In the summer between my graduation from high school and my freshman year in college, my dad introduced me to the concept of setting goals. Dad was excited about the concept and he wanted me to be excited, too. And so, in a manner consistent with my personality, I became zealous about setting goals. If one or two major goals was good, then five goals in every area of my life had to be better. I listened to all the tapes (cassette tapes were big back then) and all the motivational speakers, and I had my system for how I was going to achieve all these spectacular goals. But there was one glaring problem with all these goals: I had no purpose for my life, so the goals were pointless. The goals led nowhere. My goals were arbitrarily chosen because their achievement would boost my ego or would impress others or would please my dad. Or they were just chosen because that goal seemed like a good idea at the time. But without a purpose, or at least a mission, the goals were all pursued in vain. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” And again, to quote Solomon in Ecclesiastes, all these goals were just “a striving after wind.”
In this post I want to explore these twin ideas of goals and purpose so that we get them in the right order and so that we see the difference that Jesus Christ makes in giving us a compelling purpose in life.
GOALS ARE GOOD
It may sound like I am against setting goals, but this is not the case. I truly believe that the vast majority of people in general do not set goals, and I think that a significant percentage of people have never set and achieved a single goal in their life. So those who do set goals have a greater sense of direction and are likely to achieve more than those who do not, or at least that is how the logic goes. What I am questioning is goals without purpose or mission.
But goals presuppose a mission or a purpose because goals only exist to help achieve a purpose. Goals are useful tools for the one who has defined their purpose. You might even say that the purpose of the goal is to help the person achieve their purpose.
A goal defines a directed journey while the purpose defines the destination or the objective.
THE “WHY” QUESTIONS
The purpose establishes the context of the goal. Therefore, it is only with a defined purpose that a goal has a context and thus has a meaning and a function.
Ideally, establishing goals involves answering very simple “why” questions. The consistent answer to a “Why” question about a goal is, “Because (we think) it helps us achieve our purpose.” Several goals may be compared to determine which goal most effectively helps achieve our purpose, but every goal is created to help us achieve our purpose. You can see that goals without a purpose is a fool’s errand. You are roaring down the on-ramp of the interstate with no place to go. “We don’t know where we’re going, but we are getting there in a hurry.”
WISDOM FROM THE CHESHIRE CAT
Having goals without a purpose is a lot like seeking directions without a destination. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice has a conversation with the Cheshire Cat, who is sitting in the tree at the fork in the road. Alice asks, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where—” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.” The absurdity of this situation illustrates the vanity of goals without a purpose.
GOALS CANNOT PRODUCE PURPOSE
Just as no amount of works can ever produce righteousness, so no number of goals can ever produce a purpose in life. This is the lesson that I learned after ten years of fervent goal-seeking. I found out that many goals without a purpose is exactly as useful as zero goals without a purpose. It is all “striving after wind.” Without a purpose, goals are useless.
FINDING A PURPOSE IN LIFE
In the plant where I worked for six years as a Buyer, the Human Resources Department would put posters on the wall to motivate good employee behavior. Most of the posters were unmemorable, but one message has stuck with me for almost two decades. The message was:
The first step to getting what you want in life: DECIDING WHAT YOU WANT IN LIFE
As I read the book of “Ecclesiastes” in the Bible, I sense that Solomon’s main frustration was that he was a man with immense abilities and with almost limitless resources at his disposal, but that, for all his remarkable achievement, our hero had not answered the essential question that every person must answer: “What is my purpose in life?”
I sense this is the bane of our age, that most people in our culture have no purpose to their existence. How else do you explain people graduating from college and returning to their childhood bedroom in their parents’ home? What does it mean when twenty-somethings spend their days playing on their cell phones and thirty-somethings are addicted to video games? They are satisfied with a meaningless existence because they never developed a purposeful existence. They are simply biding time.
PEOPLE OF PURPOSE IN THE BIBLE
But when I look in the Bible, I see that the people of God were people of purpose. In Joshua 14, we read of Caleb. Forty-five years earlier, Caleb had been one of the spies who went into Canaan to give a report to Moses. Now he is eighty-five years old, and he demands that Moses give him the city of Hebron, because the Anakim (the giants) are there. Caleb’s purpose was to take out the Anakim.
The Apostle Paul was completely focused on his God-given purpose, which was “to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8).” Jesus Christ Himself had called him as an apostle (Acts 9:15) and Paul was faithful to that purpose to his death.
The Apostle Peter was just an ordinary fisherman on the Sea of Galilee before he met the Lord Jesus. Peter had probably given little thought to his purpose in life. He was a fisherman like his father had been before him, and he was going to peacefully live out his days there on the lake. But when he met the Lord Jesus, his life was immediately and radically changed. In Luke 5, Jesus reveals His deity to Peter in the catching of the fish, and then the Lord gives him a new purpose.
And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” 11 When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him. – Luke 5:10-11
Of course, the supreme example of purpose in all of world history is the Lord Jesus Christ, who fixed His eyes on His purpose (John 17:4; 19:30; Hebrews 12:2; Luke 9:51) and could not be deterred from reaching His intended destination. His every action was taken, and His every word was spoken to bring Him to the cross. Fixity of purpose was evident in everything that He did.
MY OWN LIFE
In my own life, before I met Christ, I could not have given you a compelling purpose for my life. While goals crowded my journals and index cards of goals filled my desk drawers, the best answer I could have offered would have been something about wanting to be a decent rock climber, but nothing more. “Why are you doing this or that?” I could not give a substantive answer. “To what purpose are your goals leading you?” I did not know.
But then, a little more than thirty years ago, on a cliff in California, I encountered the living God, and my life began to change. Now all questions of purpose receive an immediate and confident answer: “Because of Christ.” There may be more to the answer than that, since usually there are details needed so that the answer makes sense, but the essence of every purpose question now begins with, “Because of Christ.”
Why did I quit my job to live in Russia for three years? “Because Christ called me there.”
Why did I, as a forty-six-year-old bachelor, marry a widow with three children? “Because the Lord spoke to me and instructed me to do that.”
Why did I quit my job so we could move to a new city and go to seminary full-time? “Because we felt that the Lord was calling us to that.”
Why did my company eliminate my job in January 2020? “Because the Lord chose to answer my prayers for greater usefulness.”
ONLY IN CHRIST IS PURPOSE TO BE FOUND
Purpose in life will never be found if you are seeking purposes that perish. Purpose is not manufactured by your own efforts and it will not be found in searches for material things. God is the One who gives us purpose and meaning. There is great peace for the person who has ceased “striving after wind” and has learned to hear the Lord and to rest in the Lord and to trust the Lord. God is the One who gives purpose, and then we can begin establishing our goals.
SDG rmb 5/4/2021