I began writing a post about thinking about financial goals, but I quickly encountered a problem: financial goals are pretty strongly related to life goals. I used to assume the most important life goals were career-related and I needed to concentrate on finding an ideal job, but now I think there’s more to life than what can be accomplished in formal employment. And it is hard to understand what my life goals should be without thinking about the overall purpose of life, so I decided to go ahead and try to figure out my opinion on that topic. As a Christian, I look for advice from Jesus, and therefore my beliefs are heavily influenced by his words on what is most important.
Most Important Life Goals -aka- The Greatest Commandments
I took a pretty straightforward approach to my overarching goals by looking to Matthew 22:36-40 (NRSV).
36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
I interpret these commandments to be the following:
When I think about what it means to love God I feel that I am commanded to do three things: spend time with God in prayer, spend time in study and reflection about God and his will, and to spend time in worship. Church attendance typically involves all three aspects, as church services typically include prayer, study, and worship. Yet, an hour or two per week isn’t much of an investment for ‘the greatest commandment’, and I think I should also spend time on these aspects outside of church (something I haven’t been great at thus far in my life).
Love Your Neighbor
How to best love others is an issue that takes a lifetime to learn to do fully, but I feel there are four good categories to consider:
1. Be in positive community with others. My definition of community includes family, friends, and the people that I have the opportunity to interact with on a daily basis. For most people, their success in this area will be more impactful than any other area. I have far more influence on my community than I do to strangers, so I should strive to be positive, encouraging, and uplifting to them. This includes being there for birthdays and other times of celebration as well as sad times such as the death of a loved one, a breakup, or an unexpected failure. It also means being kind and thoughtful to everyone, including significant others, friends, family, coworkers and that one guy who talks too much or smells a little funny. It also includes doing one’s best to raise one’s children in the most loving way possible – not a responsibility we currently have, but one that is very important nonetheless. Building positive community also requires both quality and quantity of time. It is important to be intentional about building our community, while also recognizing that it takes an investment of time to be a supportive friend and family member.
2. Spend time making the world a better place. For some people, their career fulfills this category. Although I do believe having more accurate cost accounting is a good thing, I don’t think I’ll be winning any Nobel Peace Prizes. That’s okay – there are plenty of opportunities to spend timing making the world a better place outside work too. Just about every cause in the world has organizations accepting volunteers, and there are also opportunities for service outside of formal organizations (which is how I think of this blog).
3. Be conscientious with one’s decisions and actions. This wasn’t on my list at first, but just being conscientious can make a big difference. This can include anything from not littering to smiling and saying thank you to avoiding purchasing products that are made with slave labor. It’s near impossible to be conscientious 100% of the time, but it’s also impossible to be loving towards others without making attempts in this area.
4. Give money away. I’ll discuss giving money away further in later posts, but my donations are about both me and the recipient – both lives will be changed as a result of my giving. This is also one of the most simple and explicit commands in the Bible: ‘give to the poor’ isn’t exactly a new idea…
I heard a sermon a few months ago that interpreted the phrase ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ to mean not only to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself, but to also make sure to love yourself. Not in a manner that encourages selfishness, pride, or indulgence, but in the way that you should love your neighbor: kind, respectful, encouraging, and forgiving. I take this to have two main meanings:
1. Take your own health seriously. This includes physical, mental, and emotional health. Exercise. Set healthy boundaries. Sleep. Have relationships that make you a happier and better person, not only relationships where you are seeking to serve others. While I generally believe we Christians can all do more for others than we currently do, I also believe there is a lot of room in sticking up for our own health. We do have limits, and we can’t help others nearly as well while we are depressed or sick.
2. Rejoice in the blessings God has given us. To be honest, I think this is a form of loving God as well. For instance, I think God is glad when we appreciate the gifts of creation. So go outside and marvel at the wonder of nature or do the things that make you recklessly happy, be it music, dance, sports, or a game of some kind. I don’t think this is an excuse to be a hedonist and pursue our own pleasure at the expense of others, but I do think we can follow God’s example of rest and appreciation on the Sabbath by valuing our own happiness and the gifts that God has given us.
What’s Not Included
In addition to the life goals that the Greatest Commandment elucidates, I also am pretty confident about things that don’t qualify as goals:
- Not A Goal #1: Be comfortable.
- Not A Goal #2: Be famous and admired.
- Not A Goal #3: Be rich.
- Not A Goal #4: Be the best at _______.
I’m not claiming that any of the above are bad; in fact I don’t think there is anything wrong with being famous, admired, rich, or the best. (I might think there is something wrong with being comfortable ALL of the time, but I don’t think that happens to many people). In fact, I believe it can be necessary in certain situations to be comfortable, famous and admired, rich, or the best at something in order to better love our neighbors. Comfort can allow us to better focus on other goals, while fame, wealth, and skill can be used to change the world for the better. But the pursuit of those goals without any underlying greater purpose does not fit my understanding of a Christian life.
What is the Point of Figuring Out the Ultimate Purpose of my Life??
For me personally, this knowledge does quite a bit: it gives me a framework to make major decisions, it provides a greater sense of purpose and confidence in the important activities I am doing, and it makes me re-evaluate goals and habits of mine that don’t fit with this understanding. Instead of vaguely wondering whether I should take an intensive software coding bootcamp in the hopes of earning a $100,000 salary afterwards, I can evaluate that decision on three criteria: how does it affect my ability to love God, love others, and love myself? Obviously each of those criteria have several different sub-parts to it, but this framework gives me something to chew on mentally.
Knowing that those three goals are the most important aspects of my life also give me more confidence. Should I volunteer to talk to people about money? Of course, because that can be an important and impactful way to help others, regardless of whether it brings me any benefit (although I do think it is fun :-). Should I play my favorite computer game (Civilization) every day? No, because although it is a fun form of occasional recreation, it doesn’t really help anyone, including myself. (Exercise, on the other hand, does.) The knowledge also reinforces my strength when I want to be lazy - does driving 10 minutes instead of biking 15 minutes seem like a good idea? Occasionally, perhaps, if the weather is terrible or I feel sick and I know the bike ride will make me feel worse, but mostly no - comfort is not a goal of mine, while saving money and getting exercise both help me love others and love myself.
So while thinking about the Purpose of Life was pretty intimidating, I’ve discovered taking a stab at it wasn’t that bad, and has been pretty helpful over the last few weeks as I have mulled over this. As my friends in Hong Kong always say - have a try!
What is your understanding of the purpose of your life? Do you agree with my interpretation of the Greatest Commandment?