Purpose Driven Living:
What's Life About?
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, September 7, 2003)
An elderly woman approached me one day. "Mark," she said, "there's something that I've been meaning to ask you. Why exactly are we alive? I just can't figure out what life is all about." This an important question which everybody asks at least once in their lives, I think.
There are all sorts of answers that people give about the purpose of life. Author and business consultant Steven Covey once conducted a thorough study of all the self-improvement literature produced in America from Revolutionary times through the bicentennial year, 1976. Each of the books Covey surveyed tried to help people live "on purpose," to answer the question that woman posed to me: What exactly is my time on this earth supposed to be about? In his survey, Covey noticed something curious. For roughly the first 150-years he surveyed, the primary theme of all this literature was character, how to make oneself useful to God and neighbor. The underlying assumption would seem to have been that life's purpose is found in service to God and others. But then, this self-improvement literature took a major turn. Most of the books for the next fifty years, Covey observed, said that life was about getting: more money, more financial security, more power, more prominence. Twenty-seven years later, that's probably still true.
Back in the Stone Ages when I was growing up, the phrase American Dreamwas used of universal human desire to be free--free to worship, free to think, free to speak, free to live where we wanted, free to marry who we wanted, free to be our best selves. Now, it seems that the American Dream is about one thing: show me the money. The result is a deep seated unhappiness of the kind that prompted that woman to ask her question of me.
Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Life, begins with a truly subversive assertion for this day and age. He writes simply, "It's not about you." I don't know about you, but I find that a little hard to swallow. One of the reasons I so love the classic movie, It's a Wonderful Life, is that I identify with its main character, George Bailey. Any average two year old and everybody else on this planet has probably said or at least thought the words that George spoke to Mary that night he finally realized he was in love with her: "I want to do what I want to do!" So, if it's not about me, what is life about?
Our Bible lesson for this morning contains a famous story, or parable, that Jesus told during His time on earth. A wealthy man goes away for a time and leaves three employees in charge of talents. A talent was a unit of money. The boss doesn't leave the same amount of talents with each guy. He parcels them out according to their ability levels. One guy got five, another two, and the last guy got one talent. But you shouldn't feel sorry for the third guy. One talent was equivalent to about sixteen years of pay for the average wage earner in first century Judea. In today's money, the first worker was told to manage $2,080,000, the second $832,000, and the third guy $416,000, astronomical sums of money.
After doing this, Jesus tells us, the boss went away for an indefinite period of time. He didn't say when he was coming back exactly. The great nineteenth century devotional writer Andrew Murray, in his book God's Plans for You, points out that this is exactly what Jesus has done with us. After Jesus died and rose and spent forty more days with His followers, He ascended back into heaven and He said that He would come back one day, although none of us can know precisely when. Before He left though, Jesus entrusted incredible riches to us. To all followers of Jesus, He gave something called the Great Commission. He said that you and I are to be in the disciple-making business, helping others to turn from sin and death to instead, follow Jesus and receive everlasting life with God. Jesus also entrusted another treasure to all of us who call ourselves His followers: the Great Commandment. In it, He tells us to spend our lives loving and serving God and loving and serving our neighbor. On top of all that, the God we know through Jesus also gives to each of us our own custom-made cluster of blessings: our minds, our bodies, our talents, our passions, our interests. The value of all these treasures dwarfs anything the boss in Jesus' story gave to those three employees.
Jesus continued His story. The boss came back and called the three men together to give an accounting of what they had done with the talents with which he'd entrusted them. The first guy reported that he had been able to double the boss' money. The second had done the same. Because of their faithful pursuit of the boss' purposes, their portfolio was doubled. The more willingly you and I step out in faith, using the blessings of God to love God and love neighbor, the more God blesses us, sometimes in ways we don't see or fully appreciate.
The third guy stepped forward. Timidly, he told the boss that he knew the boss to be a demanding character. He hadn't wanted to lose anything that he'd been given. "So," he says, "I buried the talent that you gave me. Here it is; I'm giving it back." This poor old dufus probably thought he was doing a good thing. Instead, the boss takes away the talent, gives it to the first guy, the one who had taken the bigger risks, and threw the third guy into what Jesus calls "the outer darkness." Jesus explains:
"...to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."
The late humorist Erma Bombeck once wrote about a recurring dream she had:
"[In it]...I am asked to give an accounting of my...life to a higher court, it [goes] like this: 'So, empty your pockets. What have you got left of your life? Any dreams that were unfulfilled?
Any unused talent that we gave you when you were born that you still have left? Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven't spread around?
"And I will answer, 'I've nothing to return. I spent everything you gave me. I'm as naked as the day I was born.'"
You and I will never find our purpose in life by dedicating our lives to getting. Nor will we find our purpose by holding back, hoarding all of God's gifts to us. We find our purpose in life when we commit ourselves to giving ourselves, our time, our talent, and our treasures in service to God and neighbor.
From Jesus' Great Commission and His Great Commandment, we know that life is really about five basic things: loving God with our whole lives; being active participants in God's family, the Church; letting God hammer at and mold us into becoming more like Jesus Christ; willingly serving God and other people; and telling others about how Jesus changes us from God's enemies to being God's friends.
Living life that way isn't always easy, for sure. But I firmly believe that until we begin to live our lives for God's purposes, we won't be living. Life--real life--can only be found when we start to live it in accordance with the specifications invented by the One Who gave us life in the first place!
When we yield control of our lives and let Jesus Christ take control, using whatever gifts God has given to us, for God's purposes, then we will find the meaning and purpose for our lives. It begins with a simple act of surrender to Jesus Christ. That's what I want to invite you to do right now and everyday of your life.
[This series of messages is built around the book, The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, which the people of Friendship Church began reading together on Tuesday, September 2. While I don't agree with everything Warren writes in this book, it really is tremendous and I recommend it to everyone! Rick is a Baptist pastor who founded and serves the progressive Saddleback Valley Community Church in southern California.
[The Covey survey of self-improvement literature can be found in his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The interpretation of what he found is my own.
[The Erma Bombeck anecdote, taken from a column she wrote in 1987, appeared in an e-mailed inspiration by Methodist pastor Steve Goidier. Steve is a phenomenally insightful and helpful writer and I recommend that everybody with access to e-mail receive his Life Support mailings. You can e-mail Steve at: LifeSupportemail@example.com. In addition to being a gifted writer and speaker, Steve is pastor of a congregation in Utah.]