The Search for Purpose
There is nothing more important or more elusive than purpose.
Purpose is often obscure and hard to describe. It is one of those things that we are able to identify once we see it, yet we often view it through a glass darkly. When our actions are lined up for our purpose, it’s like a hot knife through warm butter. When these two don’t align, it’s like looking for butter in a pig's pen.
In a recent article about President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn, there was a section entitled “In Search of Purpose."
After leaving the White House in the wake of his stinging defeat, Carter embarked on what he called “an altogether new, unwanted, and potentially empty life” as he struggled to determine what he would do as a former president. A revelation came when he awakened in the middle of the night with the epiphany that his presidential library could serve as a dynamic, nonprofit center for conflict resolution.
I was struck by the phrase, “unwanted and potentially empty life.” In other words, what was in front of him was “nothing.” During the past few years, I’ve asked hundreds of men and women facing retirement this question: “What do you plan to do in retirement?” Much to my ongoing amazement, I usually get a quizzical look with the response of, “Nothing.” Nothing has become the touchstone for retirement. The goal and objective of life, the purpose of living is to do nothing and then die. Pretty grim, don’t you think?
Some time ago I struck up a conversation with a man sitting next to me on the long flight from Tokyo to Dallas. He’d sold his business 6 years prior and I asked him what he’d been doing since then. He paused, seemed to think about his answer and said, “Why, nothing.” My immediate comeback was, “How has that been working out for you?” “Not so good," he said, "and I think I’m about at the end of nothing.” I wondered what exactly that meant.
When I asked him to explain he stated, “I thought leisure was a valuable goal until I’ve recently concluded that there is not much purpose in doing nothing. So, I’ve decided I need a new purpose in life and now I want to trade nothing for something.” Trading nothing for something. Going from leisure to relevance. Moving on from mindless self-gratification to bringing value and meaning to my life and to others.
The dictionary defines purpose as “the reason for which something exists.”
Going all the way back to the Protestant reformer John Calvin, he penned in his Institutes that our purpose is to “know God and enjoy him forever.” There are at least three relationships helping to define both who we are and the context in which our life purpose is carried out. One is our relationship with God. The second is our relationship with ourselves. And third is our relationship with others. Unless we are growing and finding new meaning in all those relationships, there will be no discernible purpose, and no real meaning to coincide with it.
The following phrase hangs on my wall and has remained there for over 25 years. Like Jimmy Carter, the priority and purpose for my life came at a time when I was facing what seemed like “nothing.” This insight brought both meaning and purpose yet is so simple:
Spread the Word.
Those are the thoughts that get me up in the morning and challenge me when I go to sleep. How will they play out tomorrow? And how have I served them today?
We each are in a search for purpose in our lives. The good news is that God does have a plan for every one of us, a unique and distinctive plan. A way that we fit into His redemptive plan for mankind. This focus plays out every day and in every way.