What’s my purpose? What am I here to do?
In his book, The Republic, the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato seemed to answer the question this way, “Nothing exists for its own sake.” Doctors only exist because sick people do. If there were no sheep, there would be no shepherds. Kings govern only for the benefit of those governed. In this sense there isn’t even “Art for art’s sake”—but only for that tender and tenuous dance that happens between artist and audience. Even something so grand as the heavens themselves, says the Psalmist, exist for the declaration of another’s glory. In fact, a thing is never closer to the heart of hell than when it clutches and clings to its own life, its own honor, its own good—for its own sake. Nothing exists for its own sake…not even you and I.
Welcome back to the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
If God exists, then, as we have said in earlier homilies, the universe is filled with meaning and purpose—that is, at least whatever meaning and purpose God has for it. I may agree with it, disagree, ignore, deny, or resist it, but if God is there, then all things have as an original intention or purpose whatever God created it for.
But what then is my purpose? What am I here to do? Why have I been born? In the final three homilies of this series the saintly mule would like to suggest how Christianity answers these questions in a way that goes beyond what I said in the fifth homily of this series.
But by way of review, in those previous homilies, we rehearsed the great movements of the biblical story, starting with a good and glorious creation filled with all wonder, delight, and possibility under human governance, and humanity’s original purpose in that place. We then mourned the enthralling of this good creation to a diabolical usurper as a result of human rebellion—both originally and as an on-going concern.
Then we were introduced to the redeemer—the one sent of God to restore all things and by whose life, even humanity itself is reborn and made new—a whole new way of being human. And all this is necessary to finding our home within this story, the role we are supposed to now play in the drama.
We’ve seen from Sts. Paul and John that this Redeemer came with the goal of laying his life down as a liberating ransom for humanity and subsequently the whole created world. He did not clutch at heavenly glory, but humbled himself in order to bring glory to his Father and new life to humanity. He who in all things should have been preeminent, became nothing for the sake of others.
He then is the paradigm of that principle so central that without it no gospel is possible…Nothing exists for its own sake. A principle so fundamental that it even describes God. Although saying it that way is a little backwards. Better perhaps to say, this principle applies to all created things because it reflects something at the very heart of God’s own self.
Even God, who had no competitors or equals—goes out of the way to show us this truth. Who is God but a Trinity of self-giving lovers? Yes, the son glorifies the Father—this we’ve seen—but don’t miss that the Father in turn glorifies the Son, and the Spirit glorifies both and is glorified in them. Even the persons of the Triune God exist in a loving and deferential dance wherein it is the good and glory of the other that gives meaning to that eternal life.
This Triune God, out of an abundance of hospitable love desired, not to be the only existing glory, but to share life and glory with creatures. Thus even God, who truly is the only one who could exist for one’s own sake, rather graciously makes room for others to flourish and become themselves.
It is reasonable then that such a God has fashioned a world where that principle holds a central place. The old make room for the young, and the young show deference to the old. Anything to which you clutch for its own sake will become self-defeating.
You cannot seek friendship for its own sake. No one will be your friend on those terms. You have to love something else more, like cooking or hockey or woodworking or comic books. Then others who also share that love will delight in your friendship.
You cannot seek health for its own sake. Such people become hypochondriacs. No, only by loving good food and vigorous activity, fresh air and being clean does one promote health. Health is not the goal; it is the means to living an enjoyable life.
All things are this way. Only in loving can one finally be loved. Only in letting go do you find yourself free to receive. Only in dying do you find life. It is the soldier who loves his own life more than the cause or his comrades that abandons his post in battle. No, as counterintuitive as it seems, in order to thrive, flourish, and become ourselves, we must learn to love something even more than our own existence and happiness.
In order to thrive, flourish, and become ourselves, we must learn to love something even more than our own existence and happiness.
It is the principle that Jesus’ life and death expressed, and it was a central part of his message. Recall in Matthew 22 when Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment, which is another way of saying “what principle is the central one that most fundamentally governs human life?”, he responded with “Love the Lord your God with all you are, and likewise love your neighbor.” Two commands both of which thrust someone other than myself into the center of my life. The whole law and prophets hang on this truth. It is the center of the scriptures. My life is not my own.
What then is my purpose in the world? To live and move for the love of the Father and the good of others. Jesus, who modeled the principle perfectly, then said, “Go and do likewise.” So when the New Testament writers speak of being Christ-like, whatever else they mean, they mean at least this: Be like this one who did everything in life for the glory of his Father and the good of those around him.
Now while this principle is at root the same mandate under which Adam and Eve lived in the beginning, the entrance of human rebellion and the incarceration of creation has destroyed the ease with which we were intended to live it.
This means that for us in our time, just as in Christ’s day, our mandate has become “redemptive” in character. That is, “restorative” or “remedial.” Christ came both to establish a new order and to redeem an old one. The new humanity that Christ inaugurates is not made “out of nothing,” but consists in the rebirth or baptism of the old humanity into a new life. This is a fancy way of saying that this new life is not offered to perfect humans, but broken ones. It is a way for fractured things to be restored, made new, brought into a new family. God does not get the new humanity by starting over with a fresh world, but by repairing the damage of the Fall in the old one. God does not buy a new car; God restores the classic rusted-out junker into a thing of greater beauty and worth than what originally rolled off the assembly line. God is truly a Redeemer, and this is truly “Good News.”
But how does this teach us to live? What does this say about our purpose in the world?
Well, are you the Image of God or not? Do you do what your Maker does or not? God restores broken things to their intended purpose with interest. Therein lies the secret to our mission. Be like God. We are called to be partners with God in the work of redemption. As J. C. Ryle once wrote, “Our God is a God who works by means.” And we are that means.
So how then do we live out this redemptive purpose in the world? To what do we apply our energies? How do we lay down our own lives for the glory of God and the good of others as Christ did? I’d like to reflect upon two great centers of this redemptive work.
The first center of redemptive action is and must be the same as the center for the original Fall—the human heart. The message of Christianity is first directed to the heart of every man and woman—repent and believe. Embrace Christ and join the new humanity.
The message of Christianity is first directed to the heart of every man and woman—repent and believe.
Did I just hear you groan? Did you just think, “Really, the first task is ‘evangelism?’ That seems pretty out of touch. Why not political reform, social reform, educational reform, economic reform, spelling reform? Surely anything but a proselytizing call to the others to ‘convert to Christianity.’”
Well, I agree; it is rather old-fashioned. So much so that historic Christianity knows no other first step, and the reason is very simple. The human heart is the bastille of the Fall, the site of our first rebellion, and the fortress that must first surrender allegiance to its true King. The rebel must lay down his arms. Only in that reconciliation can we expect the healing of marriages, families, neighborhoods, cities, or nations.
It is useless to talk about a redemption applied to anything else—to food or music, to work or play, politics or culture, to sexuality or education—if we are not interested first in those creatures who themselves eat, work, play, learn, live. Christianity has always preached the gospel first to the Image Bearer—because in the Image Bearer’s hand lies the key to the rest of the created order. If the human heart does not acknowledge the authority of the heavenly King, we can never expect that the life of that King will be lived out in that person’s broader life and culture.
So in this sense the old evangelists were right. Our first passion, as was Christ’s, Paul’s and all the great ones of the faith, must be the ongoing pursuit of our human sisters and brothers, begging them to leave the realm of death and enter life. There is no escaping it, and there is no true Christianity that does not make the redemption of the human heart its most fundamental priority.
But here we must be careful of a common mistake. This conversion of the human heart is not an end, but a beginning. It is “fundamental” in the sense of being the first step to even an even greater transformation. Just as the Fall did not remain localized in the human heart, but rippled out until every corner of creation was in bondage, so the recreating work of Christ is meant to cover the same ground. Christ will reclaim all that Adam’s rebellion corrupted, and not until the whole of the human condition lies in the shadow of the cross will his work be done. Not until the world is made “The kingdom of our God” will this Christ cease to work for his Father’s name, will, and kingdom.
If we are his followers—called by his name and empowered by his Spirit—then that same principle enlivens us. Thus we must preach a gospel that seeks to reconcile men and women not only to God but also to one another and to all things.
We must preach a gospel that seeks to reconcile men and women not only to God but also to one another and to all things.
Thus our lives are enlivened by a second principle—Not only a call to bring the claims of Christ to the human heart, but a call of restoration to every area of life and thought. And we must be as practical as St. Paul, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” and elsewhere, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.”
Yes, we must be severely practical about this. I have heard many sermons and read many books that speak in just this way, but when it comes to it—it all boils down to “read your bible and pray every day.” To be sure, we ought to read our bibles more than we do. And God knows I do not pray as I ought. But if this great redemptive washing which Christ has performed does not scour everything that sin has stained, then we have a very deficient view of redemption.
The saintly ass will have nothing less than specifics. So imagine a musician who once used her gift of music merely for her own gratification, or merely as employment, or perhaps for less reputable reasons. But now that she has come into the way of Christ, she uses it for the sake the Kingdom, for the glory of God and the benefit of neighbor. Those older motivations don’t go away—music still brings her pleasure and perhaps a paycheck as well, and she may even still struggle with the baser motives from the old life , but that is no long why she does it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that “Jesus” will begin showing up more often in her lyrics, though that could happen. But that the selfish brokenness in which her music once lived has now been healed, cured, liberated, restored so that God’s glory and her neighbor’s good is now the first reason for her music. That is, she has learned to love her God and her neighbor more than her music, and in that awareness, Music has been “redeemed” and given back to her now as a tool for declaring God’s glory, not her own. For seeking first her neighbor’s good instead of her own. And this is, of course, the original purpose of music.
Or another example. A man who used to keep his herb garden merely for the sake of its own beauty or culinary use, now in the face of Christ’s example, he understands it as part of God’s great work in creation of which he is a part. The beauty and culinary realities are not removed, but they are taken up and consummated in this new understanding that, “I now do this first for God’s glory and the benefit of my neighbor.” It doesn’t mean he now grows exclusively biblical herbs—that’s not what we mean. Rather, he gardens as he has always gardened, according to the best practices of gardening, but he has now learned to love God and his neighbor more than his garden, and in that realization, he is given back his gardening—no longer for its own sake, but as a tool by which God is glorified and his neighbors benefited. And this of course was its original purpose. His gardening has been “redeemed.”
These examples illustrate the main point of the homily—neither music nor gardening exist for their own sake, nor does the musician or the gardener. Both exist for the primary end of bringing glory to God and good to the neighbor. This kind of logic must be brought to every area of life and thought or else we have not have fully grasped our purpose for being here.
A professor of mine once said, “We do not understand what it means for Christ to be Lord over all things, until we can go to the bathroom to the glory of God.”
Really? That is shot through with the ridiculous, is it not?
Then again, remember Paul’s words about “eating or drinking”—the very ingesting of food should be done to the glory of God? Is that truly any less ridiculous than the passing of that same food? Let’s be honest, how much sorrow have we seen in the world because people, industries, and governments do not manage their waste to the glory of God and the good of their neighbors.
Now, I admit, answering the question of what is my neighbor’s good can be complicated. Every parent who’s ever tried to do something for the children’s good or any friend who’s tried to be a “good friend,” knows how difficult and subjective another’s good can be to define. Granted. But do you see why the question becomes so important in the Christian view of things?
But doing something to glory of God may be actually be a simpler thing than we imagine. As I’ve said in a previous homily, I have become convinced that an activity like eating or drinking or gardening becomes glory-dealing simply by intending that it should be.
An activity like eating or drinking or gardening becomes glory-dealing simply by intending that it should be.
Now to be clear, such intention will not make an evil act good. No, it remains evil. But for any good thing that can be done, a Christian does it for God’s glory by the willful act of intending it be so. Such a holy intention might also change the manner in which it is done—causing us to eat or drink differently—but that comes after the intention. May I suggest Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God if you’d like to consider this more deeply.
It’s the grand point that matters here. Is there any corner of creation—big or small—from our greatest charges to our tiniest luxuries to which Jesus Christ does not wish to say, “That is again mine” to the glory of his Father? Any good that God does not desire to give back to us, but now healed of its privation, deformity, and selfishness.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ demands nothing more (and nothing less) than the whole of our human life redeemed in this way under his lordship, brought back under the great and overarching intent of the Lord’s Prayer: That in all things, profound and mundane, sacred and secular, whether work or recreation, God’s name may be hallowed, God’s kingdom proclaimed, and God’s will done as it was originally intended. This is our mission—to give our lives away for the glory of God and good of our neighbors. This is what animates the Christian’s hour by hour existence and gives us a sense of place and purpose in the world.
The Christian God is a God who works by means. And in this case, your hands are the means God wishes to use. What an invitation! What an opportunity! Who knew that your life was so important?
We’ll see you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
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