We want purpose and meaning

‘Cause if you’re not really here
Then the stars don’t even matter
Now I’m filled to the top with fear
That it’s all just a bunch of matter

Sam Sparro

Jesus announced good news to the world – and that good news was that “the Kingdom of God is near”. This is one of a series of posts about ways in which our society is longing for the Kingdom of God, although it doesn’t realise it yet. My hope is that they will provide a basis for conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours – and perhaps a gentle provocation to some readers who do not follow Jesus, too. You can see the original post, with links to others in the series, here.

When I was in 6th form, my careers advisor told me that the job marketplace was in the midst of a radical shift. “No longer”, he told me, “are people choosing a career for life, and working their way up in the company they started with. Instead, the average employee is going to be changing jobs and perhaps careers six to seven times in their working lives.” I don’t know how accurate his statistics were, but he was right about my generation and subsequent ones being very mobile in the workplace. I studied languages, and I’ve been a teacher, a computer programmer and now a pastor. But a much greater differentiator between generations is why people are choosing jobs.

In my head, the classic job interview centres around the suitability of the candidate for the job – their skills, expertise, attitude, and track record. Nowadays many are much more two-way: millennials and Gen-Zs want to know what the company offers them by way of job satisfaction, purpose, culture, and ethical standards. Whether or not they’re in the position to be picky, those questions feature heavily in how people of those generations talk about their job prospects. Increasingly, our culture is not content to block off 8+ hours of the day as a necessary exercise in paying the bills, and to simply “live for the weekend”.

Some of this has no doubt come about through an increasing consciousness of the effects of everyday actions: awareness of climate change and modern slavery in particular have shown us how the companies we support, buy from, or work for can have a far-reaching global impact, and therefore have a moral value. If we were using religious language, we might say that all of life has become sacred.

However, it’s at least as much due to the increased focus on the value of the individual. The mindset of millenials includes rights to a supportive environment, and to accommodation of personal tastes and interests, which has both positive and negative side-effects. Millennials are more likely to hold out for “living their best life” (to use a phrase that’s become popular) and to pioneer social change; they also have a reputation for being more fragile and averse to criticism.

So how does this culture, which looks for value and meaning in everything, reflect a longing for the Kingdom of God? Let’s start with the obvious – in the Christian worldview, everything was created not only by God, but for His glory. At the most basic level, everything should have meaning because everything should glorify God. On top of this, when God created the earth, it was good. Before sin entered the world, God had created nature, mankind, and work. However long it lasted, before Adam & Eve sinned, their lives were spent enjoyably serving a purpose: filling the earth and subduing it. Any culture which seeks to recapture value and meaning in work is reaching out for the Kingdom of God.

However, it’s not only in the world of work that our society is crying out for meaning: “living your best life” involves self-expression, finding fulfilment in recreation and relationships. The pain-point for our culture seems to come from the individualistic way in which this search for purpose is worked out. The focus on individual self-expression develops ever more niche subcultures, many of which then consider themselves micro-aggressed if disagreed with. The importance on individual fulfilment also leads to diminishing commitment to others – the embodiment of this is perhaps the Facebook “interested” button, which is offered as an alternative to “going” or “can’t go” on a facebook event. “Interested” becomes a socially-acceptable way of saying, “I might go unless I get a better offer”.

A further point of conflict with our culture comes around the purposes towards which we strive. We read of an episode in Genesis when people really start to assert their independence from God: in chapter 11, they gather together and start building a tower “to stretch to the heavens”, to “make a name for themselves” and protect them from being scattered and insignificant. God responds by confusing their language, but I find his words hard to fathom:

If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

Genesis 11:6

What is God’s objection? Clearly they cannot really build a tower to reach the heavens, in the sense of reaching God through their own efforts – and His concern is not that they might. I think God’s concern is not that they will succeed in doing something sacriligious, or that they would set their sights too high, but rather that they would set their sights too low, on something high in their estimation but still utterly insignificant, and in achieving it be satisfied.

Imagine a group of secondary-school children who have never used woodworking tools, and who sneak into the workshop when the teacher’s out. They don’t know what’s possible with the right tools and techniques, so they decide to see how many bits of wood they can nail together. Working together, they manage to nail all of their wood into one big mass of planks and spars. Ecstatic that they’ve achieved their goal, they set out to make the biggest glue-gun ball, to split a beam with a hammer and a screwdriver, and so on. Because they are their own “echo chamber”, the goal-setters and the judges of success, nothing they set out to achieve will be impossible for them – but at the end of the day, they’ll have achieved nothing worthwhile by any external standard. Our culture’s desire for purpose is flawed because we don’t know what really matters, and what true meaning really is. Devoid of any understanding of relationship with the Creator, or of life after death, we set goals that ignore His designs and think only of this short life.

Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.

Francis Chan

Why not try an exercise over the next week or two? Be on the lookout for people expressing their longing for purpose and meaning. Perhaps try to find out more – what kind of thing would satisfy that longing? If we believe, as the Scriptures teach us, that true satisfaction is only found in relationship with God, we should expect those conversations to point to God and the fulfilment He gives.