Does my life have purpose or value? Or are you and I a cosmic accident? How can we know? Where can you or I look in history or nature to discern whether or not our lives have any meaning? Trying to detect purpose by merely looking at this world and its circumstances might possibly be a shortsighted mistake. Let me explain by way of illustration.
I own a rock. It’s brown, the size of a tennis ball, and unremarkable. Someone would not, just by looking at it, be able to tell what purpose it has or what its value is to me. In a rock pile it would look purposeless and meaningless.
But it’s not just a stone. I use it as a paperweight on my desk. Here we need to note the important distinction between “evidences of design” and “evidences of purpose.” There’s nothing about the rock and its features that shows “intelligent design.” Only when one saw the rock being used as a paperweight would he realize that the rock, contrary to appearances, has a function or purpose.
But more important than function, the rock has value. Cindy Bush, Russ Bush’s widow, gave me that rock after Dr. Bush died. L Russ Bush was a dear teacher and mentor to me. He picked up that rock while he, Matt (my son), and I were at the top of Pike’s Peak in 2001. That was a wonderful day I will always remember fondly.
Many times the discussion between believers and unbelievers about God, his existence, and his involvement with the world gravitates around evidences of divine design (or more generically, evidences of “intelligent design”). Believers often find themselves defending against objections that focus on evidences of poor design, lack of evidences of discernable design, or the existence of horrific evils. We need to remember that Scripture doesn’t speak merely of design, but also of purpose (perhaps even primarily so). The Bible gives abundant examples of God accomplishing his will through flawed instruments, through subtle means that are almost completely indiscernible, and through evil agents and events. God often accomplishes his will through an instrument for which it was never designed.
Isaiah 10 provides an example of the point I am trying to make. The Lord, speaking through the prophet, declares that he has sent the Assyrian army to invade Israel for the purpose of chastening Israel for its idolatry. “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger And the staff in whose hand is My indignation. I will send him against an ungodly nation, And against the people of My wrath” (Isa. 10:5-6). Isaiah makes clear that the Assyrian king has no idea that he is God’s instrument of judgment. “Yet he does not mean so, Nor does his heart think so; But it is in his heart to destroy, And cut off not a few nations” (Isa. 10:7). The Assyrian army was never assembled for the purpose of accomplishing Yahweh’s will, but that is exactly what they did.
God’s use of the Assyrian army illustrates one other important point: many times the ability to discern God’s purpose is not possible without the aid of divine revelation. The Assyrian invaders conquered one ancient near-eastern city after another—many nations fell. Would a contemporary of Isaiah, who was an outside observer, have been able to recognize the divine purpose for the Assyrian armies? I don’t see how.
So whether we are attempting to discern God’s providence in nature, in human history, or in our personal circumstances, let us remember the difference between design and purpose. Sometimes we can clearly see the hand of God, but more often we cannot. However, we can confidently trust that God has a plan, and that events—all events—will ultimately accomplish the purpose of glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ.
This blog is cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com