Our world is at odds: We live in the safest, healthiest, and most prosperous society that has ever existed, yet there appears to be more unhappiness than ever. In other words, unhappiness has risen despite our collective decadence. Suicides, overdoses, depression, and a general sense of hopelessness have all been on the rise for several decades — especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. As The Economist aptly said over a decade ago: “Capitalism can make a society rich and keep it free. Don’t ask it to make you happy as well.”
While one could point to a variety of factors, I argue that the source of our culture’s sickness is a problem of purpose. Christian or not, we all need to have the sense that our life has meaning. But even Christ-followers struggle to experience it. Is there a way to both discover the magnificent purpose for your existence and experience it in everyday life?
What kind of world do we live in?
The great debate of our time can be summarized in two statements. The first is by the famed scientist Carl Sagan who declared, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” The second is by the great Victorian poet Gerard Manly Hopkins who penned, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
These statements represent a contest over the question of the nature of our world. Do we live in a reality that is filled with purpose and meaning? Or is the world, our lives, and all that we hold dear ultimately meaningless?
Western culture embraced Sagan’s view over a century ago. Generally described as naturalism, it posits that the natural world is all that exists, and as such we have no foundation for truth, morality or purpose. When you lack a transcendent source of purpose, you will look to the various pleasures around you to satisfy yourself.
But self-determined values or fleeting pleasures will never bring lasting fulfillment. Moreover, they are fragile since they can be thwarted by suffering, disappointment or hardship. Jesus warned us of this in Matthew 16:26: “For what will it benefit someone if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will anyone give in exchange for his life?”
The rival view holds that our world is “charged with the grandeur of God.” The Christian worldview argues that there is a God who created everything with unique intention; His world is filled with purpose and meaning. While we can find joys in the pleasures of life, we are not dependent on anything in this world to be our ultimate identity or source of purpose. God is our unshakable source of joy.
The full life offered in Christ
The ancient Greeks looked at the world around them and saw order, intention and purpose. Like Sagan, they called this world a cosmos — but notice how different their meaning is from Sagan’s. For Sagan, cosmos meant the mere materials of our world — chaos instead of order, randomness instead of intention, absurdity instead of purpose.
For the ancients, cosmos meant an ordered world where everything had its purpose. They theorized that behind the apparent order of things must be a transcendent logos (word or reason). Happiness was found in aligning your life within the logos, thereby discovering your purpose. Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland described classical happiness as “a life well lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness, and goodness.”
Now consider the invitation of the Christian Scriptures: “In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). The apostle John turned Greek philosophy on its head. Even the atheist philosopher Luc Ferry admitted: “The divine had shifted ground: it was no longer an impersonal structure [logos], but an extraordinary individual, in the form of Jesus, the ‘Man-God’.”
What does this mean? It means your purpose is found in Jesus Christ. He invites you to discover a full life in Him: “I am the gate. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:9-10).
How to experience the abundant life
The problem is, you know you are supposed to find life’s purpose and meaning in God, but the actual experience of this is much more difficult. Is it possible to have an abundant life full of adventure, meaning and purpose if your life is merely “ordinary”?
Jesus fills in the gap for us here. He said, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). Many people see only another rule to be obeyed or rejected in Jesus’ statement. However, I see a declaration of reality and an invitation to enter it.
Deny yourself. First, Jesus calls us to denial of the self. Simply put, denying yourself means to repent of sin and resist the urge to disobey God. To get good at self-denial, you need to start with God’s grace and the security of His love. If you are insecure about your position as His child and His beloved, then self-denial will be impossible. You must seek God’s love for you in Scripture and through prayer. Only then will you be prepared to open your life before the Holy Spirit and be examined for opportunities to deny yourself.
Practice bringing your focus to the Father’s love and responding in self-denial every day. Once you are better at taking your attention off yourself and placing it on God’s will and the needs of others, then you are ready for step two.
Take up your cross. Second, Jesus calls us to take up our cross. To become like Jesus, we must follow the pattern and habits of Jesus. Many people read self-denial and taking up your cross as one and the same step. However, consider Jesus’ example. Jesus made a commitment to self-denial before taking His cross (Mark 14:35-42). The cross was the burden of responsibility that God placed before the Son, and self-denial was the prerequisite to bearing that cross.
Likewise, after we commit to daily self-denial, we are ready to receive the calling that God has upon our lives. Taking up your cross means to accept the responsibility God has placed on you to follow the pattern of Jesus. This does not mean simply adding a religious layer to the existing structure of your life. More regular church attendance or another Bible study on your calendar won’t do. Rather, it means to completely restructure your life according to the principles of Jesus’ kingdom. You re-evaluate, re-order, and re-orient every facet of your life under the kingship of Jesus.
Follow Christ. Third, Jesus calls us to follow Him. One way to describe this is through a call to a life of piety. Today’s common usage of the term is better called pietism. Pietism is a lifestyle of extreme devotion to personal spiritual practices and holiness through withdrawal from the world.
Of course, personal holiness should be the goal of every believer, but piety has classically meant something more. As C. R. Wiley explained in “The Household and the War for the Cosmos,” classical piety is better understood as “duty” (hang with me here). This includes duty to God but also to all of one’s obligations including family, neighbor and country. Therefore, in direct contrast to pietism and its call to withdraw from the world, classical piety draws us into the world and requires us to shoulder the burden of our responsibilities to God and others.
The classic picture of piety is found in the ancient Latin poem the “Aeneid.” In it, the hero Aeneas is fleeing Troy after it has been ransacked by the Greeks. Instead of pursuing his own glory in battle, Aeneas is dutiful to his family to help them escape from the burning city. He leads his wife through the chaos while carrying his crippled father on his shoulders and holding his son’s hand.
Experiencing purpose in your day-to-day life is to be found in dutiful faithfulness to the obligations God has given you. This should be incredibly encouraging. You’re not necessarily called to “do big things for God.” You’re called to be faithful in what you’ve been given. Even if your job is mundane or unimpressive, you work as someone who has been called by God to it. Even if you are single, you fulfill obligations to the friends and familial relationships to which you are bound. Even if you desire change in your relationships, job or something else, you honorably shoulder the burdens in the here and now until God opens another door.
Paul concludes nearly every one of his letters with instructions for churches and households (Ephesians 5-6). Why? Because the cosmos is God’s well-ordered house, and He has a purpose for each of us in it. These purposes are the jobs and relationships that make up everyday life. We live out our purpose by subduing the forces of sin and chaos in the world and making them obedient to Christ.
When you consistently deny self, shoulder your responsibilities, and live dutifully following Christ, you will experience deep significance even in the ordinariness of life. This is true because you will be growing nearer to Christ and bearing fruit, as well as having the knowledge that your efforts are pleasing to the God who loves you.
Copyright 2022 Aaron Shamp. All Rights Reserved.