"Whatcha know good?"

Of Joy and Purpose in Life

By Gwen Sellers

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"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.

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Published on 5-3-15