by Jan Johnson
I was excited as I drove to the home of someone I had long admired. An intelligent, multi-degreed woman who offered insights at distinguished speaking engagements, she was someone I wanted to be when I grew up.
So when I saw that her lawn needed mowing and her house was full of sagging, thrift-store furniture, I was taken aback. I’d expected better than this. Would I want to live next door? How would her unmanicured yard affect my property values?
Yet a few minutes later, our conversation zinged with tales of how God was working: her passion for helping women overseas; the mysteries of loving and letting go in family life; an outreach project in her community. This was someone who sought first God’s kingdom and righteousness. I wondered how many people would have gone unhelped if she’d spent more time on her lawn. I would probably love living next door to her. Knowing her prods me to let go of what the world calls being successful to spend my life on what really matters.
Purpose in life gets muddied when we assume, as I have done, that “what God is doing” is whatever somebody asks me to do, especially if that somebody is a leader. But the cauldron of burnout and the wasteland of busyness have driven me to lay on my face before God to find out what God is doing in me and in this world God so loves. This inquiry has become a theme in my ongoing conversation with God while reading the Bible or talking with a friend. Here are some snatches of that conversation.
God’s work on earth
Old Testament events and gospel encounters make it clear that if the Trinity had a business card, it would read: redemption, reconciliation, mercy and justice. God interacted with nations and people, pulling them back from their slide into sin and despair (redemption). Prophets and apostles worked to reconcile people with each other, with themselves, and with God. Jesus chided the religious elites for being busy being good (tithing even from their spice racks), but forgetting the big-picture concepts of justice and mercy (Lk. 11:42).
But how can I fault them? Even thinking redemptively is a challenge! The first time I was asked to “think redemptively,” it confused me. I was writing an article on teens and violence for parents, and the editor instructed me: “Don’t tell parents how to protect their kids from violent situations at school. Speak to the topic redemptively.”
“Uh . . . how?” I prodded. I had no idea what she meant.
“Find teens who have turned around a violent person or situation,” she said.
Would I want my teenagers to act as peacemakers? To behave redemptively? To be anything but safe? I found someone else’s teen who had behaved redemptively by speaking peace during a racial disturbance and began praying for the strength towant to behave redemptively rather than choosing the softer, easier path in life.
Seeking my purposes within God’s work.
Then I began asking God, “What redemptive things am I called to do? What breaks my heart that breaks your heart? What issues of redemption, reconciliation, love and justice draw me?”
Through this ongoing conversation, I saw that my heart was broken most by inauthentic spirituality — by Christians following formulas to try to be good, but not really connecting with God. As I prayed and grieved about this, I saw that connecting authentically with God is what I would write and speak about. This theme has dictated how I serve at church, what kind of a friend I am, how I shepherd my children.
Another purpose that emerged from seeking God’s broken heart was defending and encouraging the oppressed (Ps. 82:3). Something enormous happens inside me when I meditate on stories of Jesus interacting with have-nots. I love how Jesus traveled across the lake to predominantly Gentile territory (unwise for a Jewish teacher) to interact with a man full of demons who called themselves, “Legion.” With great courage and tenderness, Jesus showed justice and mercy to this naked, screaming graveyard-dweller who mutilated himself (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39).
One way I encourage and defend the oppressed is to show up once a week at a drop-in center for the homeless. I’ve never encountered anyone like the dear man Jesus ministered to, but I keep nudging Mike and Jim and Paula back from their slide into sin and despair as I offer a smile, a clean towel and a listening ear.
I’ve seen that having a heart of justice and mercy is never cut and dried. God keeps leading as we listen. When a mentally-impaired woman asked me to help her fill out forms to get custody of her baby, it seemed unmerciful to tell her that it might be unwise for her to care for her own child. So out of mercy for her, I helped her spell the words in her answers correctly. But out of justice for the baby, I prayed the child would find a home in a loving family. These moments of working within my purposes in life are not easy, but they are when I am most alive.
Listening to God instead of living by lists
While I still love “to do” lists and numbered priorities, they no longer rule my choices. Repeated reading of the gospels shows us that Jesus didn’t live from lists of things to do but from thoughts of people to love. And those people often interrupted him. One time, Jesus was hanging out with a friend, Peter, after an intensive round of synagogue teaching. But after he healed Peter’s mother-in-law, his day with a friend was interrupted: the whole town showed up at the door to be healed. So Jesus met those people’s needs (Lk. 4:31-44). Many times, our purposes in life are fulfilled in moments etched only in God’s Daytimer.So I plan my day and make my lists, but I also “listen to God.”
Does this sound too subjective? Won’t I neglect important matters? Not usually. If you focus on God’s invisible kingdom by spending time with God in silence and solitude — and eschew busyness, hurry, clutter and perfectionism — you’ll hear the voice of God throughout life. God will prod you, remind you, nudge you, and urge you to love the person you’ve overlooked, making suggestions more practical than anything you’d ever find in a self-help book.
Letting go of all that sidetracks me.
Although the kingdom of God is within me (Lk. 17:21), the American dream distracts me: making a “decent” living (although I’m rich by global standards), raising “decent” kids (who need every advantage middle-class America offers), and living in a “decent” neighborhood (no overgrown yards).
To live by kingdom purposes, we have to stay tough. Jesus never made decisions the way we do: take the job that pays more; do service that fulfills you; eat lunch with the friend who is more fun; seize the opportunity that will enhance your reputation. Instead, Jesus keeps asking: “In what redemptive way have I’ve loved you that you need to pass on?” When we let God’s voice lead me instead of our own drivenness, we stay focused on what really matters.
Making the choices that seem equal
Sometimes equally worthy activities — all of them in line with God’s clear purposes for me — vie for my attention. How do I decide between choice A or choice B? Conversations with God sift the heart and reveal hidden motives. Recently, I had to make a simple A/B choice about attending two engagements. Common sense told me to accept the one offered first: A. But as I laid on my face before God, I saw that event A drew me because I could promote myself. For choice B, I had selfless motives. I chose B.
Most often, however, a conversation with God reveals a radical, redemptive Choice C. Thinking about the holidays, should we: A) have a fun dinner at home with the family or B) serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Then God suggests C: Invite the homeless woman who hangs out at church to our cozy family dinner.
Seeking first the kingdom of God means that we have to let go of hurry and busyness to make room for the conversation with God that never ends. God speaks, urging us to do unusual, redemptive things. This terrifies us, so we converse more. We take a deep breath and step out into a truly Jesus-permeated moment and wonder why we ever hesitated. Why are we surprised that life with God in that invisible kingdom is so engaging?
For a fuller treatment of this topic, see Jan’s book, Living a Purpose-Full Life
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