Does life have a purpose?
Passage: Colossians 1:16, John 17:1–17:5, Mark 8:34–8:38, Philippians 1:21
Living for what matters most gives us the most purpose.
Growing up, our house was heated by a wood burning stove. Since we lived out in the country, every summer my dad would cut the wood necessary to heat our house during the winter. When my dad cut the wood, my sister and I had the job of stacking it. First, we would have to stack it out in the woods so we could pick it up with the wagon behind the tractor. Next we would unstack it from those piles then stack it in the wagon. Then we would unstack it from the wagon and stack it in the shed where it would dry. Then when we needed wood in the house, we would unstack it from the shed, put it in the back of the truck, then throw it down the wood shoot into the basement. Can you guess what we did with it in the basement? We would stack it in the basement. Eventually, we would unstack it from the wood room in the basement and throw it in the fire.
As a kid, this felt like an awful lot of unnecessary stacking. We would stack those same sticks of firewood four times before they made it into the fire. I knew why some of the stacking was necessary, but some of it felt like busy work. Why couldn’t we just leave it in a pile when we threw it in the basement? Why do we have to stack it up in the wood room? I think I may have been onto something with this because since my sister and I have left, my dad no longer stacks the wood in the basement. I think he just liked it to be neater and it gave us something to do.
We have all experienced the frustration of doing something that doesn’t seem to have a purpose. We feel like it is busy work - work given to us just to keep us busy. We grumble and complain and have no motivation to do it.
The concept of busy work brings up an interesting question. What makes us feel like something is meaningful? What gives something meaning and purpose? When do we feel like what we are doing matters?
This evening we are beginning a sermon series called Explore God and we actually aren’t the only church doing this. The latest count I heard is that 815 churches in the Chicagoland area are either doing a sermon series or discussion groups focused on exploring God. When we think about doing what is meaningful and has purpose, I believe exploring God is the most meaningful pursuit to which we can give ourselves.
Tonight, we are talking about purpose and purpose is an interesting feeling. Two people can be doing the same exact activity and yet be experiencing totally different feelings of purpose in that activity. On the other hand, two people could be doing two totally different activities yet be doing it for the same purpose.
Here’s another example. How many of you are familiar with the show Dirty Jobs? The host, Mike Rowe, spends a day as an apprentice doing “dirty jobs”. In 2008, he gave a TED talk where he talked about his experience on the show. One of the observations he shared was this: “People with dirty jobs are happier than you think. As a group they’re the happiest people I know.” He comments that he’s worked alongside people who do unthinkable work. He mentions that roadkill picker-uppers whistle while they work.
When we watch a show like Dirty Jobs and see people doing jobs that seem horrible to us, we may think, “They must really hate what they are doing.” And yet, as Mike Rowe observes, they are some of the happiest people he knows. On the other hand, we may look at a famous actress or a successful CEO or a star athlete and think, “Wow, they must feel really good about their life” and yet if we talked to them, they might be totally unhappy and not see a purpose in all of it.
Purpose is much less about the “what” and much more about the “why”. Even the most dirty, insignificant “whats” can be done with a sense of joy and satisfaction if a person has the right “why”. Purpose comes from having a sense that what we are doing matters. Purpose comes from having a sense that we matter - that our lives matter. Purpose comes from knowing the “why” of our lives - “why am I here?”, “why am I doing this?”
Here’s the big idea for this evening: Living for what matters most gives us the most purpose. Living for what matters most gives us the most purpose.
Isn’t it interesting that inside each of us is a deep sense that we were made for something. Everyone is looking for meaning. Everyone is looking for purpose. Purpose motivates us. It gets us out of bed in the morning. It gets us through the tough times.
Some of you this evening need to rediscover your purpose. You have lost purpose. You’ve lost the “why” for living. Everything feels like busy work to you. You don’t know why you are here. You need to rediscover purpose.
Some of you this evening need to redefine your purpose. Purpose comes from knowing what we are doing matters. The question is: what matters most? I’m sure we’d all agree that there are many things that matter. Health matters. Family matters. But what matters most?
As we consider purpose and what matters most, we are going to look at two characters in the Bible.
First, let’s begin with the apostle Paul.
Paul: a man who had found his purpose
During the 1st century, 2,000 years ago, there was a man named Paul. Paul knew his purpose. He was a Jew and was trained under one of the most well-known teachers to be a religious leader for his people. The religious position he held was called a Pharisee. His job was to teach people the Bible. For him, the Bible was what we call the Old Testament. These were his Scriptures. His purpose in life was to obey what God taught in these Scriptures and teach others to obey them. As a Jew, a member of the nation of Israel, his purpose was to lead his nation toward fully obeying God so that God would bless them. He was so committed to this that he would go to almost any length to protect his people from going astray from God.
So when a small group of Jews started talking about Jesus in ways that made him equal with God, Paul took notice. Jesus’ followers were going around saying Jesus was the King whom Israel had long waited for God to send to save them. But Paul knew along with many others that Jesus died. He was nailed to a wooden cross by the Romans. Jesus’ followers weren’t denying this fact. To the contrary, it was part of their message! They weren’t ashamed of it, they weren’t calling it fake news, they weren’t spinning the story. They proclaimed it boldly as good news. “Good news! Jesus died for your sins! All of us have gone astray from God and need forgiveness. Jesus died to pay for our forgiveness!”
To Paul and many others, this sounded like foolishness. Why would God allow his King to die? How could a man who was killed by the Romans, ashamed and naked hanging by nails from a cross, be the king who would save us?
Their foolish message didn’t stop there. Jesus’ follower were saying that Jesus didn’t stay dead. He was raised from the dead by God! And now he is seated on a throne next to God with all authority to rule the earth! This man who was killed is now alive as the ruler of everything!
To Paul’s ears, this was dangerous. This would lead people to stray from God. These people were elevating a mere man to equal authority with God! How dishonoring! How blasphemous! Paul saw his purpose clearly: he must extinguish this group. Paul oversaw an effort to find, capture, and execute people who believed in Jesus.
But one day, that all changed. Jesus, the man whom Paul thought was a fraud and a fake, appeared to him. Paul saw Jesus alive! Upon meeting Jesus, Paul would never be the same from that point forward. Paul had his purpose flipped on its head. Instead of living to literally kill off this movement of Jesus followers, he was now willing to die for the purpose of making Jesus known and he dedicated the rest of his life to it.
In this effort, Paul wrote letters to other people following Jesus. In one of them, he sums up his new life purpose. In chapter 1 verse 21 of the letter to the Philippians, Paul says this: to live is Christ, to die is gain. His whole life purpose was summed up in one word: Christ - to live is Christ. Christ is a title that essentially means King. It is Jesus’ title: Jesus Christ or King Jesus. Later in chapter 3 of that letter, he goes on to say that nothing compares to knowing Jesus. In comparison to the worth of knowing Jesus, Paul says he counts everything else as rubbish - as garbage. Paul had found his life purpose. Paul had found what matters most: Jesus. Living for Jesus, he says, is his greatest purpose and joy.
Now you might be thinking to yourself, “Sure, Paul, you had a religious experience of some sort and that changed your life. I don’t doubt that something special happened to you and now giving your life to Jesus brings you joy. But that isn’t for me. What matters most to you doesn’t matter most to me. I find joy in other things.”
But Paul doesn’t think this is only for him. He believes the joy he has found in knowing Jesus is for everyone. In fact, he thinks we were made for it. In his letter to the Colossians, he writes this about Jesus in chapter 1 verse 16:
“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16)
All things were created through Jesus - everything owes its existence to him, nothing that exists today or ever exists without him. But it’s not just that we owe our existence to him. Our life is also supposed to be all about him. All things were created through Jesus and all things were created for Jesus. Our purpose, our “why”, our meaning is found in Jesus. We exist because of him and we exist for him.
Jesus: the one who defines our purpose
Paul came to the conclusion that what matters most is not a “what” but a “who”. Living for who matters most gives us the most purpose. He came to the conclusion that Jesus matters most. Paul made his life all about Jesus. But did Jesus want people to make their lives all about him? Did Jesus want people to dedicate their lives to him? Did Jesus think he matters most?
Many people try to make the claim that all the religions of the world are basically about the same thing: love other people by treating them like you’d want to be treated. They want to say that this sums up Christianity. But while Jesus certainly said that this is important and even said it is the second greatest commandment, he did not say it is what matters most.
Earlier we read John 17, which is part of the last conversation and final lesson Jesus gave to his disciples. John 17 is actually a prayer for them and for everyone who would follow Jesus through their teaching. Jesus prays some pretty audacious things here. If you have your Bible, take a look at verse 1 of John 17.
1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. (John 17:1-2)
Jesus prays that God would glorify him. In other words, he asks that God would show people how much he matters. He also claims that God has given him authority over everyone and included within this is the authority to distribute eternal life to people.
Many believe that Christianity is all about getting “eternal life” and they are correct but we usually we don’t define it correctly. When we think of eternal life, what do we think of? Heaven. Believing in Jesus means you get to go to heaven when you die. But that is a very weak definition of eternal life. Jesus gives us the definition in verse 3:
3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
Eternal life, Jesus says, is knowing God and knowing Jesus. According to this definition, when does eternal life start? When do you start experiencing it? As soon as you know Jesus. It doesn’t start after you die. Eternal life is found in knowing God and Jesus whom he sent.
In these verses, Jesus makes it all about him. He asks God to glorify him - to show people how much he matters. He claims to have authority to distribute eternal life to people. And he says eternal life is all about knowing him and God. He makes his importance equal to God’s!
Let’s turn to a second passage: Mark 8:34-38. As Jesus’ disciples are finally coming to an understanding of his importance, he tells them what they must do if they want to be his followers. Let’s read in Mark 8:34:
34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38)
To everyone who wants to be his follower, to everyone who wants to be his disciple, to everyone who wants to call themselves a Christian, Jesus says: “Here’s the requirement: lose your life for my sake. Deny yourself. Die to yourself. Give your life totally to me.” The word we use in our church is “surrender.” Jesus says: “Surrender your rights. Surrender your plans. Surrender your desires. Surrender your entire life to me. Put it into my hands. Give me control.” If that isn’t making it all about himself, I don’t know what is.
Our big idea this evening is that: Living for what matters most gives us the most purpose. Here’s two truths we’ve learned about purpose:
Because Jesus matters most, living for him gives us the greatest purpose. Because Jesus matters most, living for him gives us the greatest purpose. What gives him the right to make life all about him? Because of what Paul told us in Colossians 1:16: all things were made through him and all things were made for him. A car maker determines the car’s purpose. A shoe maker determines the shoe’s purpose. A human being maker determines a human’s purpose. If we want to discover what life is all about, we need to look to Jesus through whom and for whom we were made.
Because Jesus matters most, living for him gives us the greatest joy. Because Jesus matters most, living for him gives us the greatest joy. Purpose gives us joy because we feel that what we are doing matters. Notice how Jesus didn’t say, “Lose your life to me so you can be miserable.” No, Jesus says, “Lose your life so you can save it! Lose your life so you can find it. Gaining the whole world doesn’t compare to what I’m offering you.” Jesus Jesus said in John chapter 10 that he came so that we may have abundant life. Knowing him is eternal life.
Notice how Paul didn’t say, “I gave my life to Jesus and now I’m pretty bummed out and everything is boring.” No, Paul said that knowing Jesus is worth far more to him than anything else. Making his life all about Jesus gives him great joy because he has found the thing of greatest value. Jesus says that we gain by losing and Paul discovered that as well.
The problem is that we make other things matter more than God. We will all live for someone. There are three options.
We can live for ourselves. The purpose of life is to do what makes me happy. Other people exist to make me happy. God exists to make me happy. God’s purpose is to do what I want. So then what happens when other people and God don’t make us happy? Then we are angry with them and disappointed.
We can live for others. We see the purpose of our life as making others happy. But you will notice that this is still comes back to us. Why do we live to make others happy? Because what makes me happy is making others happy. So what happens when we live to make others happy and they don’t respond how we’d like? What happens when they are ungrateful? What happens if they don’t treat us the same way? Well, then we become angry with them and disappointed.
Finally, we can live for God. We can live to make God happy. We can live to please God. It’s not that God needs us. We need him. We were created by him and for him. That means that what makes us happy is making God happy. It’s in living for God that we find our biggest and deepest purpose. We were made for a purpose bigger than living for ourselves. We were made for a purpose bigger than living for others. We were made to live for God.
It’s not that it isn’t possible to experience joy or happiness in living for yourself or for others. The question is: how much joy do you want to experience? How abundant do you want your life to be? If you want the most purpose and thus the most joy, you need to live for what matters most.
Some of us don’t actually live for joy or happiness. Some of us live to avoid something. Some people live to avoid pain, some people live to avoid danger, some people live to avoid their spouse or their parent or their boss getting mad at them. If you have ever lived with or worked for a domineering or abusive person, you perhaps made it your goal to avoid making them mad so you would be safe. The good news is that God calls us to live for something better than that. He doesn’t call us to live for him just to avoid pain or avoid getting in trouble or avoid punishment. He calls us to live for him to experience the greatest joy we could ever have! Long ago, a church leader named Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” We were made by God and for God.
The reason Jesus had to die is because we fail to live our lives for what matters most. We fail to live for God. The Bible calls this idolatry - worshiping created things rather than the Creator. This is outright rebellion against our Creator. It’s refusing to live for the purpose we were created for. It’s refusing to give allegiance to the King who made us. Jesus says knowing him and living for him is eternal life, so the opposite is eternal death. That’s why Jesus died. Jesus took upon himself the eternal death we deserve so that we can be reunited with our Creator. He opened up a way for us to have a relationship with God again and live for our true purpose.
So how do you start living with a redefined purpose? Take a moment to evaluate. Write these three words down on your bulletin: self, others, God. Circle the one that matters most to you. Which do you live for? Think about it this way: I spend most of my time doing what would make [blank] happy. Whose name do you put in there? Is it your name? Is it someone else’s name? Your boss, your spouse, your kids? Or is it Jesus’ name?
If you want to start living for God, he needs to matter most to you. The person who matters most to us is going to be the person who controls your life. We are going to ask: what do they want? What do they want me to do? What would make them happy? To start living for God, you need to start asking each day: what does God want me to do today? What would please him in this situation? Which decision would make him happy?
We were all made to live for someone and that someone is God. As we have talked about purpose I have assumed that God is real, that he has spoken through the human authors that wrote the Bible, and that the Bible is trustworthy. All this may lead you to say, "Well, everything you said is fine and good if it's actually true that God exists." Next week, the question "is there a God" is what we will be answering.