Have you ever wondered if you were created for a purpose? You probably have if you’ve ever complained about feeling bored or demotivated.
Novelist Mark Twain once said: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”. But is purpose and meaning in life something we can discover, or is it something we have to invent for ourselves?
Fundamentally, this is a religious and spiritual question, because it forces us to consider: what is the ultimate nature of reality? There are two families of faith that offer different answers to the question:
- Everything has arisen from nothing by no one for no purpose. This is the worldview of secular humanism and atheist existentialism. Its answer to the meaning question is that it is something we must determine and create for ourselves.
- Everything was created from nothing by Someone with a purpose. This is the worldview of theism, most importantly Judaism and Christianity. Its answer to the meaning question is that it is something revealed to us by God our Creator.
Let’s compare and contrast them.
Most of us have grown up being taught that human beings are the products of evolution – we exist because of time, chance and natural selection. Or as someone has said: “we are blobs of carbon, floating from one meaningless existence to another”. That might sound a bit bleak, but for many people it is liberating and appealing. You see according to the secular worldview there are no deities to please and no purpose to which you have to conform your life. You are free! We can all, in the words of Frank Sinatra, do life “my way”!
However, this worldview is not all freedom and fun. For example, the philosopher Thomas Nagel admits that this worldview taken it to its logical conclusion is depressing and demotivating:
“Even if you produce a great work of literature which continues to be read thousands of years from now, eventually the solar system will cool or the universe will wind down and collapse and all trace of your effort will vanish…It wouldn’t matter if you had never existed. And after you have gone out of existence, it won’t matter that you did exist”.
If this world and life is all that there is, then ultimately nothing matters! In fact it doesn’t even matter whether you dedicate yourself to live a life of goodness and generosity helping others or a life of wickedness and selfishness that hurts others – in the end it is all meaningless!
How does that make you feel? Empty… unfulfilled… hopeless? Something feels wrong – we all need a sense of purpose and meaning to get out of our beds in the morning and to hold us back from suicidal thoughts. So people have to invent an individual purpose for themselves. For example: some people live for other people: their friends or families. Some people live for personal success: through sporting or academic or workplace performance. Others dream of doing something that will make a meaningful impact on the world through business enterprise or political activism.
Nevertheless, these self-created meanings aren’t the full solution. They are more fragile and less fulfilling. Let me introduce you to two people who will explain why.
Firstly there’s Harold Abrams – the British athlete whose life is chronicled in the film “Chariots of Fire”. At one point in the film, as he prepares for the next race, Abrams shares his existential angst: “And now in one hour’s time I will be out there again…I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But WILL I?… I’m forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what I am chasing.”
Many of us today in our secular western society are a lot like Abrams – we’re running, chasing, pursuing something in this world that will justify and bring value to our existence. However, if your created meaning depends on your performance then you will often be left feeling exhausted, insecure and anxious as you try to achieve it or try to hold onto it.
Interestingly, the film contrasts Abrams’ mindset with the Scottish Olympic gold medal winning athlete Eric Liddell. Liddell was a Christian and he expresses his perspective on life and running in a conversation with his sister: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure”. His life was given meaning by the fact he knew he was running a greater race with a higher purpose from God.
I believe that Liddell points us towards a better answer.
The gospel of John – one of the four historical accounts of the life of Jesus – begins with these astonishing words:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were created through Him…” (1:1-3)
John wrote in Greek and the term we translate as “the Word” was originally “the Logos”. For centuries the greatest Greek thinkers had been searching for the Logos – the Logos was the logic behind life, the universe and everything. If you could discover the Logos, then it would unlock the secrets of the meaning and purpose of life.
So John wants us to realise, that there is an objective meaning and purpose behind the universe. It is not an impersonal principle to learn in philosophy, but a divine person to know in relationship. That’s why he goes on to tell us: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us and we have seen His glory…” (1:14) – he is claiming that the meaning of life is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God!
God invites us back into relationship with Himself through trust in Jesus – and promises within that relationship we will find and fulfill our greatest purpose and potential.