Commentary: Who are we and what is our purpose in life?


David Brooks writes that “many young people are graduating (from our most elite colleges and universities) into limbo … plagued by uncertainty about who they are and what is their purpose in life. In response to this problem, Yale University began a course ten years ago designed to help students answer those questions. 

This popular course is taught by three Christian teachers who have gone on to write a book, entitled Life Worth Living: A Guide to What Matters Most, designed for students and readers who want and need to answer the questions that most every religion and philosophy tries to answer: “Who are we and what is our purpose in life?”

The authors are well aware of what Carl Trueman says in his article The Desecration of Man,” that many people with “unique intellectual brilliance” are lost “amid the vastness of an impersonal universe” and have no sense of “special significance.” When asked “who they are” they are inclined to answer “nothing much” and there seems to be no “consensus on who or what we are as human beings” (First Things, p. 22). Many star students have so lost their bearings when it comes to who they are and what is their purpose that they have been caught up in such downward spirals as angry anti-Semitism, boorish behavior, cancel-culture mentality, and delinquent scholarship.

The book challenges students-readers to do some hard thinking to understand who they are and their purpose. May I share with you a few challenges and insights?

While quoting Pascal, “all men are in search of happiness” (p. 21), the authors are quick to remind us that “the good life isn’t always long, happy, and healthy” (p. 25). They then refer to Abraham Lincoln whose “melancholy seemed to roll from (his) shoulders and drip from the ends of his fingers” (p. 26). He once said, “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it” (p. 26). A Yale graduate student who had suffered “three tragic losses in quick succession” shared with her fellow students, “I hope you have a vision (philosophy) of life that will sustain you … when that day comes when the world stops and your heart breaks and you are faced with trying to survive the storm” (p. 203).

While we human beings are prone to be derailed by evil of one kind or another, the book discusses the way to get back on track through repentance. It raises the most provocative question: “Do we have a philosophy of life that can triumph over our innate selfishness?”

We read about how Thomas Jefferson’s original Declaration of Independence spoke out against slavery, saying it was “a cruel war against human nature itself.” However, Jefferson later deleted it, probably because “he wrote in his ledger” that it was profitable for him to own slaves. His own innate selfishness overrode his view that slavery was wrong.

Meanwhile, a contemporary of Jefferson’s named Robert Carter III had a “divine encounter” that he called a “most gracious illumination” which led him to be baptized in a “Separate Baptist Church,” and eventually he went on to emancipate all his slaves” (pp. 228-229).

As I read the authors’ challenges, I thought about when I was a young teenager trying to figure out who I was and what my purpose in life should be. I saw a movie entitled “Alfie” starring a young Michael Caine. There was a captivating song with some haunting words that asked, “What’s it all about, Alfie – is it just for the moment we live … Are we meant to take more than we give?” It then said, “I believe in love, Alfie without true love, we just exist, Alfie.” Now, over sixty years later I know that these are truer than true words.

Which religion not only encourages us to “give more than we take” but equips us to be self-giving in our love for others?

I recently read these words: “Science does not know the terms love, joy, peace, and the forgiveness of sins.” We might add, neither does Marxism or Materialism, Hedonism or Hyper-Individualism. This quotation goes on to say, “Only in the Bible does one get an authoritative message about these things.”

In Psalm 6:3-6 David had a conversation with God in which he spells out who we are. In Psalm 139:14 he reflects on having “been remarkably and wonderfully made.” We have, with our ability to think and feel, speak and act for ourselves, been created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).

Physicist John Polkinghorne says that “the most surprising and significant event in cosmic history... is how we are aware of the incredible complexities and intricacies of human life.” Simple logic tells us that it doesn’t make sense for anyone to say dismissively that our ability to think and reason just happened without rhyme or reason.

Deep down inside our hearts, souls, and minds we know that God has created us with enquiring minds that can seek and find the truth about ourselves and who God has created us to be. With this in mind, let’s turn to Matthew 22:27-29 where Jesus talks about our God-given purpose in answer to a question about God’s greatest commandment. It is to love God (trust and obey the Creator Who knows what’s best for us) and love our neighbor as ourselves (to love others as God loves us).

We believe God has shown us how to love each other by humbling Himself to come in the person of Jesus to live among us, suffer with us, die for us, and then live within us.  Here we see the greatest love the world has ever known or imagined. When we open up our hearts, souls and minds to His loving and life-changing Spirit, Christ inspires and empowers us to live by loving – day by day and moment by moment. This is what enquiring minds and empty souls are looking for.


Paul R. Baxter is the mission strategist for Georgia's Pine Mountain Baptist Association.