Does Life Have a Purpose?
Genesis 1:26–28 – Explore God
Baptism of Our Lord – January 13, 2019 (am)
If you’re visiting with us this morning, you may well have come to hear an answer to today’s question. If so, you’re asking a question that’s long been pondered by men and women from every culture on earth, every social and economic class, every ethnicity, in every age. And most of us would like to think positive, I believe, and say: Yes, life has purpose. I’m not sure I could state it in one sentence. And I don’t always feel it. But it would have something to do with living well, finding the good life, being healthy and somewhat prosperous, then also treating others well—giving a little back in expression of kindness and compassion, gratitude for what you have.
But there are two problems with that. 1) Real life teaches us that we’re not really in control of the level of success we attain. We all know people who are pretty smart and pretty gifted, but their lives never really amounted to anything significant. And right alongside them are people less gifted, less intelligent, who just seem to catch all the breaks, be in the right place at the right time. Even the most successful ones among us often confess that they were lucky in that way. Opportunities opened up before them that just don’t open up in front of everyone. They weren’t really working any harder than everyone else, they just caught a break and made the most of it. It’s random! And 2) the whole idea of philanthropy, sharing the good life, giving back in compassion—where does that come from? If we truly live in a world that has developed slowly over eons of time, moved along by the maxim, survival of the fittest, when did we start caring about the welfare of others? And why? When did that get folded in to our sense of purpose in life? It runs contrary to who we’re told we are as human beings. It just doesn’t square with how we’re told life happens in this world, where it comes from, and how it operates.
What we just described as our sense of purpose—pursuit of the good life, and looking out for those less fortunate along the way—suggests pretty strongly that there is a different sense of purpose operating in this world than the one that says we’re struggling against one another, fighting for survival, ridding ourselves of the weak in order to make ourselves stronger. Whenever that view of life has emerged in world history, we’ve rejected it outright. That’s how Adolph Hitler viewed the world, Josef Stalin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and others. Whenever a leader or thinker arises espousing anything like survival of the fittest as public policy, or a philosophy of life, we label him evil and we hold him accountable. That’s just not human!
But this realization suggests two more things. 1) There is an underlying purpose in this world that we all seem to understand, such that we’re inclined to hold our leaders accountable if they go against it. And 2) that sense of purpose reflects a different idea of the origin and trajectory of this world than we’re used to hearing in school and in our public discourse.
We have an internal sense of purpose that drives us and shapes us. We might not agree on every detail of how to express it, but I think we’d all agree generally on what it should look like. We feel profound injustice whenever it’s ignored in public life, and a paralyzing depression when it’s absent in our personal lives. Humankind is a community, and we’re supposed to care for one another, take care of one another. We’re supposed to guard the community’s best interest. And it seems we find our personal purpose as we contribute to that. So, if someone works against the community’s good, that’s not right! This sense of purpose is interwoven with what it means to be human. It’s part of who we are, and of how this world is supposed to work!
We believe the way the Bible expresses our purpose in life lines up a lot better with this instinctive understanding of how life is supposed to work than does any other expression of purpose and meaning that we hear. Let’s explore this expression in three parts.
The Best Expression of Life’s Purpose – Gen.1:26-28
The very first chapter of the Bible tells the story of how the world was made—this universe and everything in it. It describes God as creating all that exists, as bringing order out of chaos, and as speaking light into the darkness. Then He separated earth and sky, water and land, and brought forth all kinds of vegetation and all kinds of animal life. He was building a place to live, and He was creating things to live there. And at the climax of this creation spectacular comes the passage I want us to look at this morning. 26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
So, the Bible teaches that God made human beings as a reflection of Himself in this world in order to rule over it on His behalf. And He made them as male and female so that they could come together in love and bring forth life much as He had just done. Their call was to reproduce and fill the earth with additional image-bearing creatures, and to enjoy this world from a position of authority even as they filled it. They were called to take good care of the world God just made for them! Doesn’t that sound a lot more like what we’re instinctively drawn to do, what we feel responsible to do, what we feel rewarded for doing? This picture fits us so much better than survival of the fittest!
The Bible goes on to teach that the central pursuit of human experience is to express our love for God by doing what He charges us to do, and by loving one another in the same sort of selfless, even self-sacrificial way He loves us—to love one another by putting each other’s interest ahead of our own. However we actually do it, this is our purpose!
Our Ongoing Battle with Life’s Purpose
And that sounds like a pretty pleasant purpose, pretty desirable pursuit. But if it’s true, why is this world in such a mess? Why do we seem to have such a hard time fulfilling this purpose? The Bible also answers this pretty clearly. Right after the account of God creating the world, we read about how evil entered into it (Gen.3:1-6). These two people that He made to bear His image and rule in His place turned their backs on Him! They made a choice to do what they wanted instead of what than what He charged. They chose to go against His purpose and pursue their own instead. They chose to put their own desires ahead of His, and even ahead of one another’s, and that’s not best for anyone!
I’m sure you know the story of how the woman, then the man, ate the fruit that God told them not to eat (Genb.3:6). Not only were they failing to love God by doing what He said, but they were also failing to love one another. And ever since then we’ve all struggled in just the same way. We’re born into that struggle, born with an inner drive to do things we were not created to do, to go against the purpose for which we were made. We elevate self above others, and even above God. We do what we want to do, not the things we were made to do. And we don’t want to hear about God telling us to do something different. We actually live in denial of our purpose!
We feel the tension of that every day. We want what we want. And if we don’t have it, it doesn’t even make sense to us that we’d find it by honoring God, or by guarding someone else’s best interest. How would loving God or loving my neighbor gain me the $20,000/year more that I need to get out of debt and live within my means? How is it going to help me lose twenty pounds, or get a better job? How is it going to make my spouse more agreeable, or secure me some more vacation time, or pay for that vacation, or free up time to take it? I don’t see the connection between these things and what the Bible says about the purpose of life, some will say. I just want a slice of the good life. What does the Bible have to do with that? How does it gain me that? I don’t see the connection?
The Future Realization of Life’s Purpose
Well, the Bible also has a lot to say about the good life. It does a pretty good job of describing the kind of life we really want. And in the end, the problem is not that our sites are set too high so that we have no real hope of reaching them, but that they’re set too low and we’ve lost touch with what the good life really is! Listen to this; listen to the kind of life we were made for, the kind of life God has prepared for those who love Him, and love one another, for those who hear His purpose, and embrace it, and begin living life to honor Him rather than themselves. 1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son (Rev.21:1-7).
This is the good life! This is what we’re longing for! This is what we desire, because it’s what we’ve been made for. All at the same time this identifies the purpose of our lives and describes where that purpose will ultimately be realized! What we’re longing for is actually to experience what we’ve been made for! We’ve just completely lost touch with where it comes from, and we’re entirely out of touch with how we attain it. But even if we have to wait until this life is over to enter into all that’s described here in Rev.21, why would we ever choose to bypass it all in favor of whatever we think qualifies as the good life here and now, in this world that never truly satisfies us in the way we long to be satisfied?
Rev.21:1-7 says that joys that are far beyond what we’d ever list as the good life are actually part of our inheritance when we’ve been reconciled to the God who made us. Wouldn’t the very best quality of the good life be that it never ends? But who of us would actually list that as part of what we desire? Unless the good life eliminates death I won’t be truly satisfied with it? If a Gallup survey asked what qualifies as the good life and we answered, no death, I think our survey would be dismissed! We didn’t take it seriously! Or we’re out of touch with reality! When all along, the Word of God says that’s just what He has prepared for those who [conquer] in this life!
The one who conquers, then, is the one who actually realizes the true purpose of life, who finds it and enters into it.
But how do we do that?
One of the most familiar verses in the Bible gives us the clearest, most direct answer: Joh.3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life—but have [the good] life (Rev.21:1-7). And it’s actually available to all people—from every nation, every ethnicity, every language! (Rev.7:9)
We’ll be talking about this throughout this series—how God is really there, and there really is a purpose in this life, and we really can know it, and enter into it, and taste of what His Word tells us is ours in Him. All that it takes is receiving by faith the One Whom God sent as a Rescuer—trusting Jesus, Who reconciles us to God.
The point the Preacher was making in the Ecc.3:1-13 is that human life on its own is vain, purposeless. There’s a sense of needing and wanting a purpose. There’s even a vague sense that there actually is a purpose, as we said at the start today. But without God in the picture, that purpose can’t be discerned or known. [God] has put eternity into [our] hearts, yet so that [we] cannot find out what [He] has done from the beginning to the end (Ecc.3:11b)—[we can’t] [discover life’s purpose apart from Him]. If we try to make the purpose of life about us, our satisfaction, it won’t work. It’ll be empty, vain. But trusting Him unveils life’s true purpose and makes it ours.
When I was a child my parents played Rook with friends. Do you remember that card game? I watched them play and could see how much fun they had. They played with a new deck of cards and they let me play with their old deck. I didn’t sit in on the game, I just played with the cards. I’d group them by number and color. I’d stare at the Rook card with that ugly bird. I’d then try to imitate the fancy shuffling techniques I’d seen at the table, or from magicians doing card tricks on TV. If someone asked me what I was doing, I’d have told them: I’m playing Rook. But I knew nothing of the game. I’d never read to the rules. I’d never been introduced to the purpose of the game. I’d never actually played the game to develop any strategy to achieve that purpose. I wasn’t playing Rook! I was playing with Rook cards, but I wasn’t playing Rook. That’s like living life without knowing the purpose. Even the games in life need a purpose or they make no sense to us. How then could life itself make sense without knowing the purpose?
And not just any purpose will do. Discovering the purpose of life is like coming out of the fog into the clear air and being able to see clearly for the first time. Jean and I flew in from CA last evening. We knew we were approaching O’Hare—we heard the instructions from the flight crew, the bump of the landing gear opening, etc.—but we couldn’t see anything but fog out the windows. Then all of a sudden, very near the airport, we dropped below the clouds and there was the city, all lit up at night.
Embracing life’s purpose is like coming out of the clouds and finally seeing what’s going on, where you are, even who you are. It happens as we acknowledge the God Who made us, hear His instruction, respond to Him in faith, and embrace with our whole heart and soul and mind the purpose for which He made us. And then it’s our privilege to share and celebrate this good news with everyone around us—to be fruitful and multiply until the earth is filled with such people!