I just learned that Mark Wahlberg will star in M. Night Shyamalan’s next film, The Happening. It led me once again to wonder whether working for Shyamalan requires a signed statement of faith. The man writes myths—stories that claim to reveal fundamental truths about the world. How could he expect his actors to be believable if they didn’t share his beliefs?
Immediately I can hear my friends asking, “What makes you think you know what he actually believes?” “The fact that the primary plot element in every one of his movies is the (successful) search for purpose,” would be my response. He writes scene after passionate scene in which struggling characters discover and shoulder their personal purposes. You can’t write that way without believing.
Let’s say I convince my friends. They’d still want to know why people in the real world should care about what Shyamalan thinks. Movie trivia? “Life is often purposeless, senseless,” they’d say. “If Shyamalan can’t see it anymore, that’s because he’s lost himself in a fairy-tale world.”
By this point I’m sure I would have lost the argument—whatever it was about—had the Presbyterian Church (USA) not come to my rescue. On August 16 they reprinted a piece by Robert Wilson, their 2006 General Assembly Vice Moderator, called “The Purpose of Life.” It moves Shyamalan’s beliefs from the cinema into the pulpit.
“Regardless of how large or small,” Wilson wrote, “we were all born to accomplish a certain task. It is the knowledge of that purpose that enables every soul to fulfill itself. One person with knowledge of his or her life’s purpose is more powerful than ten thousand working without that knowledge.”
But I hear my friends again. “You can’t defend Shyamalan by saying the PCUSA believes in personal purpose too! Of course they do. They believe that God controls everything. They believe in predestination.”
And it would be all downhill from there. Some of my friends think predestination is an inescapable scriptural fact. Others say it is nothing but a repulsive belief that God is evil.
There is one thing we all agree on, however. We wish personal purpose was more than a fairy tale or heresy. It wouldn’t be a fairy tale if God gives it to us. But can you think God does so without thinking He’s responsible for the evils in your life?
To find out, we have to clarify the meanings of “purpose” and “plan.” Once we do so, we’ll be much better prepared to understand what Scripture says about our question. The problem is that “God has a purpose for me” and “God has a plan for me” can mean four different things—each.
“God has a purpose for me” might mean:
(1) God had a reason for creating me. God made me on purpose (whether because God likes to make things, wants to do something with me or has a task He needs accomplished).
(2) God has a reason for everything that happens to me. Everything happens on purpose (whether or not it is all leading up to some final goal).
(3) There is a task or goal which God wants me to accomplish. There is a specific purpose for my life: to achieve something God has set out for me (whether or not God created me for that reason in the first place).
(4) There is a way of life in which God wants me to live. There is some lifestyle, or code of conduct, God has purposed that I adopt (whether or not this is because there is some lifestyle that God wants all humans to adopt).
On the other hand, “God has a plan for me” can mean:
(a) God created me to accomplish a specific task or goal. This is more specific than No. (1) above. It seems to be the situation in which Jeremiah (1:5) found himself and in which the Hebrew people (Jeremiah 29:11), as a people, found themselves.
(b) God has a reason for everything that happens to me because it is leading up to some final goal. This is more specific than (2) above. “Everything happens for a reason” is a belief held by many, including Shyamalan.
(c) There is a task or goal which God wants me to accomplish whether He created me for that reason or not. This is identical with (3) above. It seems to be the situation in which Isaiah (49:1-6) and Paul (Galatians 1:15) found themselves.
(d) There is a way of life which God has specifically assigned to me, not because it’s how He wants all humans to live, but because there is something particular about me or my situation. This is more specific than (4) above. It seems to be the situation in which those such as nuns and pastors find themselves.
If “God has a purpose for me” means anything other than (3), therefore, it is possible for God to have a purpose for you without having a plan for you. In other words, even if God hasn’t decided precisely what you should be doing, or what should be happening to you, or where you are going to go when you die, He can still have given you a purpose. You could be a complete accident (whether in your parent’s eyes, or in “Science’s”) and still have a purpose from God.
And if you read Ecclesiastes 12:13, Micah 6:8, Matthew 22:37-40 and 25:14-30, you will see that God has given you a purpose—at least in the sense of number (4). Even if God had no specific plan for you, He has laid out your purpose in the practices and lifestyle described in those verses. Shyamalan et al. may be wrong, therefore—I’m not saying they are—but that doesn’t mean God has left us to our own devices. Our purpose is to be human in the way God wants humans to be.
Thanks to my sister, Joanna Tillman, for pointing out that Matthew 22:37-40 is a statement of purpose!