The quest for purpose (Luke 13:7)

Man is a purpose-seeking creature. Built into man’s very nature is the deep need for a purpose that gives meaning to his days. Yet even though there seem to be myriad paths available to a person, there is no obvious guide for deciding which path to choose and there is no universal, default destination for where the chosen path should lead. So, without a path and without a destination, the natural man struggles to find purpose. Sometimes we feel like Alice in Wonderland as she encounters the Cheshire cat at the fork in the road. Alice asks the cat, “Please tell me which road I should choose.” “Well,” replies the cat, “that all depends on where you are going.” “I don’t know where I am going.” “In that case, either road will get you there.”

JUSTIFY OUR EXISTENCE

Man needs a purpose because in some sense he wants to justify his existence. If someone were to ask him one day, “What are you doing here, anyway?” he would like to give some credible answer. And yet, what answer could he give? “I don’t really know what I am doing here. I just showed up one day and kept breathing.” We seek to justify our existence and are frightened to discover that our best offering is pretty shaky.

CAN I FIND A MISSION?

We would love a compelling mission for our lives that gives us a laser beam focus, but, if the truth were told, we would settle for any mission at all. The scene that opens the movie “Apocalypse Now” shows Martin Sheen sitting on a sweat-soaked bed in Vietnam as the ceiling fan slowly stirs the sultry air, and then the voice-over says, “Saigon. Waiting for a mission.” That pictures the state of every person as they begin to grow toward maturity and begin to contemplate their existence. “Here I am. Waiting for a mission.” Where can anyone turn to find an answer to the question of purpose? Jesus tells a parable about a man who had a fig tree planted in his vineyard that produced no fruit. “Cut it down!” he says. “Why should it use up the ground? (Luke 13:7)” Whether we know the Lord or not, this question haunts us. “Why should he use up the ground?”

THREE KINDS OF PURPOSE

In my observation, there are three broad categories of purpose into which people fit.

  • No purpose
  • A man-made or man-invented purpose
  • A God-given purpose

NO PURPOSE

The natural state and the starting point of all people in their quest for purpose is “no purpose.” This is the result of the Fall of man when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. One of the consequences of man’s sin is that he is separated from God and so is groping around for purpose and direction like the blind. Isaiah says, “We grope for the wall like the blind; we grope like those who have no eyes (59:10).” There may be some casual searches for meaning at different points in life, but eventually the search is abandoned, and life becomes a long and aimless chore. Often this is a life defined by random choices because they lack a compelling ‘why,’ and random choices are usually bad choices. Tragically, I think this may describe the majority of people.

A MAN-MADE PURPOSE

It has already been observed that there are myriad paths in life available to a person, but there is no clear means for deciding which of those paths to take or why, and there is no default destination toward which a man or a woman should strive. Nevertheless, there are many who, because of their circumstances in life or because of their personality and character makeup, or both, find a path that, for whatever reason, appeals to them. The choice of path or purpose is often random (I remember we were on a trip to Florida on a summer break from college when I saw a rocket engine and decided to become a Mechanical Engineer!), but, having selected that course in life, men and women pour themselves into this “man-made purpose” with obsessive energy.

Some choose a career as being their obsession. Others choose their children or their family. Making money can be the purpose. Or sexual conquests. Or sports. Or really anything. Wrestling crocodiles. Chasing tornadoes. Politics. Being a “foodie.” The man-made purpose does not need to be important or impressive in the eyes of the world (although it often is). My obsession in my twenties and early thirties was rock climbing. (Like I said, it does not have to make sense or be impressive.) I poured myself into that activity and sacrificed almost everything else to pursue cragging. It seems foolish, but that is the nature of the man-made purpose. Once chosen the choice of the purpose is rarely questioned.

The author of Ecclesiastes, “the Preacher,” had chosen man-made pursuits. Enormously successful at all that he did, he was miserable. “So, I hated life! All is vanity and a striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 2:17).” Having given his life to wisdom and pleasure and accomplishment, he encountered that great equalizer. He encountered the problem of the six-foot hole. When considering his own death, he says, “The same event happens to all of them. How the wise dies just like the fool! As one dies, so dies the other (Ecclesiastes 2:14, 16; 3:19).” All those who pursue a man-made purpose will find vexation and emptiness in this life, and judgment in the next. “This, too, is vanity and a striving after wind.”

A GOD-GIVEN PURPOSE

The best of all purposes is a God-given purpose. This is possessed by all those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Having been called by God to faith in Jesus, the believer has received the blessing of a clear purpose that pleases God, that is intensely fulfilling, that lasts a lifetime, and that receives the commendation in heaven, “Well done, good and faithful servant (Matthew 25:21, 23).” The believer has the indwelling Holy Spirit who is a divine guide for directing him or her to the right path (Isaiah 30:21). The believer has the mission of being a witness for Christ (Acts 1:8) and of being His ambassador in the world (2 Cor. 5:20), a mission that is joy-producing and satisfying and challenging. In trusting Christ as Savior, the believer has received a purpose that justifies their existence and that is worth spending a lifetime to accomplish. This purpose is worth living for and it is worth dying for.

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” – the apostle Paul in Philippians 1:21 

SDG                 rmb                 1/15/2021

How will you spend your life? Matthew 16:24-27

It may come upon us in a sudden flash or it may slowly build over time, but there comes a moment for all of us when we realize this fact:

Life is brief, life is fragile, and life is fleeting, and there is an end to my life that is hurtling towards me.

This is as sobering a thought as we can encounter, but we ignore it and brush it away to our own peril. It is an essential part of the human condition, brought on by Adam’s sin in the Garden so long ago. Death – lurking, looming, certainly arriving, but on an unknown timetable, rushes towards us on a collision course, and that rendezvous demands from us an answer to the question, “So, what are you doing with your life?”

I believe we have all been created with a God-given something inside us that yearns for a purpose that is somehow significant. “This is my one and only life, and it is so immensely precious, and yet it seems to be leaking through my fingers like so much oil. Why am I here? What am I to do? Who can show me the way?”

I have long thought about these questions, but recently they posed themselves to me in a new light, perhaps because I have more time to think right now (I am at a crossroads, and in this transition there are large blocks of time for reflection). But for whatever reason, it occurred to me that MY LIFE WILL BE SPENT DOING SOMETHING. The key word there is “spent.” My life will be spent. And so will yours. My life had a beginning and it will certainly have an end, and over that I have no control. But how I spend the time in between, over that I have a great deal of control. Thus, the grand question becomes, “How will I spend my life?”

As He does in so many places in the gospels, in Matthew 16 Jesus Christ speaks to this question and gives us foundational answers on which we can build a life of purpose and usefulness. Immediately following His acknowledgement of Peter’s confession of Him as the Messiah and the Son of the living God, the Lord Jesus predicts His own upcoming death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Then He tells His would-be disciples what it means to follow Him:

Then Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay each person according to what he has done.” Jesus in Matthew 16:24-27

Notice that Jesus warns about two wrong paths. First, He speaks of those who try to save their life. This might describe people who live their life in fear, afraid to take risks because it may turn out badly. They try to live very safely in an effort to live as long as they can. Jesus says that this effort is futile, because living a long and safe, fruitless life is exactly the same as living a short and reckless, fruitless life. Life is not measured by its length, but by what is done during the time that it lasts. In contrast to the safe group, Jesus says that whoever lives his life for Jesus’ sake “will find it,” which means that the person will find rich purpose and usefulness in this life and will receive the reward of eternal life in the life to come. The goal of this person is to find that place or situation where they are useful to Jesus and continue to live in that place with reckless abandon, trusting that the Lord will give them exactly the right number of days.

The second wrong path is that of trying to “gain the whole world” while losing your own soul. On this path, the goal is to accumulate as much stuff as you can, under the mistaken belief that this world is all there is, and my pleasure and happiness are the highest values. Jesus warns these people that all the “stuff” in the world will not give you a single penny to spend in the life to come. Those who focus on gaining the world in this life will certainly forfeit their own soul. A life spent gaining the world is a life wasted and, once life ends and the soul is forfeited, there is no longer any opportunity to get it back. But if you spend your life in service to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord will meet all your needs in this life (Matthew 6:33) and you will receive a crown of righteousness in the life to come (2 Timothy 4:8).

So, what is the goal for this question about how to spend our lives or what is the right purpose? Here is the goal that I would propose:

The GOAL is to be able to say with confidence, “I am doing with my life what I have been created and called to do so that I am fulfilling my God-given purpose.”

I am convinced that only Jesus Christ can give this GOAL and this feeling of purpose to us, because only Jesus, as God the Son, has the authority and power to guide and ordain our lives. It is only as a follower of Jesus that I can be fulfilling my God-given purpose. So, the necessary first step to finding fulfillment and fruitfulness in life is to become a follower of Jesus. Then, as I follow Jesus and read His word, the Bible, He slowly begins to rearrange and clean out the closets and the attics of my life, and discards the excess baggage and clears the brush off the new paths. I pray about and think about circumstances and opportunities and the Lord continues to refine my life’s activities until they are in alignment with what the Bible has called me to do. There is amazing peace when the pursuits and the activities of life bring with them a deep feeling of satisfaction, because we know that we are pleasing the Lord in these roles and activities and pursuits. Jesus Christ offers this to all who follow Him.

But, before we leave this passage, it would be wise for us to re-read the last verse. Jesus declares that, as the glorious Son of Man, He is “going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father” to judge the earth. As He prophesied His death and resurrection, so He also prophesies His future return when He will come in wrath and judgment. Here in 16:24-26, Jesus is urging men and women to come after Him and to follow Him so that they will experience Him as merciful Savior and not as terrifying Judge. While there is still time, we should all heed this warning.

SDG                 rmb                 6/11/2020