Searching for Purpose

Searching for Purpose

I grew up following my father’s job around the country. Dad was a submariner in the Royal Navy, which for a young boy was the coolest job in the world. When dad would come back from patrol, smiling, in uniform, he’d carry that distinct ‘I’ve been underwater for a month’ smell. I loved it. Sometimes, when he was away, I would choose to sleep underneath my captains bed – in my mind mimicking a submariners quarters – and ever since I’ve always been comfortable in cramped spaces.

I don’t think I really minded not having dad at home when he was away at sea. As I grew up I came to think of dad’s job as special. Visits to HMS Neptune (the naval base on the Clyde) were turned in to contests to see how many sub-machine guns and Land Rovers I could spot. Little boy heaven.

I remember one day, watching one of the then brand new Vanguard class submarines out on the Clyde, spotting some protestors in little boats trying to make a nuisance of themselves. Back then, as now, the national nuclear deterrent was the subject of much controversy. Dad was watching with me and pointed out some smaller, darker boats. He told me that the people on those boats, armed to the teeth, fit as Olympic athletes, dressed in camouflage with green berets, made sure that the protestors didn’t get too close and cause real problems for the submarine. So who were these modern-day aquatic knights? These Defenders of the Nuclear Arsenal? They, said dad, were Royal Marines. And they, to me, were the second coolest men in the world.

So when, at 18 I was wondering what to do with my life, I thought I would become a Marine. Disillusioned by school and the seemingly purposeless path through higher education to a job, a mortgage, retirement, and death, I chose the Marines as my answer to life. I reasoned that joining the Marines wasn’t like starting another job. This wasn’t a 9-5 casual thing. I wasn’t to be a person, playing at a job during the day and living for the weekends, but a Marine: a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year identity that provided cool work from time to time.

And so I went off to Commando Training Centre, Lympstone, for a weekend of tests to see if they’d let me join the privileged ranks. During that selection opportunity I picked up an injury during one of the tests and didn’t finish the weekend. I was utterly deflated. This was the first time I had had an injury. I dodged them all through school, thinking that the other boys were faking them to get out of rugby practice. This injury undid me. I was made rudely aware that I was fallible. I was breakable. And what I didn’t realise then, but what I’ve come to see over the years, was that something much deeper was going on inside of me. At that time I was searching for meaning for my life. Something to make it all matter. Having rejected school and other pursuits, I set my goals on the military. When I fell at this hurdle I didn’t just come up short on one test, but flirted with the very edge of despair, toying with the fear that my life might just be, ultimately, purposeless.

Having talked to others since, I don’t think I’m alone in the realms men looking to things in life to define their existence. Careers, women, fun, toys, hobbies – we look to people and things to bring us an identity. So often these things, fragile and easily breakable, let us down. Failure in relationships or in work can lead to deep despair as lives built around shallow purposes collapse in bits.

To this problem the Bible offers us hope. Instead of looking to things on this earth to define our purpose, the Bible points to the person of Jesus as the doorway to all fulfilment:

“So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:7–10, ESV)

Jesus’ story here, full of imagery familiar to his original listeners, depicts him as the doorway to the sheepfold. The doorway to the sheepfold was the way to safety and prosperity (if you were a sheep); it was the essential path to success. We – the sheep – to find life must go through the doorway that is Jesus. There’s no set of rules concerning careers or earthly relationships here. There’s no Buzzfeed ‘Top 21 Things You Must Do Lead A Purposeful Life’. Just an invitation to find fulfilment through the person of Jesus.

If the fundamental problem of mankind is that we’re missing something that we can obtain for ourselves, then we’ll find it in the things of this world. We’ll find it in work, relationships, possessions etc. But we, the collective we – humanity throughout the ages – have tried those things and have found them scarily susceptible to collapse given enough pressure. There are few things worse than thinking you have found the meaning to life and then one day waking up to find that it has been snatched away from you.

However, the Bible describes the fundamental problem of mankind as something that we can’t provide for ourselves. We are in a hopeless state, lost and cut off from our true purpose. It’s to this damned problem that Jesus offers hope. In dying in our place, for our sin, settling our account, reconciling us to himself – to God – by rising again and defeating death He offers us a purpose that nothing in the entire Universe can take away from us.

The passage above ends with Jesus offering us life, abundant life. Life to the fullest, were we can find purpose in our careers and our relationships and our possessions. Not in the essence of the thing, the object, but in the way that we and they reflect the purpose of God himself. We are free to be Marines, and husbands, and white water kayakers to the glory of God, knowing that it’s not in those things that we find who we are and what we’re worth, but it is in the saving act of Jesus 2,000 years ago.

Abundant life is the state of deepest freedom, which releases you to be all you were made to be.

Currently the BBC are running a great recap of on the classic FA Cup upsets of all time. Bradford, up against the mighty Chelsea, didn’t – according to many people – stand a chance. A mighty gulf separated the two teams in both league and class and the pundits and commentators on the day thought that it wasn’t case of who would win, but how embarrassing it would be for Bradford.

However, freed from fear and expectations Bradford played the game of their lives. In one of the greatest feats of Giant Killing the beautiful game has seen, Bradford were the epitome of freedom unleashed. That day they were freed to be all they could be on the football field, and the team took their chance. The rest is history.

We like Bradford can find freedom in a moment and taste something of a deeper reality that eludes us for most of the time. The choice before us then is between living for a moment to define our purpose, or letting our lives be defined by one person who releases us to a lifetime secured with ultimate purpose.

  • This is superb Jonathan! I’ve bookmarked this to steal from–I mean, to take notes from–later…

  • Thanks Dave. Your kinds words are appreciated 🙂 Steal away!