?” is also answered… in the negative. We all have that zombie rattling around inside us. When that painful truth is accepted, then the question changes to “How can I be better?” or “How can I kill this living dead guy inside of me?” Again, it forces us to rely entirely on grace. But that doesn’t mean quietism, “I do nothing.” The gospel is not against effort, the gospel is against earning.

    It seems to me that we Methodists used to have a very good plan for dealing with that zombie. We would gather together and sing and pray and read and ask each other, “How is it with your soul?” and in the brutally honest answers the Holy Spirit would actually transform people into godly characters. The zombie got smaller and smaller. We even dared to hope that he could be eliminated completely! We don’t do that much anymore. It’s a tragedy really, for us and the world.


  3. Sometimes, the simplest answer is the most likely one just like the first hunch or the flash of intuition.

    Could Man Be Drunk Forever

    Could man be drunk for ever
    With liquor, love, or fights,
    Lief should I rouse at morning
    And lief lie down of nights.

    But men at whiles are sober
    And think by fits and starts,
    And if they think, they fasten
    Their hands upon their hearts.

    Alfred Edward Housman

  4. BroKen,

    My thought in stating that “I do not know what that purpose is” is a reflection, not of ignorance about our purpose as Christians to glorify and serve God, and enjoy His presence, but rather of the far more challenging (at least for me) work of figuring out the practical nitty-gritty, day to day. Am I spending time in accordance with this purpose? Are my decisions and efforts aligned with His, or have I gotten far off base without realizing how far astray I am? Does the way I’m setting my life priorities, my time, my friendships and recreation glorifying to God? This is the sort of stuff which is challenging enough to discern; but as for the big picture of the full purpose of my entire life, well, God alone knows the details of that. (cross-posted comment at BH)

  5. Dr. Bob,

    It seems to me that the question, “Am I living out my purpose in the day to day, nitty-gritty?” is the same as “Am I living a godly life?” If so, then the real question becomes, “Is there a plan, a procedure, a way to do that?”

    Perhaps the problem you and Rick have (oh, and me too) stems from the separation of Justification and Sanctification. Sanctification without Justification is impossible. Justification without Sanctification is pointless. We know we have been saved. We know what we have been saved from. I fear we have forgotted what we are saved for.

    If our purpose to to be like Christ, then again, you have to ask, “Is there a plan to make that happen?”

    (comment posted at BH, too)

  6. I’ve been down the justification/sanctification road. It always, and I do mean always, ends in a place I find tiring and frustrating.

    There’s an earthy phrase used in the workplace often enough that summarizes it for me. Something about one “aw sh*t” cancelling a hundred “atta boys”.

    It seems no matter how far down the path toward sanctification one goes, there’s an “aw sh*t” waiting to put you back where you started. Every time. And I was on that road for far too long spiritually.

    It’s one helluva weight the brethren put on believers, this “works” weight that seems to do nothing but get heavier. Not only does it seem that many are willing to add to the weight in the wicked attempt to make you more Godly, it seems to sap your focus in such a way that experiencing the peace of God becomes secondary, even tertiary.

    So BroKen, as someone who went through an ordination exploration process for two grueling years, as one intimately familiar with the justification/sanctification mantra (I used to spout it meself), as one who pursued sanctification with vigor, I’m here to tell you that, as the good Doctor has put it, resting in the grace of God and trusting that it is He and not I who will eventually be responsible for my sanctification where I’d rather be.

    And trust me when I tell you that I’d rather He have the job.

  7. Rick said it quite well. I too used to talk a lot about justification and sanctification in the past — highly cerebral concepts in my case which allowed me to separate my high theology from my low living. When I finally crashed and burned, nearly killing myself and destroying the lives of those I most care for, I could still argue biblical theological concepts like these with the best of them. It wasn’t until the tender and gracious hands of God lifted me out of that dark place that I first experienced the extraordinary grace of God.

    I can say with certainty that I know far less about God and theology now than I used to — and I am vastly better for it, having experienced and begun to live, in some small way, in the unspeakable grace of Him who died and arose for me.

  8. Rick,

    From your description I would say that the road you traveled was “works righteousness” not “sanctification.” I know they are often conflated. I’ve seen them conflated and have been loath to travel that road. But what if there really is a highway to holiness? What if there were people who lifted burdens rather than piled them on? What if, in the Kingdom of God, one “atta boy” canceled a hundred of the other phrase? What if the assurance of our position in the Arms of God freed us up to fail a thousand times?

    Some years ago I sat with a bunch of pastors as we heard a sermon on Love: Perfect, a description of our calling as Christians. It was a message on holiness; sanctification. Afterwards, I thanked the preacher for his words. Even in the Methodist Church such sermons are rare. But I had seen the conflation of sanctification and works righteousness, so I asked him, “How do you prevent this message from deteriorating into legalism?” His response:
    “Well, that’s not the Spirit, is it?”

    Your experience was not the Spirit, Rick. Mine hasn’t been either. But for the last year or so I feel like God has been shaking me. Oh, I am quite resistant as always but the shaking is persistent. Couldn’t the church really be the church? And wouldn’t you WANT to go if it was?

    I suppose it is better to be a quietist than a legalist. But does it have to be one or the other? Might there be a “more excellent way”?

    What I’m saying here is, “Oh, I hope so!”

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