Stop looking for your purpose

SELF | 10 mins

(That was a bit aggressive right out of the gate, wasn’t it? Sorry. The older I get, the more blunt I find myself becoming. Let’s try again.)

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Hi. I’m Eric. Nice to meet you. We probably don’t know each other, but chances are you probably, like me, have spent somewhere between a few days and a few decades trying to, “find your purpose.” I’d also be willing to wager that most of that searching probably hasn’t done a whole lot of good. We’re all somewhere between 15 and 95, trying to figure out what we’re supposed to be when we grow up, right?

Or maybe it’s just me. I won’t bring you into this just yet. Let me tell you a bit of my story first. The first time I remember really wrestling with the, “What am I on this earth for?” question was when I was 15. I was at a church camp (because that’s what you do in the summer when you’re a well-behaved kid who’s been in church every Sunday since you were a fetus), and it was the evening service time. For those of you that never got the pleasure of experiencing high school church camp, think of it like this: it’s 40% Axe body spray scented sweat, 40% teenage angst, and 20% church services, with a dash of dodgeball and campfires on top.

The wrestling with this question culminated in me deciding—at age 15—that I was going to “dedicate my life to ministry.” In other words, I decided in ninth grade that I was going to work in churches my whole life. Let me pause right here and point out something about this decision:

I had no idea I was going to live this long.

Seriously. I turn 40 in a few months, and it turns out that the 24 years since that camp is quite a long time. A lot can happen in 24 years. Heck, a lot can happen in 24 days. I couldn’t have made a decision for a month out when I was 15, but deciding the next 70 years was apparently totally fine. It’s as if someone said to me, “You don’t know how to do your own laundry, but go ahead and pick your life’s work.” I don’t regret the decision, that moment, or that camp in any way; yet it is crazy to me that that decision was even an option. And yet, 24 years later, I’m not sure my judgement or perspective is all that much broader. It’s really easy for me to look at 15 year old Eric and pass judgment on his naivete and selfishness; it doesn’t seem all that far fetched to think that 65 year old me will do the same thing about the decisions I make today.

Honestly, I think most of us are in exactly the same boat. We’re sitting there at age 18, agonizing over our major, only to change it three times before we finally graduate. We hop through multiple jobs, multiple careers, multiple passions or hobbies—sometimes even going so far as to blow it all up, walk away, and start over. Every single person I know has lost sleep, been driven to tears, or outright given up on just trying to answer the questions, “Why am I here?” or “What is my purpose?”

Here’s the problem: we believe purpose is a destination.

Of course, we don’t say that out loud. We don’t even actively think of it like that. But the way we approach it says otherwise; it’s the only way our behavior makes sense. We wouldn’t go through all these majors, careers, startups, or hobbies if we weren’t expecting to find something. Even the language we use gives us away—we’re leaving to “pursue a new opportunity,” or perhaps because “this isn’t a great fit for me.” We couldn’t tell you what we’re looking for, but deep down, we’re convinced we’ll find it if we just keep looking.

Honestly, we treat this question the same way we do our romantic relationships. We believe (or have been convinced by the culture around us) that there is a soulmate out there waiting to make us happy and fulfilled, and all we have to do is find them. Relationship after relationship, when the inevitable letdown or missed expectation occurs, we cut bait and walk away; after all, my “soulmate” is out there, I just have to find them. Except—spoiler alert—they’re not. This isn’t a popular thing to say in our culture, but it’s the truth. There isn’t a soulmate waiting for you somewhere out there—not because you missed them, but because a soulmate isn’t something you find. “Soulmate” is what you get when you put in the decades and hard reps of living life alongside someone. Being a soulmate is the end result of spending a lifetime knitting your soul, your effort, your life to another. They’re not found, they’re made.

So what does this have to do with purpose? Simple. We’re conditioned to look for purpose in the same way we search for a soulmate. Because deep down we’re convinced that our purpose is out there, we keep fruitlessly looking until we either run out of time or—worse—run out of hope. Yet it was never intended to be this way. If we look back at God’s original creation of man, we see a very different picture:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
—Genesis 1:26

The first part of that seems really great (and it is). In fact, we typically stop reading right there. Made in God’s image? I like that. Can’t really get much more of an ego boost than that, honestly. Yet even that alone should give us a bit of a clue—if we’re made in the likeness of God, then our purpose, meaning, and value are likely to be connected to him in some way. At the very least, we should assume that God himself is going to set that purpose, rather than us run off and try to find it somewhere. After all, the rest of creation doesn’t seem to have to go looking for it’s reason to exist; it seems stupid that God would call humanity the pinnacle of his creation, then not give it any reason to be here.

Thankfully, the very next sentence gives us that purpose—or at least a clue to it. “Let them have dominion…over all the earth.” Dominion. It’s one of those weird old words that we don’t really use anymore; in this context, it basically means “governance,” or “controlling authority.” Put simply, it meant that the world didn’t belong to us (because it was God’s, obviously), but that we had been put in charge of managing, ruling, and caring for it as his stewards.

(Stay with me. We’re almost there, even though it doesn’t feel like it.)

So imagine for a second that you’re Adam. God just made you, you’re surrounded by the most beautiful natural landscape you can imagine, filled with all manner of animals and plants that you’re now responsible for. Unless you believe that God created Adam with every single bit of knowledge and skill that he would ever need already baked in (which seems like a stretch), then Adam would have had to learn how to do this job, right? He would’ve had to study and learn about the animals. He would’ve had to grow his skill in caring for them. He would’ve had to spend time observing how the different plants developed and reproduced.

God gave Adam a purpose, but it wasn’t a destination. It was a process.

God intended for Adam to care for the world that he had lovingly designed and created from scratch. But He intended for that work to change and develop Adam over time. He expected Adam to grow, learn, and understand both the world and its creator better as a result of his work. If you look down through the history of humanity that followed after Adam, that’s exactly what has happened. We are shaped, grown, stretched, and given meaning and purpose through our work, not as a result of it.

So what does this mean for us? It means what I said at the beginning: stop looking for your purpose.

Stop assuming that the next job will be the one.
Stop believing that you’ve missed your chance.
Stop buying into the lie that what God made you for is out there somewhere.

Because the reality is that when you and I stop obsessing and trying to find this mystical thing that’s out there somewhere waiting to make us happy and fulfilled (and usually rich too, but let’s not get into that), we will discover something amazing. No matter where you are right now, God wants to do something in you. He wants to grow capacities, skills, vision, insight, and a million other things. He wants to make you into someone more capable of caring for, having dominion (in the best way) over the world around you. Our job as humanity hasn’t changed just because we live in a broken world—in fact, it’s more important now than ever.

I think back to that 15-year-old Eric that made a decision by a campfire that he was going to spend his life in ministry. In the 24 years since that day, God has used a million different things to shape me into someone that is just now starting to scratch the surface of what I think He made me to do. Most of them didn’t look anything like what I thought I was committing my life to. Some of them I was angry at Him for—parts of that time I was convinced He had stopped listening completely.

And yet—here I sit, screaming my way toward 40, realizing that He’s been growing that purpose in me—and in spite of me—all the time. It’s taken me this long to realize that purpose isn’t found, it’s made; by God, and not by me.

Written by Eric Ankenman on Jun 27, 2019
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...

Discussion Questions

  1. What strikes you most about this article—a word, phrase, or idea?

  2. How have you searched for purpose in the past? How would your life look and feel different if you accepted purpose as a process and not a destination?

  3. Take stock of where you’ve come by making a list of every job you’ve ever had—even the sucky ones. Now, try to identify at least one thing you learned from each one—a skill, a character trait, or a capacity you didn’t have before.

  4. The topic of purpose can be a real stressor. Need prayer or support around this whole purpose thing? Call, text, email or chat our Community Care team at the link below this article.

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