The world is temporary.
I take a breath, and it fades away an instant later. I have to keep taking breaths in order to stay alive, and each successive one replaces the last. I don’t remember the breaths I took two minutes ago, because what matters now is the next one. I live from breath to breath.
My entire existence, then, is temporary. All our lives are. In the scheme of human history, my life is like a breath. The things I spend my time and energy on, the things I love most deeply, the things that stress and anger and scare me – none of it is going to last. I live entrenched in each moment, burrowed in the elements that my daily life consists of. I breathe, I sleep, I eat, I work, I walk, I move, I rest, I worry, I like, I dislike.
It’s a sobering thought when I realize how very, very fragile my little world is. I have a family who never stops loving me and an amazing circle of friends and acquaintances. I got a college education, thanks mostly to scholarships. I have an intact, beautiful home to go back to. I am healthy and full of vigor, with a brain that thrives on challenges. I have never had to worry about how I’m going to get my next meal. I don’t face extreme heat or cold on a regular basis. I don’t live in fear for my survival, my safety, or my well-being. But what if all that was taken away? What would be left if I didn’t have any of that anymore?
Two things would remain: the people around me and my faith in God. Someday I may find myself in circumstances very different than what they are now. What would my response be? Would I crumple in despair over losing everything that mattered most to me – or would I be able to press on and keep fighting, because I had had a greater purpose in life all along?
I usually find comfort in the daily routines of life, but there are other times when I feel like I’m just going through meaningless motions. I’m reminded that in the end, it won’t matter how well I did on my exams, or how expressive and beautiful a dancer I was, or what kinds of art I created, or how many books I read, or how nice my home was, or how well I took care of my health, or how many destinations I got to travel to, or how fit and in shape I was, or how many dreams I checked off my bucket list. These things all come together to enrich my life, create amazing memories, connect me with people, and remind me of God’s love and His work in the world. But my life cannot be based on them for their own sake. If I try to find my whole purpose in any of them, I will ultimately have wasted my life. They are temporary.
It is both fortunate and frustrating that I am both restless and relentlessly curious. I can never be content with doing what everyone else does without understanding why it is (or isn’t) worth doing. I have thought over and questioned and wrestled with my purpose for several years now. Being in college intensified the issue, because in a way it felt like such a selfish time of life – taking classes and pursuing opportunities and getting a degree, all for ME, and striving for excellence in all this as well as leaving enough time to have something of a social life meant that I didn’t have the time, energy, or resources to get beyond myself and give the way I want to. So I’ve wrestled with this question constantly. What is my purpose? What if I miss it? What if I’m not equipped to fulfill it?
I’ve grown up hearing that to follow Christ is to gain real life, to find purpose and meaning, and to exist for something greater. I suppose it ought to have been somewhat obvious, but I felt like everyone tossed these phrases around while never explaining what they actually meant. What was the higher purpose? I know I’m going to heaven, but what about now – how am I supposed to spend the days that I’ve been given here?
Through a variety of resources, I think I’ve found a simple but multifaceted answer.
When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus gave a twofold reply: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. Later, the Great Commission tells us to go into all the world and make disciples of all men. Ecclesiastes 12:13 tells us that the whole duty of man is to fear God and keep His commandments. In Micah 6:8, the Lord’s requirement of man is for him to do justice, love kindness and mercy, and to walk humbly with Him.
What I think I’m beginning to understand is this: being outwardly focused is my purpose. My first priority is to love, serve, honor, and worship God, and then it is to love, serve, honor, and connect with people. Having said that, if I am to love my neighbor as myself, then it logically follows that I need to love myself – never in a narcissistic, self-focused, selfish way, but coming from a healthy place of understanding my identity in Christ as a redeemed and deeply loved child of God. I need to begin by taking care of myself, because I range from less than effective to completely useless if I do not physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually equip myself for every good work. It starts by ensuring that I get enough sleep, eat well, exercise regularly, and avoid harmful habits. I also need to allow myself opportunities to rest, be intellectually challenged, and make my consuming passion a deep and growing relationship with God.
Once this foundation is in place – looking well to the condition of my own heart before I try to touch others’ – my purpose is found in people. It’s the people who I was born to, raised by, and grew up with. It’s the friendships and acquaintances I form as I journey through different seasons of life with a variety of activities in each. It’s the lifelong soul mate and future family I hope to have someday. It’s the people I see as I go throughout my days, even if our interactions tend to be short or surface-level – cashiers, teachers, parents of friends, waitresses, sales people. It may even be the people I come in contact with for five minutes in an airport or at a coffee shop and then never see again. I believe there’s a reason I have the sphere of influence that I do, even if it is small, and making a difference to that sphere is my purpose. I’m not responsible for changing the whole world – only my little corner of it.
But how do I do that? I’m a task-oriented, overachieving, easily stressed planner and goal-setter. I’m a doer and I always have things I want to accomplish. How can I change my mindset around so entirely to accommodate this newly discovered purpose? And what does it even mean to make people my purpose?
At its most basic level, I think prioritizing people means building relationships with them. It means I can’t be content with friendships that never go below the surface, or with repeated casual interactions with people I never take the time to get to know. I need to get comfortable with asking questions based on genuine interest. Maybe that begins with the standard small-talk questions, but it should go deeper as I try to truly understand the person, their motivations, their fears and dreams. I need to continually develop empathetic listening skills and strive to avoid focusing the conversation on myself. At the same time, I should be hospitable with myself, honestly sharing who I am, my experiences, and my faith. The more comfortable others grow with me, the more freely conversations on deeper subjects will flow, the more of my beliefs I may have a chance to share, and the more impact that will make.
As for the brief, one-time interactions, I probably can’t make a huge impact, but I can strive to be kind, gracious, and pleasant. I want my little encounters with people to always make their day better and easier, and if their whole impression of me is based solely on what I do, then I want my actions to accurately represent and speak well of the God Who is changing my life.
Secondly, I had a profound moment of comprehension from a novel I read recently, as I was in the ongoing process of wrestling with why I love all the things I love and what purpose that serves. My realization was this: the things I love can serve as an amazing tool to connect me with people who love the same things, who I might otherwise never have had a chance to meet. I have amazing friends from dance, which I’ve been involved with my whole life. I have friends from the home school group we were a part of. I’ve met and gotten to know people through sewing classes, campus ministries, book clubs, ice skating lessons, missions trips, college classes and group projects, small groups, and the list goes on. What if the fact that I love coffee shops, or wish I could spend hours reading, or express myself best through writing, or that dance seems to flow in my veins, or that I can’t stand not being active, or that eating and cooking are both favorite hobbies of mine, or that I love beauty and art in all forms, or that I’m passionate about travel and making things with my hands, or that I could happily live in Barnes & Noble – what if none of those is just some self-centered, meaningless, worldly “desire of the flesh” that needs to be suppressed, but is actually one of the means that God has given me to reach people with that same love?
Thirdly, as an aspiring dancer, artist, sewer, writer, coffee shop owner, and home entertainer (yes, wish me luck), I have so many opportunities to do what I do just for me, or just for the sake of doing it. But I believe that God has given me the interests, gifts, and opportunities that He has for a reason, and so my intention is to communicate as much truth, love, warmth, and beauty through these things as I can. I am called to redeem every element of my life and consecrate it for a higher purpose, and that is to point people back to the God Who lovingly designed them and is gently calling them back home, into an intimate relationship with Him.
Thinking about purpose has helped me understand exactly what I am trying to share through all this, as well. Why should people be interested in my faith? Plenty of other religions claim to have the answers about how to get to heaven and live “a good life”. Now I understand that Christianity alone calls me not simply to check off a list of good deeds and say some prayers, but instead to be so compelled by Christ’s unconditional love that I have no viable choice but to give my life away gladly. Christianity offers a life filled with the ongoing adventure of relying on God’s strength in my own weakness, of serving others as if I was serving Christ Himself, of living each day not for myself alone but as unto God. Every circumstance and opportunity He has given me is a chance I have to show others Who He is, what He’s done for me, and what He wants for them. In everything I do, then, I have a purpose – and part of that is to help people see the purpose they can have too.
It all boils down, I think, to this: my life is not my own. My time is not my own. My body is not my own. The fact that I even have a next breath to take is thanks to God. A little while ago, a friend of mine only two months older than me died suddenly in a car accident, and that shook me up a lot. I knew it just as easily could have been me in that car, but it wasn’t, and I feel that I owe God a lot for that. I can never take my life for granted, because He’s still sustaining it and that's for a reason. Another thing that I’ve been wrestling with recently is the thought that everything I did while I was alive will someday be tested with fire, and then I’ll truly understand what I did and what it was worth. That’s a sobering thought and a wake-up call. What exactly am I doing with my life?
I don’t have time to waste on things that don’t matter. I don’t even know if I’ll be here tomorrow. What I do know is that time spent deepening my relationship with God and cultivating relationships with people is never wasted. I also know that as I go about my day-to-day life and activities, if I continue to work heartily and with excellence as unto the Lord in all things, then they have meaning. I choose, then, to use my time as wisely and purposefully as I can, and to live in such a way that someday I will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I can’t ask for a more compelling purpose than that.