Can wisdom produce purpose? (Ecclesiastes 2:12-23)

Is there any value in wisdom? And if so, how is that value obtained?

In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon mentions “wisdom” or “wise” more than fifty times, yet never does he find any satisfaction or peace or joy in wisdom. For Solomon, wisdom is a god who cannot speak (Psalm 115:5), a scarecrow in a cucumber field (Jeremiah 10:5). For wisdom you can seek, but wisdom cannot speak. Solomon has put all his chips on the spot called “WISDOM,” and when wisdom fails him (Ecclesiastes 2:12-23), his only course of action is to hate life (2:17). Solomon believed that wisdom could promise him purpose, but that is not true. Wisdom does indeed have value, but the value of wisdom is only available to the one who already has a purpose.

PURPOSE IS THE MAIN THEME OF ECCLESIASTES

The study of Ecclesiastes has long fascinated me. Although a relatively short book, it is nevertheless profound in the questions the author asks about life and about death and about meaning. I have concluded that the dominant theme of this wisdom book is the search for purpose. Until a person lays hold of their God-given purpose in life, they will be forever restless and dissatisfied.

In Ecclesiastes 2:21, we read

When there is a person who has labored with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then gives his legacy to one who has not labored for it; this too is futility and a great evil.

Labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill only yield a legacy to one who has purpose, because these are mere tools to be used to reach a goal. Labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill are never an end in themselves, but are deployed to fulfill a meaningful desire. Of what value is all the knowledge in the world if that knowledge is not useful in accomplishing your purpose?

The main point is this: Labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill can never yield purpose. These will support a purpose, but they can never produce a purpose. For all his immense wisdom, King Solomon missed this point, and so do many others. All the resources in the world will not benefit the one who has no God-given purpose.

PURPOSE MUST PRECEDE WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE AND LABOR

Purpose precedes labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill as automobile precedes gasoline.

A map is only necessary when you have an intended destination. Just so, you need only employ wisdom when you are moving toward a previously chosen purpose.

How do you set your GPS if you have not decided where you are going? And the world’s best GPS will never determine your destination. In the same way, you must already have a purpose if you are to get any value out of wisdom.

It is “vanity” and a “striving after wind” to believe that labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill can give you a fulfilling purpose.

It is foolish to ask a caterpillar or a turtle to fly. Just so, it is foolish to ask labor, wisdom, knowledge, and skill to produce your purpose. You are asking the impossible. It is not a question of discipline or effort or determination. It is a matter of ability. The most disciplined turtle will never fly. The turtle may plummet but fly he never will. Just so, all the labor and wisdom and knowledge and skill in the world will never produce purpose.

SOLOMON MISSED IT

Solomon invested all his time and effort and determination to develop his wisdom and knowledge, and only when he had grown old does he realize that, without a God-given purpose, all his most keenly developed wisdom is mere “vanity” and “a striving after wind.”

How do we make sure that we do not make the same mistake that Solomon made? How do we make sure that, as we approach the end of our days, we do not decide that we hate life (Ecclesiastes 2:17), and that “everything is futility and a striving after wind?”

A LIFE OF PURPOSE

Avoiding a meaningless life begins with bowing down before the Lord Jesus Christ and crying out to Him for salvation. He who would have a life of purpose must first embrace the God who gives purpose. So first, repent and believe.

All those who come to the Lord Jesus in repentance and in faith have received a new purpose for their life. As a believer, you now have a Bible which guides you into new obedience so that you glorify God with your redeemed life. You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, so you are now able to hear God as He speaks to you and guides you. With all the rest of God’s redeemed people, you have the purpose of glorifying God in all you do. All believers have this purpose, and this purpose is fulfilling and satisfying and lifelong.

But the Lord who saved you is also the Lord who saved you for His unique purpose. That is, every believer has been chosen and saved for a purpose that no one else can accomplish (Ephesians 2:10). Among the great joys of being a follower of Jesus is finding that unique place where you sense that you are fulfilling God’s unique purpose for your life. After years or even decades of searching and sanctification, the Lord has sovereignly placed you in a place of great usefulness and service. I believe this is what “purpose” means, to find that place where God is most glorified by the life that we live for Him.

SDG                 rmb                 5/20/2021

Goals and Purpose (Luke 5:11)

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

A question of purpose (1 Kings 19)

INTRODUCTION

In the opening scene in the movie “Apocalypse Now,” the camera descends through the blades of a slowly turning ceiling fan to settle on a solitary American soldier, sitting on a sweat-soaked mattress in a cheap hotel in Vietnam. The heat and humidity are palpable, but so is the boredom that is projected by the motionless soldier. It is hard to tell which is the more oppressive. Then comes the voice-over: “Saigon. Waiting for a mission.”

As I reflect on my own journey in life, I believe most of my time before I met Jesus Christ was spent waiting for a mission. No, of course, I did not think of my life that way, but in retrospect it seems that I was figuratively “waiting for the phone to ring.” As Pink Floyd says in their haunting song, “Time,” I was, “waiting for someone or something to show me the way.” In the end, my “something” was rock climbing. Maybe it wasn’t significant or impressive, but it was something, and something is better than nothing, and so I gave myself to rock climbing for fifteen years. That was my purpose. Then I met Jesus and trusted in Jesus and my question of purpose was forever answered. Christ became my purpose, and He defines my mission.

I think that purpose is a huge issue for everyone, but it is especially important for men. Men are more driven than women. Men are goal seekers. It was 600 men who rode into the valley of death in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” And purpose is big for men. In sports, athletes have been known to say, “Play me or trade me, but don’t sit me on the bench.” In life, I think the saying for men goes, “Give me a mission or I wither and die.”

ELIJAH IS LOOKING FOR A PURPOSE

In 1 Kings 18, we read of the contest between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Before their contest, Elijah confronts the people of Israel with a challenging question: “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him (1 Kings 18:21).” In the end, Elijah calls on the LORD to send fire from heaven to burn up the evening sacrifice, then he kills all the false prophets of Baal. It was probably Elijah’s greatest moment.

But then a short while later, our bold and brave hero is running into the wilderness from Jezebel like a scared rabbit. Gone are the challenging questions and the bold calls to the LORD to send fire from heaven, and all we read is that Elijah, “was afraid and arose and ran for his life (1 Kings 19:3).”

What has happened to the fearless prophet?

While some commentators think Elijah is depressed, I had another thought as I looked at this scene through the lens of purpose. Back in 1 Kings 17, Elijah bursts onto the scene from out of nowhere and immediately announces that there will be a long drought in Israel (17:1). Then for the next three and a half years, Elijah is the prophet in Israel, and his life is all about purpose. He is as powerful as Ahab, the king of Israel, and even confronts Ahab about his wickedness and godlessness. Elijah has been a man on a mission with a God-given purpose for three and a half years.

But now, that has all changed. The drought is over, there has been a bit of a revival among the people as they have moved back toward the LORD, and the prophets of Baal have been slain. The mission has been accomplished, so it is possible that Elijah is wondering if his purpose is done. He may be wondering, “LORD, are You done with me?” Then comes the threat from Jezebel, and Elijah thinks, “Surely this is a signal from the LORD that my work is done. Well, if my work here is done, then, LORD, take me home.”

“IS MY WORK DONE?”

This idea of purpose makes sense as we examine the events that take place in this chapter. Notice that twice the angel of the LORD brings food to Elijah, and the second time He says, “Arise, eat, for the journey is too great for you (19:7).” But if Elijah’s purpose is over, why would the angel of the LORD give him food for the journey? Hmm. And what is this journey He mentions? It seems that Elijah needs energy because there is a journey for him to complete.

Elijah’s travels bring him to Horeb, the mountain of God. Then the word of the LORD comes to him, and the LORD said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah (19:9)?” Now, this is fascinating! This is a question about Elijah’s purpose. “Why have you come here, Elijah?” But Elijah uses the question to express his discouragement. Here is a paraphrase of 19:10: “I have accomplished the mission You gave me and now I have no purpose. Take me home!

The LORD then displays His power three times, in a wind so strong it breaks the rocks apart, then in an earthquake, and then in a firestorm. Then the LORD spoke to Elijah again and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah (19:13)?” Elijah answers the LORD exactly the same way, but this time he is asking the LORD for a mission. “LORD, I am still willing to work toward another mission. Have You still got a purpose for me?”

The LORD then gives Elijah a purpose and a mission that will last him the rest of his days on earth. Armed with the power of a new purpose, Elijah goes out with vigor.

NEED PURPOSE, NO PURPOSE, PURPOSE, AND MY PURPOSE

There are definite lessons to learn from this narrative about purpose in life.

First, we are purpose-seeking creatures because we are purpose-needing creatures. We have been created by God for purpose, and we are adrift until we have a compelling mission that gives us a sense of God-given purpose. So, I would say that every person yearns for a sense of purpose.

Second, until a person comes to Christ for salvation, it is impossible to have a God-given purpose and, therefore, all choices of purpose are arbitrary. It is like my choice of having rock climbing for my purpose. A person may make a “better choice” than rock climbing for their purpose, but it is, nevertheless, an arbitrary choice that will soon lose its satisfaction and its ability to compel me to action. Without Christ, there is no God-given purpose.

Third, all believers in Christ receive a sense of purpose and mission at salvation. That is because all followers of Jesus have been called to a mission (Matthew 28:19-20) and have received a God-given purpose (Acts 1:8). As a person grows as a Christian, that person gradually releases their grip on worldly purposes and joyfully accepts their mission and purpose in Christ. All believers have received a God-given mission and purpose.

Ah, but fourth, there is available to all believers but received by relatively few a purpose that could be described as “my unique purpose.” This is that purpose that fulfills the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4). This purpose conveys to the possessor the feeling that, “This is the reason I was born!” This is a life purpose, one that you can continue to do and hope to do till the day you die. This is that purpose that Paul received from the Lord Jesus, and the purpose that Paul pursued until he died. (Give me a life of purpose like Paul’s! Give me a purpose worth dying for!) For George Whitefield, this was that purpose that compelled him to preach the word of God till his life’s candle burned out. For Moses, it was leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. When you possess your unique life purpose, you cannot imagine doing anything else. It is your “terminal” purpose.

Let’s all seek the Lord for our own unique “terminal” purpose!

SDG                 rmb                 4/30/2021