Chapter 14: SoulPurpose: A Mission for LifeBook / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. (Thomas Merton)
In this book you have been looking at your own life, discerning the shape God has made you, and trying to understand how to achieve a healthy sense of balance in the midst of competing time pressures and busy schedules.
We invite you, in this final chapter, to bring your new insights into sharp focus by considering in depth two key questions:
What do I really want my life to count for?
What will really matter for me in the end?
The race of your life
According to Paul, the Christian life calls for all the grit and determination and dedication and training that an athlete gives to a race…
Paul describes the Christian life as a race. He writes:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.
Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly … but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others, I myself should not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
It’s a helpful analogy – particularly if we think of a long-distance race. Over the long haul it’s easy to become distracted and to lose sight of your running plan. Same with life. It’s the long haul that counts.
That’s why reflecting on how to finish your race can give such a valuable perspective. It helps you understand better what to do along the way. Finishing well requires some wise preparation, along with the ability to pace yourself for the full distance.
For in life, as we progress along our course we only too easily become bogged down with the difficulties of the terrain. When present demands (and opportunities too) shape our decisions … they then begin to shape our lives. We become immersed in the detail, and it begins to obscure our overall plan. Details can be important, of course, but if we deal only with them we risk losing sight of our long-term goal.
Our lives begin to drift, and one day we wake up to see that we have lost our momentum, we’ve frittered away our time, and we’ve strayed from where we first intended to go.
Having a clear picture of how we want to end is critical. And so is living now in the light of that goal. The writer of Ecclesiastes was struck by this very point. As he came to the end of his life he saw that so much of what had occupied his time (and the time of the people around him) was of little importance. So many things that didn’t last; so many things that didn’t matter…
He came to see the long term consequences of the choices people took. The years the lawyer invested in making it to the top of the tree, the wheeling and dealing that brought the businessman wealth, the power plays that gave a politician exalted status, the building projects a proud ruler thought would last forever – this is what people gave their lives to.
But what did all those things amount to in the end? Families in tatters, lonely rulers starved for real friends, and people with empty lives. Although they seemed to have gained the world they had actually lost their souls. Their trophies were “empty” because they had failed to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with their God.
It must be frightening to put everything you have into winning what you think is the main event … only to wake up later to the realisation that it’s just a sideshow, that the main event is actually being staged without you. This is the numbing result that the writer of Ecclesiastes saw.
Always keeping the end in view decreases the risk of getting distracted from our goal. Yachties know that to cope with fickle breezes and different currents you need to keep the bow of your boat lined up with a particular spot onshore. Otherwise you drift off course. And when you’re well out to sea with no sight of land, some kind of fixed bearings are crucial. At night the stars can provide that, but to keep on course during the day a compass is an essential piece of equipment. Otherwise you’ll literally be all at sea!
So it is with our lives. The writer to the Hebrews encourages his readers to focus on their finish line:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2, NIV)
The Message puts it this way: Strip down, start running – and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever.
Jesus never lost sight of where he was headed. Follow his example.
The author and perfector of our faith
In a delightful twist, Jesus is both the one who has started us on the race, and also the end goal. And he’s the one who will help us become all we were meant to be – both in the refining of our character and in the full development of our SoulPurpose.
The race set before us is most of all about who we can become. It is only as we keep our eyes on Jesus that this transformation will be possible. He is the one who can help us discover what our lives were meant to count for. Jesus is also the one to whom we should look so that we can determine what will really matter to us in the end.
This chapter, like all the others in this book, will end with some questions and suggestions. They will help you work toward perceiving your own personal SoulPurpose. Another useful exercise (when your perception has taken firm shape) is to summarise in a paragraph what you understand the key strands of your SoulPurpose to be. This will never be a final statement. Your goals will always be open to further refinement. But at every point in your life it makes a world of difference to understand where you are aiming.
We (the authors) have all found attempting this helpful in taking a long view of our lives. Here are our own personal summaries:
I see my SoulPurpose centering on helping people make sense of what the call to follow Jesus involves in everyday life. This is mainly expressed through writing and teaching, but I also have a commitment to earthing my own faith in real life. (If I can’t learn to live it, how can I talk about it?) Particular areas my SoulPurpose leads me into are how faith should affect our work, our use of resources, relationships, and our involvement in mission and evangelism.
I want to see others grow in understanding their own SoulPurpose and see organisations (work, community, church, etc.) become places where people thrive – not just survive. At present I work this out in my family, studies, and the opportunities to coach individuals and groups who come my way.
Our God is too small and I want my life to count in helping to expand our vision of God. I want to see a younger generation of Christians living more purposefully in partnership with God in the world. That is why I like being involved in work with students, because they are such a strategic group at a very formative time of life. And that’s why I’m interested in faith and work issues, because I want to see churches grow that really equip and support Christians to venture out into the world more purposefully. My SoulPurpose also includes a strong desire to reflect God’s concern for the poor, oppressed and neglected. I also want my children and grandchildren to grow up knowing they are loved and gifted and using their gifts to discover their own SoulPurpose.
These are some of the things that provide motivation and direction for us.
But what about you? What do you really want your life to count for? What are the landmarks or compass bearings that are going to keep you on track when the winds blow fickle and the currents change? What are the things that God is on about that he also wants you to be on about?
What are some of the specific values that Jesus stood for that he’s wanting you to grab hold of and not forget?
What are the priorities you need to be sure about if you’re not going to lose your way?
Connection and Service
If you were to idly flick through this book you might think we have written a justification for a selfish life. Find where you fit … do what you are … express your uniqueness. It sounds like one of those New Age self-improvement courses.
A closer look will, of course, dispel any such idea. The content of this book is grounded in God’s call to us in Scripture. Jesus summed it up: Love God … and love your neighbour. Our focus is on loving our neighbour. Not a sentimental love, but a practical, self-giving one. In these pages you have wrestled with the challenge of how to make that love your focus, and how to order your life so that you can do it well.
As you set out to express this love and put your new understandings into practice we have two suggestions that will help you maintain your bearings – two points of reference to use whenever you’re considering a new task. They’re compass points that will keep you on your chosen course. You’ll recall them from our first chapter. The first is…
Connection reminds us to look at what God is doing, where he is working, and how your proposed contribution fits into his purposes. For ultimately it is God’s work in this universe that is most important. We have been invited to become partners in what he is doing.
The problem is that we have all too often viewed God’s work very narrowly – as if he is only really concerned with supporting the church and seeing individuals saved for a life in heaven, rather than as participants in God’s ongoing, creative, sustaining and renewing work on earth.
So we need an expanded vision of God at work in the world. And we need to see how our daily work is connected to his daily work. When this happens we begin to see that no part of our lives needs to be divorced from what he is doing. Even work can – and should – become part of our worship.
Seeing our daily chores as being connected to God’s work will definitely shape the way we go about our day. No longer will it be a matter of fulfilling selfish dreams and goals. It will become more and more about what we have to offer, and how that can be used by God for his good and the good of his world.
Connection then leads to the other critical compass point…
We were made to serve. When we recognise that what we have been given is not just for us, but so the lives of others can be enriched through us, our search to find our “fit” takes on new meaning and purpose. The gifts we have developed, our understanding of how God has uniquely put us together – these give us a lens through which we can see how to better serve others in the course of our daily lives.
With this perspective, our daily work can become, as Martin Luther suggested, our primary way of fulfilling God’s command to love our neighbours.
Re-examining the radical claims of Jesus
Another important way to regain perspective on how to develop our SoulPurpose, is to be aware of the radical claims of Jesus. Meditating on this can be remarkably clarifying!
For we all face a terrible danger. The longer we walk with Jesus, the easier it is to remake him into our own image! His claims on our life are both radical and uncomfortable. So it is little wonder that as we grow more familiar with him we develop a tendency to moderate and soften those claims. That way they become easier to live with. For the lifestyle he calls us to is inevitably at odds with the voices of our materialistic culture.
Meditating often on his words, allowing them to wash over us afresh, is an important and sobering antidote to this natural tendency. Consider these statements:
“When they came home to Capernaum Jesus asked the disciples, ‘What were you discussing on the road?’. The silence was deafening – they had been arguing with one another over who was the greatest. He sat them down and said ‘So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” (Mark 9: 33-35, The Message).
“Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat – I am. Don’t run from suffering, embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?” (Luke 9: 23-25, The Message)
How do I find the “real me”? According to Jesus, by giving myself to him and his mission. By giving my life away. Only then, he says, will I truly discover who I was meant to be.
This then, is one of the great paradoxes of discipleship. My SoulPurpose is not found in a life of self-actualization. It is instead found as I live a life of service – to Jesus and to others. There is no other way.
Why we need to do tasks that don’t particularly “fit” us
We’ve written about the value of finding our “fit”. We’ve pointed out how that can guide us in choosing the things we can best do. We’ve mentioned how, at first glance, this could sound like a licence to a self-focused life – the more I understand how I have been hard-wired, the more I ruthlessly reject doing anything that doesn’t come naturally to me!
But, as we’ve just noted, our guiding aim is to connect with God in service to God’s world. God’s imperatives may sometimes require us to actions that are not determined by our “fit”.
The life of Jesus is our supreme example here. He viewed his sacrifice on the cross as totally necessary for the world he came to save. We’re sure a compelling case could have been made for him to avoid arrest – so that he could “bless” the world even more with his extraordinary gifts of teaching and healing! Some might even suggest an element of foolishness in the deliberate choice Jesus made to be martyred rather than restrict himself to tasks that perfectly fitted him. What a waste!
Fortunately, Jesus recognised that his SoulPurpose was not solely wrapped up in his “fit”. It merged with the wider purposes of God and called him to sacrifice what may have been perceived as the best use of his gifts, for the greater good of God and this world.
Thank God for the obedience of Jesus. Where would any of us be without it? And what an example to follow! Sometimes we too will find ourselves in a situation where, to connect with what God is doing, we will need to take on work that doesn’t comfortably fit our talents and skills and gifts.
Living life on the edge
There are at least two other reasons we can think of for being prepared at times to serve outside of our “fit”. One is the need we all have for growth and challenge.
We cannot mature unless we allow ourselves to be placed in situations where more than just natural ability is called for. Under the tough conditions of life lies amazing potential waiting to be unearthed in each of us. Like the proverbial hunk of coal, our lives also need to be put under pressure in order to produce the beauty and purity of a diamond. For more than anything else, God wants us to become like Jesus, with his character clearly evident in our lives.
Alongside the need to grow is the need to be on the edge. The two go hand in hand. A curious thing happens when we gain competence in a particular field. We easily slip into a sub-conscious belief that we don’t need God. We’re managing quite nicely, thanks very much! “Comfortable-itis” often gets the better of us. It’s safe and secure within our niche.
However, risk-taking is part of the life of faith. Again Jesus is our example. And our teacher. He was the one who said to his followers (in the words of The Message) “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” (Matthew 5:3)
A life of SoulPurpose
At the beginning of this book we claimed that all of us were made for significance. Right from before we were born God hard-wired us. He intended a unique purpose for each of our lives – to know him and follow him, and to join him in his mission to this world by finding and using our unique desires, motivations, giftings, personalities and preferred ways of operating.
Reaching the full potential of our SoulPurpose requires that we understand and make the most of that hard-wiring and those potentials. We need to understand ourselves so we can work at our best. But our SoulPurpose cannot be found in a selfish life of just doing what we want to do. Only as we walk with our Maker, only as we discover how God works, only as we find how our unique “fit” can mesh with God’s plans for this world, will we be free to find and live out our SoulPurpose.
And when this happens, the words of Jesus will ring true and pure in our ears:
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. (Matthew 5:5, The Message)
I came so (you) can have real and eternal life, more and better life than (you) ever dreamed of. (John 10:10, The Message).
If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me. (Matthew 10:39, The Message).
Our hope is that each of us will experience the truth of these words.
For there is no better way to live than to know that what we do and who we become counts for eternity.
Personal meditation: planning the end of your race
Write a personal mission statement for your life (Just one sentence)
What would you like to have said about you if you could write your own funeral eulogy or epitaph?
What is it that you would like to hear God’s voice say about you at the end of your life?
Make a list of the most important things you would like to have achieved by the end of your life.
What will you do next, having reached this point in your SoulPurpose journey?
Summarize your SoulPurpose in a paragraph, in a way that makes clear how you are living in God’s world … for God and for the people around you. (Do this exercise only when you have defined your SoulPurpose and lived it for a period of time.)
Feedback from friends: personal reflections in a small group
Prepare in advance (for this session) a sentence describing the contribution you see each other member of the group making to God’s world. Go round the group, reading these out for each group member. How do you respond to the descriptions your fellow-members have given you?
Take question 4 in the personal meditation above, and explain your choices to the group. Invite others to help clarify your aims and look at ways you might work toward them.
How could your community – your neighbourhood or your town or your college or your place of work, or whatever part of society your group relates to – be different because of the way you live?