Some of the deepest questions of humanity relate to purpose. Even though there are unprecedented opportunities in many parts of the world, disillusionment among young people has never been higher. Nor is this just a phenomenon among children, as the Office for National Statistics found that around two thirds of adults believe that their work is not worthwhile.1 Why do so many people battle a profound sense of pointlessness and why are young people reticent to enjoy the freedoms society has set before them?
Philosophers speak about freedom in two respects: ‘freedom from’ oppression and restrictions, and ‘freedom to’ pursue things in life that bring lasting significance and promote human flourishing. It is the desire to have ‘freedom to’ act in particular ways, that is usually the inspiration behind wanting ‘freedom from’ certain things.
In our culture, however, despite the great feast of things we could do, we rarely think about what we should do. Many forms of ‘freedom from’ have been won, but we have lost sight of what we want freedom for. In other words, our culture’s obsession with rights has drowned out visions of what is right.
Most civilisations in history have done the exact opposite. Firstly, they have sought to identify the things that are good, true and beautiful about reality, before, secondly, discerning a sense of purpose by living and seeking to form a character and working life in line with those things. For many people this enquiry culminated in a discovery of God, but in the twenty-first century, visions of the moral have been replaced by pursuing material gain.
Fashioning and then living by a self-created meaning is heavy work
The tide began to turn during the Enlightenment, when some thinkers rejected God in favour of seeing the universe or matter as being the ultimate reality. ‘Freedom from’ a belief in God meant that it was up to humans to make sense of their own existence. In the 1960s, Jean-Paul Sartre argued that life can have any meaning we care to choose, the only thing that matters is the choosing. For him there was no objective law to dictate what people should do.
Similarly, Albert Camus argued that we need fortitude and courage to define meaning and purpose for ourselves, as well as right and wrong. We can find happiness in being self-reliant and persevering through the highs and lows of life. Through raw determination we will be able to live and achieve any purpose we set for ourselves, so long as we believe in ourselves.
The problem is that fashioning and then living by a self-created meaning is heavy work. Defining what is right does not feel like something that we can just make up for ourselves. Also, when events go wrong or we feel off life’s course, is it solely down to us to rescue the situation? Are emotions like sorrow simply a weakness of character?
Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.
The whole question of purpose is immensely practical. We wrestle with how to reconcile our needs for the material with visions of the moral. How, for example, should we view a career? What is its purpose and what is our purpose in it? What does it unlock or make possible? And what about our wider lives? What is it we are ultimately living for? It’s a profound thought and answers don’t come easily or straightaway.
It can be helpful to take five minutes to play ‘the why game’ with yourself. Why were you home late last night? Maybe you were finishing a big project at work. Why is it big? Because not screwing up means you’re next in line for promotion. Why do you want to be promoted? Well, you want a bigger house. Why do you want a bigger house? To support a bigger family… and so on and so forth. Each ‘why’ question penetrates more and more, as we approach whatever the ultimate driving force in our lives may be.
Each of us has a set of things we are living for and an order of priority we set them in. Security, wealth, husband, wife, children, girlfriend, boyfriend, career, hobbies, the environment, charitable causes, voluntary work, our character, earning power, qualifications, enjoyment, status in society, etc. What order would you put the things you are living for in? What is right at the top? Lots of our endeavours contain echoes of things that are good, true and beautiful, but what should be ultimate?
The unique claim of Christianity is that our purpose in life is first and foremost to find our rest in a relationship with the God who made us and, on the basis of his calling, we can find joy in good works he has prepared in advance for us to do. He in no way denigrates our need for material provisions in life, but he insists these must be kept in perspective and their right place. We are to seek first what is moral, so that we are right before him. He can give us a ‘freedom from’ the burden of grappling with purpose, in exchange from a ‘freedom to’ enjoy relationship with a God, who cares deeply about our lives. This is an offer that is open to everyone, from the teenager struggling with anxiety to the middle-aged person disillusioned by the likely legacy of their life.
Jesus came to our rescue, because we’ve ended up chasing after things in life that do not give us the satisfaction in life we seek. We value things, you might even say worship things, not quite in the right order. Sometimes the most valuable things we overlook, the less valuable things we elevate to statuses they should never be in. The good news of Christianity is that this is not the end of the story. There is a loving Saviour who can put us back together through a relationship with him we were made to enjoy. This is a profound message of hope for everyone, that not only offers us a new beginning in life, but also unlocks our truest purpose and sets us on a road to eternal significance.