"Whatcha know good?"

Of Joy and Purpose in Life

By Gwen Sellers

"Whatcha know good?" This from a man in his late eighties, Southern drawl, twinkling eyes, face filled with expectation at what I had to share. My grandfather died 10 years ago. April 25, 2015 would have been his 100th birthday. Feeling a bit nostalgic over his loss, I was surprised by joy when a distant cousin found a video from a large family gathering 28 years ago, digitized it, and emailed it to my parents, who shared it with me. God knew my heart needed to see my grandfather's smile, his joy. The man loved social gatherings. More than that, he loved life. He knew how to soak up enjoyment — in the big things and the small things. He was an eager learner about all sorts of topics. He invested in relationships. Social status didn't matter to him; he was as interested in the lives of the wait staff at his favorite restaurants as he was in his doctor and attorney friends. He loved dessert and good deals. He also loved dressing up and following Southern etiquette. He was comfortable in his own skin and engaged in all life had to offer.

This reminiscent streak comes in the context of several conversations about life purpose. My mom was pregnant with me in that video, and I'm admittedly a bit concerned about how close 30 is knocking at my door. I'm wondering if I'm living life well. Am I supposed to be doing more? Am I missing important milestones? Am I a "success" as an adult? Childhood, adolescence, and, to some extent, my early twenties seemed pretty well scripted. The path is not totally clear, but there are certain expectations and norms. Plus there's the thought that you're still young and have plenty of time to "figure it out." Now it feels like endless possibility with no set map, or more like I should somehow have it figured out. The scariest thing is it feels like all the responsibility is on my shoulders. Training wheels are off. Now it's time for me to make something of this life.

The thing is, this feeling is not unique to young adults. Those conversations about life purpose have happened with many of my mentor friends, who admit to similar struggles. It seems there is this pervasive lie in our culture that we someday "arrive." That there is something to figure out. That success is actually a tangible thing we need only work hard enough to find. That all the onus is on us to make something of ourselves and to infuse our lives with purpose. We have catchy sayings about enjoying life and remembering that relationships are what truly matter or that small moments are the most important. But we don't often seem to live that way. At least my thoughts tend to latch on more eagerly to the myth of arrival than to the reality of life being one big growth trajectory. Why is that?

One of the things that distinguishes Christianity from other religions is that it is not works-based. We do absolutely nothing to earn our salvation (Ephesians 2:8-10). We don't even do anything to maintain it. It is all about God. My life has meaning and purpose because God gives me meaning and purpose. It is not my responsibility to make something of myself. It is my responsibility to obey God and follow where He leads (Proverbs 3:5-6). So, yes, when we are saved some "work" results (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Ephesians 4:17-32; Colossians 3:1-17). We do need to participate in the process of sanctification. But ultimately it is not about us. We don't pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps or effect change in ourselves through brute determination. We just yield to the Holy Spirit and cooperate with His work in our lives. Let me tell you, yielding takes effort. It isn't natural to give up our right to ourselves. God's ways are not our ways, and it's often hard to let Him have His way in us. For me sometimes the hardest thing is giving up my loyalty to the lie of self-effort. It is humbling to admit that I am helpless and that my accomplishments aren't about me. Perhaps the hardest, and certainly most frightening, is to give up my sense of control over my life and to instead trust that God's plan is really for my best.

Usually giving up my sense of control involves some sort of change. Change is something I shy away from. I mistakenly see it as a judgment on my current situation. I wrongly think change always means I've been doing the wrong thing, which I inappropriately link to my acceptability in Christ. Sometimes change is indicative that I've been doing the wrong thing. But God corrects me for my good (Hebrews 12:5-11). It is never to shame me, and is always meant to lead me into freedom. Another nonsense notion I have about change is that it's a set-up for failure. God doesn't bait me into situations ill-equipped. Plus failing at something is not the end of the world. It doesn't even put a dent in my value. If I really know God and choose to trust Him, there is nothing to fear. Change, desired or not, does increase a person's level of stress. But it is a normal part of life and the only way I can ever expect to grow.

Another pervasive lie I see is that if something isn't difficult, it isn't valuable. I joke about "suffering for the Lord." Somehow my natural response to being asked to obey God is that it is going to be a miserable experience for me. Really? God designed me uniquely, on purpose, and for a purpose. I am energized when I function in my calling. Sure, sometimes there will be suffering for the Lord. But when I'm functioning in my calling, it should mostly be energizing. Maybe physically exhausting, but the joy of the Lord should be there. I get nervous when I start to enjoy my life too much. I start thinking I must not be obeying because life isn't difficult. Since when did circumstances — whether pleasant or unpleasant — become the litmus test for whether I'm obeying God? Do I really think God is most pleased when I'm struggling and not when I'm enjoying the life He's given me?

One of my mentor friends said it well when she told me that she is learning that God enjoys her enjoyment. God takes pleasure in us when we take pleasure in the gifts He gives us. This friend finds great pleasure in doing puzzles. Now, rather than feel guilty for "wasting time" doing a puzzle, she can do it knowing that God is delighting in her. It's a gift He's given her for her refreshment. How cool is that?

I love that my grandfather enjoyed life so much. He knew how to take pleasure in the good things. What I didn't mention in describing him is how many health problems he had. Heart surgeries, kidney problems, orthopedic problems, skin cancer. He never complained, at least not to me. He wanted to know what I was doing, how I was enjoying life. He remained as active as he could — road trips, parties, volunteering at the library, tinkering in the garage, pushing papers. He focused on the good things. Not in a rose-colored glasses, ignorance is bliss kind of way, but in a why waste time complaining when there is so much to be enjoyed kind of way.

To me, this is an example of what it means to live out Philippians 4:8-9, which says, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you." God wants me to focus on that which is good and to delight in the pleasures He gives. He also wants me to be obedient and to endure through struggles. It's the whole spectrum of experience. Rejoicing in the things to be rejoiced in, mourning in the things to be mourned, enduring hardship and suffering, being still and resting in Him, and allowing God to delight my heart. It's fully receiving God's gifts in all of what life brings.

I'm learning that my life purpose has less to do with things I deem as accomplishments or success and more to do with understanding who God made me to be and being her. It isn't about achieving something through hard work, "suffering for the Lord," or ignoring God's call for my own sense of comfort or control. It's about engaging with Him fully in the context of His unique design of me so that He can be made known. Yes, it will involve hard work and some suffering. It will also include exhilaration, happiness, sadness, pain, healing, confusion, vision, etc. The majority of it will probably feel like lots of normal days where it seems not much is happening. But abiding is what I'm called to, and it means remaining connected with Christ through all seasons. Ultimately abiding should result in deep joy.

I love this from the Westminster Larger Catechism: "Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever." And one of my favorites from Jesus: "By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:8-11). We glorify God by bearing fruit, which is done by abiding, and abiding brings joy both to us and to God. Here's another favorite verse: "The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing" (Zephaniah 3:17). What an awesome God we serve!

Published 5-3-15