Purpose of life

Why were we created?

‘What is the meaning of life’ is a question that addresses so broad a topic, and is phrased in terms that are so open to interpretation, that it cannot be given a brief, satisfactory answer.

Instead of jumping in to answer it immediately, let’s pause and examine the question in greater detail.

Firstly, although you might not realise it initially, there are many ways of defining the word 'life.' There are biological meanings, none of which is as clear-cut as it seems.

Then, there are religious meanings and interpretations, which vary from institution to institution, and person to person. (For a detailed discussion of how to define life, refer to the section on Biological Life.)

Secondly, there are many ways of interpreting the word ‘meaning.’ Is one referring to the philosophical, monetary, social, biological, religious, or linguistic meaning?

Common answers to the question ‘What is the purpose of life’ include:
  • To bring about a net increase of good in the world.

  • To have a family and friends.

  • To achieve reproductive success.

  • To make an original contribution to our collective human knowledge.
In most of these answers, one observes a common theme- life is often thought to involve a persistence or propagation of something- of ideas, happiness, or genetic material, for instance.

In this sense, to cause something to live is to preserve or create copies of its essential information, such as the chemical composition and structure of the molecules composing the object, the series of data points that describe the object, and the characteristics of the object and its associated concepts and ideas.

The rest of this section is divided into two parts:
  1. The believer's perspective.

  2. Secular interpretations.

The believer's perspective.
The faithful believe that the meaning of life is:
  1. To glorify God.

  2. To worship God.

  3. To obey God’s will.

  4. To fulfil God’s purpose.

  5. To bring others closer to God (if the religion advocates proselytising).
To glorify God
Glorifying God means performing deeds that attest to God’s qualities. One does things that inspire awe, are worthy of recognition and merit, and confer glory to God.

This is only truly effective when other people are aware of one’s accomplishments, and know that the credit is being given to God.

This isn’t to say that God’s works are any less glorious if they have little direct impact on anyone besides yourself, or if no one else has heard about them- after all, God works in ingenious, often indirect, ways.

But all other things being equal, if you have to choose between a situation where no one knows about God’s impact on your life, and one where many people receive news of God’s mighty power, then the latter is preferable, because the more people hear about His work, the more God is glorified.
To worship God
Worship reinforces the image of God in the mind of the believer. The more often you remind yourself of God’s qualities, the more readily you form an association between the concept of ‘God’ and everything that you consider to be positive.

By worshipping God in public, you achieve similar effects to that of openly attributing your successes to God- other people are shown the extent of your devotion and adoration, and they subsequently infer that your God must truly be a majestic and worthy being.

Believers are confident in the knowledge that God takes great pleasure in being worshipped and feels pleased when followers pay fervent respects.
To obey God’s will
Believers are taught how to tell right from wrong, and are provided with guidance on how to follow God’s will.

Their instructions come from several main sources: through religious texts, through personal channels of communication with God, and through our leaders, elders, and fellow believers.

A list of clearly-stated laws directs believers on how to behave with regards to certain aspects of life; these should always be observed.

On other occasions, when complex issues make a situation more ambiguous and there are no explicit instructions governing one’s behaviour, then one must discern and obey God’s will to the best of one’s ability.

Followers may study examples from religious texts, of people caught in similar situations. They may turn to fellow believers for advice. They’re typically expected to pray to God and plead for an answer.

Believers often perceive prayer as a direct link to God, and feel that the act of praying gives one a kind of immunity, or at least a resistance, to evil. If one prays constantly, and thus remains steeped in God’s divine presence during every waking moment, then it seems unlikely that one will stray too far from God’s path.

One intuitively feels as though, if a believer did begin to take a step in an unseemly direction, God’s restorative powers would intervene to set things right. After all, God knows how weak human beings are- they require divine strength to fulfil godly purposes.

Furthermore, God is fair and righteous, and surely would not expect a believer to do more than is humanly possible, without spiritual guidance.

Thus, believers tend to feel that if one is devout, diligent, persistent, and earnest, and surrenders control to God, then God will take the reigns and imbue one with the courage and wisdom that’s required to follow God’s will.
To fulfil God’s purpose
It might sometimes seem difficult for a believer to tell whether God is pleased, and whether the believer is indeed fulfilling God’s purpose, as hoped.

After all- especially to external observers- there is no definite benchmark by which one can measure success in one’s spiritual life.

Faith in God helps set one’s mind at ease- since God is in control of everything, if you do your best to obey God in every way that is humanly possible, God will take care of the rest.

(For more on the subject of how to discern God's approval, refer to the section on Spiritual Health.)
To bring others closer to God
The tragedy of life for many believers is that not everyone shares, or is willing or able to share, the wonderful blessings that God lavishes upon the faithful. Not everyone experiences the joy of being in spiritual communion with God.

Many people, instead, spend their entire lives in a state of godless confusion, lacking understanding of the meaning of their existence.

They'll never know what it means to marvel at the greatness of one’s maker, to feel a sense of awe sweeping through one’s entire body at the realisation that God designed all of creation, or to devote oneself to God in exaltation and worship.

They'll never experience the sense of peace and comfort derived from the knowledge that God is the almighty protector, who watches unceasingly over every believer.

They'll never realise that the beautiful things of life come from God, or understand that the ugly and imperfect side of life stems from sin and the devil.

Non-believers, sadly, are lost in sin and will be barred from heaven when they die.

It's little wonder that many religions exhort their followers to spread their faith, to try to save as many as possible from their hellish fate, and to enable them to enjoy the same benefits of knowing God. The believers who proselytise fiercely are the ones who are keenly aware of the hugely positive effects of God’s presence in one’s life, as well as the devastating consequences of being without God.

The switch in going from being a non-believer to a believer boils down to a tiny paradigm shift- a realisation that God is real, a surrender to faith- that’s all it takes to make a difference between salvation and damnation.

Thus, to the proselytising believer, every opportunity that one has to spread the faith is crucial- the fate of someone’s soul depends on it.

(For more on the act of proselytising, refer to the section on Rituals.)
A secular perspective.
How do non-believers answer the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’

Well, there're numerous answers, and the breadth they cover depends on the respondent’s definition of the terms ‘meaning’ and ‘life.’

The key difference between the responses of religious and non-religious people is the lack of an assumption that God exists.

For example, a non-religious version of the answers listed above might be:
  • To glorify exemplary human qualities, and demonstrate our appreciation of and admiration for role models among us (instead of ‘To glorify God’ and ‘To worship God’).

  • To make careful decisions based on reliable sources of information, and carry out actions based on our best judgments (instead of ‘To obey God’s will’).

  • To help those in need and work towards a better future, for all organisms and the planet (instead of ‘To fulfil God’s purpose’).

  • To share our knowledge and decision-making rationale with each other and maximise the levels of education attained by each individual (instead of ‘To bring others closer to God’).
These are just a few examples of the goals people set for themselves when they define their ‘purpose’ in life.

Essentially, the way one answers the question depends on how one chooses to interpret it, and how one decides to organise one’s priorities.

Some people might answer that their purpose is to start a family, raise one’s children, make money, or start a charitable foundation to help others.

Humans are multifaceted and our lives, similarly, are multi-purpose.
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