Purpose and Meaning
I remember sitting on the grass in front of my high school, waiting for the bus and thinking about my life and what I could do that would make it mean something and give it purpose. This question has always been a big deal to me. I don’t want to get near the end of my life and look back wondering “what was the point?”
I thought that if my life was going to mean something, it was going to come from being connected to something big—bigger than myself. For some of my friends, that bigger thing was a social cause. It was the 70s. It was very cool to be into things like peace (ending the Vietnam war), saving the environment, and ending racial discrimination. (I still think those things are cool!) For me, the bigger thing was God. He’s way bigger than me and even bigger than any of those big cool social causes. God is infinite, eternal, all powerful, all loving and totally righteous. I believed that if I was connected to him, I would have the potential to do something with my life that would make it matter, that would make a positive difference in the world. But I wasn’t sure exactly how that would all work, or what I needed to do to make it work—if anything.
Since I was nearing the end of high school, I felt an urgency to choose a profession and choose a college program that would prepare me for it. I had the idea that the best way to serve God and give my life the most meaning was to choose some kind of Christian ministry as a profession. But, I felt conflicted because I was really into electronics and computers. I wanted to become an electronics engineer and design cool new high-tech gadgets. But, I didn’t see how that had anything to do with being connected with God or with making a positive difference in the world.
One day, as I was reading the Bible, these words of Jesus caught my attention:
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33, NIV).
In the context, Jesus was talking about not worrying about daily needs like food, clothing, and shelter. He was saying that if we focus our attention on God, as our king, and pour our lives into doing the good (righteous) things that he gives us to do, then God will take care of our daily needs. As I reflected on this, I understood that God had made me for the purpose of loving and serving him as my Lord. I realized that if I submitted to God’s rule (i.e. sought his kingdom), he would take care of everything else1.
To me, submitting to God as my king and serving him by doing good, meant that I could pursue whatever career I wanted and God would show me what good things he wanted me to do for him within that career. So, I went full speed ahead pursuing my goal of being an electronics engineer. While I was still in high school, I took the second year courses in electronics at the local Community College. At the end of the year, managers from a big high-tech company in the Seattle area, Sundstrand Data Control, came to our campus and interviewed several of us for jobs as Electronic Technicians. One of my classmates and I got hired!
I really enjoyed working at Sundstrand, but I was working full time and studying Engineering full time. This was pretty exhausting, so after six months, I quit work at Sundstrand and got a part-time job at Honeywell as an Engineering Technician (a step up). Things seemed to be going great! My new position made me essentially an apprentice Electronics Engineer. I got to work closely with experienced engineers and assist them in designing some really cool, exciting, electronic systems. But one day, as I was sitting at my desk working on the design for a “fire control system” for a submarine (don’t think: putting out fires; think: firing torpedoes), I started to be bothered by the fact that I was designing something that had only one purpose: to sink ships and kill people. I looked around at the engineers sitting at their desks. Some of them were close to retirement. I started wondering how they would feel about the legacy they were leaving2. Would they look back and regret that all their work had only gone toward creating systems for high-tech warfare? Is this what I wanted to do with my professional life?
These questions bothered me so much that I decided I needed to change my career. I decided that I wanted to be a pastor, or some other job where it was in my job description to perform some kind of spiritual service. I quite my job at Honeywell and dropped out of Engineering classes and went off to Montana to study at Big Sky Bible College. The professors and classes at the Bible College were great! I learned a lot and made some great friends. But I did miss working in the high-tech industry. Every time I saw a newspaper or magazine article about the latest developments in technology I felt disappointed; I felt like all kinds of cool new things were happening without me!
So, I was really excited when I heard about an organization called Missionary Tech Team. This organization hired technicians and engineers to do projects for mission and humanitarian organizations. I thought “wow, this might be just what I’m looking for, a way to use electronics and computers in direct service to God!”. That summer, I went to Longview, Texas and worked as a volunteer at MTT doing computer programming and repairing electronic equipment. I really enjoyed working with the engineers and technicians there, but oddly, the work didn’t feel that different from what I’d done at Sundstrand or Honeywell. I knew that I was working on equipment that would help generate electricity, produce food, broadcast life changing teaching, and do other good things, but the effect of what I was doing seemed kind of indirect and distant.
Then, one day, I was re-reading my notes from a class I had taken on the book of Romans. These words of the apostle Paul caught my attention:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” (Romans 8:28-29, NIV).
In class, we had focused on the first part of this passage, on God working for the good of those who love him and the theological controversy over predestination. But this time, the phrases: his purpose and conformed to the image of his Son, especially caught my attention. Of course, finding purpose had always been a big deal for me, so I was paying close attention! God has a purpose for those who belong to him. That purpose is to become like Jesus!
I realized, even more clearly than I had back in high school, that my purpose was to live my life with the same heart and mind as Jesus. Purpose doesn’t depend on having a particular kind of job. I could have as much purpose working in a factory as in a church. It’s my character qualities and attitude toward others that matter the most. The most important legacy I will leave will be the love I have (or haven’t) shown to the people in my life.
Having the same heart and mind as Jesus isn’t simple! Writing about that could fill a whole series of future blog posts. But there are a few things I have to mention because I’ve found them to be crucial:
- You can’t become like Jesus, unless you are spiritually united with him. We need his supernatural power to enable the lifelong process of becoming like him. In Romans 8, Paul calls this “walking by the spirit”.
- You can’t be spiritually united with Jesus until you recognize that you have a sin problem, put your faith in him and in his sacrificial death for your forgiveness, give up your old life and let him give you a new one. (See Romans 3:23-26, 6:4).
- There is a greater purpose to becoming like Jesus. It is to worship God— to give Him honor, praise and glory. This is our ultimate purpose. (See Rom 12:1-2, 15:5-6).
- In this context, the things Jesus is promising to take care of are our daily needs like food, clothing and shelter. But the greater context here is Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount in which he teaches his followers how to “be salt and light”, “lay up treasures in heaven”, “bear good fruit”, and more. From this we can see that when we “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness” God adds more than just food, clothing and shelter to our lives. He gives us purpose and meaning too.
- In retrospect, I think that most of those engineers felt good about their legacy. I’ll bet they felt their work had been for a good cause—the defense of their country. But I didn’t see it that way at the time.