The other night, my wife and I were discussing the topic of having purpose. We talked about how achievement and success in life come oftentimes as a result of purpose, especially for true Christians, rather than by accident or luck. In reading popular literature about how to achieve success, a common theme involves having a very clear, definitive purpose that directs decisions and motivates action. That purpose, whatever it might be for an individual, helps to focus attention and overcome obstacles that stand in between him or her and the desired results.
On the face of it, this sounds well and good. I’m sure that having a clearly defined purpose actually works to help people achieve their goals. But sometimes, defining a personal purpose can be elusive. Such a simple question as “what is your purpose?” can stop many people, including me, dead in their tracks. The question is easy to ask, but the answer demands completeness that is not so simple to provide.
Without intending to diminish the achievements of anyone who has found meaning in their own life through a clearly defined, singular purpose, I have personally found goals measured in worldly achievements to be hollow. I believe that Solomon probably felt the same. In Ecclesiastes, he wrote about all of the amazing feats that he managed to accomplish in his life. He built great houses, vineyards, gardens, orchards, and water pools. He accumulated many servants, herds of animals, silver, gold, and treasures from many lands. By all measures, he achieved great success (compare Ecclesiastes 2:1-10). Yet, he knew that those achievements lacked meaning when considering his life in worldly terms, observing, “Therefore I turned my heart and despaired of all the labor in which I had toiled under the sun. For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; yet he must leave his heritage to a man who has not labored for it. This also is vanity and a great evil” (Ecclesiastes 2:20-21). Even with a purpose that led him to great worldly success, Solomon found a lack of meaning.
For me, purpose in life is multi-dimensional. This is why it is incomplete to proclaim that one single thing defines my purpose with detailed clarity and enough precision to make it deeply personal. In a contrasting example, some athletes may find their purpose in being the best possible ball player they can be. That one thing is enough to drive them to their success. But for me, and I dare say, for all true Christians, we want much more than what the world can offer us.
Solomon concludes at the end of his meditation on life’s meaning, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). In this simple statement, he gives us the standard Christian purpose in life. To obey God is the one thing that we all need as our guide to direct our actions so that we can successfully seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (compare Matthew 6:33). This purpose applies to all Christians. But all by itself, it is not highly personalized. The fact is, God made us as individuals, with skills, ideas, personalities, and unique proclivities that layer on top of the standard Christian purpose. To be complete, our purpose starts with God and continues with an expression of ourselves, consistent with our commitment to Him.
We all have unique qualities that make us who we are. These are gifts from God, which we are supposed to use! We do not want to be the kind of wicked servant who chooses to not use what God gives us (compare Matthew 25:24-30). The ultimate purpose in our life comes from God, “who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began” (compare 2 Timothy 1:9). To truly define our purpose then, we must begin by understanding God’s purpose for us. We can clearly see that it consists of bringing us, as unique individuals, into His Family. Knowing this, we can be confident in having a multitudinous purpose that begins with God, fulfills our individuality, and leads to glorious results.