Shakespeare and the Quest for Purpose

What do these phrases have in common?

  • Wild goose chase
  • Pure as the driven snow
  • Seen better days
  • Off with his head
  • Forever and a day
  • Good riddance
  • Fair play
  • It's Greek to me
  • Lie low
  • As luck would have it
  • Love is blind
  • Break the ice
  • Heart of gold
  • The game is afoot

Answer: they were all coined by a writer who died on April 23rd , 400 years ago, but who is still amazingly relevant today. William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more than those of any other playwright.

In marking the anniversary of his death, President Obama toured the reconstruction of the Globe Theater where most of Shakespeare's plays were first performed. Prince Charles visited his hometown. And articles the world over have extolled his greatness and significance.

Oddly, Shakespeare never attended a university. He was born to impoverished parents and grew up in a small town north of London. No one when he was young would have imagined that he was destined for such greatness. But he was.

Like Shakespeare, you and I have a purpose that is eternally significant. There is something in us that longs to know and fulfill our greatest purpose. We all want to leave a legacy, to know that our lives mattered long after they are done.

Recently I've been thinking about Jesus' simple beatitude, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). I believe his words hold the key to living a life of significance. Let's explore them together.

Choose to have a life purpose

Greek scholar Fritz Rienecker defines "heart" as "the center of the inner life of the person where all the spiritual forces and functions have their origin." "Pure" means here to have integrity, to be consistent, to be of one mind.

So to be "pure in heart" is to have a single purpose to your life. Kierkegaard was right: "Purity of heart is to will one thing." To choose to have a single life purpose.

Not everyone believes you can. Many think that life has no real purpose or meaning. Philosopher Martin Heidegger says you're an actor on a stage, with no script, director, audience, past, or future. Courage is to face life as it is.

French philosopher and playwright Jean Paul Sartre titled his most famous play No Exit and his first novel Nausea. In Existentialism and Human Emotions, he ended the chapter titled "The Hole" with these words: "Man is a useless passion" (p. 107).

"Postmodernism" says there's no absolute truth, which is itself an absolute truth claim. Life has no real purpose, just what you make of it. Life is chaotic, random dots produced by the coincidence of evolution and the chance occurrences of life.

Why not share this chaotic world view? Why seek to be "pure of heart," to have a single purpose?

One answer is practical: greatness is possible only through commitment to a single purpose.

Winston Churchill in June of 1941: "I have but one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby." Brilliant scholar and author William Barclay: "A man will never become outstandingly good at anything unless that thing is his ruling passion. There must be something of which he can say, 'For me to live is this.'" He also noted that "there are two great days in a person's life—the day we are born and the day we discover why."

A second answer is logical: if the universe were chaotic, without purpose or meaning, you and I would never be able to know it or say it.

Think with me for a moment. If reality were truly chaotic, there would be nothing we could "know." Red today would be green tomorrow. Stand before a Jackson Pollock painting, splotches on the canvas, and tell me what it "means." Or before a Marc Rothco, a canvas painted all a single solid color. Again, no meaning. (Both artists committed suicide, by the way.)

If the world were chaos like their paintings, there could be no objective truth, not even the objective statement that there is no objective truth. And we couldn't speak of truth, for language could have no common meaning between us.

A third answer is biblical: Jesus made this statement about human experience, "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other" (Matthew 6:24). James added this command: "Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded" (4:8). To purify our hearts we must not be "double-minded." We must have a single life purpose.

A fourth answer is spiritual: we must be "pure in heart" to see God. Jesus' beatitude makes this fact clear. Let's explore here for a moment.

We cannot see God with our physical eyes: "You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live" (Exodus 33:20). But we can "see" God spiritually. Hebrews 11:27 says of Moses, "He endured as seeing him who is invisible." Exodus 33:11 states, "The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend."

We can know God this intimately, but only if we are pure in heart. Hebrews 12:14 warns us, "Without holiness no one will see the Lord." But Jesus promises: if we are "pure in heart," we will.

Campaign contributors will pay $10,000 and more for a table at a dinner, hoping just to meet the president or their candidate. Imagine knowing intimately the God who created the universe. You can. But you must be pure in heart. You must choose a single life purpose.

Choose the right life purpose

So how do we become "pure in heart." Assuming that these practical, logical, biblical, and spiritual arguments are compelling, what do you do next? What single life purpose will lead us to "see God"?

We're not the first to ask Jesus.

Remember the lawyer's trick question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?" (Matthew 22:36). Which of our 613 commandments will you neglect, so we can convict you of breaking the law?

And remember his answer, summarizing all the law and the prophets, all the word and will of God: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . Love your neighbor as yourself" (vs. 37, 39). The two are one, Jesus' answer to the lawyer's request for the greatest single commandment in God's word. They are two wings of the same spiritual airplane, both essential for the soul that flies into the presence of God. Examine them for a moment.

Love the Lord "with all your heart," by walking in the will of God. Remember that your heart is the center of your life, the origin of your will and actions. The Bible instructs us, "Flee youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22). Flee evil, pursue righteousness. Walk in the will of God and you'll be "pure in heart."

Love the Lord "with all your soul," by practicing the worship of God. With your spiritual life, your daily worship: "Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name" (Psalm 86:11, NIV). To "fear" God is to reverence him, to honor him, to worship him. The "undivided heart" is the pure heart. Love God with your daily worship, as you commune with him, walk with him, praise him. And you'll be "pure in heart."

Love the Lord "with all your mind," by knowing the word of God. Know and obey his revealed truth: "Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth . . . love one another earnestly from a pure heart" (1 Peter 1:22). Know and obey the truth of God's word and you'll be "pure in heart."

And love your neighbor as yourself: "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart" (1 Timothy 1:5). Share God's love by living your faith. As Francis of Assisi suggests, preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.

Share God's love by caring for hurting souls. Show them God's love in yours. Share God's love by explaining your faith. Share with them God's salvation, and urge them to experience his grace. And you'll be "pure in heart."

Choose your life purpose

So your life purpose consists in loving God and loving people. What you do for a living is your expression of this purpose. Your Kingdom assignment is simply the way God wants you to love him and love us. How can you know that assignment?

One: Ask God. He wants you to know his will more than you want to know it. But he can lead only those who will follow.

Two: Be open to anything he says, in whatever way he speaks. Sometimes he guides us intuitively, as his Spirit speaks to our spirit. Sometimes he guides us practically, through open and closed doors, opportunities and circumstances. Sometimes he guides us rationally, through Scripture and reason. Sometimes he guides us relationally, through the wisdom and influence of other people.

Three: Be faithful today and trust eternity to God. God's will is a flashlight that shows the next step, not a floodlight that shows the final destination. Great people plant trees they'll never sit under.

So choose to have a single life purpose, for practical, logical, biblical, and spiritual reasons. Choose Jesus' purpose: love the Lord your God with your heart through his worship, with your soul through his will, with your mind through his word. Love others as yourself. You will be "pure in heart." And you will see God.


Shakespeare's best advice to us is perhaps found in this single observation: "To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man" (Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3).

To be true to yourself, be true to your Lord's calling on your life. You cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.