I was recently surprised when a student confided that they were impatiently waiting for what God had planned for their future vocation. What surprised me was not that they were wondering what God has planned for their life, nor that they were feeling impatient. What did surprised me was that another student offered advice in the form of a popular saying, “Life isn’t about the destination. It’s about the journey.” Though I disagreed with the advice, I had to admit that this cliché, like many popular sayings, does have some truth to it. Clichés persist in cultures because we recognize some wisdom, or perhaps just a shade of wisdom, in their pithy lines. Yet, simple truisms rarely give us the whole picture. Life cannot only be about the journey. In such a metaphor, the destination matters. An enjoyable journey towards an unpleasant destination is not a good trip. Likewise, a life aimed at sadness, loneliness or pain is not a good life, no matter how great the moments in between are. The journey cliché fails to provide a full picture of meaning and happiness because we know that as humans we do have a purpose. Deep down, we know that we are meant for something more than the proverbial journey.
For most of western history, it was an uncontested assumption that humans naturally had a purpose or purposes. Interestingly, “life is about the journey” assumes the same philosophical starting point that led the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to formulate a theory about human purpose. This would become the dominant view for close to two thousand years. The journey metaphor assumes that change is an inevitable part of life. Aristotle’s thoughts on the concept of change became as important to ancient thought and culture as the scientific method is to our contemporary culture. In fact since Aristotle wrote about the nature of change in his book Metaphysics until quite recently, most philosophers and theologians just assumed he was right about how change works. He argued that since change comes from causes, everything in the whole universe has four distinct causes. He called the first type material – what something is made from. A match burns and changes because of the flammable material it is made from. The second type of cause is called formal and refers to the specific way something changes. The formal cause of ice turning into water is the melting process. Ice itself cannot be flammable the way a match is. The third cause is the one us modern people are most familiar with, and Aristotle called it an efficient cause. This cause is the exact action or event that precedes a change. For instance, the efficient cause of a tree falling over might be a gust of wind. The last and most important cause to one’s life journey, is what Aristotle called the final cause. This is the purpose or end for which something exists. The final cause of a match is to burn. Again, Aristotle said (and the whole western world listened), that everything in the universe experienced change and therefore had four causes, including people.
As Christians we should not find this line of thinking surprising, not because someone important like Aristotle said, but rather because the Bible tells us that we were made for purpose. Jesus summarized thousands of years of writings on the topic when he told the experts in religious thought that all of the writings of the Old Testament hang on the commandments to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:34-40). When we love God, our lives become oriented in such a way that we let him purify us into the person he wants us to be. And, because we are made for community, this necessarily involves loving others. While individual people may have unique purposes according to how God has made them, we all share one common purpose. Throughout church history, theologians, pastors and individuals like you and I have used Jesus’ words as the starting point to more deeply understand the purpose of human life. In the third century, St. Augustine wrote that the purpose of life is to enjoy God and that our hearts are restless until they finally find him. (Confessions 1.1) In the 17th century, when English Protestant church leaders got together to write an official curriculum for learning the Christian faith, their first lesson was on the idea that the purpose of a person’s life is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” However, over the last four hundred years, as the scientific method became culturally we have reduced Aristotle’s four causes into just one, efficient cause. Because purposes cannot be tested or explained scientifically, we tend to focus on the parts of life that are demonstrable and repeatable causes and effects. Since we live in an increasingly secular society, we can have the tendency to operate as if humans lack a purpose. If there is no purpose to a human life, we reason, then life cannot be about the destination. It can only be about the journey because a meaningless journey is all that is left.
Wanting to know more about the purpose God has planned for your life is not an outdated idea. Asking the question is just as important to our lives today as it was for Augustine’s 1600 years ago. Most importantly, God, as the object of our love, is our destination. The apostle Paul said it is only in God that we find life and have our being (Acts 17:28). Loving God, enjoying God, and obeying God are the only things that can give meaning to what we do in this life. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made this point eloquently to a group of middle school students in Philadelphia six months before is untimely death. He told them,
When you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.
When we come before God asking him what our unique individual purpose is, we should expect that the answer will align with and be secondary to our common human final purpose; to be creatures who glorify god. When we listen to God and life our life according to the Bible, the journey of life will bring us closer to him as we get better at glorifying him in our lives and loving those around us. Life is only about the journey when the journey has purpose.