I stared at the computer. Once again, I found my eyes drifting to the clock in the corner of the screen. It was 3:45 p.m., so I still had more than an hour of work left before I could go home. How did the afternoons get so long? I wondered. And even after work, there was nothing particularly exciting to look forward to. I might go out to dinner with friends or see a movie before heading to bed, but I would just wake up and do it all over again. How did I get in this rut?
I knew there ought to be more to life than this—some purpose beyond the weekly round of work, church, and social activities. I knew there should be something more meaningful. What’s worse, deep down I knew exactly what was wrong. The truth was I’d known since I was 17 what I was supposed to be doing with my life. And this daily grind wasn’t it.
Rick Warren writes in The Purpose Driven Life about purposes he believes everyone should pursue. I’d read his book, but honestly it didn’t inspire me much. Warren’s five purposes—worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and evangelism—seemed vague to me. They could apply to anyone. Yet I’d always believed that God had a specific purpose for my life, something that would draw on the passions, interests, and even quirks He’d created in me. I wanted more than a generic purpose; I wanted to devote my life to something I’d been designed for.
Problem is, I was missing out because I was sort of just letting life happen to me. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10). And He meant it—but sometimes we seem content to muddle through the mundane. We succumb to the idea that “this must be all there is” when God has so much more in mind for us. Yes, there are things that God wants all His followers to do, and He intends for our faith to guide our lives and determine our priorities. But those general purposes also take different shapes.
I discovered my unique purpose at 17, but somewhere along the way, I lost it. As a high-school senior, I was about to go on a missions trip to Mexico for the second year running. As I prayed for the upcoming trip, I believed that God spoke to me about what I was supposed to do with my life—work with kids, like the ones I’d met in Mexico while teaching Vacation Bible School. Loving kids, building relationships with them, and sharing Christ’s love with them—that was what I was supposed to do.
Since then, I had pursued that purpose in different ways at different times—as a camp counselor, church youth director, Young Life leader, YMCA instructor, and teacher. Whenever I was serving, loving, and teaching kids, I was happy. I felt like my life had purpose and meaning, and I was living the life I was meant to live. But when I focused on other things, no matter how good or significant, I felt empty. Soon the way out of my life rut became clear—I had to reorganize my life so that serving kids was a central part of it.
So how do we find that thing we’re supposed to be doing? How do we redirect our lives in order to stop letting life happen to us and to start living intentionally?
Rich with Meaning
Alexis Boyd, of Atlanta, believes that no one should settle for less than a meaningful life, but part of that comes from accepting responsibility for our decisions. “You really do have a say about what goes on in your life,” she says. “Living intentionally means living with a purpose.”
For Boyd, that purpose is simple. “I just want at least one person to be able to say that they were better off because I was in their life,” she says, “not just better off because I was a good friend but really genuinely helped and put on a better path in life.”
Boyd has even found a way to integrate that purpose into her career. As a fellow for emerging infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Boyd spends a lot of time in developing countries, meeting and talking with the people her work helps. “I’m lucky,” she admits. “What I want to do for my career is fulfilling both professionally and spiritually. Not everyone has that.”
So does that mean those who don’t find a lot of meaning in their jobs will never experience purpose in life? Absolutely not. “In America we have this focus that your goal in life has to be career-oriented,” Boyd says. “It doesn’t. Yes, you have a job; but if that’s not fulfilling you spiritually, then find something else that is.”
Ginna Baker, of Harrisonburg, Va., agrees. For her, work is a way to pay the bills, and her purpose is found in part through relationships. One of the ways this plays out in her life is by intentionally making time for meals with friends, no matter how busy she is.
“I really value other people, and I think one of the most meaningful times you can have is sitting around a table sharing a meal,” Baker says.
Baker finds meaning in life as much by saying no to unnecessary or distracting activities as by actively doing things she cares about. Life is made up of days, and Baker wants to make sure she doesn’t waste hers doing things that are unimportant.
“Part of it is learning to not feel like you’re forced to do what everyone else wants you to do,” Baker explains. “Most of our obligations come from a perception of demand where there really is no demand. We can be free from that and make choices.”
For many of us, our default setting is to spend much of our lives doing what we have to, enjoying the parts we can, and trying to be “good Christians” who serve God and others—without a driving purpose that connects it all. But we can be free to pursue the things that God has for us to do. As we pray, read Scripture, and talk with other Christ-followers, we can discover how to live out God’s bigger purposes in our own unique ways.
“It sounds cliché to say it, but you have to pray before you can do anything else,” Boyd admits. “Before you can give of yourself to somebody else, before you can volunteer in your community, before you can refocus your goals, you have to pray.”
Even among believers Boyd believes that few people take the time to seek God’s purpose for their lives. “I’m not talking about a quick prayer before you go to bed,” she adds. “You have to do whatever it takes to clear your head so you can be before God. And most people don’t want to take that time.”
Disciplining ourselves to regularly spend time with God doesn’t mean closeting ourselves away and cutting off all other relationships, though. In fact, seeking God’s voice may mean choosing to dive deeper into community. For Barbara Buckham of Bremerton, Wash., relationships with other Christians is where she hears God speak most. She says relationships prevent complacency, forcing her to continually examine her life.
“You’re always seeing how other people live,” Buckham explains, “and that causes you to think about how you are living… . What things do I not want to give up for the sake of the gospel?” It’s those relationships that drive Buckham to keep evaluating which aspects of her life are purposeful and which are extraneous.
Of course it’s easy to just kind of let life happen, to accept a life that’s filled with distractions. But living like that means never becoming the people God created us to be. St. Iraneaus, a third-century theologian, wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
Being fully alive means unifying all the aspects of our lives under a purpose that God gave each of us. We find that kind of purpose only when we bring our hearts to God, as the psalmist promises, “Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you your heart’s desires” (Psalm 37:4). It’s hard work, and it’s risky. But it’s worth it. For it’s only when we’re living to the fullest, living the life that you and no one else was meant to live, that our lives truly bring glory to God.
L.C. BAKER is a freelance writer and teacher living in Atlanta. She fulfills her purpose of working with kids by teaching writing to middle- and high-school students.