In 2002, Rick Warren published The Purpose Driven Life. It remains one of the top bestselling non-fiction books of all time with at least 35 million copies sold, plus innumerable secondary readings by borrowers, libraries, etc.
Tim Keller has written a fair amount on purpose as well. He points out that modern western culture is unique from other cultures and time periods in that we form our identity based on our desires. We desire to be an architect, a great parent, an athlete, etc. and realizing that desire becomes our purpose. However, we often read of people who have achieved their purposeful desires (e.g. a famous actress or musician) and then become profoundly sad because it does not satisfy.
C.S. Lewis famously wrote in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
We all have an innate drive to know and live our purpose. In a word, we want to know our Why?
Christianity says that our identity is not at all based on our performance; rather, it is based on God’s performance. Jesus completed a sin-free life we could never live and his death on the cross paid a sin penalty we could never afford. In Christianity, our identity is entirely based on Christ’s finished work.
As Bob Dylan famously sang, you “Gotta Serve Somebody.” The things we choose to serve such as fame, power, money, security, success and yes even religion (strict adherence to rules) can never satisfy. Rather, we live with the freedom to do what we were built to do. That is teleo. In a physical sense we are designed to require air, food, water, warmth, etc., so in a spiritual sense, as the Westminster Catechism states, we are designed to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. That’s it! Our hearts are set on something that will truly make us happy. Our ultimate freedom is to know God.
When Jesus hung on the cross, He said It is finished. He did not say I am finished, or it is started. What He said is that the reason He came (technically, became incarnate) is complete. Some Bibles either translate that from the Greek word tetelestai and some as variations of the Greek word telos which means “end purpose or result.” And some versions say teleo which is the ongoing verb tense, “I am continuing to fulfill my purpose.” Because Jesus’ death fulfilled His purpose, we can live in eternity for ours.
Finally, the apostle Paul understood his purpose. He spent almost four years in Roman jails – a prisoner for his faith. While most would see that as a severe limitation on his freedom and purpose, Paul saw it quite differently. In the epistles that he wrote while in prison, Paul repeatedly reminds us that prison has worked out for God’s purposes. He witnessed to other prisoners including those of Caesar’s own household and Roman guards who came to saving faith, and Paul wrote four epistles which have blessed Christians for centuries and to this day. He could say confidently to the Philippians from prison that to “live is Christ and to die is gain” and “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”. That is freedom. And that is purpose.