I went through a guided mission-vision-values exercise a few weeks ago. This was at least the fifth time I’ve been through an exercise of the sort.
I appreciated this one because the facilitator asked us to consider our lives holistically, not just our professional lives. We had time to assess our mission/purpose: “Why do you exist?” And we had time to envision the future: “What is the desired future that produces passion for you?”
My responses have changed over the years. That’s no surprise. My context has changed. My interests, hopes, and desires have changed. To some extent, we would expect this. As I’ve become a husband, a father, and a pastor, shouldn’t those contexts influence my understanding of purpose and preferred future?
But I began to wonder if some of our choosing and creating life missions has to do with a bigger change in how our culture understands human personhood. The cultural waters we swim in begin with the assumption that we’re free and autonomous. We get to choose why we exist! That’s not the way it’s always been portrayed.
Mission: Chosen or Given?
Before mission and vision statements came in vogue, the church was already talking about our purpose and ends. It spoke not in terms of options and possibilities, but with definitive answers.
“What is the chief end of man?”[note]I’m quoting it as it is. When the Westminster Catechism was written, “man” signified all of humanity. The question applies to all of humanity––women, men, and children alike.[/note] asks the Westminster Catechism with its first question.
It gives no space for people to choose their own answers. Instead, it answers for all of us: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church makes a similar claim: “Of all visible creatures only man is able to know and love his creator. He is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake, and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity.”[note]Again, “man” here intends all of humanity. I’ve chosen not to alter the RC Church’s language here. Women, men, and children are equally included here.[/note]
Our personal mission statement exercises and the church’s catechisms have some telling differences in their assumptions. Our personal missions suggest that purpose is chosen and conceived. Meanwhile, the Church suggests that purpose is given and received.
Before we embark on those personal mission and vision exercises, we need to first grapple with another question: Do we get to choose?
How Christian theology understands your meaning & purpose
The church’s catechisms ask about the chief end of humanity and give one unwavering answer: We exist to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Said a bit differently, we exist to know and love God.
We didn’t choose these reasons for our existence. God did.
In a parable, Jesus even provides a related vision of the future. To servants who were good stewards of all they received, their master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”[note]Matthew 25:21, 23[/note] Is this a vision of God’s intended future for all of us? To hear “well done,” to be given responsibility according to our faithfulness, to share our master’s happiness?
This all flies in the face of our culture’s understanding of the self as free and autonomous. We want full command of our lives, authority to choose our own way, to “be the me I want to be.” But have we been given that freedom? And should we really want it?
The Church’s understanding of you is that God has already named the reason for your existence. God created you to know and love and serve him. God created you to share in his eternal happiness. If we try to choose a different meaning for our lives, we haven’t so much created a new reason for our existence as we’ve rejected the real meaning of our lives.
Have we no agency?
You may get this far and object that surely we’re not all identical. Surely we each have a unique contribution to make in our world. I agree.
I don’t intend to ignore human agency and difference. We make choices. Each of us is unique. Your personality, skills, interests, and context are like no one else’s. And those should all affect the particulars of how you live.
So consider a personal mission statement like this: “My mission is to make the world a more beautiful place through art and loving relationships.”
That’s good! God is glorified in good art and loving relationships and the beauty of the world. If this sounds similar to whatever personal mission you have hanging on your wall or saved in your files, don’t assume I’m trying to throw it in the trash. But we should consider a few of the assumptions we make when we do this…
Semantics that are more than semantics
When we create a life mission statement like the one above, we likely make one of two assumptions. The first is to assume that glorifying/serving God is already implicit. Beauty and art and love are the ways that some people best glorify God. If that’s the assumption you’re making, all that’s lacking here is to make God’s glory explicit. (A good “visioneer” would tell you the art and relationships are your strategy––the means by which you best fulfill your life purpose of glorifying God.)
This may seem like semantics to you. Let me explain why I don’t think it is.
During the presentation, we heard the life story of someone who had overcome a great deal of tragedy. I began to think of people who have lost the most important people in their lives, the positions that defined them, or the abilities that set them apart. What did those losses mean for their purpose in life? For mothers and fathers who lose their spouses or children, what happens if their stated life purposes revolve around those people? Have their lives lost all meaning?
According to many of the ways we approach it, our life purpose can be stripped away in a moment. One tragedy can rip away everything we understood to give our lives meaning.
But the church answers in these times that we still have purpose and meaning. We still exist to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We still exist to know and love and serve him. That capacity can’t be ripped away. The particulars of how we go about it may have to change, perhaps in painful ways, but nothing can take away the meaning God has given to our lives.
Did you notice the reference to dignity in the Catholic Church’s catechism answer above? Because God created you to know and love him, you have human dignity. You can’t lose it by any circumstance or action––yours or anyone else’s. Your dignity comes from God’s unalterable, indestructible purpose for your life.
Freedom and autonomy reconsidered
While some people assume that God’s glory is implicit in their personal life mission, a second assumption goes further: That we’re free to choose the meaning of our lives. With this perspective, we’ll fight for our freedom and autonomy. No one else will dictate our meaning or govern our lives, we say.
To go this far, we’ll need to reject God’s claim on our lives. In fact, some people may be inclined to reject God for this very reason. They don’t want anyone else as sovereign in their lives.
I talked to a friend recently who was grieving the loss of her brother. He’s addicted to drugs, in denial, rejecting assistance, and estranged from his parents, siblings, ex-wife, and children. Is that man free and autonomous? According to modern libertarian notions he is. But according to Christian theology, he is far from free. He’s in a deep captivity, even if no one outside of him is exerting any control over his life.
Christian theology names a different freedom for that man: That he would be freed from the powers of Sin and Death that are ruling over him and freed to live as God created him to live––to live a life that glorifies and enjoys his creator.
That man’s example is more extreme than most of ours. But the end remains the same. When we live unrestrained and making our own choices about right and wrong, modern libertarianism calls it freedom, but Christian theology calls it bondage. When we instead live our lives devoted to God and his glory, our culture may call it unnecessary constraint and bondage, but we call it freedom.
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