In Search of the Purpose-Driven Life

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How do we go about Defining Purpose? We want our lives to have significance. We want to leave our mark. How do we find our mission in life? Do we determine it on our own? Wouldn’t it be better to first understand God’s purpose so that we can participate in his mission in the world?

Angie entered college as many do—in a word, she was clueless. She was taking classes that were much more difficult than what she experienced in high school; she was involved in our campus ministry group; she had to deal with the recent divorce of her parents; she had for the first time a serious relationship with a boyfriend. She also worked at a job that she hated in a fast food restaurant, and her parents and school were pressuring her to name a major. As she waded through all these things, her head was swirling with some pretty heavy questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with my life?

I wrote an article for Comment Magazine a few years back that I give to students who are honestly working on these questions. After she read it, we met and started discussing the purpose for her life.

We Feel So Small and Insignificant

Like most young adults, Angie wanted to transform the world. She wanted to believe that she would make a lasting impact with her life. Those of us who are older might want to snicker at what we might consider naiveté—but we all want to be able to say our lives matter. But how can we find significance when our lives are so finite?

As Amanda Hill so eloquently put it,

We are just minnows in a vast sea, taking up one small area of space. In a mere three generations, we’ll be forgotten like old relics in boxes, all those Shutterfly albums we’ve spent our weekends working on with vigor will be rotting in a dank attic, just people no one remembers. Babies no one knows. Some grandmother’s grandmother named Ethel. "Who names a child Ethel?" they’ll say. It’s rather depressing, really, like we should all invent cures for diseases or write novels and make something important that will last.

But not all of us are destined for what the world would call “greatness.” Most of us are going to live normal lives—just one of the tiny minnows, comparing ourselves to others and thinking we are utterly meaningless.

What is the solution to this sad situation? In order to find our purpose or mission in life, we need a bigger vision.

We Are Part of a Bigger Story

As I discussed life purpose with Angie, I heard in her the story that I hear all the time. All her life she had been told that she could be or do anything that she wanted. She was encouraged to dream big dreams and go after them. Now that the rubber was hitting the road, she was becoming dismayed. She was realizing her own shortcomings and the fact that she could not be anything she wanted. Though she was bright, she couldn’t be a nuclear scientist. Though she was compassionate, she couldn’t be Mother Teresa. Though she was attractive and talented, she couldn’t be a super model or movie star.

I asked her, “Are you really supposed to determine your own destiny? Do you really have to bear the burden of deciding on your own what you are supposed to do with your life?”

She believed she did.

I believed she did not.

I believe that God is the one who calls us to our vocations. In fact, the word vocation comes from the Latin words vocatio (summons) and vocare (to call). Our vocations are not determined by us; they are callings from God. Which means we don’t decide these things for ourselves, but God does, for we are “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).

In his book The Mission of God’s People, Christopher Wright wrote,

We have to go one step further back and ask, Whose mission is it anyway? And of course, the answer to that has to be—it is the mission of God. God himself has a mission. God has a purpose and goal for his whole creation … All our mission flows from the prior mission of God.

So what I do is bigger than just me. God is calling us to vocations that are part of his bigger purpose. God is bringing redemption to all that he has made, restoring humans to what we are supposed to be and reconciling all aspects of life back to himself. He is transforming the world.

That’s a big job. And it’s a job too big for any one of us feeble human beings! But here's the thing: God is doing it, and each one of us gets to participate in that grand purpose.

Amanda Hill gets it right:

Maybe someday, we’ll see a broader cut instead of the square inch we occupy. For this is a vast ocean of mystery, and we play a small, yet vital part.

Be Faithful with Where We Are and What We've Got

Geoff Holsclaw rightly identifies the purpose God has for us:

Humanity was (and is) intended to extend the Garden of God’s presence throughout the world.

God is calling us to what James Davison Hunter has fittingly described as "faithful presence." God places us in broken down and desolate places and asks us, in little but significant ways, to bring restoration.

He gives us the gifts to do this work. As Sam Van Eman wrote,

The trick is finding the right use for them for the right reason. That’s the blessing of stewardship. That’s the blessing of offering who we are and what we possess to the service of God and neighbor.

Our efforts might look to us like a mustard seed or a simple grain of yeast in the midst of the vastness of the hurting world. But we all know what God does with mustard seeds and yeast.