Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why Christians Should Stop Seeking Their Life's Purpose

Since Rick Warren published his all-time best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life,[1] over ten years ago, vast numbers of Christians have been on an eager quest to discover their life's purpose. Pastor Warren was careful in his book to make a distinction between worldly goals and godly ones and pointed out that he wasn't urging Christians to focus on earthly dreams and desires when seeking after their God-ordained purpose, or to collect "temporary crowns," but that they were to seek after things of eternal value. Warren also warned against deeming material blessings as integral to one's purpose, and that trials are to be viewed as growth opportunities in this temporal life. Amen.

But, themes such as "purpose-driven lives" and "dream-chasing," while currently generating wide appeal in our [somewhat Disneyfied] Christian culture, and while not being inherently wrong in themselves, are not themes that are emphasized in Scripture, however. And as extra-biblical themes have a habit of doing, the concept of being "purpose-driven" has taken on a life of its own...Over the past decade, the fad has generated a wave of manifestations, such as: purpose-driven youth ministries; purpose-driven worship conferences; purpose-driven daily devotionals, etc. Many churches have eagerly glommed onto the concept in a big way over the past ten years.

Unlike the principle of "gospel-centrality," however, which is a theme clearly emphasized in Scripture and is unequivocal in its definition, "purpose-driven" is an ambiguous term, which can mean different things to different people. More often than not, it has sadly morphed from what I believe was Pastor Warren's originally well-intended meaning into a source of spiritual narcissism. In his book, Warren does lay out five biblically sound, universally applicable, purposes for which we have each been created, but these are not often what people have in mind when they are in the throws of seeking their life's purpose.

The idea has indeed taken on a life of its own having been cast into the amorphous Twittersphere of soundbite theology. And instead of bringing clarity to God's Word, the purpose-driven theme has caused confusion among Christians, many of whom have been unable to clearly identify a specific, God-ordained calling on their lives and have ended up feeling discouraged and directionless as a result. Just yesterday, I was talking with yet another frazzled stay-at-home mom who looked me with desperate eyes and lamented, "I just can't figure out what my purpose is." I know how you feel. I've been there, too.

Another popular wave of post-modern teaching that has been sweeping through the Western Church of late emphasizes chasing God-sized dreams. Dream-chasing has become something of a fad in many nontraditional churches. Dream Centers[2] are being built, dream-chasing small groups are being formed, and Dream Conferences are being held. It all sounds good doesn't it? And again, the idea in itself isn't wrong. It's just that nowhere in the Bible, are Christians urged to chase dreams. Like the purpose-driven theme, the terminology of dream-chasing in Christian teaching is problematic, because it can too easily be misunderstood and cause the centrality of Christ to be obscured. The contemporary Christianese of dream-chasing vernacular does sound more like the theme of a Disney movie than a biblical exposition of God's Word. And there is a reason for this. Because when we end up talking about dreams—or any theme—more than we're talking about the gospel of Christ, there's a problem. Here's the point: when the themes of Christian conferences, sermons, and books don't echo Biblical themes, we're going down a slippery theological slope.

A good example of how an extra-Biblical theme can lead to unsound theology, can be seen in the opening of Pastor Warren's book, in which he asks readers to sign a covenant to partner with him by committing the next 40 days of their lives to discovering their life's purpose. He then promises that, “By the end of the journey you will know God’s purpose for your life and will understand the big picture—how all the pieces of your life fit together.” (p.9) But who are we—and who is Warren—to place a time frame on God's guidance for our lives? The Bible is clear that God doesn't operate on our schedule, for with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day (2 Peter 3:8).

Furthermore, Christians who are seeking to define a God-given purpose for their lives are often disappointed when the lofty calling or grandiose mission they were anticipating doesn't materialize. What if your purpose that day is picking up Cheerios off the floor? Does that seem like making a difference in the world? Instead of reaching for the stars, many of us spend our days scrubbing the bathroom floor or staring at a computer screen. One might ask: could these menial tasks really be part of God's plan for me? Or am I missing something? And what about that inspirational verse: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" (Jer 29:11)? There's nothing menial about that!

Ah...the oft-quoted coffee-cup verse.... Don't get me wrong! This is a verse to be cherished—like all verses of Scripture should be. But, also like all verses of Scripture, it is to be cherished in context. While Jeremiah 29:11 should rightfully give us a sense of hope, it is often quoted without any acknowledgement that this was God's promise through Jeremiah to the people of Israel while they were in exile to Babylon. And as promised, the Israelites came out of exile after 70 years.

This is not to say that the promises of the old covenant (given to Israel under Old Testament Mosaic law) are not applicable to Christians today under the new covenant (through which the law of Moses has given way to new life in Christ). Paul clarifies this: "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ." (Cor 1:20). And Hebrews 9:15 declares, “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” In other words, all God's promises, purposes, and plans are now fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, God's purpose for believers today is always going to point us to Christ. Not ourselves. And praise God for that!

The truth is, however, most of us struggle with a yearning for personal significance in this world. And so, the whole purpose-driven mantra that has prevailed in Western Christendom over recent years has inadvertently promoted more self-centerdness among believers than it is has Christ-centeredness. For when we spend more time thinking about our purpose than we do thinking about God's Word, we can start to elevate ourselves without realizing it. Unfortunately, our inherently selfish fallen nature has a tendency to twist potentially edifying concepts into narcissistic ones all too easily. And extra-biblical themes that are superimposed onto Scripture leave us vulnerable to doing just that.

It cannot be denied that our increasingly godless culture is dominated by self worship. Therefore, we should be on guard against its narcissistic influences seeping into the Church. In our post-modern context of selfism, seeking personal "purpose" has too much potential to puff us up, and therefore should be avoided.

For in actuality, Scripture teaches that our purpose as Christians is both singular and universal; it is to glorify God. And we are clearly instructed to do this by 1) living biblical, God-honoring lives, and 2) pointing others to Christ (making disciples). In other words, we are to obey what Jesus taught are the two greatest commandments: 1) to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, (which is synonymous with seeking to please Him as our loving Father) and 2) to love our neighbors as ourselves (which is synonymous with encouraging others to embrace new life in Christ). In both cases, the focus is ultimately off of ourselves, and onto God. Our purpose is naturally humbling. Are you noticing a theme?

This might sound over-simplified to those who prefer a more tangible or specific life-goal to cling to, but the fact is, Jesus never mentioned individual purpose, calling, or goals in His teaching. Nor did the apostles. A brief look at the major themes of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels, and those that are echoed throughout the Epistles reveals that the gospel message is unwaveringly central. Indeed, God's Word consistently and lovingly calls sinners to die to self in order to embrace new life in Him (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9;23; Gal 2:20; Eph 4;22-24; Phil 1;21). Importantly, the emphasis is not on individual purpose here, but instead on self-denial. In the words of John the Baptist, "He must become greater; I must become less." (John 3:30)

Jesus' earthly ministry culminates in a universal call to go out into the world and make disciples in the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8; Matt 28:19-20). The Great Commission, as it is known, is a calling to all believers to glorify God through the furtherance of His kingdom. Notably, Jesus is careful to point out that it is through the power of the Holy Spirit that we fulfill this purpose—not through our own strength or strategies. We are simply the messengers, not the manufacturers, of salvation.

Another consistent theme in the New Testament is justification, not by good works, but by faith alone in Christ alone, as laid out in Galatians and Romans (the emphasis is not on individual purpose here either, but unquestionably on the gospel of Christ). The central message of Philippians is an admonishment to rejoice in one's sufferings for Christ and to trust in the sovereignty of God (again, no mention of individual purpose). The need for believers to be united in Christ is emphasized in 1 Corinthians (no mention of individual purpose here either). 2 Corinthians is a testimony of Paul that through trials our hearts draw closer to God as He is able to comfort us and mold us into His image (God does use suffering to hone is, and in that there is purpose, but this is not the type of "purpose" or "dream" most people are seeking after). Colossians proclaims Christ's deity and urges us to reject worldly philosophies (which sadly the purpose-driven mantra has become more akin to).

As we move through the New Testament, the themes are consistently Christ-centered as opposed to purpose-driven. Paul's high Christology is unmistakable and constant. 1 & 2 Thessalonians encourage persecuted believers to look forward to the day of Christ's return (again no individual goals or purposes mentioned here). 1 & 2 Timothy highlight the importance of refuting false teaching (hmmm). Titus mainly instructs pastors to fight against both legalism and license, urging them to stand firm in the gospel of grace. 1 Peter emphasizes that sufferings and persecutions are to be expected in this life, but that there is hope in Christ. 2 Peter speaks out against licentious living and encourages believers to continue in godly living to the end. Paul's letter to Philemon instructs him to accept Onesimus now that he had converted to Christ. Hebrews embraces the new covenant over the old. James teaches that authentic Christian living involves loving others in Christ through trusting and obeying Him. John's epistles warn against false teachers and hold that obedience is integral to faith in Christ. John also urges believers to practice hospitality and support missionaries. Jude encourages believers to contend for the faith, clinging to Christ in godliness. And the final message in Revelation is to remain watchful, ready, and hopeful in eager expectation of the coming of our King.

In sum, the New Testament thematically exhorts us to live humbly in Christ-centered obedience. There really isn't anything in there about seeking one's personal life-purpose. So, why are we spending so much energy talking about something God's Word largely ignores? Sure, you can cherry-pick Bible verses to back up extra-biblical themes, but this doesn't mean they reflect the tenor of God's Word. It all seems like a bit of a distraction.

None of this means that we won't ever do great things in God's strength, for His glory. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. In God's strength we will be used to do amazing things! The Bible tells us so! But my point is, if we're too focused on our purpose, our gifts, or our you-name-it, and not enough on Him, we might miss the opportunity to do great things altogether. It's when are humbly immersed in God's Word, and prayerfully seeking Him, that we can be powerfully used by He "who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us." (Eph 3:20). We can trust that He will make use of the gifts He has given us, or equip us to serve Him in unprecedented ways. All we need to do is step out humbly in faith and keep our eyes on Him.

And none of this should be mistaken to mean that God doesn't care about the details of our individual lives—even the hairs on our heads are numbered, for instance (Matt 10:30)! Nor does it mean He doesn't love us intimately as individuals! Psalm 139, for example, makes that clear. But by calling us to live for His glory, God is graciously saving us from ourselves. And we are released from the exhausting task of figuring out His purpose for our lives because quite simply Jesus Christ is our God-given life-purpose. Praise God that we can stop running down those endless rabbit trails in a futile quest to find the answers, because we already have THE answer! We can find freedom, rest, guidance, and hope in Him—for the great I AM is the one true purpose in life.


1. Over 30 million copies sold to date
2. For example, Dream Center, DC http://dcdreamcenter.com/

1 comment:

Maeve McDonald said...

While we perform different tasks, we all have one purpose in Christ...
"What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building." (1 Cor 3:5-9)