On September 1, 1985 explorer Robert Ballard made a discovery that made his heart leap into his throat. He later recorded his feelings about this event and said, “My first direct view of Titanic lasted less than two minutes, but the stark sight of her immense black hull towering above the ocean floor will remain forever ingrained in my memory. My lifelong dream was to find this great ship, and during the past 13 years the quest for her had dominated my life. Now, finally, the quest was over.”1
Ballard spent 13 years of his life searching for the long-lost Titanic. He had dreamed of it even before beginning the expedition. The goal of this find drove him on. His experience demonstrates the power that a single purpose has in a person’s life.
This makes me ask a simple but important question: Do you know how to live on purpose?
I am not sure most people know how to dream as Ballard, and countless others before him, knew. Many of us seem to drift along, never dreaming, never longing for something better, never fighting to achieve, and never following the power of a single purpose. I am not referring primarily to getting things – new cars, stereos, computers, and the like. We have garages full of stuff, but still lack a single, compelling purpose for living. Without that purpose, we drift along as sticks in a swollen river. Think about many of the people you know. Many are after things that do not seem to matter much. They feel that life is composed of the accumulation of gadgets and gizmos. But if that is all life is, then life is nothing worth worrying about.
To have a purpose in life is a guiding and steadying influence. What you are “up to” in life is one way of describing your purpose in life. Another way is to think about what you consider most worthwhile.
All of these are the same way of asking, “Why are you living?” “What is your purpose in life?” We simply must have some overall purpose in life. Joseph Addison said, “The grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” Those elements give us a reason to get up in the morning and to keep pursuing our dreams even when they seem out of reach. We are made to live on purpose.
People with a clear-cut sense of purpose can withstand many challenges, inconveniences, and difficulties that others cannot. They do not give up. They do not break the 11th commandment – “Thou Shalt Not Whine.” These people are like the explorer Ballard who kept going for 13 years while pursuing his dream of discovering the Titanic. People who live on purpose are like the early explorers who risked their very lives to carve out places in the wilderness for their families.
One person’s mountain is another’s molehill. The same hammer that tempers steel shatters glass. The difference is in the material. Thus it is with life. An experience that might throw one person off course is hardly even an inconvenience to another. One is drifting and gets sidetracked anywhere. The other knows where he or she is headed and lets nothing interfere for long.
I read of an experiment that demonstrates the difference between existing by chance and living on purpose. Processionary caterpillars feed on pine needles. They move through the trees in a long procession, one leading, the others following, each with its eyes half-closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of its predecessor. The French naturalist, Jean-Henri Fabre, after patiently experimenting with a group of these caterpillars finally enticed them onto the rim of a flowerpot. He succeeded in getting the first one connected up with the last one, thus forming a complete circle, which started moving around in procession with neither a beginning nor an end. Fabre expected that after a while they would catch on to the joke, get tire of the useless march, and start off in some new direction.
But they didn’t. Instead, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot. Around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights until they died of exhaustion and starvation. Food was close by, but was outside the range of the circle, so the caterpillars continued along the comfortable path.
People can be like that, mistaking activity for accomplishment and movement for direction. We can follow habit to oblivion. We can be so resistant to change that we perish. If we are going nowhere we will get there soon.
So what does living on purpose mean? Let me suggest several things:
1. To Live On Purpose Means Determining Our Own Course In Life.
In his book, The Image – A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin points out that over the past century and a half people have moved from being travelers to becoming tourists. The Old English noun “travel” was originally the same word at “travail” – trouble, work, torment. For centuries, to travel was to submit to a certain kind of torture, to do something tough.
That began to change in the middle of the 19th century. Some entrepreneur came up with the idea of marketing travel as an adventure. Thus was born the tour. Legend has it that the very first tour took place in 1838. A group of people from Wadebridge, England, traveled by special train to the nearby village of Bodmin. There they got to have the fun of watching the hanging to two killers. Since the Bodmin gallows was in clear view of the uncovered station, the tourists had their adventure without even needing to leave their open railway carriages.2
To live on purpose we need to learn the difference between being a tourist in life – going only where it’s convenient and comfortable, and a traveler – one who determines his or her own way in life and will get there even if it means blazing a new trail. One reason why so many people try to climb Mt. Everest is that they want to push themselves and do something that makes them feel alive. But we can push ourselves in moral, spiritual, and relational areas also. Consider Joshua, the Old Testament leader who challenged his people to choose their purpose in life and to stay with it. He said to them, “If serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (
2. To Live On Purpose Means To Take Appropriate Risks To Achieve Your Goal.
Underscore the word appropriate. I’m not asking you to do stupid things. Quite the contrary. When we examine our motives and the direction of our lives, we discover that they often seem to be drifting off course. Sometimes we need to make some changes that seem risky. But what real achievement is accomplished in the easy chair?
The acclaimed author of Roots, Alex Haley, once said about taking risks, “Nothing is more important. Too often we are taught how not to take risks. When we are children in school, for example, we are told to respect our heroes, our founders, the great people of the past. We are directed to their portraits hanging on walls and in hallways and reproduced in textbooks. What we are not told is that these leaders, who look so serene and secure in those portraits, were in fact rule-breakers. They were risk-takers in the best sense of the word; they dared to be different.”3
That’s it – dare to be different. Determine where you want to go and start. The path will have dangers and you will have to take appropriate risks. But the alternative is to stay where you are now. Is that where you want to be?
I have a friend who is ninety years young. Her name is Frankie. She is alive and alert because she lives each day with purpose. She has volunteered at the local hospital for 20 years. Frankie recently left an established church to help start a new congregation. Because she lives fully in the present for the sake of the future, she came to our house and got some cuttings off various vegetation to plant in her yard. Frankie has had plenty of setbacks in life but she has faced each one bravely. She has taken appropriate risks all her life and in now looking forward to reaching the century mark.
3. To Live On Purpose Means Being Open To Serendipity.
To live on purpose does not mean to barrel headlong through life so intensely that you actually miss life while trying to live. Some of life’s greatest moments come as serendipity – surprises that are happy opportunities that seem to signal, “Hey, wake up. Pay attention. Be in the moment.” Someone has wisely observed, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the places and moments that take our breath away.”
In the 1970’s Bill Bowerman, the University of Oregon track coach, was searching for a design for a new type of track shoe for his star runners. One morning his wife served him a plate of waffles. Suddenly, he envisioned a slab of rubber pressed down over a waffle iron. That idea became the initial spark for a company to be called Nike. At their superstore/museum in Chicago, you can still see Mrs. Bowerman’s rubberized waffle iron.
You never know what might cross your path when you are truly alive and awake. Our son Ryan volunteers at a crisis center in his college town. He started there as part of an academic requirement but has stayed on because helping people has given him a great sense of purpose. His eyes sparkle when he speaks of talking someone out of suicide. When we know what we are after in life, we find that opportunities open all around us. Someone said of John D. Rockefeller, “When it was raining money, John knew how to turn his cup up the right way.”
4. To Live On Purpose Means To Take 100% Responsibility For Your Life.
The old comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes” shows this so clearly. Calvin says, “Nothing I do is my fault. My family is dysfunctional and my parents won’t empower me! Consequently I’m not self-actualized. My behavior is addictive functioning in a disease process of toxic codependency! I need holistic healing and wellness before I’ll accept any responsibility for my actions!”
Hobbes replies: “One of us needs to stick his head in a bucket of ice water.”
Calvin says, “I love the culture of victimhood.”
Many people love this culture, but not those who live on purpose. They chart their own course in life and take responsibility for everything, both good and bad. Many a person has earned a Ph.D. at the university of hard knocks. But those people invariably see setbacks and problems as part of what makes them stronger. They do not waste time and energy whining about how people are unfair. They do not curse life for not placing them at the head of the line. They simply but firmly accept responsibility for their own responses to life.
We cannot choose everything that happens to us but we can choose how we react. When we live on purpose we find that setbacks are temporary and every problem holds potential. Life is what happens in us, not just around us.
In a previous era ocean-going ships flew three flags. The one on the main peak is the house flag that showed ownership. The flag on the forepeak was of the country of call. The one on the stern peak was the flag of the country of hail. That imagery is significant – ownership, origin, and destination. When we live on purpose we know each of these three. We know who and what we belong to. We remember where we came from. And primarily, we lean forward toward our destination. A man of intense purpose, the apostle Paul, put it this way: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (
Let us live well. Let us live long. Let us live life as an adventure. But whatever else we do, let us live on purpose.
1. Robert D. Ballard, “A Long Last Look at the Titanic”, National Geographic, Dec. 1986, p. 702.
2. Boorstin, cited by Donald McCullough, “Are Your Touring or Traveling?,” Great Preaching 1996, pp. 5-6.
3. Haley, quoted by Walter Anderson, The Greatest Risk of All. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1988), p. 240.