It was a hangover question. Not the kind that gets asked after too much to drink, but the kind that couldn’t get fully addressed in a previous meeting. The setting was a beautiful backyard with tall pines and a bright blue pool. Circled around a patio fireplace were about 30 men, many with beer in hand. Some were familiar with the set up; for others it was something wholly new. It’s a once-a-month kind of gathering, and last month a man, who would fit most men’s definition of success, boldly stated, “I’d just like to know the purpose of life.” Boy, wouldn’t we all?!
As the night’s conversation progressed, it was evident these men had learned enough in life to cross off a few of the more prominent answers to the question: success, achievement, family, wealth, and women. All bring a certain amount of pleasure and sense of self-worth, but all seem to fall short of the purpose of life. As one man put it, “You check the boxes off, but then find out that when you do so it doesn’t really fulfill the soul.”
In gatherings like this, I like to ask lots of questions to understand how others wrestle with the main issue at hand. It was evident though that no one was too clear on what to do with the question: what is the purpose of life? Finally, someone blurted out, “We’ve been talking about this question for a while now, but no one has provided an answer. Are we going to get one?” That was my cue.
Before the conversation, I told the men that somewhere during the evening I’d share a short biblical perspective on the evening’s question with the understanding that they could agree, disagree, or pick it a part piece by piece. Now was the time to offer what I could.
"It seems to me the first thing the Bible tells us when we come to a question regarding the purpose of life is to know that there actually is one. And there is a purpose for our lives because we are not here by accident. Suppose I walk by the kitchen counter and there is an open box of Scrabble that is hanging over the edge. In my carelessness, I knock it over and the pieces fall on the floor. My guess is you would not look down and ask me about the meaning of the letters on the ground. And you wouldn’t ask that because things that are truly accidental don’t have meaning. But suppose instead of seeing random letters strewn about the floor, you see a series of six and seven letter words neatly crisscrossing. Then you would have reason to ask about their meaning. So, it is with us. God says we have purpose because we are not here by accident. He created us.
"Second, the Bible is quite clear in letting us know that meaning in life is found in the Maker, not in the thing that was made. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Instead of Scrabble, think of Monopoly this time. Had you never played the game, you’d see little houses and hotels and wonder what they were all about. You could stare at them all day long in hopes of discovering their purpose, but it would probably do you no good. To know their purpose, you need to see what their maker says about them. So it is with us, we can look inward to find purpose and meaning for our lives, but it will always leave us short. The Bible says that to discover the purpose for our lives we must see what God has to say about it.
"Third, that brings us to the question, 'So what does God say about the purpose of our lives?' When we look to the Bible, I think we see a three-fold purpose to life. I suppose you could put it in different words than I do, but I think what I will share covers the bases. The three-fold purpose goes like this: love God, love people, and tell others to do the same. That’s pretty much it. What I like about this purpose is that it is transferable. What I mean by that is that it works in all seasons of life. Suppose I am a 15-year-old high schooler. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose I finish college and have taken my first demanding job. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose my home is full of kids that need lots of attention. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose the home is quiet again after all the kids have moved out. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose I get transferred in my job, or it’s time to retire. Nothing changes. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Even if I were to be unjustly convicted of a crime and placed in jail, my purpose would not be altered. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same.
"The fourth thing the Bible says about the purpose of life is that to seek it in anything apart from loving God, loving others, and telling others to do the same will sooner or later leave you feeling empty. Or, as was said earlier, it won’t fulfill your soul. There is a book in the Bible written about one man’s quest for meaning. He sought it in wealth and women, in education and achievement. In each case, his efforts fell short. They could not fulfill his deepest longing. His conclusion was that only seeking God’s purpose could do that.
"Finally, I think the Bible is clear on one more thing about the purpose of life. It tells us that when we pursue what God says is life’s purpose, we are building something that will last forever. If you own a home that will not suit you for long, it’s unlikely you will invest much in it. Perhaps you will fix up a thing or two to keep it functional or to get a better price when you sell, but you won’t put in the money and effort to truly make it your home. But that all changes when you find the place you plan to live in the rest of your days. At that point, you are willing to make the home just as you want it and invest in the best quality you can. How great to know, then, that the Bible says when we pursue our God-given purpose of loving God, loving others, and telling others to do the same, we are spending wisely on something that will do us well for the long haul.
"So that is what the Bible says about the purpose of life. You could probably say it in different words or even add a point or two, but I think this gets at the heart of it."
The conversation was far from over. The men wanted to talk about what it means to love God and added stories about their own failures and successes in doing so. Some felt free to share a good deal. Others remained quiet and just listened.
I don’t end gatherings like this with any hoopla, just a simple thank you for coming and contributing. Sometimes that leaves me wondering what kind of imprint the conversation made, but that’s okay. It is not always my business to know. Nice though that the next morning a group email went out from one of the participants. It simply read this way:
1) love God
2) love others
3) tell others to do the same
Ready, break ...
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.