In the opening scene in the movie “Apocalypse Now,” the camera descends through the blades of a slowly turning ceiling fan to settle on a solitary American soldier, sitting on a sweat-soaked mattress in a cheap hotel in Vietnam. The heat and humidity are palpable, but so is the boredom that is projected by the motionless soldier. It is hard to tell which is the more oppressive. Then comes the voice-over: “Saigon. Waiting for a mission.”
As I reflect on my own journey in life, I believe most of my time before I met Jesus Christ was spent waiting for a mission. No, of course, I did not think of my life that way, but in retrospect it seems that I was figuratively “waiting for the phone to ring.” As Pink Floyd says in their haunting song, “Time,” I was, “waiting for someone or something to show me the way.” In the end, my “something” was rock climbing. Maybe it wasn’t significant or impressive, but it was something, and something is better than nothing, and so I gave myself to rock climbing for fifteen years. That was my purpose. Then I met Jesus and trusted in Jesus and my question of purpose was forever answered. Christ became my purpose, and He defines my mission.
I think that purpose is a huge issue for everyone, but it is especially important for men. Men are more driven than women. Men are goal seekers. It was 600 men who rode into the valley of death in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” And purpose is big for men. In sports, athletes have been known to say, “Play me or trade me, but don’t sit me on the bench.” In life, I think the saying for men goes, “Give me a mission or I wither and die.”
ELIJAH IS LOOKING FOR A PURPOSE
In 1 Kings 18, we read of the contest between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Before their contest, Elijah confronts the people of Israel with a challenging question: “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him (1 Kings 18:21).” In the end, Elijah calls on the LORD to send fire from heaven to burn up the evening sacrifice, then he kills all the false prophets of Baal. It was probably Elijah’s greatest moment.
But then a short while later, our bold and brave hero is running into the wilderness from Jezebel like a scared rabbit. Gone are the challenging questions and the bold calls to the LORD to send fire from heaven, and all we read is that Elijah, “was afraid and arose and ran for his life (1 Kings 19:3).”
What has happened to the fearless prophet?
While some commentators think Elijah is depressed, I had another thought as I looked at this scene through the lens of purpose. Back in 1 Kings 17, Elijah bursts onto the scene from out of nowhere and immediately announces that there will be a long drought in Israel (17:1). Then for the next three and a half years, Elijah is the prophet in Israel, and his life is all about purpose. He is as powerful as Ahab, the king of Israel, and even confronts Ahab about his wickedness and godlessness. Elijah has been a man on a mission with a God-given purpose for three and a half years.
But now, that has all changed. The drought is over, there has been a bit of a revival among the people as they have moved back toward the LORD, and the prophets of Baal have been slain. The mission has been accomplished, so it is possible that Elijah is wondering if his purpose is done. He may be wondering, “LORD, are You done with me?” Then comes the threat from Jezebel, and Elijah thinks, “Surely this is a signal from the LORD that my work is done. Well, if my work here is done, then, LORD, take me home.”
“IS MY WORK DONE?”
This idea of purpose makes sense as we examine the events that take place in this chapter. Notice that twice the angel of the LORD brings food to Elijah, and the second time He says, “Arise, eat, for the journey is too great for you (19:7).” But if Elijah’s purpose is over, why would the angel of the LORD give him food for the journey? Hmm. And what is this journey He mentions? It seems that Elijah needs energy because there is a journey for him to complete.
Elijah’s travels bring him to Horeb, the mountain of God. Then the word of the LORD comes to him, and the LORD said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah (19:9)?” Now, this is fascinating! This is a question about Elijah’s purpose. “Why have you come here, Elijah?” But Elijah uses the question to express his discouragement. Here is a paraphrase of 19:10: “I have accomplished the mission You gave me and now I have no purpose. Take me home!”
The LORD then displays His power three times, in a wind so strong it breaks the rocks apart, then in an earthquake, and then in a firestorm. Then the LORD spoke to Elijah again and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah (19:13)?” Elijah answers the LORD exactly the same way, but this time he is asking the LORD for a mission. “LORD, I am still willing to work toward another mission. Have You still got a purpose for me?”
The LORD then gives Elijah a purpose and a mission that will last him the rest of his days on earth. Armed with the power of a new purpose, Elijah goes out with vigor.
NEED PURPOSE, NO PURPOSE, PURPOSE, AND MY PURPOSE
There are definite lessons to learn from this narrative about purpose in life.
First, we are purpose-seeking creatures because we are purpose-needing creatures. We have been created by God for purpose, and we are adrift until we have a compelling mission that gives us a sense of God-given purpose. So, I would say that every person yearns for a sense of purpose.
Second, until a person comes to Christ for salvation, it is impossible to have a God-given purpose and, therefore, all choices of purpose are arbitrary. It is like my choice of having rock climbing for my purpose. A person may make a “better choice” than rock climbing for their purpose, but it is, nevertheless, an arbitrary choice that will soon lose its satisfaction and its ability to compel me to action. Without Christ, there is no God-given purpose.
Third, all believers in Christ receive a sense of purpose and mission at salvation. That is because all followers of Jesus have been called to a mission (Matthew 28:19-20) and have received a God-given purpose (Acts 1:8). As a person grows as a Christian, that person gradually releases their grip on worldly purposes and joyfully accepts their mission and purpose in Christ. All believers have received a God-given mission and purpose.
Ah, but fourth, there is available to all believers but received by relatively few a purpose that could be described as “my unique purpose.” This is that purpose that fulfills the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4). This purpose conveys to the possessor the feeling that, “This is the reason I was born!” This is a life purpose, one that you can continue to do and hope to do till the day you die. This is that purpose that Paul received from the Lord Jesus, and the purpose that Paul pursued until he died. (Give me a life of purpose like Paul’s! Give me a purpose worth dying for!) For George Whitefield, this was that purpose that compelled him to preach the word of God till his life’s candle burned out. For Moses, it was leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. When you possess your unique life purpose, you cannot imagine doing anything else. It is your “terminal” purpose.
Let’s all seek the Lord for our own unique “terminal” purpose!
SDG rmb 4/30/2021