It is a paradox of our modern age that, although we have more knowledge and material possessions than at any other time in history, we lack a sense of purpose in life. A gnawing hunger for the meaning of life pervades our world.
Harvard historian and author Oscar Handlin describes this lack of direction and meaning: "At some point, midway into the twentieth century, Europeans and Americans discovered that they had lost all sense of direction . . . Wandering in the dark, men and women in all Western societies, stumbling blindly along, strained unavailingly for glimpses of recognizable landmarks" ("The Unmarked Way," American Scholar, Summer 1996, p. 335).
That we find ourselves stumbling down the path of uncertainty is ironic. Our meanderings in the spiritual wilderness occur at a time when mankind has made many impressive gains. The quality of life is generally improved. Life expectancy has increased almost everywhere. The portion of the world's population ruled by the fist of despots is shrinking. Though far from eradicated, the curse of poverty casts a smaller shadow.
Yet humanity is troubled. We are plagued with a sense of drift and aimlessness. Counselors Muriel James and John James describe it this way: "A universal hunger pervades the world. It is the hunger to get more out of life . . . to be more involved, and to find more meaning" (Passion for Life, 1991, p. 7).
One reason people hunger is they lack a sense of transcendent purpose. They don't have the understanding that God is involved with mankind and that He has a plan for us. To be at peace, human beings must realize what God has in mind for them.
In the past, Western man possessed the "certainty that history moved in a linear fashion from a beginning to a terminus." Most people held the conviction that "nothing walked with aimless feet and not one life was wasted" (Handlin, pp. 336-337).
Creation and life had explicit meaning. Society took comfort from Jesus Christ's assurance that "the very hairs of your head are numbered" (Matthew 10:30). They noted that Jesus said God is aware of the tiniest details of His creation, even the tiny birds: ". . . Not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will" (Matthew 10:29).
The foundation is shaken
What happened to shake this assurance man felt toward God? In the 19th century, in one of the major spiritual and intellectual shifts of history, scholarship began to view the words of Christ and the Bible with skepticism. "For thoughtful men and women, the Bible was no longer an unquestioned source of religious authority; it had become a form of evidence . . . that itself needed defending" (James Turner, Without God, Without Creed, 1985, p. 150).
Belief in the Bible had given humanity a road map for life. People believed that, in effect, they had in the Bible an owner's manual, a user's guide for the human experience. The same manual informed man that God had specified a destination at the end of life for any who loved and served Him.
Before the watershed changes of the 19th century, the Bible provided ultimate answers that gave satisfaction to humanity in general. The esteem in which it was held is illustrated in a conversation reported by Bible translator James Moffatt. The exchange took place between Scottish historical novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott and his son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, about a week before Scott's death. He said to his son-in-law: "'Read to me from the Book.' When Lockhart asked him which one, Sir Walter said, 'Need you ask? There is but one'" (quoted by Bruce Barton, The Book Nobody Knows, 1926, p. 7).
To capture understanding of the purpose of life, we must return to the Bible because it explains how to make life work.
The two great principles
Jesus Christ showed that the essence and purpose of human life are accomplished through fulfilling two supreme principles: "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-39). Jesus defined our reason for being in one word, love. He stated that our love should be directed first toward God, then toward our fellow man. Love is man's reason for being, his purpose.
But what is the love of which Jesus Christ spoke? We need to be sure we have a correct understanding of what love means to be able to fulfill our purpose.
Most people would describe love as a romantic feeling, as deeply caring for someone or something. Or they would equate love with sexual attraction. The kind of love they have in mind is oriented toward themselves; it is a feeling, an emotion or attraction that makes them feel good. But Jesus Christ referred to love on a considerably higher level.
The Bible describes love as concern for others rather than concern for ourselves and our wants and needs. In its simplest terms, love is the way of giving rather than the way of getting (Acts 20:35).
Jesus said our love should be outgoing, directed first toward our Creator. We are to strive to please and serve Him rather than ourselves (Matthew 6:24). We should love Him with all our being. We should then channel our love toward our neighbor, our fellow human being. God's law shows us how to live this way of loving respect toward God (John 14:15; John 15:10; 1 John 5:2-3) and concern for others. (To better understand the law of love, be sure to read the booklet The Ten Commandments.)
People who focus on loving care and concern for others as the purpose for their existence can fulfill their highest human potential. Wise men and women have discovered this profound truth. After his days as prime minister of Britain in the 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli wrote: "We are all born for love . . . It is the principle of existence and its only end" (quoted by Lewis Henry, Best Quotations for All Occasions, 1966, p. 136).
The voice of history
English historian Arnold Toynbee exhaustively studied civilizations, past and present. He became internationally famous for his multivolume series Study of History. When asked to address the meaning of life, he said: "I myself believe that love does have an absolute value, that it is what gives value to human life . . . Love is the only thing that makes life possible, or, indeed, tolerable" (Surviving the Future, 1971, pp. 1-2).
He also observed that "true love . . . discharges itself in an activity that overcomes self-centeredness by expending the self on people and on purposes beyond the self" and "this love . . . is the only true self-fulfillment" (ibid., p. 3).
These words stand in vivid contrast to the modern philosophy of self-worship. Ours is a world in which many believe they have a right to renounce personal responsibility in their quest for self-fulfillment. Author and rabbi Harold Kushner reported that "a comprehensive survey of mental health in America states, 'Psychoanalysis (and psychotherapy) is the only form of psychic healing that attempts to cure people by detaching them from society and relationships'" (Who Needs God?, 1989, p. 93).
In our society increasing numbers of people have come to believe it is perfectly acceptable to cut themselves loose from those who have come to depend on them if it will enable them to get what they want out of life.
Such an attitude is a prescription for emptiness. It is contrary to genuine love. Eventually those who practice this way of life will encounter frustration. As Rabbi Kushner puts it: "To live life only for ourselves will bring us nothing but sadness and misery. A self-centered life is an unhappy life. Selfishness is a major stumbling block to happiness" (quoted by Dennis Wholey, Are You Happy?, Boston, 1986, p. 17).
Jesus Christ, after giving His disciples a lesson in love, humility and service to others, said to them, "If you know these things, happy are you if you do them" (John 13:17).
Does wealth give meaning?
Many people choose to take another dead-end road: overemphasis on material goods. Those who fall into this trap mistakenly assume that the accumulation of things will provide contentment. The result? A society in which a rising standard of living is more important than how we treat people. The health of our economy—public and personal—is accorded more importance than the welfare of our neighbor and sometimes even more than our own flesh and blood.
To obtain greater wealth and status, many people are willing to sacrifice marriages and families for career advancement. Yet they often find themselves in a frantic rat race that provides them with no lasting meaning. The activities that are supposed to be fulfilling lead only to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.
Compared with the poverty of previous generations, the Western world has hitched a ride on the fast track to material success. Yet many find life lacking. Life for the successful can be like a dizzying, intense amusement-park ride. It provides exhilaration but also disorientation.
"We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry through our work in order to 'recreate' ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation—for what? To eat the billionth hamburger at some fast-food joint hellbent on increasing the 'quality' of our life?" (Wendell Berry, What Are People For?, 1990, p. 147).
Money can't buy happiness. Living as though it can exacts a heavy toll.
Materialism no substitute for purpose
Where, then, can we find happiness? We find it in discovering the greater purpose of life. We find it in concern for and involvement with others. "The essence of happiness is the unconditional love we have for the people in our lives and their unconditional love for us" (Wholey, p. 11).
Jesus said, "Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses" (Luke 12:15). The things that matter in life are the values we adopt, the character we build, the relationships we develop and the contributions we make to our relationships.
Most people naturally follow the way of acquiring rather than the way of giving. It might be summed up, as the popular bumper sticker proclaims: "He who dies with the most toys wins." This philosophy fails in the long run. In contrast, Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). The one who truly wins when he dies is the one who seeks God's purpose and devotes his life to fulfilling it. "For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another" (1 John 3:11).
We are our brother's keeper, to answer a question raised early in the Bible (Genesis 4:9). We are indebted to love one another and devote our lives to this standard: "Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law" (Romans 13:8). Loving others is the way to great contentment.
Love God with all your heart
"You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind," said Jesus (Matthew 22:37; compare Deuteronomy 6:5; Deuteronomy 10:12). Fundamental to genuine happiness and fulfillment is, first and foremost, loving God. The Creator, who gave us life, deserves our greatest love. "For in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).
God is the greatest giver. "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights" (James 1:17). Every man's first duty in life is always to God (Acts 5:29). We owe Him complete devotion.
God seeks people who will worship Him (John 4:23). He created us to share His life and purpose with us, giving true meaning to our existence.
History shows that nations maintaining a devotion to God retain their strength and vitality. In reflecting on the decline of the atheistic Soviet Union and comparing it with America, author David Halberstam wrote that "the just and harmonious society was, in the long run, also the strong society" (The Next Century, 1991, p. 14).
French historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed America's success in the 1800s and wrote: "America is great because America is good. If America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great." This statement has application for every nation. Each of us needs God in our personal life, regardless of what nations do.
The divine connection
Faith in God provides us with a sense of place in the larger scheme of the universe. We need faith in God when we face the sufferings of life. Our way of life may provide material acquisitions, but these are often useless in times of great loss or affliction. As British historian Paul Johnson observed, "In chronic pain and in distress without apparent end, even the confirmed atheist longs for a God" (The Quest for God, 1996, p. 3).
We need the peace and confidence that the promise of eternal reward delivers. God promises everlasting life through Jesus Christ for those who believe in Him (1 John 5:12). If the future holds nothing for us but eternal nothingness, we have no hedge against the frightening specter of death.
If it is true that there is no life beyond the grave, we are forced to admit that life is like a breath of air, here and gone with no trace of its passing. If this life is all there is, we would be miserable (1 Corinthians 15:19). But God assures us He has something far greater in mind for us.
The apostle Paul wrote that God planned a marvelous future for us even before He created our first parents, Adam and Eve. He planned our destiny "according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began" (2 Timothy 1:9). Our future—our reason for being—was a part of God's awesome purpose before He formed the universe, with its heavenly bodies by which we measure the passing of time.
God's purpose is far greater than just the creation of mortal, perishable human beings. He is in the process of fashioning a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17)—His own spiritual sons and daughters, immortal and incorruptible children who will share His very nature and character.
How is this a new creation? Paul contrasts the "old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires," with the "new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV). Paul is describing a much-needed transformation. It involves first a change in our nature and character from a mind and outlook that tends toward hostility toward God (Romans 8:7). It ultimately involves a far greater change in the resurrection, a transformation from our physical, mortal bodies to glorious immortal spirit bodies.
Notice how Paul describes this miracle: "Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory'" (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).
God is accomplishing this entire transformation through the power of His Spirit. The Bible describes the spiritual transformation as salvation. Paul describes those who will receive salvation as the children of God. "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together" (Romans 8:16-17, KJV).
Do you grasp the significance of Paul's inspired statement? He explains why we are here, the very reason for our existence. God, the Scriptures tell us, is creating a family—His own family. He offers us the opportunity to be a part of that family, the family of God.
The core of God's plan
That family relationship—our becoming children of God—is the heart and core of His incredible plan for humanity. Notice how important that family is to God: "In bringing many sons to glory [through the resurrection to immortality], it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation [Jesus Christ] perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy [Christ] and those who are made holy [human beings in whom God is working] are of the same family" (Hebrews 2:10-11, NIV).
Those who are truly converted—who are led by God's Spirit after repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38; Romans 8:9)—have the same spiritual Father and are members of the same family—God's family. The Scriptures continue: "So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, 'I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.' And again, 'I will put my trust in him.' And again he says, 'Here am I, and the children God has given me'" (Hebrews 2:11-13, NIV).
Jesus is not ashamed to call members of His Church His own brothers (and sisters). That is how wonderfully close and personal this family relationship is.
From the beginning God has clearly stated this purpose: "Then God said, 'Let Us make man in our image, according to Our likeness . . . So God created man in His own image; . . . male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:26-27).
Men and women are created in God's image and likeness, to be like God. He tells us, "I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty" (2 Corinthians 6:18).
Human beings who are inducted into the family God is creating will ultimately be glorified spirit beings like the resurrected Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20-21). The apostle John plainly tells us that "we shall be like Him" (1 John 3:2). Our destiny is ultimately to "shine . . . like the stars forever and ever" in God's family (Daniel 12:2-3).
The awesome potential of any person, as it is presented to us by Jesus Christ and His apostles, seems so incredible that most people cannot grasp this truth when they first read it. Although it is plainly stated in the Bible, people usually read right over it. Yet this awesome future is the whole purpose and reason God made mankind. It is why we were born, why we exist. God is in the process of creating His immortal family, and you can have a part in it.
Is God's Word true?
We should not believe in God or the Bible just to make ourselves feel good; we should latch onto Scripture because it is true. The Bible's credibility can be established. (To prove for yourself the truth of the Bible, be sure to read our booklet Is the Bible True?.) In the Bible, God promises to those who serve Him a reward that is far greater than anything this life has to offer.
In his present condition, lacking understanding of God's purpose, man is like a rudderless ship, adrift and at the mercy of winds and storms. His dogmas fail as a shield against the anxieties and uncertainties inherent in the human condition.
But you can understand the reason for your existence. You can turn away "from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers" (1 Peter 1:18) by turning to a life of meaning and purpose, a life that works.