This one’s a few years old…
Recently I’ve been confused about the purpose of my life. This seems ironic, considering I graduated from medical school this past summer (under very miraculous circumstances which made it abundantly clear that I’m doing what God has called me to do), and moved back to Tucson, where I am surrounded by some of my closest friends and family. But I wasn’t so much wondering about my career or where I ought to live as about my overall “purpose,” from a Christian perspective. It took me awhile to realize that I’ve already dealt with this issue once before, and put it to rest – or so I thought.
About a year ago, after going back and forth between two churches in Phoenix (one where the teaching was good but there was no one in my life stage, and another where the reverse was true), I finally decided to commit to the latter. When I made that decision, I downloaded a whole bunch of that church’s podcasts and listened to them as I got dressed in the morning, as I drove in my car, etc. Over the subsequent month or so, I began to feel a vague sense of growing guilt that I could not quite define. After about a month I figured out that that guilt and the messages in those podcasts might be related.
In most churches I’ve ever been to, the emphasis has been on service and spiritual disciplines — both good and undoubtedly highlighted in the life of Jesus. But the pastors often seemed to brow-beat their congregations: are you serving others? Are you out sharing the gospel? Do you truly love your neighbor? Are you living in unforgiveness? Do you have some sin that you haven’t yet confessed? How’s your prayer life? …Then they asked why people weren’t coming to Christ, and why the church wasn’t making a difference. I think the reason is because that’s not good news. Nobody would want to accept it, and nobody would want to share it. That, I realized, was also why I resented a particular ministry that I was involved with in college, even though I could never put my finger on the problem at the time. I lived then with a deep sense of unworthiness, and I felt it begin to creep back when I started attending that church in Phoenix regularly.
My problem in this case has always been that I take criticism (constructive or otherwise) so much to heart. On one hand, this can be a good thing, because it means that I am very teachable and open to correction. But it also means that I can get confused and pulled off track easily. As a result of those messages, all of a sudden I started wondering whether I was doing what I was really supposed to be doing with my life, from the perspective of all of those acts of service and spiritual disciplines. The argument was that following Jesus requires obedience, and all of those things are what Jesus told us to do. Admittedly that seemed very biblical (or at least it could be backed up biblically). But I think it missed THE critical step. When the focus is on the fact that you are accepted and loved already, exactly where you are, then a) that is good news, and you want to tell everybody you know so that they can have it too, and b) you want to spend time in prayer and reading the Bible. (Everybody wants to hang out with someone who accepts them unconditionally — nobody wants to hang out with somebody who makes them feel unworthy.) I believe that the miraculous power of God flows naturally as a result of an understanding of the Father heart of God. The crux of the gospel is not how sinful we are; it’s the fact that we’ve been redeemed.
As I dealt with this issue again recently, I listened to another podcast over and over again, called “Build the Wall.” The message referenced Nehemiah, who was convinced that God wanted him to rebuild the wall in Jerusalem, despite great opposition from surrounding nations. He refused to let any arguments, threats, or coercions distract him from that purpose, because he knew that he knew that he was doing God’s work. So it didn’t matter what anybody else said he ought to be doing instead, or how spiritual their arguments sounded. “Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). The message also pointed out that all of the people built the parts of the wall that were in front of their own houses. The point was, do what God has placed in front of you to do, and do it well. One of my good friends said to me the other day, if you’re a checker at a grocery store for the rest of your life, but you love people and serve them to the best of your ability, then that’s a life well lived.
Jesus said the greatest commandments were to love God, and to love others (in that order). I am blessed now to have found a church that emphasizes this: if I love God first, then the love for others (and all of those other “acts of service” mentioned in so many sermons) will flow as a result of that – it won’t be something I’m trying to muster up, because that never works. From there, God will tell me what else He wants me to do, when He wants me to do it… and until He does, I will be faithful to what He has already shown me. I will build the wall that’s in front of my house.