God’s Purpose for Your Life: Chapter 1
One weekend, many years ago, my wife and I were visiting her family. We were sitting together in their living room, engaged in a fairly casual conversation. It was obvious that my wife’s sister was irritated by something. During a lull in the conversation, she finally turned to me and said in a puzzled. voice, “Jim, why don’t you just settle down to something?”
The question didn’t surprise me. I had been restless. That was obvious to everyone who knew me. I’d changed jobs several times, moved from one church to another, and had an endless stream of new ideas and dreams for my life. “I don’t know,” I said. “I know that God has a purpose for me. I know that I have a destiny, but I’m not really sure what it is. And I can’t seem to settle for anything else.”
When I became a Christian several years earlier, I thought my searching for a purpose in life had finally come to an end. I had changed radically. The guilt of self-willed, sinful life was lifted from me as I came to trust Jesus as my Savior. I felt clean and free as I never had before. But before long — and to my surprise — I found myself still searching for something.
“Where am I going, Lord?” I would ask. “What is your plan for my life? Do you have something special for me to do?” Sometimes I would ache inside, longing to know, wanting my life to mean something. Looking back, I can see why that searching was important, why I needed to reach out to God. I’ve learned that God can best speak to a man’s heart when he is hungry, even aching to hear him. But the answer didn’t come immediately. Instead, God’s purpose for my life seemed to remain vague, as it does for so many people. It took time as well as some significant personal changes before I was ready to understand and accept God’s purpose for my life.
In the years shortly after I had become a Christian, I became involved in many church activities and was eventually ordained to the ministry. As a young and excited minister, I pursued many things that I thought were God’s purpose for my life. Later, I realized that these had reflected my own thoughts and desires for life rather than God’s real purpose.
For example, I wanted to become a great preacher. Because I had an inner sense of destiny, I thought that I was sure to become a well-known preacher. I enjoyed speaking in public as well as studying and preparing for sermons. And people did seem to like my sermons. At times I was able to stir great emotion in the congregation. All this provided more encouragement to pursue what I thought was surely God’s purpose for my life. Secretly, I harbored the idea that one day I would join the ranks of the great preachers of my day. I even recorded some of my sermons on tape and listened to them in private so that I could improve my technique. I asked friends to criticize me, so that I could work on my voice and gestures. But the harder I tried, the further I seemed to get from any sense that I was fulfilling my real purpose in life. Rather than turning people’s attention to God, I was attracting attention to myself.
“What, then, is God’s purpose for my life?” I would ask once again. I had felt so certain of my purpose in life. But then I would realize the painful truth that I was merely pursuing my own inclinations and desires, labeling them as God’s purpose. An aching frustration filled my heart. I don’t regret that frustration for a moment. It forced me to look beyond myself — my interests, natural abilities, and desires — in order to understand God’s purpose. The Holy Spirit worked in me slowly and in a way that sometimes caused me pain, so that I could accept a simple revelation about God’s true purpose. That revelation transformed my life.
You, too, may have experienced this kind of spiritual hunger. At times you may wonder if God has something more for your life. Maybe you’ve tried to deal with that longing as best you could, just as I did. Maybe you’ve come again and again to that same point of questioning, of wondering, of wanting more.
By sharing my experiences with you, I hope to extend a hand of Christian friendship. My struggle to understand God’s purpose was a painful one. Though my intention was always to learn and obey God’s will, my actions were not always good ones. I hurt people. At times, I brought pain into my home. I even hurt myself. But through these difficulties I came to some important realizations about myself and about the purpose of God. I hope that my blunders can somehow help you to avoid similar mistakes.
Of course I realize that few people will assume that their purpose is to become a great preacher. But regardless of what we think our purpose may be, the truth is that an irreconcilable difference exists between our natural human purposes and God’s true purpose for our life. We become frustrated the moment we forget that it simply won’t work to equate some natural inclination or personal desire with God’s purpose. But God is faithful. He graciously works on us, until we call out to him, asking, “Father, what is your purpose for my life?”
Someone Special ??
I mentioned earlier that I had a sense of destiny for my life. I want to be careful, though, to avoid giving the impression that I was a unique person whom God was preparing for some super-special purpose. Of course I know that I am unique and special to God, just as every person who comes to trust and love him is unique and special. Yet so often we read about well-known Christian leaders and come across such statements as “From the day he was born, there was something extraordinary about him” or “Even in her childhood people knew that God had singled her out.”
When we hear such claims, you and I are left wishing that we had been born “someone special” or “someone called by God early in life.” We are left feeling plain and ordinary, convinced that God could never do something really meaningful with our lives. But Scripture is full of examples of plain, ordinary people that God used powerfully to accomplish his purposes. A closer look at the men and women the Bible calls great reveals just how human, how plain and ordinary, they were. They often lacked both confidence and ability. But God developed certain simple qualities in them that allowed them to live deeply rewarding and eternally meaningful lives.
God’s purpose for my life didn’t come to me all of a sudden as a startling revelation. Instead, it came slowly and quietly, the result of many frustrating years. Today my most heartfelt prayer is that I will never drift away from understanding that purpose. Some important changes and much good fruit have been borne in my life as a result of understanding God’s purpose. For over twenty years I’ve helped train men and women for church leadership. Through our ministry, my wife and I have seen hundreds come into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We’ve helped to prepare and open the way for numerous teams of gospel workers to establish local churches in this country and overseas. I mention these things not to credit myself, but simply to point out that the deep fulfillment I experience in working for the Lord today would lose its meaning if I were to stray from God’s purpose. His purpose and my need to understand it have become that important.
What Is the Purpose of God ??
Very simply, Scripture teaches that we have been created and we exist to bring pleasure to God, to glorify him and enjoy fellowship with him forever.
At first this seemed too simple. “Of course we should be pleasing to God,” I thought. “Every Christian knows that.” But my life really didn’t reflect this simple truth. Intellectually I knew that this statement of God’s purpose was true. But on an experiential level my life was a contradiction. Many of my efforts were calculated to please myself, to make myself happy, and (as with my preaching) to bring glory to myself. My motivation wasn’t to please God. Other people may not have perceived this, but it was true.
It wasn’t that I was an evil person or that I was being consciously hypocritical. I really did love God and desire to serve him. But I had not come to understand that my whole purpose for living was to bring honor and glory to him. Instead, I settled for less, for what I thought were good purposes for my life, good motivations. Yet I could never escape the frustration of knowing that there was something more that God intended for me.
In my thirty years of ministry, I’ve met, counseled and worked with all kinds of people. And for every one of them the most important need was to find a purpose in life. Even if only for a short while, each person experiences a yearning and a longing to know why they exist. During these times they’re not content to accept the standard answers about their life. “You’re here to raise a good family,” they might hear. “You’re here to make a name for yourself.” “You’re here to accomplish something.” They reject such ideas because they know that some deeper and more substantial purpose awaits them.
For those who do not surrender their life to Jesus Christ, the urgency to know this purpose eventually fades away. They settle instead into some self-centered purpose. On the deepest level such people have one point of view only: they view everything from the perspective of their needs, their wants, their aims, and their desires. Perhaps their purpose is to acquire a large personal fortune, to become famous, to get married and raise a family, to live a quiet and problem-free life, or to live a life of excitement and pleasure. But ultimately they will face the emptiness of their self-centered purposes. Why? Because they have violated one of the most basic truths of human existence: People find personal fulfillment and satisfaction only as they fulfill their reason for existing.
Some Christians fall into a similar trap. As their life begins to improve, they say, “Now I see why I wasn’t happy, why I couldn’t prosper, why I couldn’t get what I wanted out of life. I didn’t have God on my side. Now I’ll be able to do all the things I’ve wanted to.” Very subtly, and almost unconsciously, such people develop the view that God exists to meet their needs and to make them happy.
Of course God wants us to enjoy life, to raise good families, to prosper and find personal fulfillment. But there is a danger that we will shift the aim of our life from pleasing God and glorifying him to pursuing and satisfying our own desires. “If only all of my needs were met and my problems solved,” we might think, “then I would be free to really glorify the Lord.”
The moment we shift our thinking from God’s purpose to our self-centered human purposes we fall short of the glory of God. This is why the apostle Paul warned, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Paul seems to imply that unless our minds are renewed and our thinking centered on God’s will, we will sink into self-centered, self-willed living.
The human heart can play tricks, even on its owner. Anyone who has even a slight understanding of human nature will realize how easy it is to substitute any number of other purposes for God’s purpose. Many of these purposes are important aspects of Christian living. But they can never be substitutes for God’s purpose. At different points in my life I’ve been strongly attracted to some of these purposes. They seemed like good causes toward which to direct my life. But later I discovered that they were not God’s primary purpose for my life but Bible teachings that appealed to particular aspects of my personality.
For example, one day I heard that classic sermon on Evangelism: “The purpose of God for Christians is to go into all the world and win souls for Christ. To be soul-winners is the greatest thing God has commissioned his people to do.” Of course God wants people to hear the message of salvation and to be won to Christ. The Bible clearly commissions us to this task. But this is not God’s purpose for man. For some Christians this may come as a surprise. But, as I will explain later, evangelism is simply one means of fulfilling God’s real purpose. When I heard the sermon on evangelism, I began to say, “That’s right. That’s for me.” Many years later I realized that this sermon appealed to me not because evangelism should be the consuming purpose for my life, but because I wanted to be a powerful, dynamic preacher.
My one purpose in life became to “win souls” for Christ. I read books on evangelism, took classes, and attended seminars. I memorized answers to a variety of complex questions — issues that I might encounter as I talked to people about Christ. Yet the more I gave myself to evangelism, the more frustrated I became. Although I did win some people to Christ, many would mock me or simply walk away from me.
Something is wrong with me, I thought. I had read stories of great evangelists and missionaries who brought many people to God. They seemed so fruitful and fulfilled. I knew of many modern evangelists who were bringing large numbers of people to the Lord. That, too, troubled me. “Maybe there’s something impure in my life that keeps God from using me. I’m dedicated to winning people for Christ. Why isn’t it working?”
It wasn’t until I became exhausted from trying to be a self-made evangelist that I came to realize that God’s purpose was something far greater than merely winning souls for Christ. It may seem like a petty distinction to say that there’s a difference between evangelism and glorifying God. But it’s not. The difference is one of purpose and goals.
Purpose, as I am using it, is the underlying motive and reason for what you do. Goals, however grand they may be, are simply the means by which a greater purpose is accomplished.
Worldwide evangelism is an important goal; it’s one means by which God’s purpose is carried out. But long before we can dedicate ourselves to evangelism, we must come to understand our purpose for existing. We are to bring glory to God. Without this as our heartfelt purpose in life, we will become job-oriented or task-oriented Christians. We’ll devotedly pursue some important goal or worthy cause without ever really understanding why we think they’re so important.
For Reflection and Discussion
- Describe episodes from your life of unusually intense spiritual hunger. What came about as a result of this hunger?
- According to the author, our purpose for living is “to bring pleasure to God, to glorify him and enjoy fellowship with him forever.” What does this mean to you?
- The author says that without this high purpose “as our heartfelt purpose in life, we will become job-oriented or task-oriented Christians.” In what ways do you tend to become job- or task-oriented as a Christian? Why is this not desirable?