Every man serves a useful purpose: A miser, for example, makes a wonderful ancestor. Laurence J. Peter
The Power of one Man's Purpose
"Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen."
These were the words that prefaced Luther's 95 Thesis, nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. The document forwarded an attack on papal abuses like indulgences sold by church officials, and included an outline of his doctrine of a Christian's justification by faith. Luther's purpose for posting this thesis was the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church, but it ultimately acted as a kind of trumpet call, mobilizing all those who were exasperated with the continual corruption and hypocrisy of the institution at that time.
By 1518 copies of the 95 Theses were printed in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, so the Papal Court respond by beginning an inquisition in Rome. Luther may have been burned at the stake by Indulgence Priests like Tetzel, were it not for Friedrich the Wise of Saxon, a powerful sovereign that demanded he not be outlawed or imprisoned without a hearing. In 1521 Luther was invited to Worms by the Emperor, and after preaching in Erfurt, Gotha and Eisenach along the way, he arrived on April 16 to the cheers and admiration of the German people.
At Worms, Luther was pleaded by church and government officials to recant, but he saw no real evidence against his theses and ushered the words that still ring through Christian and educational institutions to this day: "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."
Convinced of the authority of God's Word, Luther's courage at the peril of his own life to obey God reminds us of the very Lord he served. It's no wonder that this writer of hymns & Bible commentaries, this model of ardent devotion to prayer, stands in the history books as the representative and architect of the Protestant Reformation.
And so this marvelous moment in the record of human history stands as a beacon of triumph as one man with a determined purpose changed the course of human history. The reform that followed was not only a theological transformation in European culture, the change was essential in altering a pre-modern Church centric view of reality, to a more modern view that understood truth as something to be found by an individual, autonomous of any religious or political influence. This concept of reality is not only significant to Protestantism, but is the cornerstone of both the empirical method of science and modern representative democracy. Many scholars have argued quite effectively that neither the cultural transformation of the Renaissance, nor the birth of Democracy would have ever taken root, if it were not for the Reformation.
The Question of Genuine Purpose
Luther did achieve great things by being purpose-driven, but do we aspire to greatness by simply pursuing some kind of purpose? On a more rudimentary level we need to first ask the question, what is it to have purpose? According to Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, everyone has a purpose, and each person is in some sort of process of seeing those needs or purposes fulfilled. To some, their purpose is as simply as ensuring there's food on the table. Above these physiological needs are safety needs, belonging needs, and esteem needs. In each case, the first set of needs must be fulfilled in order for an individual to feel that they can graduate forward to pursue goals or desires at the next level.
At the top of the pyramid is what Maslow calls "Self Actualizing Needs", and this is where an individual starts to pursue goals and achievements that are bigger than themselves. Destiny, greatness, power, and glory are all terms someone may associate with being self actualized. Unlike the other stages of need, once someone gets a taste of this, other needs or purposes pail in comparison. They will sacrifice any of these other needs, anything to pursue this more noble cause. This is what Helen Keller means when she writes, "Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose."
But there's a very important question we need to ask when assessing, "what is a worthy purpose". In the light of eternity, will any of our goals or achievements stand any kind of test of time? Is that purpose you may have chosen significant enough for the world to remember you 10,000 years after you die . . . or a 1000 years . . . or perhaps 100 years will suffice? For some, it may be enough for their deeds of benevolence, or acts of glory to simply ensure the coffers would be full at their funeral. But is this not pure folly? Truly this is a disturbing issue, yet it must be addressed - what significance or power can anyone's life hold if ultimately there is no purpose?
According to theoretical astrophysics, there are two possible outcomes for the fate of the universe we live in. In the closed universe model, every sun, every solar system, every galaxy will collapse together into a kind of giant black hole. Nothing will survive! In the open universe model, all the stars will continue expanding away from each other, enduring a long slow death as every bit of nuclear fuel like hydrogen is completely consumed. So in a godless reality, only the deepest of darkness is our world's ultimate destiny. So once again, can any purpose have true meaning or is the word simply just another oxymoron?
Mark Twain may have defined this despairing dilemma best in his autobiography when he wrote, "A myriad of men are born; they labor and struggle and sweat for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for mean little advantages over each other. Age creeps upon them and infirmities follow; shame and humiliation bring down their pride and vanities. Those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. The burden of pain, care, misery, grows heavier year by year. At length ambition is dead; longing for relief is in its place. It comes at last, death, the only unpoisoned gift earth has for them . . . and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence, where they achieved nothing, where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness; where they left no sign that they had ever existed--a world that will lament them a day and forget them forever."
The Power of God's Purpose
Many throw unfortunate dispersions on Twain for these words, suggesting he must have become pessimistic and senile in his old age. Yet to a Christian, the words have a haunting familiarity. Three thousand years earlier, King Solomon wrote, "Futile! Futile! laments the Teacher, Absolutely futile! Everything is futile! What benefit do people get from all the effort which they expend on earth? A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth remains the same through the ages." (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4) And a thousand years before King Solomon, Moses wrote, "The days of our lives add up to seventy years, or eighty, if one is especially strong. But even one's best years are marred by trouble and oppression. Yes, they pass quickly and we fly away." (Psalms 90:10)
To a Christian, the clear message of these different sages through the ages is not offensive, for within their message resonates a principle - only in agreeing to and pursuing the transcendent purpose of the living God does any action or deed have significance and lasting value. In fact, according to the Apostle Paul, all of creation is longing for God's children to take part in his plan and purpose. "For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly but because of God who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God's children." (Romans 8:19-21)
What a contrast! As we move from the absolute senselessness of purpose in the indifferent and desperately barren universe of a godless world view, to a creation that actually waits with eager expectation for people like you and I to participate in His purpose. One might even contend then, that the word "purpose" only has meaning in the context of playing a part in God's sovereign plan.
So what is God's purpose and how does one take part in it? There is a little known but very lucid abstract of God's plan and purpose found in the book of Ephesians. Paul writes, " . . . this grace was given, to proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ and to enlighten everyone about God's secret plan - a secret that has been hidden for ages in God who has created all things. The purpose of this enlightenment is that through the church the multifaceted wisdom of God should now be disclosed to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 3:8-10)
Alot of information is packed into these short verses, but a few essential components come screaming to the forefront. The first disclosure is that the true purpose of God was kept hidden throughout the ages, and only revealed after the life, death and resurrection of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. The next staggering eye-opener discloses why His purpose was veiled in secrecy for so many millennia. God is engaged in the process of revealing His multifaceted wisdom, or "His glory" to the entire angelic host, and the phrase, "rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms" implies both the fallen (Satan & his angels) and the righteous angels. And finally, the most significantly revelation for you and I is that God is in the process of disclosing His glory to these "rulers and authorities" through the Church.
As important as it is, the big picture of God's purpose entails far more than just the salvation of humanity. There's an unseen drama here with sub-plots of strategic maneuvering and intrigue. The theme and substance of the story of the ages actually has God, "who has created all things" disclosing His very glory to an unseen realm through simple human vessels like you and I. Talk about significance, talk about having real meaning and value by which the infinite creator has endowed on mortal man. Platitudes and descriptive adjectives could build a ladder to the sun and still never be enough to define the measure of purpose God has granted to those he calls His children.
The Process of Discovering Your Divine Purpose
There is within every child of God a potential for greatness, but this greatness is not defined in the same terms or by the same process in which the rest of the world defines it. In an economy where the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit, and the meek inherit the earth, the process by which a person is called and prepared for a destiny of greatness is most often through the waters of bitterness and turmoil. Like Moses, like David, and like John the Baptist, and so many others in the Bible, the only path to greatness is through the desert. As A.W. Tozer once said, "It is rare, if not impossible for anyone to be used greatly of God, who is not deeply wounded of God."
This path through the desert is not contrived because God is either sadistic or hateful, for he loves every person more deeply than we could understand, and sent His Son to die on a cross on our behalf. The desert is there to root out the egocentric and self-serving nature in our lives, for this harsh environment provides a sharp knife that can circumcise the willing heart. To overcome the circumstances of life's dark turns and learn to persevere with joy; to be broken of pride and of the self-righteous judgment of others; to learn to serve and love those who have brought great harm to you personally; to be able to rejoice in the daybreak of the life of another struggling soul when you yourself are going through hardship. These are the pure and true lesions of the desert, and those who fear this wilderness never experience its benefits! For the prize is grand, as Paul told the churches in Lystra, Ico'nium and Antioch, "through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." (Acts 14:22)
Mingled together with the desert experience are several objectives God must see fulfilled in a life before a divine purpose can be entrusted!
Objective #1 (New Life) - The purpose of God is being fulfilled through the church, so to participate in this purpose you must be a part of the church. To be part of the church, you need to have personally received God's gift of forgiveness and new life through trusting in Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord. As Paul stated, "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9) This is a faith decision and has nothing to do with earning your way to heaven. But once the decision is made, God adds your name to the Book of Life, and mystically incorporates you into the body of Christ - the church.
Objective #2 (Transformed Image) - Now, as a part of the church your adventure of pursuing genuine purpose can begin. God's divine purpose starts to emerge as He begins a process of transforming His children into the very image and likeness of His dear Son. "And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, let us also bear the image of the man of heaven." (1 Corinthians 15:49) Paul also writes, "My children - I am again undergoing birth pains until Christ is formed in you!" (Galatians 4:19)
Martin Luther's story is just one of many remarkable accounts of men and women who have tapped into the divine purpose of God, and became world changers. But if you contrast Luther's life with some of the other great Christian leaders through history, you can make a simple but fascinating observation. They were all very different people! Leaders like Augustine, John Wesley, Simo Mennen, Cori Ten Boom, Francis of Assisi, Jan Hus, Charles Spurgeon, Hudson Taylor, John Knox, Madam Guyon, D.L. Moody, George Muller, Charles G. Finney, John Wycliffe, C. S. Lewis, Mother Teresa, John Calvin, G.K. Chesterton, and William Seymour, all had quite different personalities, cultural backgrounds and theological convictions.
It's interesting to point out how so many denominations believe that their adherent's maturity is predicated on their effective indoctrination to a specific theological platform. Yet when one assesses this list of celebrated Christians, they would find that these historical giants are theologically all over the map. It appears that the church itself often uses the wrong kind of measuring stick, for the simplest way to describe the common traits of these remarkable people is that they all smelled, tasted, and looked like Jesus. Their hearts had been won by His mercy; they strived to know Him better through God's word; their lives are marked by a devotion to worship & prayer, and they longed to express the love they found in Christ to others. They had been conformed to the image of Jesus.
So then, how does one conform into the image of Christ? The practical disciplines of this process are actually quite simple, and can be defined by the following illustration.
This is an illustration I call the centered life, and each corner of this triangle represents a crucial element of a Christian pursuit of the image of Christ.
Knowing is based on devotion to God’s Word and striving to have a deeper appreciation of His revealed truth. This is the foundation stone of a Christian's walk. “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
Being is the act of entering into God’s presence through prayer and worship, and is the lifeblood of the Christian’s walk. “And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:18,19)
Doing is the practical outworking of God’s truth and God’s presence in our lives. It is both the act of obedience and the service toward others for His Kingdom - both to those inside and outside the faith. “So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself.” (James 2:17)
If you look at this illustration as a grid, you could effectively map any number of churches or denominations in the triangle as leaning toward one element or another. In fact, an overemphasis on one element leads to a heretical perspective of the Christian life. An overemphasis on "knowing" leads to Gnosticism, an overemphasis on "being" leads to mysticism, and an overemphasis on "doing" leads to religiosity. A believer must find a balance in each of these devotions for every element in this illustration is dependent on the inclusion of the others, and together they bring synergy and vitality to a Christian’s life. Let me explain further:
You cannot have a genuine experience with God unless that experience is based on a true appreciation of who He is and what He’s like. “God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24)
And, the scriptures are only dead information without the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit. “God has revealed these to us by the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:10)
To know God’s truth and not do it is a denial of ones faith. “For if someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was.” (James 1:23, 24)
And, to act without knowledge of the truth is foolishness and will not lead to anything with lasting value. “Do not be deceived. God will not be made a fool. For a person will reap what he sows, because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” (Galatians 6:7,8)
To try and experience the presence of God without obeying what He is clearly directing, will without question have dire consequences. “Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place - that is, if you do not repent.” (Revelation 2:4,5)
And, to try and accomplish anything without being empowered by the Spirit will only lead to exhaustion. “I pray that according to the wealth of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner man.” (Ephesians 3:16)
People once believed there were only four elements that comprised all other physical matter. These elements included: air, water, earth, & fire, and according to the ancients, these materials combined together in different proportions or in unique manners to produce every other substance. We now know there are more than 110 elements that act as building blocks for every other material, but this ancient model turns out to be a very helpful analogy here.
Wind is used in the Bible to describe the filling of a believer with the Spirit in (John 3:8) and (Acts 2:2). Water is used in scripture as a reference to service, as Jesus washed his disciples feet with water in (John 13:4-10), and Jesus stated in (Matthew 10:42) that in giving a glass of water to “one of these little ones”, you would certainly not loose your reward (Matthew 10:42). Also, Jesus compares hearing and obeying his words to building a house on the solid foundation of rock in (Luke 6:48), and Peter describes how our faith is refined by the testing of fire in (1Peter 1:7).
To solely focus on life in the Spirit is like being carried away by the wind in a balloon. As the cliché says, this is the person who’s so heavenly minded, they’re no earthly good – distant and irrelevant to genuine realities and challenges of the life people live.
To only be committed to knowing the Bible is like having your feet frozen in cement. The stony faces of these self-righteous stoics frown with discontent at every free soul who doesn’t capitulate to their ingrained perspectives.
To concentrate on service alone is like being lost out at sea. The ocean of endless needs can only overwhelm even the most determined effort of service, if one has no purpose or power to rejuvenate them.
So each of these elements by themselves is insufficient in shaping our calling in the kingdom of God, but combined together with the fires of life’s trials, the great alchemist forges pure gold in our spiritual hearts. Also, it should be made clear, these elements all flow out of a believer's inclusion into the church. So, participation in, and submission to a local body of believers is absolutely essential for any of these principles to be relevant.
So hopefully, you can envision how all these elements lend power, meaning and value to each other, building the Christian up in their faith and transforming them into the very image of the Son. Another way to describe these different elements in light of pursuing this image of Christ is as follows:
As we grow in our capacity and desire to Experience Christ, Know Christ, and Incarnate Christ to the world around us we arrive at a critical mass of obedience and devotion. So long as God has done His desert work in our life and our hearts have been circumcised, life can get very interesting here as divine appointment and purpose starts to move through everything we do. Wisdom, divine revelation, divine encounters, and the clear conviction we are participating in revealing the glory of God to all creation, follow the Christian’s path here. For now God will have called us back to humanity’s first blessing, to be created in His image, His Likeness, and to have Dominion. (Genesis 1:26)
Without question, the greatest example of this process can be found in the life and ministry of Christ. Jesus too, spent time in the desert and exuded that humble heart totally submitted to the Father’s will. He was found teaching the professional scholars of his time the deeper truths of the scriptures, and often disappeared early in the morning to spend time in prayer. And who else in recorded history can claim to have done more acts of kindness, shown more compassion, and demonstrated more love to others than Jesus Christ?
There are many reasons why Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross, but perhaps the greatest visual metaphor God brought to us through this interment of death is that of a tree. A tree has three main elements that relate to our previous illustration: the roots, the trunk, and the outstretched, leaf-bearing branches.
The roots are the anchor of the tree, and provide stability, water, and minerals. These roots are like the Christian’s relationship to God’s word, for the Bible provides stability and refreshes our soul in this windy and arid world we live in.
The leaves gather carbon dioxide, and utilize the power of the sun to transform this gas and the water from the roots into food for the tree to grow and have life. These branches of leaves are like the way the Spirit of God takes the word of God, brings it to life and makes food for us to grow. The trunk of the tree is our acts of service & obedience, and as we cut off nourishment from the branches, or we feed off another provision other than the nutritious fare of God’s word, the trunk becomes twisted and weakened.
There is a culmination in the life of a mature tree, whereby if there is enough nourishment from the roots and the branches, it will start to bear fruit. This is not a mysterious or complicated process; it simply happens in the proper season. So to, as the Christian stretches continuously heavenward, walking in the Spirit and drawing from God’s word, they will eventually bear the fruit of divine purpose, and reveal the Glory of God in the process.
“And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Romans 8:28,29)
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