It is the time of year where graduations abound. Commencement speakers and familial advice-givers are saying things like: “Follow your passion!” “Chase your dreams!” “Focus on being true to yourself!” “You can change the world!”

On the whole, such admonitions are dreadful advice and will paralyze, not liberate, those who embrace them. As far as the real work of sorting out your life direction and purpose, they are cotton-candy assertions and will be accompanied by the subsequent cotton-candy stomach ache for those who feed on them.

Consider some of the problematic commonalities of the admonitions:

  1. Each one is a vague abstraction.
  2. Each one is a self-referential call to look inward, rather than upward, or outward.
  3. Each one is individualistic, with no thought of place or community.
  4. Each one assumes that you can identify your passion by just thinking about it.
  5. Each one assumes the purpose of life is self-fulfillment.

The truth is finding your passion is most often the product a lot of faithful work that is pursued to the glory of God because it is your duty. We often romanticize the effectiveness of just sitting around and thinking, “What do I want to do?” We act as if our individualized answer to that question should be determinative apart from any other input. Sidelined in this type of thinking is any focus on the providence of God and the community where God’s providence has rooted and shaped our lives. Also missing is the clear biblical teaching that the purpose of life is gospel-driven self-sacrifice and not individualized self-fulfillment.

The apostle Paul exhorts in Philippians 2:3-8 (CSB),

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross.

I have been thinking about these things during graduation season and I ran across a section from David Brooks book, The Road to Character, that I found very helpful and instructive on this topic:

You should ask certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? What do I want from life? What are the things I truly value, that are not done just to please or impress the people around me?

In this scheme of things, we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs.

Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, “At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?” [David Brooks, The Road of Character (New York: Random House, 2015), 21]

Christians, of all people, should know that we did not create our lives, and that we are not only summoned by life, we are summoned by the God who is the creator of life. We are wholly dependent beings, not autonomous ones. The Scripture calls God’s people to an earthy, concrete, real-world, embodied, communal spirituality. A life purpose and direction that does not ignore providence, place, or people.