Explore God: “Does Life Have a Purpose?”

When Jeremiah began his ministry as a prophet in 627 B.C., his nation was facing a political crisis. The people of Israel were facing the possibility of war against the Babylonians. Jeremiah preached a message of repentance to the people who lived in Jerusalem as the only way to avoid the prospect of war. By the time he finished his ministry, thousands of people who lived in Judah were taken into exile in Babylon. Their nation was devastated by the deportation of many of its prominent citizens. Those who were now living in a foreign land were desperate for survival; they believed that there was no hope for their desperate situation. Most people believed that they would never again return to their homeland. In their exile, the people were lamenting: “Our bones are dry, and our hope has vanished. We are completely destroyed” (Ezekiel 37:11).

In the midst of the people’s despair, God sent the prophet Jeremiah with a message of hope. Jeremiah proclaimed God’s word to people who had lost all hope: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). The people in exile needed to know that God was with them, that he was present in their most desperate hour. Through Jeremiah, God was assuring the people that their exile in Babylon would not last forever, that their nation would not come to an end, that their exile would be followed by restoration because God planned to give them a “hope and a future.”

God was reminding the people of Israel that, although they had been set apart a long time ago to do God’s work in the world, their mission was not finished yet. God had a purpose for the people of Israel and God has a purpose for each one of us today.

Every day many people ask, “does life have a purpose?” When people ask this question, they do so because they are trying to make sense of the problems they are facing, and the unbearable stress caused by these problems. Their question also presupposes that they are looking for answers and for a better perspective on how to deal with their problems. They want answers that will provide meaning to their lives. They want an assurance that life has a purpose. They want an answer that will provide hope now and then look beyond the immediate crisis they are facing.

Does Life Have a Purpose? The answer to this question raises several important questions that must be answered if we are to understand the purpose of our lives. Questions such as, what is the meaning of life? Why do we exist? Do we exist for some purpose? We cannot convincingly find the true purpose of our lives by ourselves. As one writer puts it, “We know intuitively that our sense of purpose needs validation through an objective authority; we need to know that our purpose accords with what our Creator had in mind when he made us.”

Does Life Have a Purpose? The answer to this question is found in God’s purpose for his creation. If this is your question, then look at who you are. You are a person created in the image and likeness of God. When God created the world, God said these words about human beings:

“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26-28).

What does it mean for human beings to be created in the image and likeness of God? First, to be created in the image of God means that human beings are a concrete representation of God. To be created in the likeness of God means that human beings have something of God in them. This alone makes men and women special, because to be created in the image of God means that you and I were created to live in relationship with God.

Second, to be created in the image of God means that human beings were created to be the image of God in the world. This means that God gives over the care of the world to you and me. God said, “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Your life has a purpose because God entrusted the care of the world into your hands. Some of us will have greater responsibilities than others, but our vocation is to be God’s representative in the world.

Another vocation given to human beings is that of procreation. God said, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” When one man and one woman come together as husband and wife, they generate a new life and thus, they continue the creative work of God.

Does Life Have a Purpose? Look at what you are supposed to do. Life has meaning because of the special role men and women have in creation. The Bible says that humans were created to rule over God’s creation. The psalmist said,

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Psalm 8:3-6).

Human beings were created “a little lower than God” and given dominion over all the work of God’s creation. Many times, we do not feel that life has much meaning because we are so preoccupied with the problems of everyday life.

Does Life Have a Purpose? Look at what you are. In order for you to discover that life has a purpose, you must take the first step of a longer journey, a journey that will bring you back to God and to the original purpose he had for his life when he created you.

Since “God is spirit” (John 4:24), and since you are a person created in the image and likeness of God, then you are a person who possesses spiritual characteristics just as God does. This implies that you were created to have a unique relationship with God and that you are a person who has some responsibilities to your creator.

The purpose of human life is perfect and everlasting happiness, but this everlasting happiness can only be found when we are in a personal relationship with God. In order to discover the purpose for your life, you cannot just ask what you want; you must discover what is God’s plan and purpose for your life. You will discover that your life has a purpose when you stop going your own way in life and instead, seek to find God’s purposes for your life.

Every human being has a deep desire to know that life has a purpose, to know our place in this world. This desire has its ground in what we are and in God’s original purposes in creating us. As we begin a search for meaning, we discover that the deepest longings of the human heart finds fulfillment only when we find God, the God who created us for the purpose of experiencing abundant life. Only the presence of God in our lives can secure this assurance. The real purpose of our lives is found when we establish a personal relationship with the living God.

In the end, the ultimate explanation of the meaning of life rests with God. The purpose of life can be understood only if one has faith in God. Thus, faith or belief in God is the prerequisite for molding our life according to the purpose God has for us.

Unfortunately, that close personal relationship that human beings had with God at creation was broken because of sin. Sin is the failure to live life according to God’s purpose for our lives. God said, “For I know the plans I have for you,” but when we do not live according to God’s purpose for our lives, then we sin. And the Bible says that all of us have sinned: “All people have sinned, they have fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).

To fall short of God’s glory is the failure to live according to God’s purpose for our lives. Can we believe that God has a purpose for the whole creation, a purpose that gives meaning and satisfies our deepest desires and expectations? We must believe that there is such a purpose.

God’s purpose for our lives is expressed in Jeremiah’s words to the people in exile: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11). God’s plan for Israel was the restoration of the nation and their return to their native land.

God’s plan for us is an assurance that our future can be filled with hope. God has a purpose for each one of us. Because human beings were created in the image and likeness of God, God’s plan for our future is filled with well-being and hope.

But for the people of Israel as well as for us today, in order for us to live the fullness of life that God has prepared for us, we must call on God in prayer and seek him with all our hearts: “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12-13).

Without repentance and turning to God we cannot grasp the true purpose of our lives nor the full meaning of living in relationship with God. It is only when we realize that God has a plan for our lives, a plan to give hope and a future that we will know that life has a purpose.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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