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Finding the Purpose of Life When the World Is in Turmoil

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Forest Path and Sunlight

Why are we having to deal with political unrest, a global pandemic and financial upheaval all at the same time? This is a big question that will take generations of historians, philosophers, theologians, and anthropologists to sort out. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that everybody seems to be looking for an acknowledgement that their lives are important. Regardless of our financial situation, racial identity, citizenship status, gender, age, or physical ability might be, we all long to be acknowledged, to be shown and assured that our lives are valuable.

I’d like to share some wisdom I found in a lesser-known Nag Hammadi text that I think may help us better understand the meaning or purpose of our own lives. One of the reasons I enjoy studying these ancient texts is that they cut through the contemporary polarization and speak to issues of every generation.

Introducing The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles

The main story in The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles is about the disciples of Jesus going to some faraway place (after Jesus was gone) and discovering their greatest treasure in life is their ability to help and heal people in need. How they get there, of course, is the guide for people searching for the meaning and purpose of life.

Have you ever tried to explain a vivid dream to someone else? The feelings are vivid, but there’s no relationship to actual events. This story works the same way. It starts when the Apostles set sail to complete the ministry of their lord, Jesus Christ. A storm blows them off course to an unknown island, and a strange man appears, calling out “Pearls! Pearls!” He offers a free pearl if anyone can make the journey to where he came from. (Starting to sound like a dream, isn’t it?)

The man identifies himself as Lithargoel and explains that the journey to his city is treacherous and only possible for those who renounce all their possessions. The robbers and wild beasts will take whatever they try to bring. They pray for strength, and Lithargoel (who is Jesus in disguise) encourages them to proceed.  They head off, and the dream veers toward a nightmare.

“In a pact of faith we renounced everything… We avoided the robbers because they did not find the garments they were looking for with us. We avoided the wolves because we… We avoided the lions because we… We avoided the bulls because…” (7:23–31).

When they arrive at the front gate, they pause for a deep mutual reminder of their faith. Lithargoel appears again, but they don’t recognize him because he looks like a doctor holding a medicine case. (The nightmare blurs back to a better dream). They ask for directions to Lithargoel’s house, and he tells them to rest a while because first he is going to go treat his patient and then return. (Dreams always hold you in suspense, don’t they?)

When he returns from healing his patient, Lithargoel surprises them, revealing himself as Jesus Christ. Shocked to find him in this place, the disciples/apostles ask what they should do for him. He gives them the medicine case and instructs them to return to the city. (Return to where they just came from??!)  They should teach everyone who has believed. And, Jesus continues,  give “to the poor of that city give what they need to live, until I present to them what is better” (10:8–11).

Peter squirms a bit. Well, “Master, you have taught us to renounce the world and everything in it. We have forsaken these things for your sake . . . Where can we find what the poor need, which you ask us to give to them” (10:15–21)?

Jesus replies: “Don’t you know. . . that the wisdom of God is more than silver and gold and precious stones?” He gives them the bag of medicine and says, “Heal all the people of the city who are sick and believe in my name” (10:25–35).

Now John squirms: “We have not been taught to be doctors. How, then, shall we know how to heal bodies, as you have told us” (11:10­–13)?

Jesus replies: It’s true that the doctors of this world heal what is of this world. But doctors of the soul heal the heart.

“First heal bodies, [so] that through the real powers of healing their bodies, with no medicine of this world, they may come to believe in you, that you also have the power to heal sicknesses of the heart” (11: 14–26).

As for the wealthy people there, don’t bother. They’re too attached to their worldly ways and possessions to hear you.

Is this the meaning and purpose of life?

A simple interpretation might go something like this.

After Jesus’s death, the disciples are adrift, confused, and frightened, trying to survive and find their purpose. Someone catches their attention with the hope of a treasure. In order to obtain the treasure, they must let go of all their worldly attachments, because these only impede their progress. Letting go is difficult, but in doing so, they find divine strength to move forward.

Discovering the source of their hope, the disciples/apostles learn that their treasure is actually the discovery of their purpose in life. They discern the call to help and heal those who are receptive to their spiritual gifts. Not knowing the worldly means of healing, they resort to their spiritual strength to heal broken bodies first. And then those who are healed will be receptive to the healing of their souls.

What does it mean in 2021?

What a beautiful way to realize that our lives have purpose, especially in the midst of turmoil. According to this ancient wisdom, our purpose in life is to use our inner/spiritual gifts to help and heal others. We can also relate to the difficulties we might encounter in letting go of unnecessary baggage we carry around, such as anger, inflated egos, wasted wealth, or personal preoccupations. But when we drop those weights, we discover a strength we may not have known—the power to do good for others.