Deep down each of us desires to find meaning for our lives. I can trace my own search to my middle school years.
My grandfather’s memory burns deep inside of me. He served honorably in WWII. He even took a bullet from a Japanese sniper in the Pacific theatre. After the war, like many men of his generation he began working in the factories of the industrial Midwest. He joined the ranks on an assembly line at Goodyear Tire and Rubber company. This job enabled him to raise a family of six, including his beloved wife.
The family lived in a modest home in a working-class neighborhood. My grandparents were empty nesters by the time I have memories of them. My grandfather always drove a late model American-made car and spent each weekend keeping it clean and shiny. He also loved to take my brother and me to breakfast at a local diner during our summer breaks. In some ways, my grandfather’s story narrates the American dream.
But I have an enduring memory of his lack of contentment. He disliked the repetitive nature of his job on the assembly line. It was boring and slowly drained his life energy. As he neared retirement age, I remember his longing to receive his pension, travel, and finally enjoy life.
Sadly, tragedy struck before he could retire. First, his wife of 40+ years learned that she had advanced liver cancer. She died within months of the diagnosis. Second, my grandfather was heartbroken by the loss of his partner. Moreover, years of cigarettes and alcohol caught up with him. He had self-medicated for too long over the unhappiness that he felt in his vocational life. Facing life without his wife, he lacked the strength to battle on and he died less than a year after she had.
The death of my grandparents pushed me to contemplate purpose and meaning in life early on. My grandfather was always looking ahead to retirement without attempting to find meaning for his life in the present.
Anthony Robbins often says, “Success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.” This is an indictment of any attempt to live apart from understanding our mission in life. To experience a sense of fulfillment requires our participation in a mission bigger than ourselves. My grandfather never learned this. Early in my teens, I began reading Scripture and made the decision to follow Jesus. As a Christ follower, I’ve sought to pursue the question of God’s will for my life as the means to finding fulfillment. My life has unfolded as a journey. Since my teen years, Phil 3:14 has guided me: “I press on continually to win the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
The more that I read Scripture I find that Scripture invites us to a conversation about personal purpose and mission. This conversation begins on the opening pages.
The book of Genesis begins with stories about the creation of the world in general and about humanity’s role in particular. Genesis 1:1 opens memorably, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Genesis 1:1–2:3 describes a God who creates by word alone and does so in an orderly fashion. There are no other gods involved in this work. In fact, many of the entities worshiped in the ancient world, such as the sun, moon, and stars, are merely parts of creation imagined and fashioned by God.
This God also created humanity. In Gen 1:26, we learn that God made women and men in the image of God: “Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
The word translated “image” in Hebrew is tselem. Tselem refers to a visible representation of something or someone else. In other words, to be created in God’s image means that humanity serves as visible representatives of God to the rest of creation. Throughout the Scriptures, creating images of God is prohibited. In such places, tselem translates as “idol.” Yet, in Gen 1, God created people to serve as visible images of the divine. We are God’s representative agents. Human beings, men and women, are the only idols allowed in creation. This embeds purpose, meaning, and mission into the essence of what the Bible says is humanity.
Humanity stands before the rest of creation as a witness to the God who fashioned the heavens and the earth. Thus, from the beginning of creation, humans were born for a purpose. This mission was to represent the character of God before the rest of creation.
Humanity’s mission is to reflect God’s character and prerogatives in its exercise of authority. We don’t act for ourselves, but for God and for others. We love others including enemies as well as the created world as an outflow of our love for God. An authority rooted in love is the only dominion that Genesis envisions. In its wider context, Gen 2:15 confirms this reality, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”
There are two elements present in this missional function: holiness and community. Genesis 1 assumes that humanity will achieve its mission of representing God through two means. Humanity represents God to the world by reflecting God’s character. This is the essence of holiness. Related to this is the reality that God did not create a solitary human creature, but differentiated humanity into its two sexes – male and female. Humanity thus was created to live in genuine community with one another.
We may summarize humanity’s role as God’s visible representatives to Creation with three words:
Mission – humanity serves as the mediator/ambassador between God and creation
Holiness – humanity embodies and reflects God’s character
Community – humanity lives in authentic and intimate community as part of its reflection of God’s character in fulfillment of God’s mission
Every single person who has ever lived was created for this purpose. Scripture calls us to be part of a missional community that reflects God’s character to, for, and in the world.
I find this vision of life compelling. It gets me out of bed each day and fills me with gratitude for the opportunity to live daily for God’s work in the world. As I read Scripture, the conversation about purpose is ongoing, but I find myself continually shaped as I ponder and live out my response to its good news. I wish that I could have shared my discoveries with my grandfather. I’m grateful for the chance to share them with you.