Purpose can be defined as “the application of one’s self, with its talents, to a noble task.” This begs the question, what are the available noble tasks here on earth? And what makes a task noble? I submit that we must pursue an ethic that promotes life and
happiness health for all living beings, and especially humans.
ARE ALL LIVING BEINGS OF EQUAL VALUE?
Is a bacteria as important as a human? What about a plant? An insect? Practically speaking, we can not preserve all life. We are in an ecosystem in which all living things eat one another. And some beings have higher levels of self-awareness, memory, and sensory experience, including pain and joy. We must determine some principles for prioritizing the value of life. Some people choose vegetarianism, and draw the line at only eating plant life and not harming sentient creatures. This is a noble and healthy way to live, but I note that the rest of nature does not obey this law – there are plenty of carnivores out there. The classic Christian contention is that
- Man is the most valuable of all of God’s creation, the apex of God’s creation, being made in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27)
- The rest of creation is valuable, but subject to man, that is, here to please man. God’s only command was that man be a good steward, i.e. take good care of the earth. (Genesis 1:28-29)
Based on these principles, I argue thus – the greatest purpose you can dedicate yourself to is the relief of suffering of mankind, and man’s health. And the second greatest purpose, like the first, is to aid in the responsible care of creation.
OBJECTIONS TO PUTTING MAN FIRST
1. Isn’t such anthropocentrism just self-serving?
As the son of an animal rights activist, I know the voice that asks “Isn’t it just a little convenient that we put ourselves at the top of the list of who is valuable? That seems very self serving.” Many good (and bad ;) theologians and philosophers have discussed whether man is just an animal, or whether or not he has some intrinsic worth greater than animals. However, I believe the balanced biblical answer is:
- Man is more valuable than animals because, being made in the image of God, he has an eternal soul, a moral conscience, and responsibility before a God to whom he must give an account. Animals are not such
- If we believe that animals are of lesser value than man, that does not give us the right to be cruel, careless, inhumane, or exploitative of animals. We must also give an account to God about how we used His resources while here.
2. If you want to make all sentient beings healthy, why are you not promoting vegetarianism?
That is the subject of another essay, but let me summarize the biblical position thus:
- Right Motive: The value of vegetarianism comes in your motive. If you are a vegetarian because you feel it is a compassionate and thrifty use of resources, and in being vegetarian you help provide more food for others, while being kind to the environment, I believe that such actions are noble and pleasing to God.
- Wrong Motive: If you are a vegetarian because you think that what you do or do not eat makes you more spiritual or righteous, Jesus warned that this is not actually true – he argued that it is not what or how you eat, but how you think in your heart that determines your spirituality (Matthew 15:10-15)
- Abstaining from Meat Not Essential to Spirituality: Paul the Apostle argued that whether or not to eat meat is not central to Christian spirituality. He argued that such non-essential matters should be left up to the individual conscience. The person who feels he should not eat meat should not do it, and should not judge the person who feels that he can. The person who feels that he can eat meat should not flaunt his eating of meat, but exercise restraint and respect for the person who feels that he can not by not eating meat around that person. However, Paul also argued that the person who feels he can not eat meat is actually the weaker in faith, lacking freedom in something that is not essential (Romans 14).
3. Isn’t saving the environment and animals noble enough a cause?
The short answer is, yes. If you feel a strong passion for these, you have a biblical mandate to back you up. However, your motive and end goals are what most important to God. If you are actually “worshipping the creation rather than the creator,” or harboring resentment against God or the failures of mankind, you may not be on the path to spiritual wellness. The proper motive, that of pleasing God, being a good steward of resources, obeying what you feel is your calling, and maintaining a good heart towards God and man, is important in the pursuit of Christian or spiritual environmentalism and animal welfare.
THE BIBLICAL HIERARCHY OF PURPOSE
The Book The Purpose Driven Life has now sold over 20 Million copies, and shows no signs of slowing down. Despite my dislike of the overly simplistic and wordy delivery style of the book, its summation and organization of the biblical model for a life of purpose are excellent. They include five purposes, which build on each other:
- Worship – to know and love God, and to receive God’s love
- Fellowship – to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and to have deep, meaningful relationships with others, esp. including those with whom you share faith and spirit. The best way to accomplish this is through membership in a spiritual community.
- Discipleship – in a Christian context, this means growing spiritually by becoming more like Christ. In other contexts, this might be genericized to following spiritual disciplines or applying yourself to spiritual growth.
- Ministry – this is your contribution to the spiritual welfare of others who share your faith – contributing to your spiritual community. In order to be effective in this step (and the next), you must take time to determine your own gifts, talents, passions, and compassion (to whom does your heart go out to?).
- Mission – Many agree that meaning is only possible if you can take part in a Mission that is larger than you – i.e. contribute to a greater task. Your specific, organized outreach to those who are “outside” of your faith and knowledge is your mission, in which you use your specific gifts, passions, and experience.
The following have been said about purpose:
- Purpose is the application of one’s self and talents to a noble task
- The biblical priorities are caring for mankind and creation
- The biblical steps for determining your purpose are to put God first, develop healthy relationships with others, develop spiritual disciplines, begin to help others in your spiritual community grow, and serve those who are in need using your specific gifts, talents, and passions.