The Purpose Obsession

What are the signs and indicators that our lives are out of balance? I heard a statistic recently that the biggest fear of the generation of my parents (Generation X) was and is public speaking, and the biggest fear of my generation (millennials) is living a life without meaning and purpose. Quite the difference from the generation before mine. How did meaning become such a scarcity? What changed in one generation? It could stem from globalization, social media, greater awareness of the plight of the world, or many other things. But one thing for sure is that purpose has become somewhat of an obsession of our time.

How do we find meaning in life? Where does it come from? Many perceive it to come from accomplishments and success in the workforce and/or from serving others in some kind of ministry. The motif of our day is, “every day give 110%, push through when you feel burned out, be hungry for success, and give yourself to something bigger than your self.” Which can be helpful if we come from a lazy upbringing or culture, but one thing this creates is a culture that is obsessed with productivity, where taking a day off and resting is seen as lazy and unproductive. How many times have we heard someone say, or said so ourselves, that we just had a lazy day and did nothing and it is seen as something negative. Rest has become almost something of a taboo. The recipe for success seems to be working crazy long hours, and if we feel empty, we just need to work harder and climb faster.

Even in the Church realm, every youth conference and Christian college I ever went to indoctrinated us in how we are destined for greatness and how we are going to go and do great works for the kingdom. A motif that has some truth, but the by product of this is a culture that defines meaning and value by how much we accomplish for God. Again, communicating that meaning comes from accomplishment in something different than an average living. It is as if our obsession over purpose has caused us to wage a war on the average and mundane of life. Which results in an abundance of restless wanderers going to and fro, trying this and that in their quest for meaning and purpose and never being able to grasp it. Christian philosopher Peter Rollins says often, “there are two states that permeate humanity: depression and melancholy. Depression is not having what you want, melancholy is obtaining what you want and not being satisfied. Most of our lives are spent going back and fourth between the two.” Work is good and essential, but when it becomes a means to gain meaning and purpose, it becomes an oppressive idol that demands more and more of our time and energy and is never satisfied. We have set the bar so high of what a good life looks like, that it is impossible to grasp it. If we do happen to attain some level of this high expectation, we are often greatly disappointed and find ourselves asking the question, “if this is the good life, why doesn’t it feel like it?”

Paul says in Philippians 4:11, “I have learned in whatever state I am in to be content.” What is interesting about this is we live in a culture that sees contentment as settling for mediocrity, something to raise our fists about. Think of how many conversations we have with people about, “so what are you going to do next?” As if whatever they have done up to the present can’t be it for them. In Genesis 4:12, part of the curse of Cain for killing his brother Abel is, “You shall be a wanderer on the earth.” Our culture today (maybe subconsciously) would look to this pronouncement over Cain as something awesome and to be grasped. Keep searching, keep striving, keep wandering – we praise this behavior. It is so difficult for us to enjoy what is in front of us, to be in the present and enjoy where we currently are in life. We are constantly formulating our next move in life. We live in the land of human-doing, similar to that of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt where value was attached to how productive they were and how many bricks they could lay. Very little is lived in the land of human-being, where value comes from being created by a personal, loving God; where value is not measured by productivity and accomplishment. The faulty perception of our place in God and in the world breeds a life with no rhythm and causes us to live under an oppressive taskmaster that is always demanding more.

Meaning and value is intrinsic to our being. We are created with it already in us. searching, working, grasping for meaning and purpose is a futile enterprise because we are working tirelessly for something we already have. To be human, is to have meaning and value. I have talked to many people, who being unsatisfied or discontent with their lives, or with their city, seek to add value by foolishly thinking they need to move away and do something radical in order to acquire it. I have been that person, there was a time when I thought if I could just be in full-time skate ministry my life would be enough and I would be satisfied, but then I got it and I was miserable. As Peter Rollins points out, I went from depression (not having what I want), to melancholy (getting what I want and realizing it wasn’t as satisfying as I had envisioned). If we are ever going to have rest, we need to realize that we are created with all the meaning and value already in us, it is not something we go out and acquire with some great feat of success.

Work is good and is something we are created to do. Even in the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve ate from the tree, Adam was told to name the animals and tend to the garden. It is a vital part of living. Some set the bar too low and settle when it is not necessary and are not even open to the idea that maybe they could do more. Some set the bar so high that they live in a perpetual back and fourth of depression and melancholy, constantly striving in a hopeless pursuit that happiness and meaning are just around the corner. Never resting and never being able to do anything that doesn’t bring them a sense of productivity. It is good to be productive, but meaning doesn’t come from that. Meaning comes from being created in the image of God. It is something that we are born with already inside of us, it is not something we need to strive to acquire. Recognizing this frees us from the taskmaster we willingly submit ourselves too. We are created to work, but we are also created to rest and to reflect on our work. As the Jewish sabbath was implemented to remind the Israelites that had just come from Egypt that their worth does not come from how many bricks they could lay, but in being His people. Every week they were expected to take a day to rest and to reflect on their work as a way to safeguard living in constant anxiety of, “are we doing enough?” We work from a place of rest, from a place of already knowing we are enough, and that we don’t work to acquire worth.

The reason we are so afraid of living a life without purpose and meaning is because we are always being encouraged to obsess over it, from every spectrum of our society. Which has given rise to a new race of “nomadic millennials.” Always wandering looking for purpose, working long hours and sacrificing our health and our relationships in order to attain it. Always coming up short, and foolishly thinking that maybe we just need to acquire more and work harder. We have bought in to the deception that value and meaning is something we acquire from without, rather than something from within, something that we are created with already in us. When we look to add value and meaning to our lives through success, productivity, and being busy. It throws our spirit out of balance and into a never ending quest for something we already have. The fear of living a life without purpose really comes down to an issue of identity. Where does our identity come from? From making our mark and accomplishing a lot of great things? Or does it come from growing with our maker and becoming more and more into the person He created us to be. The latter doesn’t require us to obsess over our purpose and to always make sure we are working as hard as we can to somehow earn our keep in this world. We live day by day, one step at a time, making the most of every moment God puts in front of us. For our worth comes from being His creation, not from building some great name for ourselves and being awesome.

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3 Responses to The Purpose Obsession

  1. Dave Vallotton says:

    It took me 50 years to figure out what you have in half that time. One thing that struck me after completely burning out doing ministry is that God doesn’t need me to accomplish His goals. I also figured out that the more I totally get that He doesn’t need me the more He uses me!
    I always thought that God wants me to do His will but His will is that I rest in Him. He will take it from there. Resting is trusting.

  2. Regina Breech says:

    Wow, thank you so much for this article Scotty. It’s exactly what I needed to hear right now. You are spot on. Thank you.

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