As I scrape off half-eaten piles of food into a compost bin five hours into bussing tables, sometimes I wonder what my labor is for -- why I strive so hard to fund a degree in music that will ultimately lead to a life of yet more hard work. It can all seem so fruitless to us when we spend long nights studying and toiling to the point of exhaustion, and to what end? To make money, perhaps start a family, and then what? From these questions comes a sinking feeling that can lead anyone into self-doubt or despair.
Yet, because we exist, we must have a purpose. While people subscribe to many different beliefs, the Christian can come to know of this purpose through scripture. The Bible says, “… everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” In other words, our purpose is to bring God glory. That is how we benefit Him, and to us there is no higher calling. God’s glory exists whether or not we acknowledge it, but there must be something valuable about acknowledging it. To bring God glory does not mean we give Him glory that was not previously there, it means that we are serving as a showcase through which He displays His eternal, boundless majesty. For God to desire that our entire existence be centered around Him is overwhelmingly generous; it is thrilling that we might be the glass through which His glory shines, because otherwise we are left dull and unfulfilled. Nothing can ever truly and wholly satisfy us as much as fulfilling the very purpose for which our species was created.
So the question that remains is this: how are we fulfilling this purpose to display and acknowledge the glory of God? First we must dedicate ourselves to serving Him. Christians believe this can only be done by accepting the sacrifice of Christ which bridges the rift between man and God caused by our own rebellion. Yet a purposeful life does not end with simple acceptance. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” We are to live a life of constant submission and deliberate glorification in all that we do. All is a frighteningly encompassing concept. If you are anything like me, this seems impossibly burdensome. How can one be thinking about God for every waking moment of the day and devote every act to Him? Is that what this verse implies?
It is clear that when we do things to directly honor God, such as prayer, scripture-reading, and worship, we are bringing Him glory. Matthew 5:16 says, “… let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” So we are to do more than just spiritual behaviors, we are to live a life of light, which is ultimately the most important manifestation of our glorification of God. But wouldn’t doing this constantly require an explicitly religious vocation, such as missionary work or monasticism, not to mention an inhuman amount of self-discipline? Interpretations like this can leave us feeling as if our life goals are completely futile. How could pursuing a degree and career in biochemistry, economics, the humanities, or in my case music composition possibly be of any eternal value?
Now the question turns to how our apparently secular life goals line up with our purpose. Our jobs, after all, will consume a majority of our waking lives. Is it then only acceptable to work in public places where you can display Christ’s light around you? Is then the point of all your goals and aspirations to put you in contact with people through whom you can glorify God, or do the goals in and of themselves have meaning?
Let’s look at Genesis. Imagine, for a moment, that the world is as perfect today as God created it to be, that there is no sin, no fall of man, and no curse. Imagine that Adam and Eve never took a bite of that forbidden fruit. What would we be doing? Would we be sitting around all day talking with God? Yes, in Eden the first man and woman walked and fellowshipped with their Maker and that’s important, but it’s not what the Bible says they were put on the earth to do. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” He gave Adam a job. He was meant to work the Garden, given the responsibility to care for it. In verse 19 we see, “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” Here Adam is given another job—one involving creativity.
We see here such an eye-opening insight into God’s initial plan for humanity. From the very beginning, God gave us the function of doing work. He created us to have a relationship with Him, but for some reason instead of having man spend his time speaking with and singing to the Creator, He set him to work. He gave Adam his own, personal, separate function to tend the Garden and to name the animals. The reason we were created was so that we could serve and bring glory to God, but the purpose God granted us is to work!
You may wonder, now, why there are two seemingly contradictory purposes for humanity. But it’s not a contradiction, it only proves the following statement: work glorifies God. In fulfilling what God wants us to do, when we use our unique talents and abilities to tend to this earth and be creative (there’s my justification for making art!), we are reflecting the image of God after which we were modeled. Our God is one who actively fulfills a role as the Master of the universe (i.e., He works), and is the literal definition of creativity (is there a bolder understatement?). We are made in His image, so to conform to that image is to give Him the glory. Think of the swell of love and pride a father feels when he sees his small child, who resembles him in appearance, also mimicking his actions. Would our Heavenly Father not also feel the same toward His children?
Those familiar with the book of Genesis and subsequent passages might raise a red flag now, however: doesn’t it say that work is punishment? Hard work is not pleasant. We do it to make money and eat. Look at chapter three after the first sin, where God tells Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. ... By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground....” (vv. 17b, 19a) It doesn’t sound like work is a very good thing, does it?
But that’s not what it says. Work is not a curse. Toil is a curse. Toil is a perversion of work—it is not just a job, but it is undesirable and laborious. When we defiled our purpose and committed sin, when we tainted our good nature with evil, we perverted ourselves. So God, in His righteous anger and judgment, punished us by perverting our job—He made the very thing we must do something unpleasant, because we had made ourselves unpleasant. Toil is not our purpose, and it brings God no glory. Our joy in work has been sucked out because of sin’s curse in a fallen world.
The book of Ecclesiastes, which most scholars believe was written by King Solomon, a man to whom God gave more wisdom than any other, addresses this very topic in a passage far more concise and eloquent than I could ever hope to write. He concludes that, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”
Now that we have the opportunity to restore our relationship with Christ and be free from the bondage and curse of sin, we can reclaim that joy in toil and spend the rest of our lives satisfied in fulfilling our place in the world. Just as it was by God that our work became toil, so it is through Him that our toil can become work. We cannot expect to suddenly find satisfaction in the mere knowledge of our purpose. We must submit ourselves to Him and live in His strength, because He is the only true fountain of happiness and meaning.
We were all created with a unique set of gifts and abilities, and obviously we were granted them in enough abundance to end up in such a fine institution to cultivate them. That, my friends, is meaningful. By all means, pursue your degree, and live your life as God leads you! In order for our aspirations in life to come to fruition, we require His matchless wisdom and leadership—He is a far better planner than you or I could ever be for ourselves.
Of course, that isn’t easy, and cannot be done through our own power—it must be done through the strength of God’s Spirit. The point is not to say, “Live like this even though it’s hard and you won’t like it.” The Christian life is not burdened by some command for rule-abiding righteousness. It is liberating! There is nothing better for us than to live our lives, put in a good day’s work, and as we do, to live a life of light bringing honor to the One who gave it to us. Freeing yourself through Christ is far more exhilarating than trying to live by some purpose we invent for ourselves. Aligning your life in submission to and glorification of Christ is deeply satisfying because that is why we were created. Living for yourself will never truly satisfy because it is contrary to your inherent, deep-seated human nature. It is only by a deceptive trick of the flesh and the veil of sin that we think a God-glorifying life is difficult and laborious, but as soon as one truly partakes of that submission, the veil is torn and we see the truth of how wonderful and thrilling it is. There truly is no greater joy, because there is no greater purpose.