We went on vacation last summer to Pawley’s Island on the coast of South Carolina where my family has been going since long before I was born. We pursued the most important things you do at the beach — boiled shrimp and drawn butter, fried flounder, fried oysters, and all the accompaniments. On of the restaurants where we ate had a number of models of ships displayed around the dining room. They were not the plastic models from a hobby store, but big wooden models of different kinds of ships. On the salad bar stood a great big wooden ship in a glass case, and while gazing at it as I put lettuce on my plate, I said “Hmm. I could do that.”
Now it is always a dangerous thing when a man says “Hmm. I can do that.” If any witnesses hear him, then he has got to do it. It becomes a matter of false pride and vainglory. When I returned home from my vacation I decided to make a model of the Titanic. How hard could that be? I did not plan to make a little model—but a four-foot long model of the Titanic, and of course made out of wood. I did not need directions, because I am a man. I just went to the store and bought some wood and started making a model of the Titanic. I thought it would not take long, maybe a week. It only took the Lord a week to make the universe; I could surely make a model of the Titanic in a week. It took six months.
I had in my mind a picture of what I wanted it to look like when I was finished, and that is all I had. I discovered something about wood. I discovered that the animists who believe that every inanimate object has a spirit in it may be right. Some pieces of wood refused to be a part of the Titanic. They just made up their mind that they would not conform and they did not, no matter how much I whittled on them. I also discovered the same thing about Elmer’s glue; it has a mind of its own. But every piece of wood that would cooperate was destined to be a part of the Titanic. Every piece of wood that was not interested in cooperating lies in a shoebox in different states of mangledness.
Which brings us to this text. In the first chapter of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul is speaking to people who come out of an animistic background; that is, they believed there were spirits under every bush, every rock, every stream, every tree. He writes to them about the Creator of the universe and the purpose of God in creation. This text focuses on the purpose of God. In the passage we find the word, or a form of the word, “predestination.” Now the word “predestination” is very confusing to the modern mind. As we read the word “predestination,” we often think the word “predetermination,” but they are different ideas. Destination or destiny refers to the end point; determinism deals with every point between now and the end point.
This text also contains an extremely important qualification about the end point, and Paul makes the point over and over and over again. The destination or destiny all depends upon being “in Christ.” Paul speaks of salvation with this qualification as he uses such similar phrases as “in him,” “through Jesus Christ,” and “in the One he loves,” to express this idea (vv. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9).
Before God began to make the universe, he had in his mind what he was going to do. He decided that anyone who is “in Christ Jesus” in the final analysis is going to be in the Kingdom. If a person is in Christ Jesus, they are in the Kingdom.
Now, switch it all around. If this passage is about the purpose of God in creation, then what does it have to do with an individual person? Do we have a purpose? Do human beings have a purpose or reason for being here? Do individual lives have any meaning?
Everyone has different needs. Some of these are self-evident. We have a need for food and water and shelter. If you deny us any of those three, in time we will die. If you deny us water we will die very quickly. If you deny us food we will last a little bit longer, but not much longer. Deny us shelter, and we will wind up like the folks on the Titanic who died of exposure.
Some of the needs we have relate to the very idea of life and death itself. But people have other needs. Every person has a need for relationship with other people: for love or attention. I cannot make anyone love me, and no one can make me love them. But we can all get attention if we want it. We learn to do this as very small children. Imagine a hospital in which babies are taken into a seminar room to go through a workshop on how to cry in order to get attention. At least, somehow they have learned it early on. We know how to get attention. We get better at it as we go through life. We learn subtle ways to do it, and any of us who has ever been in the first grade has known children who have learned how to get attention, one way or another.
We know from war-torn situations in which little babies are orphaned, if someone does not pick them up, hold them, touch them, the little babies will languish and die. In hospital settings, they may all be in cribs, but if they are not regularly tended to, they will die. We have a need for relationship, but what about purpose? Is purpose really a need?
Babies have a need for relationship at the beginning of life. We also find that at the end of life, some people, the doctors say, “give up.” A person does not have to be old to give up. Many teenagers in urban society today have given up. That is, they have no reason to live. They have no meaning; they have no purpose. Is purpose a need? Is there something within us that tells us we have a purpose?
The existentialist philosophers, most of whom were not Christians, described three dreads that human beings have. The first dread is the dread of death. That is, for me to be aware of my existence is to be aware of the fact that I am going to cease to exist sooner or later. I am going to die. This realization is anxiety-producing for people. Some of us devote our lives to ignoring our mortality. In fact, the American culture is consumed with distracting us from the fact that we’re all going to die. This first dread relates to that first human need for food, water, and shelter. It relates to death. We have a need for somehow preserving life.
The second dread the existentialists define is the dread of loneliness, or alienation, or separation from people. It is the same thing God described in the beginning of the book of Genesis when he declared, “It is not good for people to be alone.” This dread of loneliness conforms to that second need we have for human relationship or some kind of personal relationship.
The third existential dread that the philosophers identify is the dread of purposelessness. Only philosophers can pile up those “essnessesseses” at the end of words. Purposelessness involves the idea or feeling that my life does not have any meaning. It is the dread of a meaningless life. In an odd way, a meaningless life may lead to a person’s abandonment of the will to live. In other words, the first dread becomes less dreadful than the third dread.
What is interesting is that people in different fields of knowledge keep identifying the need for purpose as something critical for human beings. We could ask, though, is purpose all in our minds? Is it just an idea that we have made up? Some refer to it as a psychological projection of need and desire for purpose. That is, we just have this idea in our minds that we want something, so we imagine that it exists–that there is such a thing as purpose, that there is such a thing as meaning.
This is really a circular argument. It resembles a dog chasing its tail. It is not enough to say that the idea of purpose is just a projection on the universe or something we have imagined. We must still ask, “Where does the idea of purpose come from that we are desiring?” We cannot simply dismiss it as a desire until we have explained where we get this idea of purpose.
I know where we get the idea of water; it falls on our heads. It freezes on a cold January day, and you slip and slide on it on the steps. I know where I get the idea of food; it’s not a psychological projection—I have tasted it. I know where I get the idea of people and relationship. Unless people are a figment of my imagination, I have encountered them. Where do we get the idea of purpose and meaning? What happens to us if we do not find a purpose or a sense of meaning in our lives?
If we go back through the literature of people for thousands of years we find this pursuit of purpose and meaning. We can go to Solomon’s search for meaning in Ecclesiastes, to the parables of Jesus, or to the literature of the 1920s with Gertrude Stein who looked at her generation at the end of World War I and said “You are a lost generation.” That is, they did not know how they fit in. They had no sense of belonging.
My generation was not quite as elegant about saying it. We were “in search of ourselves.” I often thought that was a strange thing to say — “I am in search of myself.” Where did we suppose we had left ourselves? Where am I, if I am not where I am? I never could understand–if you were not where you were, how could you find yourself if you went looking for yourself somewhere else? But this is part of the struggle of the need for purpose; it’s a quest, it’s a search, and it’s something that cries out for us because we do not want to be just a number. Perhaps we could simply dismiss it as a wish. We do not want to be just a cog in the wheel. Now that desire is internal. But where do we get the idea that there is some alternative? Why the dissatisfaction?
Some people have suggested that the idea of purpose and meaning threatens the idea of free will. Now how would that work? It happens when we think of purpose as the same thing as predetermination. Now in predetermination, everything we do is determined for us. For instance, me scratching my head right now was determined before I was born–that at this particular moment, 11:37 a.m. on January 12 I would scratch my head. That would be predetermination. It is not a biblical idea, but some people confuse it with the idea of purpose because they confuse it with the idea of predestination.
This confusion suggests that we have no choice. It suggests that if you have a purpose, your entire life has been determined. This confusion suggests that everything you will ever do has been programmed as though you are yourself a machine. Instead, purpose is all about choices. In fact, purpose makes choices possible.
Have you ever questioned why things happen as they do? Have you ever wondered why bad things happen? That kind of a question is a question that arises because we believe the universe has order, meaning, and purpose to it. We have in our mind the idea that if there is a purpose, things ought to happen in a certain way. But when we confuse purpose with predetermination, we have decided how we want every event to happen and we do not want anybody making any choices that could result in bad things. In other words, there is something within us that wants everyone to act like a robot and do exactly the right thing and fulfill their purpose, in which case life would be pure bliss. There would be no bad things happening.
But people have the ability not to be a part of God’s project. They have the ability to make a choice not to be a part of the purpose of life; not to be a part of the meaning of the universe. The idea of purpose comes from somewhere, but it is not the same as destiny. Purpose involves the choices we make between now and the end point. The end point is the goal toward which we are moving.
So is purpose internal? Is it part of me? Or is it external, part of the universe outside of me? Now hunger is internal, but food is external. Thirst is internal; water is external. Loneliness is internal; people are external. Purposelessness (feeling that I do not have meaning, but the desire to have it) is internal. My purpose, on the other hand, is external. It is bigger than me, far vaster than me, and it is how I connect with everything else.
Now where does choice come into all of this? The distractions from purpose are internal perversions of purpose. What do I mean by that? This is where the psychological projection comes in. Instead of purpose, I have ambition. Instead of purpose, I have greed for something. Instead of purpose, I have envy of someone else. Instead of purpose, I have lust for–anything. We think of it usually as sex but lust can apply to any sort of thing: lust after reputation, lust after possessions. Instead of purpose, I have passionate desire. Once again, that desire may not be just about sex. I can have passionate desire about food.
Instead of purpose, I can have vanity–what the old Puritans called “vainglory.” My career is not my purpose. My purpose may have nothing at all to do with how I earn a living. Purpose involves something far different that strikes at the heart of what I am as a person. So those sorts of perversions of purpose can distract me from my purpose. I may seek the imitation rather than the real thing.
So often we pervert our purpose through pleasure. We want our purpose to be the source of our pleasure when in fact, purpose may bring us pain. Consider Jeremiah, a prophet of God who did not want to be a prophet of God because when he was a prophet of God, nobody liked him. His purpose was to warn Israel of the coming disaster so that they would turn, but Israel did not want to hear that. They had their own wish projection. They did not want to live out their purpose under God; they wanted to be like all the other nations. They were distracted from their purpose. Jeremiah did not like his purpose. It caused him pain. But he followed his purpose.
Jesus came to die for our sins; it was the purpose of His coming into this world. It was painful, and He did not like it, either. The night He was arrested, just before the guards came, He prayed, “If there’s any other way we can go about this, let’s try Plan B.” Fulfilling His purpose involved a choice, and He chose to fulfill His purpose. When Satan offered Him alternatives in the temptations, He had choices. The alternative to being hungry was to turn the stones into bread, then He would not be hungry. Of course, if He could not be hungry, He would not be human.
He could have thrown himself off the temple and let the angels float Him down so He would not get hurt; but then He would not have been human either. Someone who cannot get hurt is not human. Satan kept giving Jesus alternatives to being human, and His purpose in coming was to be human and to die, to share with us all that it means to live.
There are choices all along the way in fulfilling purpose. You do not need the distractions to survive. What brings us pleasure, the things in which we take pride, disappear in a moment. Whether it is money, sex, glory, reputation, or health, they can all go; yet we can survive and even be stronger. The funny thing is that while we have got them, they are never quite enough. They never fulfill when they are the object we pursue. Pleasure and pride distract us from the longing for purpose.
Purpose is not used as a biblical way of talking about people. In this passage from Ephesians it is God who has a purpose in His creation. Purpose in the Bible is so often related to the activity of God as reflected in such passages as “I know the plans I have for you.” God has plans for us. That sounds like a parent who says “I know what plans I have for you.” It sounds a bit totalitarian, when a parent decides where we are going to school, and what we are going to do for a living, and who we are going to marry.
When someone decides our life for us, we have no choices of our own. But that is not what is taking place in these passages. These passages do not refer to God’s activity as a parent. Instead, these are the words of God the creator. He is the same God, but in a different function, or different way of relating to us. When God says “I know the plans I have for you,” it is up to us whether or not we will follow the plan.
The sad story of Israel is that Israel decided not to follow the plan. The tragic story of King Saul is that King Saul decided not to follow the plan. We have choices, but God has choices, too. When Saul would not follow the plan, God worked with David. David messed up every way you can mess up, but he kept saying “I want to follow the plan.” With that attitude, God can always use us and show us our purpose again and again and again.
Though the Bible does not speak of purpose so much in relation to us, there is a biblical term that is used. We say things one way in the twenty-first century, but two thousand or three thousand years ago people thought in different ways. There is a term that refers to what we today call “purpose.” The Bible speaks in terms of “calling.” Calling comes from outside. It is not deterministic, because with calling there is always the option of refusing to answer the call. It is not set in stone; it is the invitation of God.
We find our purpose in relation to the Creator who calls us, each in different ways, each with lives that are unique and yet purposeful so that we do not need to envy someone else’s life. We do not need to covet someone else and their achievements. We do not need to feel inferior or inadequate in relation to others because every single person is called by God, who made us with a purpose.
He still calls. Those who are in Christ Jesus, he continually calls out of our distractions, out of our preoccupations, and out of our lethargy to this wonderful plan He has. Those who are not in Christ Jesus, He calls to be His children–to be a part of this wonderful plan. It is not finished yet, but when it is finished, all those in Christ Jesus will be a part of it.
Harry Lee (Hal) Poe serves as Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.