Recently one of my daughters asked me the question, “What do you think is the purpose of your life?” My first reaction was to say, “I don’t know.”
Of course I couldn’t leave it at that. So I jabbered on about love, ever-changing life circumstances and my aunt Tanna, a seemingly selfless person who seemed to find her purpose in the most mundane of life’s chores - cooking, baking, cleaning, washing and ironing (while raising an orphan child without aid of a husband).
But I never really answered her question directly.
The way the question was worded, it seemed to differ from the more general “meaning of life” question or the “Why are we here?” question. Two words seemed to make the question different. The word “purpose”. And the word “your.” These made it too specific and too personal to answer with fine-sounding cliches. It brought to mind the whole question of vocation, a subject which I have been reading about in Gustaf Wingren’s “Luther on Vocation.”
I suppose it is a little late in life for me to be thinking about such things. My so-called career is mostly behind me. But career (defined as job or primary means of support) is, as Luther saw it, not necessarily vocation, but merely a part of it. I am in the early stages of studying this, and I don’t yet have a unified understanding of Luther’s theology - at least not one that will help me answer my daughter’s question directly. But the theological context for Luther’s thought is quite clear.
Luther’s views on vocation were born, in the main, as a response to monasticism. At first blush, this may not seem relevant today. However, the fundamental flaws of monastic thinking persist today, perhaps now more among Protestants than among Catholics. It is based in the attraction of “working for God.”
As I think about vocation (or “purpose of my life”) , I can appreciate the lure of this kind of thinking. If indeed I am personally called by God to some purpose, I am tempted to elevate that purpose into the heavenly realms. My purpose must be some grand spiritual purpose related to God’s Kingdom - maybe involving some great self-sacrifice. Not on a par with Paul or Mother Theresa, of course, but of the same general stuff. My purpose is to serve God - or “work for God” in some way, be it large or small.
If I travel down that road far enough, I run the risk of monastic thinking, which makes God the object of my vocation. When God is the object, then the focus of my attention is on hearing God’s call, obeying God, carrying out God’s wishes and pleasing God.
All this sounds good and righteous, and in some sense, it may well be. But Luther’s theology of vocation appears to be about none of this. It leaves God in heaven and keeps us and our vocation on earth. For Luther, the object of vocation is not God. The object of vocation is always my neighbor, who is not in the spiritual realms, but in plain sight - perhaps in the next room.
The needs of my neighbor rule the province of vocation. And although God surely puts these neighbors in my life (spouse, children, friends, work colleagues, strangers, etc.), my calling is to love, befriend and serve them, not concern myself with pleasing God. If there is an element of sacrifice in this service, it is sacrifice for neighbor, not for God.
One could say that this is not an either/or situation. For as we serve our neighbor, we are surely also serving and pleasing God. But working for God and pleasing God is not my purpose, since God is already well-pleased with me in Christ. And so my works are not for God, but for my neighbor. To the extent that I forget that, and spiritualize my efforts into the heavenlies, I can actually do harm to my neighbor. Now my neighbor becomes a project - a rung in my ladder to reach God - a means to my personal end. I set out to please God, searching for neighbors to help, meddling where I am neither wanted or needed, ignoring the needs of the neighbors God has already placed in my life.
Luther believed that love discovers for itself what is the greatest benefit to neighbor. And so vocation is always plural (vocations), not just because we simultaneously hold more than one station in life (spouse, parent, child, employee, friend, etc), but because the needs of our neighbors are ever-changing. Thus vocation can never fit into any prescribed program. Each person finds and follows his vocations, his purposes, in true freedom - freedom from any requirement to please God - motivated by the power of mere faith and love.
What this means to me personally and practically is still unclear. Except for this. I cannot answer my daughter’s question about my purpose with a generalized cliché, such as “to glorify God” or “to discern God’s will and do it.”
I would rather answer as I did - rambling on about love, changing life circumstances, and my Aunt Tanna. At least in that convoluted answer, “working for God” was not mentioned.