I love the scene from City Slickers where Curly Washburn, the rough and tumble cowboy, played by Jack Palance offers the Billy Crystal character, Mitch Robbins, some words of wisdom. Curly tells Mitch that, to figure out the meaning of life, all he has to do is to know this “one thing.” Of course Curly never says what this “one thing” is, leaving Mitch—and the movie audience—to fill in the blanks for themselves.
Philosophers aren’t much more help. Nineteenth century French sociologist Alexis De Tocqueville wrote in the Ages of Faith,
“The final aim of life is placed beyond life.”
Nineteenth and early 20th century scientist, philosopher, psychologist and author William James echoed De Tocqueville with these less-than-helpful words.
“The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”
While it is indeed helpful to know that genuine purpose is transcendent, that it is found not in the particulars of our daily life, but, rather, is sourced “beyond life” in “that which will outlast it,” this advice leaves us with Mitch to figure it out for ourselves.
What is the “final aim…beyond life,” this “something” that will outlast life? What is the ultimate purpose of humankind? The Westminster Catechism asks and answers the “question of questions.”
“What is the chief end of man?” The answer. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” God created us for Himself and placed eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
God has designed us so that we find our deepest satisfaction in a living and vital relationship with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus said,
“Whoever shall seek his life shall lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake and the Gospel’s shall find it” (Mark 8:34-35).
De Tocqueville and James were right. We won’t find purpose or its byproducts—a measure of satisfaction, success or happiness—by seeking it in the particulars of daily life.
“Ask yourself if you are happy,” said John Stewart Mill, “and you cease to be so.”
The Austrian Victor Frankl put it well in the preface to Man’s Search for Meaning.
“Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”
This sounds like the advice Jesus gives His followers.
Do not be anxious then, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘With what shall we clothe ourselves?’ “For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:31-34).
C. S. Lewis was asked which of the world’s religions offers the greatest chance of human happiness. He replied,
“While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.”
Lewis went on to explain that he didn’t embrace biblical Christianity to make him happy—a good bottle of port wine could do that. Rather, he became a follower of Jesus because it took him outside of himself and connected him to the transcendent, the sacred, to others and to a life worth living—to a life located in the larger story of God’s redemptive work in the world.
The connection of one’s life to divine purpose is found by entering into a personal relationship with God though Jesus Christ. We enter this relationship by faith—by trusting in Jesus’ work on the cross as payment for our sins, and pledging our loyalty to Him as Savior and Lord. But faith goes beyond this initial act. Faith is a way of living, a way of seeing ourselves in the world. As James Fowler put it,
“Faith, classically understood, is not a separate dimension of life, a compartmentalized specialty. Faith is an orientation of the total person, giving purpose and goal to one’s hopes and striving, thoughts and actions….as such, faith is an integral part of one’s character or personality.”
Answering the invitation of our Creator to know Him and participate with Him to accomplish His work connects us to the ultimate “why” for living, the highest source of purpose in human existence. Faith connects our whole person over the entire span of our life, all of us for all our life, to the larger story of God’s redemptive work in the world, providing order and pattern, form and cohesion, meaning and integration for our daily lives.
Divine purpose is the integrative center, the focal point that binds our total selves, our latent energies, experience, gifts and abilities to Jesus and His work in the world. This purpose infuses our life with lasting value and connects us to that which is worthy of our loyalty over a lifetime. It provides a deep and abiding sense of being a character in a larger story, with plot, movement and coherence that gives meaning to the particulars of each day, as well as the decades.
God created us for just such a purpose. He put eternity in our hearts. And He invites us to join with His Son to participate in His eternal Purpose. We are designed us for nothing less. We need nothing more. We find our deepest satisfaction in nothing other.
Are you searching for happiness and success or for genuine purpose? Have you found the answer to Curly’s question?
Resources. The Art of Virtue-Based Transformational Leadership provides a discussion on the importance of transcendent purpose, faith and hope to one’s leadership. The book is available on this website. Leadership in a Changing World: Virtue and Effective Leadership in the 21st Century, by this author, provides a more thorough exploration of the relevance of purpose, faith and hope to leadership effectiveness. The book, published by Palgrave-McMillan, will come out December 2014 and you will be able to purchase it on Amazon.com in both hardback and e-book formats. Dan Taylor’s book Tell Me a Story provides a powerful discussion on the role that story plays in our personal lives and leadership. This book is also available on Amazon.com.