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Does Life Have a Purpose? (Explore God, Week 1)

As Faith Church joins 800+ other churches in the Chicagoland area in “Explore God,” our blog will examine the seven questions we are exploring in the sermons and groups that are part of the series.

We kicked off Explore God with the question “Does Life Have a Purpose?” (the sermon on the question can be found here). This is a question that only humans seem to ask. You don’t hear conversations amongst dogs at dog parks debating their purpose and why they have been placed on the earth. While we might joke about cats sitting around and schemes of how they will take over the world, cats don’t ponder their purpose. This pondering is unique to humans.  

The Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes tells us why humans ask this question and reminds us that we are not the first generation to explore this question. This book shows the quest of the Teacher, the son of David, identified as Solomon (he was said to be the wisest man who ever lived and as the King of Israel about 1,000 years before Christ’s birth, had power and wealth) to find meaning and purpose in life. “And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:12). Along the way we see this verse: “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:11). This verse notes that God has placed something within humans that causes us to wonder and ponder not just yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but how it all fits in the grand scheme of things. Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 notes that humans and animals ultimately share the fate of death: “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” While humans and animals share the same fate, only humans have this innate sense of searching for purpose and meaning in our existence.

So is there a purpose to this life? What I find so interesting in the book of Ecclesiastes is that it essentially gives two answers to this question.

One Possible Answer: Nope

The first answer is effectively that there is not. As the Teacher examines and explores this world, he finds that there is no purpose of life. “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (1:13-14).  He says that all is vanity or meaningless, as the more things change, the more they stay the same. Life is like a midst - we are here today and gone. Life is like chasing after the wind - something that you will never be able to do and will only find frustration. From these words, it would seem that life is futile and has no purpose.

If this is the case, maybe we should just look for enjoyment in life. The teacher makes statements like this in numerous places in the book, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13). A similar concept appears in Isaiah 22:13: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Or as it notes in a great verse to use at a wedding: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:9).

There is some irony in this statement, as the opening chapters of Ecclesiastes point out that life is meaningless and that you will not find purpose or ultimate joy in gaining wisdom, experiencing pleasure of this world, achieving great things, or accumulating possessions. All these things leave one coming up empty, like a meal from a fast food restaurant that satisfies for a moment but soon after you finish has you wanting more.

Saying that there is no purpose in life does not seem to connect to our experiences. If there is no purpose, then why do we wonder if there is a purpose? If there is no purpose, we could simply  seek to do what feels right and good - even at the expense of others, as there are limited goods in the world (if they get it, I don’t). Why do all cultures have a concept of being selfish and we socially condemn people who only look out for themselves?

The Ultimate Answer: Yep

One of the things that makes the Book of Ecclesiastes confusing is the Teacher sets out to find meaning “under the sun” -- basically, on this world without any sort of reference to a broader world or a God outside of this world. When Solomon does that, he finds that all is meaningless and a striving after the wind. But throughout the book, there are indications that there is something beyond this world. In chapter 3, it is noted that God has placed eternity in our hearts to explore these questions, and though we will never fully know the answers, we can know why we ask them and who holds the answers. In the calls to enjoy life, to work hard and find pleasure in things like marriage, work, and the things of the world, it notes that these are God’s gifts to use and that we should enjoy them (see Ecclesiastes 3:12, as well as Ecclesiastes 5:18-20). This seems different than the statements that all is meaningless.

If there is no God, there is no purpose. If there is a God, then He sets the purpose for us. We live life knowing we have been created and given commandments and a purpose: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). This is not a surprise ending, as back in Ecclesiastes 3:17, it says, “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.” In Ecclesiastes 5, we are told to approach God wisely - to let our words be few and to deliver on the vows that we have made. The existence of God, of a higher power in this world, allows for us to see meaning in this world and to find meaning in the things of this world that will never satisfy. We can find joy in this world in things that we were meant to enjoy, rather than find our significance in these things. While the Book of Ecclesiastes may seem dark, one can find light and joy in it -- similar to our experience in this world.

Options To Consider

The question, “Does Life Have a Purpose?” really has two possible answers: Yes and No. Either life is an accident with no purpose, which does not explain much of the world we live in and experience (for more on that idea, see this recent article by Gavin Ortlund on “Life Without God is Weird”), or there is a purpose and reason for our existence, which means we must look to the one who made us and His design for us. This search for meaning is not something that started with you or me, or started this year or even in our generation, but rather one that has been going on for as long as humans have lived. However, it is a question we must wrestle with and land on our a conclusion - and then live accordingly.

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