The actor Lee Marvin, who died of a heart attack in 1987 at the age of 63, once made this despondent statement: “They put your name on a star on Hollywood Boulevard and you find a pile of dog manure on it. That’s the whole story, baby.” If we are only citizens of this world, Marvin was right; the achievements of fame, position, possessions, and power will not endure and will not satisfy. Our monuments and accomplishments will crumble around us and offer little comfort at the end of our brief sojourn on this earth.
By contrast, consider Peter Kreeft’s words in his book, Three Philosophies of Life:
The world’s purest gold is only dung without Christ. But with Christ, the basest metal is transformed into the purest gold. The hopes of alchemy can come true, but on a spiritual level, not a chemical one. There is a “philosophers stone” that transmutes all things into gold. Its name is Christ. With him, poverty is riches, weakness is power, suffering is joy, to be despised is glory. Without him, riches are poverty, power is impotence, happiness is misery, glory is despised.
Once we have committed our lives to Christ, there should be no turning back—indeed, if we think about it, there is nothing of real and lasting substance to which we can turn apart from Him. In spite of this truth, there is an epidemic of believers who drop out of the race during their middle years. Many begin well but finish poorly. It can be gradual erosion through a series of small compromises or a more sudden point of departure, but any number of things can divert us from the course on which we are called to run.
What does it take to finish well? How can we run in such a way that we can say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7; Acts 20:24; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27)? A number of observers have considered the characteristics of people who “run with endurance the race that is set before [them]” (Hebrews 12:1). I have arrived at a set of seven such characteristics:
1. Intimacy with Christ
2. Fidelity in the spiritual disciplines
3. A biblical perspective on the circumstances of life
4. A teachable, responsive, humble, and obedient spirit
5. A clear sense of personal purpose and calling
6. Healthy relationships with resourceful people
7. Ongoing ministry investment in the lives of others
I have highlighted the seven key words (intimacy, disciplines, perspective, teachable, purpose, relationships, and ministry), and it is important to note that these characteristics move from the inside to the outside. The first two concern our vertical relationship with God (being), the next three concern our personal thinking and orientation (knowing), and the last two concern our horizontal relationships with others (doing). Here is a brief word about each of these seven crucial characteristics.
The exhortation, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” in Hebrews 12:1 is immediately followed by these words in 12:2: “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.” If we wish to run with endurance and finish our race well, we must continue to look at Jesus rather than the circumstances or the other runners. Remember Jesus’ strong words in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” The Scriptures call us to love and serve these people, but our Lord tells us that He must be preeminent in our affections. Our love and pursuit of Him must make all other relationships seem like hatred in comparison.
Telescopic photographs of the sun often reveal massive areas on the solar photosphere called sunspots. These are temporary cool regions that appear dark by contrast against the hotter photosphere that surrounds them. But if we could see a sunspot by itself, it would actually be brilliant. In the same way, our love for others should shine except when compared with our love for the Lord Christ. Although we have not yet seen Jesus, we can love Him and hope in Him who first loved us and delivered Himself up for us (1 Peter 1:8; Ephesians 5:2).
Our highest calling is to grow in our knowledge of Christ and to make Him known to others. If any person, possession, or position is elevated above the Lord Jesus in our minds and affections, we will be unable to fulfill this great calling. Instead, we will sell ourselves cheaply for the empty promises of a fleeting world.
We would be wise to ask this question from time to time to examine our hearts and our direction in life: “Does my desire to know Christ exceed all other aspirations?” If not, whatever is taking His place in the center of our affections must yield to Him if we are to know the joy of bearing spiritual fruit as His disciples.
A key secret of those who finish well is to focus more on loving Jesus than on avoiding sin. The more we love Jesus, the more we will learn to put our confidence in Him alone. To quote Peter Kreeft again,
The great divide, the eternal divide, is not between theists and atheists, or between happiness and unhappiness, but between seekers (lovers) and nonseekers (nonlovers) of the Truth (for God is Truth). . . . We can seek health, happiness or holiness; physical health, mental health or spiritual health as our summum bonum, our greatest good. . . . Christ’s first question in John’s Gospel is the crucial one: “What do you seek?” (1:38). This question determines what we will find, determines our eternal destiny, determines everything. (Christianity for Modern Pagans)
In the section on disciplined spirituality, we saw that the disciplines are not ends in themselves, but means to the end of intimacy with Christ and spiritual formation. The problem is that anything, when left to itself, tends to decline and decay. The second law of thermodynamics, which says that the quantity of useful energy in any closed system gradually diminishes, can be broadly applied to other systems, from information theory to relationships. Without an infusion of ordered energy, entropy (a measure of randomness and disorder) increases. In the case of objects and relationships, an infusion of directed intentionality and effort is necessary to sustain order and growth.
The twenty disciplines we touched upon earlier (solitude, silence, prayer, journaling, study, meditation, fasting, chastity, secrecy, confession, fellowship, submission, guidance, simplicity, stewardship, sacrifice, worship, celebration, service, and witness) can enhance our character, our thinking, and our practice. No one consistently practices all of these disciplines, and some are less meaningful for some people than for others, but fidelity to the disciplines we most need in our spiritual journeys will keep us on the path and bring repeated times of personal renewal.
Without a growing sense of desperation, we will not maintain our focus on God. The Lord lovingly uses trials and adversities in a variety of creative ways in our lives, and part of the purpose of our suffering is to drive us to dependence on Him alone. (This is part of the point of the mid-life process, as we face the combination of diminishing capacity and increasing responsibility. We usually come to grips with our mortality in an experiential way in our late thirties to mid-forties, though some see it sooner and others manage to defer it for a few more years.)
As God’s children, our pain causes us to ask, to seek, and to knock (Matthew 7:7-8), and in His time, God responds by revealing more of Himself to us. This personal knowledge increases our faith and our capacity to trust His character and His promises. Only as we experientially realize that we cannot survive without God will we willingly submit to His purposes in the midst of affliction. A growing faith involves trusting God through the times we do not understand His purposes and His ways.
Tribulation plays a significant role in clarifying hope (see Romans 5:3-5), because it can force us to see the bigger picture. As we saw in the section on paradigm spirituality, we must cultivate an eternal perspective in this temporal arena in order to understand that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). When we view our circumstances in light of God’s character instead of God’s character in light of our circumstances, we come to see that God is never indifferent to us, and that He uses suffering for our good so that we will be more fully united to Christ (Hebrews 12:10-11; 1 Peter 4:12-17). In addition, He comforts us in our afflictions (2 Corinthians 1:3-5) and reminds us that they will not endure forever (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis argues that God allows pain in our lives not because He loves us less, but because He loves us more than we would wish:
Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life—the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man love a woman or a mother a child—he will take endless trouble—and would, doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient. One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and re-commenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumb-nail sketch whose making was over in a minute.
As we renew our minds with a growing biblical perspective on the experiences and circumstances of life, we come to see that this life is a time of sowing the seeds of eternity rather than multiplying ephemeral treasures on earth. Such a perspective reduces our anxieties (Matthew 6:25-34), increases our contentment (Philippians 4:11-13; 1 Timothy 6:6-8), and strengthens our trust and hope (Hebrews 6:13-20). With the shrinking of space and the acceleration of time in a postmodern age, we need rhythm and pacing or we will be in danger of spiraling downward and fading out in the end. It is always wise to review and adapt our pace to the larger Story.
Those who finish well maintain an ongoing learning posture through the seasons of their lives. A smug, self-satisfied attitude causes people to plateau or decline on the learning curve, and this is inimical to spiritual vitality. In our youth, we have a problem with foolishness and lack of focus; in our middle years, we struggle with double-mindedness and entanglement; when we reach our later years, our great challenge is teachability. Those who maintain a childlike sense of wonder, surprise, and awe do not succumb to rigidity and “hardening of the categories.” Such people who continue to grow in grace “will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green” (Psalm 92:13-14).
Humility and responsive obedience is the key to maintaining a teachable spirit. Humility is the disposition in which the soul realizes that all of life is about trust in God, and that “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:36). The mystery of the grace of God humbles us more than our sinfulness, because grace teaches us to be preoccupied with God, and not with ourselves. When we surrender to this grace and invite God to be our all in all, we displace the self through the enthronement of Christ. We would do well to make the following prayer, adapted from the end of Andrew Murray’s book on Humility, a part of our devotional lives:
Lord God, I ask that out of Your great goodness You would make known to me, and take from my heart, every kind and form and degree of pride, whether it be from evil spirits, or my own corrupt nature; and that You would awaken in me the deepest depth and truth of that humility which can make me capable of Your light and Holy Spirit.
Like our Lord in the days of His flesh, we must learn obedience through the things which we suffer (Hebrews 5:7-8). As Thomas Merton put it in Spiritual Direction & Meditation, “We must be ready to cooperate not only with graces that console, but with graces that humiliate us. Not only with lights that exalt us, but with lights that blast our self-complacency.”
Obedience requires risk taking, because it is the application of biblical faith in that which is not seen, and that which is not yet (Hebrews 11:1). As we mature in Christ, we learn to live with ambiguity in this world by trusting God’s character and promises in spite of appearances to the contrary.
Life without a transcendent source of purpose would be an exercise in futility. As Malcolm Muggeridge puts it,
It has never been possible for me to persuade myself that the universe could have been created, and we, homo sapiens, so-called, have, generation after generation, somehow made our appearance to sojourn briefly on our tiny earth, solely in order to mount the interminable soap opera, with the same characters and situations endlessly recurring, that we call history. It would be like building a great stadium for a display of tiddly-winks, or a vast opera house for a mouth-organ recital. There must, in other words, be another reason for our existence and that of the universe than just getting through the days of our life as best we may; some other destiny than merely using up such physical, intellectual and spiritual creativity as has been vouchsafed us.
Although we realize that we never arrive in this life, God has called each of us to a purposeful journey that involves risks along the way and is sustained by faithfulness and growing hope. This calling or vocation transcends our occupations and endures beyond the end of our careers. As we seek the Lord’s guidance in developing a personal vision and clarity of mission, we move beyond the level of tasks and accomplishments to the level of the purpose for which we “live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28). We are first called to a Person, and then we are called to express this defining relationship in the things we undertake, realizing that the final outcome of our lives is in the hands of God. We have a sense of destiny, but our ignorance of the invisible geography of the new creation means that we must trust God for what He is calling us to become. Reinhold Niebuhr put it well:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.
There is always a chasm between our aspirations and our accomplishments, between our capacities and our contributions. This discrepancy turns from an occasion for despair to an opportunity for hope when we see it as our nostalgia for our true home. This hope is the realization that our purpose is not measurable and that our earthly calling is but the preface to the endless creative activity and community of heaven.
In the section on corporate spirituality, we looked at the spectrum of supportive soul-care relationships that moves from spiritual friendship to spiritual guidance to spiritual mentoring to spiritual direction. We also considered the important dimensions of servant leadership as well as personal and group accountability. Each of these relationships is a valuable resource that can encourage, equip, and exhort us to stay on the course we have been called to run. People who finish well do not do so without the caring support of other growing members of the body of Christ. These relationships help us to increase in intimacy with Christ, to maintain the needed disciplines, to clarify our long-term perspective, to sustain a teachable attitude, and to develop our purpose and calling.
We saw in the exchanged life spirituality section that Jesus Christ gave His life for us (salvation), so that He could give His life to us (sanctification), so that He could live His life through us (service). Spirit-filled spirituality stressed the importance of discovering and developing the spiritual gifts we have received and of exercising them in the power of the Spirit for the edification of others. Nurturing spirituality centered on cultivating a lifestyle of evangelism and discipleship so that we are part of the process of introducing people to Jesus and assisting them in their spiritual growth after they have come to know Him. The life God implants within us is meant not only to permeate our beings, but also to penetrate and multiply in the lives of others. Believers who finish well are marked by ongoing outreach and sacrificial ministry for the good of other people. Those who squander the resources, gifts, experiences, and hard-learned insights God has given them by no longer investing them in the lives of others soon wither and withdraw.
It is obvious that when we reverse these seven characteristics of people who finish well, we arrive at a corresponding list of barriers to running the course. Instead of doing this, let me observe that a failure to sustain the first characteristic (intimacy with Christ) is the key obstruction to progress in the other six. Indeed, the others contribute to our intimacy with Christ, but regression in our relationship with Jesus will soon erode fidelity in the others. The real question then is, “What causes us drift away from abiding in Jesus?” In some way or another, the spiritual sin of pride and autonomy usually heads the list. This can take many forms, such as ego-driven ambition (often inspired by insecurity), unwillingness to learn from others, comparison and envy, refusal to submit to authority, strategies designed to avoid pain and vulnerability, and bitterness with God for allowing personal affliction and loss.
The more visible sins of moral or ethical compromise and failure are generally the byproducts of inner spiritual disintegration—the loss of the clear eye (Matthew 6:22-23) and the pure heart (Matthew 5:8; 1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:22). Declining passion for Christ eventually subverts calling and character.
Have you ever seen another person grow in character and depth in times of apparent success? It would be so much simpler if having things go “our way” was also beneficial to us in the long run, but because of self-centeredness and shortsightedness, this is rarely the case. Until the Lord returns, we will continue to learn and grow more through setbacks and failures than through success as the world defines it. Listen to the observations of a man who had enjoyed an eminently successful career in the eyes of his peers:
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained.—Malcolm Muggeridge
If any of us could be transported to heaven for even a five-minute visit, we would never be the same after our return to earth. For the first time, we would have a true perspective on the frailty and brevity of life on earth and the absurdity of giving our hearts to things that will not last.
John White observed that “It is want of faith that makes us opt for earthly rather than heavenly treasure. If we really believed in celestial treasures, who among us would be so stupid as to buy gold? We just do not believe. Heaven is a dream, a religious fantasy which we affirm because we are orthodox. If people believed in heaven, they would spend their time preparing for permanent residence there. But nobody does.”
Our perspective on life, whether temporal or eternal, will determine the set of rules by which we play, the standards and character we pursue, the source of our hope, and the difference between and obedience and disobedience to God’s precepts and principles.
In his essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C. S. Lewis depicted the difference between looking at a beam of light and looking along the beam. As he entered a dark toolshed, he could see nothing but a sunbeam that came from a crack at the top of the door. At first, he looked at the shaft of light with thousands of specks of dust floating in it, but then he did something most of us have done at one time or another. He moved until the beam fell on his eyes, and at that moment, the toolshed and the sunbeam vanished. Looking along the beam, he saw green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside, and beyond that, the sun itself. Perspective makes all the difference.
Imagine a world where people’s problems cease at the moment they put their faith in Christ. They suddenly become immune to bodily ailments, they enjoy complete harmony in their personal and professional relationships, and success and affluence are theirs for the asking. Actually, this trouble-free state of affairs is not far from the scenario touted by the peddlers of the “prosperity gospel.”
It may sound good at first, but consider a few of the implications. They may trust Christ for their salvation, but it would be extremely difficult for them not to look to the world for everything else. Because there are no obstacles, they would soon take God for granted and presume upon His grace; their prayers would become more like conjuring tricks than acknowledgments of love and dependence on the Lord. And since everything goes “their way,” it would be almost impossible for them to cultivate true Christian character. They would never develop qualities like endurance (James 1:3), steadfastness (1 Corinthians 15:58), thanksgiving (1 Thessalonians 5:18), diligence, moral excellence, self-control, perseverance, godliness (2 Peter 1:5-6), compassion, humility, gentleness, patience (Colossians 3:12), and faithfulness (Galatians 5:22), since these are related to hoping in God in a context of adversity.
Far from promising a life of ease and prosperity, the New Testament actually affirms that those who follow Christ will face a new dimension of obstacles and struggles that they did not know before they committed their lives to Him. In fact, the intensity of the spiritual warfare is proportional to the seriousness of a believer’s response to the terms of discipleship. “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). This is why Paul encouraged the disciples in Asia Minor to continue in the faith, saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). At the end of His last discourse to His disciples, Jesus assured them, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Our responses to the trials we encounter expose our level of trust in the sovereignty and goodness of the Lord. At a special exhibition of Rembrandt paintings, a custodian overheard some of the museum patrons making critical remarks about the work of the great artist. He quietly remarked, “It is not the artist, but the viewers who are on trial.”
I confess that when I move through times of conflict and adversity, it is all too easy for me to develop a wrong attitude toward God, and it is not so easy to thank Him for what He can accomplish through the problem. But I can also acknowledge with thanksgiving that whenever I stopped rebelling against Him and started trusting in His sovereignty, love, goodness, and wisdom, He never let me down. If you think back, I think you will be able to say the same.
“You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain” (John 15:16).
God’s grace is always previous to our response; whenever we pursue Him it is because He has already pursued us. Whenever we love Him, it is because He has first loved us (1 John 4:8-21). Whenever we offer up prayers, it is because He has already invited us to do so.
Nevertheless, God holds us accountable for our responses to His initiatives. Indeed, the quality of our relationship with Him and the entire direction of our lives are determined by the nature of our responses to His loving impulses in our lives. We have been given a response-ability, an ability to respond to or neglect these divine initiatives, and from a human standpoint, our relationship with God is determined by our willingness to reciprocate. Without an ongoing response of our personality to God’s personality, our relationship with Him will be shallow or nonexistent.
Clearly, the most significant response we will ever make is related to the gospel, the good news about Christ’s gift of forgiveness and newness of life. This gift is not ours unless we respond to it by coming to Christ on His terms, which include not merely intellectual assent, but personal reception. Coming to Christ is a volitional commitment in which we turn away from our former trust in our own efforts to achieve or merit God’s favor and turn instead to an exclusive trust in Christ and His righteousness on our behalf. This faith response is an affront to our natural pride, because it involves the admission of our desperate need and hopeless condition without Jesus.
In 1938, a German merchant vessel was in the midst of a storm in the North Atlantic. The pressure of the sea was so great that the plates in the hull began to buckle, and within moments, the ship sank. Almost miraculously, one sailor stayed afloat by holding onto a cot mattress which had somehow not soaked through and was somewhat buoyant. Then from the south came a British cutter. The German sailor was spotted along with the wreckage of the sunken ship. The British ship “hove to,” even though this was a very dangerous thing to do in a storm. The German sailor rose and fell on the billowing waves. A seaman on deck threw out a lifesaver. The big doughnut landed next to the German sailor, but the sailor looked up and saw the British flag and the British faces. He knew that these people represented the traditional enemy of Germany. He turned his back on the lifesaver and slowly the mattress that buoyed him up sank under the waves. The sailor was lost.
When I read this account, I saw it as a parable of God’s offer of salvation. Jesus’ gift of deliverance from spiritual death is the lifesaver, and part of us instinctively resists taking hold of it because, without Christ, we are enemies of God (Romans 5:10). Like the German sailor, we can stubbornly refuse God’s offer, but if we do, we can never blame Him for our demise. The judgment is not a matter of degree. As Peter Kreeft observes, “There are only two kinds of people in the world; and they are not the good and the bad, but the living and the dead, the twice-born and the once-born, the children of God and the children of Adam, the pregnant and the barren. That is the difference between heaven and hell” (Love Is Stronger Than Death).
The most important response of our lives is to say Yes to the gospel. As Brennan Manning observes in The Lion and the Lamb, “There are two elements which are central in the Christian experience. First, a man hears God say, ‘Thou art the man.’ Secondly, he replies, ‘Thou art my God.’” The former is the point of conviction (see 2 Samuel 12:7), and the latter is the point of turning from self to Christ.
Once having come to Christ in this way, the spiritual life becomes a continuous series of daily responses to the Lord’s promptings in our lives. In each case we will choose to walk by sight or by faith, by law or by grace, by the flesh or by the Spirit, by our will or God’s will, by submission or resistance, by dependence or by autonomy, by worldly wisdom or by divine wisdom, by betting everything on God’s promises and character or by trying to control our world on our own terms, by the temporal or by the eternal, by trying to find our lives or by losing them for Christ’s sake. Until we see Christ, we will always be engaged in this warfare in which we are tempted on a daily basis to drop out of the process of the obedience of faith.
One of the things that helps me gain a sense of perspective during times of temptation or discouragement is to review the fact that since I came to Christ in June of 1967, I have never once regretted an act of obedience, but I have always come to regret acts of disobedience. Yet obedience is still difficult, because it is sometimes counterintuitive and usually countercultural. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “The problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult, and left untried.”
A clenched fist cannot receive the gift of the one thing most needful. Sin quenches the Holy Spirit and removes our joy, certainty, and peace. This is why it is wise to stop and ask God to reveal to you whatever is in your life that is blocking the Spirit of God. Name it for what it is and give it to God so that the blockage will be removed.
As Romans 12:1-2 makes clear, God does not ask us to do anything for Him until He has informed us about what He has done for us. But overexposure and underresponse leads to a bad heart. God is more pleased with our response than with how much we know. The reason that Rahab the harlot is found in Hebrews 11 as an illustration of faith is that although she knew little, she applied what little she knew. The Pharisees, by contrast, knew a great deal but did not respond in their hearts to what they knew. The magi had very little knowledge about the Messiah but engaged in a long and tedious journey to find Him, while the scribes in Jerusalem, knowing Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, didn’t even bother to accompany the magi on the six-mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
May God grant us the grace to respond in faith and obedience to the things He calls us to trust and apply.
We mentioned the importance of purpose in the discussions of motivated and holistic spirituality, and the following thoughts are supplementary.
How did it happen that now for the first time in his life he could see everything so clearly? Something had given him leave to live in the present. Not once in his entire life had he allowed himself to come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself forward from some dark past he could not remember to a future which did not exist. Not once had he been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream.
Is it possible for people to miss their lives in the same way one misses a plane?
The answer to this question raised in Walker Percy’s novel, The Second Coming, is an unqualified affirmative. Someone once said, “Fear not that your life will come to an end, but rather that it will never have had a beginning.”
In the recent film, Awakenings, a number of patients who had been in a catatonic state for some thirty years were temporarily brought to full consciousness through a new medication. While some were elated, others were embittered that so much of their lives was spent in oblivion. But they all seized the preciousness of each day, especially when they learned that their “awakenings” would only be temporary.
There is a sense in which many people live without being truly awake, without thinking and questioning, without a sense of wonder and awe. It is easy, even for believers in Christ, to lurch through life, never developing a clear picture of the unique purpose for which God placed them on this planet.
In the words of Vclav Havel, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” I find it astounding that the bulk of people on our planet seem to journey through years and even decades without seriously wrestling with the fundamental question of they are here and what they want their lives to add up to in the end. Many business and professional people get on a fast track in pursuit of an elusive vision of success without questioning whether they are selling themselves too cheaply by investing their precious years of life in something that, even if attained, will never satisfy. It is like the two-edged story of the airline pilot who announced the good news that due to a strong tail wind, the plane was making great time, but the bad news that due to an equipment failure, they were hopelessly lost. Many people appear to be making great time on a journey to futility. They may experience the thrill of the bungee jump without realizing the cord is not attached to their ankles or waists, but to their necks.
In a conversation from Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where,” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. If we have not decided where we are going, one road will do as well or as poorly as another. The problem is that the outcome of the unexamined life is rarely satisfactory. If we fail to pursue God’s purpose for our lives, we are likely to suffer from destination sickness, the discovery that when we reach our destination, it’s not all it was cracked up to be (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:17). This sickness is captured in John Steinbeck’s summation of a character in East of Eden who gave his life for that which let him down in the end: “He took no rest, no recreation, and he became rich without pleasure and respected without friends.”
It is much wiser to follow Kierkegaard’s advice to define life backwards and live it forwards—start from the destiny and define the journey in light of it. Few of us would think of taking a two-week vacation without any plans as to where we will go or what we will do. But what many wouldn’t dream of doing on this scale, they do on the greatest scale of all: their entire earthly existence. To avoid this fatal error we should ask ourselves, “What do I want my life to add up to, and why?” “At the end of my sojourn, what will I want to see when I look back?” From a biblical perspective, the real question is not what we will leave behind (the answer to this is always the same—we will leave everything behind), but what will we send on ahead (cf. Matthew 6:20).
Many people define themselves in terms of their activities and accomplishments. But those who have experienced the grace, forgiveness, and newness of life in Christ are recipients of a new source of identity that redefines their mission and purpose on earth. Instead of seeking purpose by comparing themselves with others, they can discover God’s purpose for their lives in the pages of His revealed Word.
It has been observed that there are three dimensions of purpose in Scripture (see the helpful Vision Foundation booklet, Establishing Your Purpose). The first is God’s ultimate purpose in creating all things. Prior to creating time, space, energy, and matter, God alone existed, complete and perfect in Himself. As a triune, loving community of being, He had no needs, and it was not out of loneliness or boredom that He created the realms of angels and men. We know from Scripture that part of God’s ultimate purpose in creation is the manifestation of His glory to intelligent moral agents who bear His image and who can respond in praise and wonder to His awesome Person, powers, and perfections. But in our present state, we can hardly scratch the surface of the unfathomable wisdom of God’s ultimate purpose for the created order.
The second dimension of biblical purpose is God’s universal purpose, the intention He has for all people who acknowledge the lordship of Jesus. This level of purpose is shared by all believers and is communicated to us in a number of passages. There are various ways of expressing it, but they can be reduced to two essential areas: knowing God experientially (spiritual growth), and making God known to others (spiritual reproduction).
In His high priestly prayer after the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus said, “this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). This knowledge is not merely propositional and theological, but also personal and devotional. Eternal life is the experiential knowledge of God, and it involves a growth process that is inaugurated when a person trusts Christ and receives His gift of forgiveness and new life. The greatest treasure a person can own is increasing intimacy with the living Lord of all creation. Although this should be our highest ambition, many believers give their hearts to the quest for lesser goods and boast and delight in things that are destined to perish. This is why we should frequently heed the powerful words of Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares the Lord.”
The Scriptures expressly communicate the purpose for which we have been created: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). God’s purpose for us is nothing less than Christlikeness! Here are four observations on this high and holy purpose: (1) It is impossible for us to attain. Only when we recognize our weakness and inability to be conformed to the image of Christ will we be ready to allow Him to live His life through us, for this is the genius of the spiritual life. (2) On the human side of the coin, we will only be as spiritually mature as we chose to be. If we do not engage in the disciplines of discipleship, such as habitual time in the Word of God and prayer, we will not become more intimate with God. (3) Growing intimacy with God is crucial to Christlike character. The personal, experiential knowledge of God transforms the heart and expresses itself in sacrificial acts of love and service toward others. (4) If God’s purpose for us is not the focus of our lives, something else will be, and whatever it is will not be worthy of our ultimate allegiance. Therefore ask God for the grace to make it your highest ambition to be pleasing to Him (2 Corinthians 5:9).
We summarized God’s universal purpose for all who know Christ as knowing God experientially (spiritual growth), and making Him known to others (spiritual reproduction). The first part relates to the question, “Who do You want me to be, Lord?” The second relates to the question, “What do You want me to do?” It is prudent to consider the first question before launching into the second, because biblically speaking, being precedes doing; who we are in Christ is foundational to what we do. Typically, however, we put activities and objectives before purpose and define ourselves more by measurable accomplishments than by godly character. The result is that our activities determine our purposes. But purposes developed in this way are shaped by comparison with peers and role models and never lead to the universal and unique purposes for which God created us. Instead, we should embrace a biblical perspective on purpose and let this determine our objectives and activities.
If God’s universal purpose for us is to grow in the knowledge of Christ (edification) and to make Him known (evangelism), how do we develop a vision of the unique ways He would have us apply this purpose in our lives? The answer is that we must launch a prayerful process of discovery that involves a thoughtful assessment of what God has gifted, called, and equipped us to do. Every believer has a unique combination of experiences, gifts, and relational networks that form a sphere of ministry opportunities. We can be assured that the Lord will not call us to a task for which He has not equipped us (1 Thessalonians 5:24), but we can also be certain that the development of our life message and purpose does not happen suddenly.
The most critical component in the process of discerning our unique purpose is prayer. We would do well to persist in asking God to clarify the vision of our calling, since we will never be able to discover it on our own. This is a divine-human process of preparation and illumination in which each of our positive and negative experiences can be sovereignly used by God in such a way that we can, through His power, make a lasting impact in the lives of others. But commitment must precede knowledge (John 7:17); we must trust God enough to commit ourselves in advance to whatever He calls us to be and to do.
Another essential component in this process is our time in the Scriptures. God uses His Word to train and equip us for ministry, and our effectiveness is related to the depth of our Bible reading, study, and memorization. The price tag is time and discipline, but the benefits are always disproportionate to the expenditures. If we are shallow in the Word, we will be superficial in our knowledge of God and less effective in our relationships with others.
Other components that relate to your unique purpose are your personal experiences, skills, education, temperament, and roles as well as your spiritual gifts. Each of these elements is relevant to your vision of the specific outworking of God’s universal purpose in your life.
Begin to ask God to clarify your personal vision of purpose. This will not happen by doubling up on activities, but through prayer, exposure to Scripture, and times of reflection. This process may take months or years, but it should lead to a brief written statement of purpose that can be used to determine and evaluate your objectives and activities. In this way, your activities will be determined more by the Word than by the external pressures of the world.
A biblical purpose is always an unchanging reason for being. It holds true for you regardless of your circumstances or season of life. When a Christ-centered purpose becomes the focus of your life, it harmonizes all the other areas, such as family, work, finances, and ministry.
Recall the point we made in the introduction that the twelve facets of spiritual formation are all part of the same gem, and thus are inextricably bound together. For example, Spirit-filled spirituality informs all the others, because it is only in the power of the Holy Spirit that we can be formed into the image of Christ. Relational spirituality affects all the others, because loving God and others is the central expression of our faith. And so it is with the remaining ten.
But we also observed that because of our widely differing temperaments, each of us has a unique personal pattern that involves differing degrees of attraction and resistance to the various facets. It is good to understand that we are naturally drawn to some more than others, but it is also beneficial to stretch ourselves through deliberate exposure to the ones we tend to resist.
It is my prayer that you benefit from this diversity of approaches that have been used to cultivate spiritual growth and that you explore some of the facets that may have been less familiar to you.
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine on you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance on you,
And give you peace.