What is Our Purpose in Life?
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
“What do you think the purpose of life is?” This question wasn’t coming from some famous philosopher or scientist. It wasn’t even a teacher or a pastor who was asking me this question. It was my friend Brandon, who was only 13 years old. We were both teenagers at a camp in Ohio, walking one evening from the bonfire back to our cabin.
“I’m serious. What do you think our purpose is?” He continued. “What are we supposed to do?” Looking back now, this seems like a surprising question for a 13 year old to ask. But at the time, it made sense. I was 13 years old myself, and these questions about life and meaning and purpose were all around me too. As I was learning so much and everything was changing, and I was facing lots of awkwardness and life challenges, I was wondering too what is my purpose? What is this all for?
And so to me, this wasn’t an odd question. It was one I was asking. This was simply our first chance to ask them and talk about them out loud. Being at a camp, for many of us it was the first time we had some space, some space away from school, away from sports, away from our family, to talk about what mattered to us, what we believed. The truth is I think we as adults often assume a lot about children and youth, thinking they are not ready for deeper things. But honestly, I think these questions of purpose, of meaning, of identity are questions we all ask, no matter what our age is. We might just phrase them a little differently. I think people of all ages want to know what God made me for and what I’m meant to do.
And this isn’t a new thing. People have been asking this question for thousands of years. A century before Christ, the famous rabbi Hillel was given a challenge by a man. The man challenged Hillel to teach the whole Torah, the whole law all on one foot. Now according to rabbinic tradition, there are 613 laws in the Hebrew scripture. 613. To just list them off a sheet would probably take me a few hours. To explain and teach them all would take a lifetime, and a lot more wisdom than I’ll ever have. And this man wants Rabbi Hillel to do it on one leg? I don’t know how good your balance is, but mine is not that good. I could probably stand for 30 seconds, a minute if I’m focused. But definitely not more than that, especially if I’m trying to teach at the same time. Another Rabbi Shemmai had already chased the man off for asking this same question, for thinking the man is trying to trick him or make him look foolish.
But Rabbi Hillel doesn’t chase the man off. Instead, he gets what this man is asking. The man doesn’t want Hillel to teach him for years, while having miraculous balance. He doesn’t want a long treatise on the Torah. No, this man is seeking the core of the message. He wants to know how to begin understanding God, how to begin understanding his own identity, his own purpose. How can he please God? That’s what he wants to know.
And so, Hillel lifts up his foot, and tells him, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary.” He tells him the golden rule.
A hundred years later, another rabbi, this one from Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, and now followed by 12 disciples while going around teaching, healing, casting out demons, and eating with sinners, was asked a very similar question. A lawyer asks Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
And from the 613 possible laws, Jesus answers him back with this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Two simple commands. “Love God and love your neighbor.” In the busyness of our week, even in the busyness of ministry and discipleship, we can overlook this teaching so easily. We can get so wrapped up in numbers, in accomplishments, in debates and arguments, and think all of those things are what is really important. But that’s not where our true identity lies.
Our identity is not found in our social or economic status. It’s not found in our clothes, our houses, or our cars. We can’t gain it from showing off a list of accomplishments and tasks we’ve done well; it’s not even found in how smart or how right we think we are on certain issues. Our identity, our meaning, our purpose is to love. We are made to love. We are lovely and loving beings. And that’s the greatest thing we can offer to God: to love God and to love each other.
For so many of us, these words are not new. I think these words from Jesus are the earliest lesson I can remember in Sunday school growing up. Love God and love neighbor. I can remember one teacher I had pointing to the Ten Commandments on a big poster in our church basement and showing us kids how each one fit into either loving God or loving other people. Have no other idols – love God. Do not murder or steal – love other people. Remember the Sabbath – love God. Do not commit adultery – love other people. I can remember it so vividly because for the first time so much of what I was being taught of how to live as a Christian, the laws and the history, finally started fitting together. It was all a history of love. God’s love for us and our response of love. We should remember that the lessons we learn as children stick with us. And they can have a profound impact.
Because years later, when Brandon asked me that question at that church camp, I remembered that Sunday school class. I remembered the teacher pointing to the poster of the Ten Commandments. I remembered Christ’s words about the greatest commandment. And so, I said out loud for the very first time, “I think our purpose is to love God and others. I think it makes God happier than anything else.”
Through years of high school, college, seminary, studying philosophy and theology, and practicing ministry, that lesson is still the most important one to me today. Each one of us, no matter our profession, our circumstance, our particular calling – whether we are teachers, lawyers, doctors, mailmen, parents, firefighters, caregivers or any number of personal callings, at the core of our life, our meaning is to love.
And that is what Jesus came to show us and teach us: how to love. Jesus’ very birth and life on earth was out of God’s love for the world. Jesus, who didn’t label which people deserved love and which didn’t, but welcomed, healed, and served all. Jesus, who out of such wondrous love for God and for us, gave his life on the cross, so we could all know God’s love which neither death nor life can separate us from. Everything Jesus did was to show us how beautiful love truly is. He wanted us to know that we are loved and he wanted us to pass that love on.
Years ago, when my wife Hannah was a hospital chaplain for an ICU floor, she got a lot of calls, and sadly, far too many of them were for people dying. One day a nurse called her to visit with a patient who had no one – no family, no friends, no one nearby – and who had only a couple hours left to live. The patient was unconscious, but the nurse wanted someone to be there with the patient. Hannah believes that no one should face death alone. And so, she went and sat down with the patient, holding her hand in her hands, in her last hours, and prayed for and with the patient, showing a loving presence by her side. The next day, when she spoke again to the nurse who called her, the nurse told her other staff were upset she called a chaplain, that they thought she was taking Hannah away from more important tasks so Hannah said to that nurse, “Thank you for calling me. That was my most important task, to sit with her, to pray with her, to hold her hand. To care for her and show her love in her last hours. How can any task be more important than that?” We are made to love. And each time we love, God is very, very happy. Amen.