A young man felt God wanted him to sing. The church he attended was ordered in such a way that if a person felt God calling them to something, they could come forward during a Sunday service and express it to the congregation. This man came up and told the ministers God had given him a song. They handed him the microphone and he belted out a song.
For several minutes, he let sounds come from his mouth that notified every ear of this simple fact: God had not called the man to sing. His performance was an epic failure and everyone knew it.
Finally, mercifully, it ended. The church members looked at their shoes as the man returned to his seat. He sat down next to his friend, leaned over and asked, “How’d I do?”
The friend, in a moment of divine inspiration said, “You will do many great things for God. Singing is not on the list.”
As you might imagine, the young man was devastated. He had prayed, prepared, and practiced. On hearing the terrible news of his failure he quit that church and went to another. There, the episode was repeated only this time, fearing they might hurt the young man’s feelings, the parishioners gave him mild applause. When he asked, “How’d I do?” people shook his hand and said, “Fine, fine.”
The young man was so happy. He quit college to devote all of his time to a singing career. He took lessons from several instructors. He read books about famous singers. He spent all his money on recordings, trying to tap into the various notes of famous performers. One after another, his singing instructors turned him away, telling him he had no singing ability. But he had faith that God wanted him to sing, and he continued to find instructors who would accept his money. One promised to get him into shape and land a recording contract, but it never happened.
Finally, his money was gone. He was unable to land a single assignment as a singer. The sadness was overwhelming.
In that quiet place, he remembered that in school he had easily passed two accounting courses. He answered an ad for a bookkeeper at a local shop. After a few months, his employer raised his salary and title to Comptroller. Years later, he started his own accounting firm, which was successful. His church elected him treasurer telling him, “Accounting is your vocation; the thing God has called you to do.”
Many years later, the man’s health failed. He could no longer maintain his business or the church treasury. He retired. He grew depressed. He withdrew from life.
One day he was walking in his neighborhood. He heard a little girl crying and he walked over to her and asked what was the matter. She said, “I got up to sing at school, and everyone laughed at me. They said I was terrible.”
The man, “Oh my dear, you will do a great many things for God. So what if singing isn’t on the list? I’ve seen you ride your bicycle, perhaps that’s the thing you’re best at.”
The next Sunday, the man returned to the old church where he tried to sing so many years before. At the appropriate time, he asked for the microphone and said, “I am not here to sing. I am here to say that you can do a great many things for God. You have inside you the power to encourage others. That is the greatest thing you can do.” He sat down to the sound of applause.
If we look, we see a pattern in this man’s life. It is the biblical pattern for finding purpose. We think of something to do and we try it. Our community truthfully encourages us to continue or helps us try something else. We get to a point where we can no longer do that thing, and we make a choice. We either look back in fear that our life is no longer meaningful as it once was, or we trust God to show us our purpose while doing whatever we can.
For those of you curious about this subject, get out your phone and mark Sundays from April 28 through May 19 on your calendar. Today offers a taste of a four-part Sunday School series where you and I can dig deep into the subject of life purpose, and we shall find yours. You may have heard life purpose referenced as vocation or calling. Vocation is the fancy word from Latin vocare. Latin is a language that died for good reason; the word just means to call, and it references God’s call to you to do something that will give you great joy. Whatever it may be, finding your life’s purpose is not complicated.
Finding purpose is automatic
In today’s liturgy reading, we meet Joseph at the height of his career (Genesis 45). He’s the second most powerful man in the ancient Middle Eastern world. He was not always that way.
When we meet Joseph, he’s a bratty teenager, which is a redundant statement. He’s so arrogant, his brothers want to murder him. Instead they sell him into slavery. Then he gets framed for a sex crime and thrown into prison. From prison he develops his purpose and ends his life second in command of the most powerful nation on earth. Joseph goes from privilege to pain to purpose.
Joseph’s conclusion is to tell his brothers that what they meant to harm him God used for good. Based on how the story is written, the writer wants us to walk away confident that God turns pain into purpose. Not that he eradicates pain, but that he redeems it. That belief comes in handy when a person runs into pain, don’t you agree?
Let’s dig a bit deeper to understand that this process God uses to reveal your life’s purpose is automatic. People who trust God, find purpose. Joseph was a slave, approached by his owner for sexual favors, but he trusted God. He told the woman that what she proposed would be offensive to God and his Master who depended on him. She had him thrown into prison, but Joseph kept trusting God, and God showed him his purpose.
We see this pattern repeated over and over in the Bible. It happens to Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Naomi, the Judges, Peter, John, both Marys, and even Jesus. Paul sees it in his life and codifies the pattern in his letter to the Roman church, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). All you or I need do to find purpose in life is to trust God and do what we can.
Recent discoveries in how human brains work tell us that if we believe a thing, our bodies will take action to prove the thing true. Even if it’s not true, when we believe it we work to prove it true. Psychologists have told us for years that when we take positive actions our brains give us a sense of purpose. If you believe God has purpose for you, you will take action, and the action you take will cause you to believe. Your brain is perfectly designed to use God’s pattern of turning pain into purpose.
Now we can see the value of an honest, encouraging church. If you believe you’re called to something for which you have no talent, your body will take action trying to prove the false thing true. The young man wasted time and money trying to sing because a church withheld the sour truth of his misshapen notes. On the other hand, we see Joseph doing what was available to him and his community encouraged his good work. It’s automatic when all the pieces are in place: your belief, your effort, and your community’s encouragement.
God created you purposefully
Too few of God’s creatures understand that this process functions automatically. God has designed us to find a purposeful life. The idea goes like this: God is personal and purposeful. He created you in his image. Therefore, you are personal and purposeful. God created you on purpose and for a purpose, and he calls you to that purpose.
But you have to answer the call. God calls you to know him, and he calls you to serve others. At a highly generalized level, your life purpose is to know God and serve people. The particulars of service are a little bit different for each person.
To say that life is purposeless makes no more sense than arguing politics on Facebook or putting Tabasco sauce on a sweet roll, which are the same things metaphorically. If you have life, you have purpose. Life in every form has purpose. To say that any form of life is purposeless is to mock God.
That doesn’t mean life is easy. Life is often painful and sometimes confusing. But the pain is not purposeless. The pain of life drives us to choices. A good choice involves trying something else. A bad choice allows the pain to create fear because fear can kidnap us and hold us in a type of slavery. Fear takes you away from being you if you let it, and that’s what we see quite a lot of today.
God has made each of us with a purpose in mind. Pain tries to take us away from our purpose, but faith remains undefeated in the war against pain. See your purpose fight through the pain of life by doing what you can. Do what you can’ is Joseph’s lesson as much as it is Job’s, Solomon’s, Paul’s, and Jesus’.
The God who created you knows your purpose. I can say with great confidence that your purpose is the process of God telling you about you. Depend on that truth to set you free from fear and striving to a life of purpose and meaning.
Many times, a person’s life is rocking happily along when something bad happens. They can no longer do what they want to do. God drops something they can do in their lap, and they have a decision to make. They can either keep wishing life was as it used to be, or they can get busy doing what God dropped in their lap. They can do what they can do. That’s often where people find their purpose. You want to know your purpose? Do whatever God gives you to do.
Many people lack a sense of purpose because they fear that the thing they can do is too small or beneath them. I do some volunteer work with people who are looking for jobs. They turn down offers of solid work because it doesn’t pay as much as they used to make. They don’t like me talking about doing what God drops in your lap.
Like it or not, the pattern is clear. Do what you can, and trust God with the results.
A good church confirms your purpose
Over the years, I’ve worked with about seventy dying churches that wanted to grow. Those that grew did what they could, those that did not longed for the glory days and wasted a lot of time arguing. In the process of working with those churches, I’ve heard hundreds, and that’s not a trumped up number, hundreds of people wonder: “What am I here for?” A surprising number of church folks feel that their contribution does not matter.
I’ve found a surprising number of people, at every level of spiritual maturity, wondering why they’re here, wondering about their purpose and feeling that their life lacks purpose. They’ve hit some pain that prevented them from doing things they used to do, things they liked and were good at. Now they feel that life doesn’t make much sense. Pain tends to make things not make sense, but God can redeem it.
Those churches could easily have answered their member’s question. A good church encourages you to do what you can. The church that encourages its members to fulfill their purpose will unite in its vision and grow automatically. What if UBC was known as the place that encouraged people to know and find their life purpose? Or just the place that encourages people?