On Purpose, the World, and Conformity to God
Updated: Aug 3
Over the last few years I've been writing a spiritual formation guide for our church, based primarily upon - but also expanding on - the spiritual growth campaigns of 2020, 2021, and 2022.
As I read and write, I am constantly being introduced to new distinctions. One of those distinctions is the contrast between how Christians on the one hand, and secular people on the other, think about purpose in life. This is important. So, I would like to share a few thoughts with you. To begin, I'll ask you a simple question:
What is the purpose of life?...
That might seem like an insufferably generic thing to ask, but it really is a fundamental question. A purpose is, by definition, “the reason for which something is done.” When someone has a clear and definite purpose in life, they have a reason for why they do what they do. And, if they are compelled enough by their purpose, they will bring their entire self – patterns of thought, daily routines, and life-decisions - into alignment with that purpose.
It is by grasping one’s purpose that a person is liberated to live with clarity and focus. But, without a purpose, without an organizing principle to guide him, a person is resigned to merely floating through life, unclear and aimless.
The Disorganized Self
Purposeless people might be pleasant people, they might behave decently enough, and even have interesting hobbies, but when it comes right down to it, a purposeless person does not have a grasp on, or live towards, an ultimate goal. They do not seek a Kingdom.
It has been said that “the most important difference between people is between those for whom life is a quest and those for whom it is not.” That puts the matter succinctly. For purposeless people life is not a quest.
A purposeless person may be involved in many things, but he himself is aimless. He moves unreflectively and probably despondently from home, to job, to entertainment, to hobby without a unifying goal. There is little coordination to his thoughts, routines, and affections. His life is literally dis-organized.
A disorganized life creates confusion and a perceived sense of aimlessness in an individual. They move from one responsibility to another, finding spurts of joy here and there. But without a singular guiding principle, they themselves are left with a feeling of emptiness giving way to hopelessness. Without an organizing principle, without a logos, their soul will remain formless and void (Gen. 1:2).
What these people need of course, is a grasp on the objective purpose of life, giving them a definite point of referent for their thoughts, decisions, actions.
The Self-Centered Self
The current dogma of our culture insists that a person can, indeed must, discover his or her own individualized purpose in life. The path to personal formation is to look within ourselves to find who we “really are,” and then to bring the rest of our lives into alignment with our own personal “truth.” Truth, on this construal, is not something to be discovered; it is something to be created. Likewise, “purpose” has no objective point of referent, only a subjective one. Our culture has relativized truth and individualized purpose.
It is this very ideology that has brought us to a point where the sentence “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” is a perfectly cogent thing to say. And not only so, but the one who says it is encouraged, even duty bound, to bring his body into conformity with that belief. The wider society is then expected to celebrate this as a noble human achievement.
Each of us must look to ourselves to find purpose within ourselves, and then, having found it, we must believe in ourselves, embrace ourselves, and then express ourselves. The very meaning of life is thereby reduced to standing in relation to oneself. This reminds me of Paul’s warning, that in the last days “people will be lovers of self” (2 Tim. 3:2).
This self-love is ultimately a tragedy as it is leading so many people on a confused and endless quest to gratify themselves, promote themselves, and to anxiously justify their own chosen mode of being. Those who have been completely overtaken by self-love see their fellow man, not primarily as those whom they are duty bound to love and serve, but as sources for, or perhaps hinderances to, their own gratification. Their life, in the fullest sense, becomes “self-centered.” And ultimately, it is this very orientation towards self which will forever keep a person from living in a power that is beyond them.
The Cause-Centered Self
Many people, perhaps perceiving the futility of a self-centered life, have given themselves to what they perceive as good “causes.” Today, there are no lack of social, economic, and political causes to which a person can devote themselves. Our country has become a “cause culture.”
The sheer number of “causes,” and the rate at which new one’s arise, is beginning to have a dizzying effect on people as they try to keep up with them. This is comically represented by a popular “meme” which reads “I support the current thing.”
Now, we must acknowledge that some people really do have a genuine burden for good in the world. They really do care for other people and want the best for them. As Christians, we should acknowledge this and realize that these impulses come from the image of God in these people (Gen. 1:26). They were created with the capacity to reflect God’s care into the world. However, as fallen and unregenerate people, the image of God in them can only be manifested in an extremely limited and incomplete way.
The blatant problem with our “cause culture” is not that people want to do good things, but the reason why people want to do them.
The brute fact is that, for many people, their social activism arises, not from a pure and genuine care for the world, but from a desire for acceptance and respect within their chosen group. For these people, activism is the path of gaining status. Having the right opinions, posting the right images on social media, using the appropriate language, attending right rallies, and going on marches are a sort of currency used to purchase acceptance and even power within one's chosen group.
These people are, in the words of David Wells, “interested only in what is important to others. This is the shifting field they track with their inner sensors.” There is really no objective basis for their activism. What these people really long for is “the security of knowing what constitutes an approved life-style…”
But the problem extends beyond a mere motivation.
In our extremely polarized country, those with whom our group disagrees are, by default, ignorant, stupid, and bad people. Therefore, many people who take up a cause, and identify themselves with a group, feel perfectly justified in maligning and even harming these people because, after all, we are the “virtuous” ones. What these factions have ultimately produced is bitterness, anger, riots, and general chaos in the world. Nothing new.
In his marvelous book, Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has a chief demon give the following advise to a demon in training:
Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse [of] mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal. 
The "causes" in our culture, and the groups which take them up, have, in the main, failed to produce anything worthy. They have have inflamed the masses to a fever pitch, but they have failed to form people for the better or change the world for the good.
The God-Centered Self
Now, these ways of finding purpose in life stand in direct contrast to the path of personal formation presented to us in Scripture. Our purpose in life is not to look within ourselves, to find ourselves, or express ourselves, but in the words of Dallas Willard, “to bring our personality and total being into effective cooperation with the divine order.” This is expressed in its highest form in the Law of Christ:
“Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”” (Mark 12:29–31)
The greatness of this command is due, in part, to its comprehensiveness. It not only tells us where to direct our love (Godward and manward), but it also surfaces the basic components of the human self.
"Heart and soul” refer to who you really are on the inside; the totality of your personality, your character.
"Mind” refers to what you think, your beliefs, and patterns of thought.
“Strength” refers to what you do, the motivation for, and direction of, your effort.
I have seen these three aspects of the human self variously construed as “heart, head, and hands,” or “character, convictions, and competence.” However we label them, the point of the command – and thus, the purpose of life - is to bring all these components of ourselves into conformity with God. It is a command to make God “the ultimate point of reference” of our life.
We were created in the image of God to represent Him. Thus we find out purpose, not in expressing ourselves, but in conforming ourselves to His image through Christ.
Let the world continue their march of meaninglessness as they follow the law of self-fulfillment. Let us, who claim the name of Christ, continue to follow the law of self-denial, laying hold on God, in Christ, as the organizing principle of our personal existence.
I pray this has been helpful. Thanks for reading.
 Walker Percy as quoted by Rankin Wilbourne, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2016) 152.
 Relativism is the secular doctrine that there is no objective truth. Therefore, our purpose is not to conform to objective reality, but to create a subjective one.
 See Carl Trueman's book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020).
 No Place for Truth: or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 163.
 Further, it is well known that these polarized groups gain their strength, not by persuasion, but by outrage. It seems that social media platforms have found a way to monetized this outrage with algorithms.  C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters. I listened to this on Audible, so I don't have a page number for this quote...but it's in there.
 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: Harper Collins, 1988) 68.
 Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, 20th Anniversary Edition (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2021), 61-62.