Deep within our souls is a drive to belong, to have a place and purpose in life. But what is that purpose?
I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.“Invictus,” William Ernest Henley
Whether rich or poor, African or European, Hindu or Muslim, we all have something within us that yearns for value and meaning in life. Deep within the soul of man is a sense of purpose. No matter our upbringing or belief system, we seem unable to shake that deep-set feeling that we are here for a “reason.”
Yes, we look for that special soul mate and that meaningful career—and sometimes we are lucky enough to find them. Yet the nagging question remains: Am I missing something? Is this all there is, or was I meant for something more? Unfortunately, the exact nature of that longed-for “something more” keeps eluding us.
When Henley composed his poem “Invictus” (quoted above), he was recuperating from a painful leg amputation in an English infirmary. As the 2009 movie Invictus showed, Henley’s words inspired Nelson Mandela, helping him to withstand twenty-seven years of unjust imprisonment. He went on to become South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president.
Some people have taken Henley’s poem to mean that every human being determines their own purpose in life. One might reason, “If I am ‘the master of my fate . . . the captain of my soul,’ then life is simply whatever I make of it. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
Yet Henley’s poem is actually offering a response to a different, though equally profound question: How can I withstand the dark, painful seasons of life? For Henley, Mandela, and others, it all comes back to the question of purpose.
Chief Ends and Final Purposes
Aristotle, the father of logic, famously distinguished between four distinct types of causes: material, formal, efficient, and final.1
For example, the question “What is the cause of Michelangelo’s David?” could be answered in four different ways. First, the statue is made out of marble (that is what Aristotle called its material cause).2 Second, it has the bipedal shape of a man (that is its formal cause).3 Third, it was sculpted by Michelangelo (its efficient cause).4 Fourth, it glorifies both man and his creator (its final cause).5
Today, even people of faith tend to avoid what Aristotle called final causes—the why. In our modern, scientific age, questions of purpose are generally reduced to concrete statements of cause and effect: if I exercise and eat right, I will be healthy; if I work hard, I will make money; if I believe in myself, I will succeed. While these efficient causes are good and can lead to much happiness, they leave unaddressed the final cause (or purpose) of human life.
Over the last two thousand years, many Christian denominations have constructed catechisms—question-and-answer manuals used to instruct their members in the basic tenets of their faith.
In one of the best known of these catechisms, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the first point asks a simple but profound question: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer? “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”6
Whereas most of us like to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, free agents who have the right to define ourselves, the Westminster Shorter Catechism suggests that our final purpose is not to seek our own glory but that of our Creator. It suggests further that because that is our final purpose (or chief end), we will attain true happiness only if we seek to fulfill that purpose.
By Which vs. For Which
Modern scientists expend great effort to determine the process by which the human race was made. What they find makes for interesting reading, but it leaves unanswered deeper questions of value and meaning. Until human beings can determine the purpose for which they were made, they will be profoundly unaware of who they are and why they are here on this planet.
If people do not know the purpose for which their body was given to them—indeed, if they do not think their body has a purpose—then they will see little problem with abusing their body with drugs or excessive overeating or sleeping around. Such addictions are regrettable—not because they are fun, but because they violate the very purpose for which bodies were given to us.
Though many today feel that it is enough to know the efficient cause of the human race—how we were made—I would suggest that knowledge of our final cause is not only theoretically but practically necessary if we are to lead happy and meaningful lives. For it is precisely when people are unaware of the final purpose for which a thing was made that they cause damage to that thing.
If someone were handed a priceless Stradivarius violin but was not told that the purpose of it was to produce beautiful music, he might take the violin and use it as a hammer. If the same person were given a $1000 dollar bill but not informed of its monetary value, he would have no qualms about using it to light a fire.
Creeds and Purposes
Many today feel that they can only be “special” or “myself” by casting off all creeds and catechisms that would pigeonhole them into preexisting categories. And indeed, tyrannical leaders and governments throughout history have used creeds to rob people of their individuality and crush them into a single mold.
But what if creeds and catechisms can have a positive, life-affirming value? What if they are really safeguards of human value and dignity, guarantors that each individual has intrinsic worth and a final purpose that transcends the narrow limits of time and space?
What if we are specially created beings whose purpose (and reward) is to glorify God and enjoy him forever? Could it be that we are truly God-fashioned instruments through whom the Creator longs to play joyous, life-affirming music that could put a Stradivarius violin to shame?
It’s an idea worth exploring.