As a rule, I typically avoid eavesdropping, but on this occasion it was unavoidable.
While racing through the aisles at the supermarket, I was cut off by a couple who were deeply engrossed in conversation and oblivious to everything else. Slightly annoyed at being blocked, I quickly wheeled past them as they veered into the pain relief aisle and resumed my hunt for last minute items.
I had only gone a few feet, however, when I overheard the man quip, “Yeah, but does it treat existential angst? ‘Cause that’s what I’m looking for!”
At this, I stopped in my tracks and literally laughed out loud. I was entirely caught off guard by his wit as he mused about which temporary pain reliever could numb his pervasive sense of anxiety about meaning in life. Throughout the day, I found myself chuckling when I remembered the encounter.
Most jokes are funny because they touch a raw nerve, and some of the best comedy is birthed from our deepest conflicts. This flippant interchange triggered something in me that left me pondering about the antidote for my own periodic bouts with the same ailment.
Any internet search will reveal a plethora of data about this very real mental health issue. Anxiety about whether our lives really matter can hover just below the surface, sapping our strength and emotional energy. Couple that with the daily barrage of despairing news that floods the media, and it’s easy to swing between extremes of hopelessness and compulsive activism. How can I make a difference? What am I supposed to do with my life? How will I know if I am doing the right thing or fulfilling my purpose? What are the metrics? Am I measuring up?
The more I pondered these questions, the more they led me to focus inward – on my own identity and my personal list of achievements. Being a rather subjective and isolating exercise, I discovered that my sense of significance increased or diminished based on comparisons with others and their accomplishments. More times than not, I came up wanting.
Fully cognizant that this could not possibly be Christ’s plan for me, I turned to the Bible to see what it had to say about purpose in life. And as I expected, what I found brought peace and hope.
Right out of the gate, I was reminded of my intrinsic worth as an individual. Jesus declared every human profoundly important through His sacrifice. Nothing could ever be done to increase or diminish our value. Period.
Next, comparison with others became irrelevant as salvation through faith deftly leveled the playing field. Each of us as individuals, no matter our status, wealth or capacity, must be adopted and enter God’s Kingdom by faith, and faith alone.
Once adopted, we are ushered into a new, revolutionary Kingdom culture that turns much of what we have known on its head. Weakness becomes strength, wisdom is found through simplicity, faith supplants works, the old becomes new. And individuality finds its fullest expression in community.
This was like unearthing a pearl of great worth – individuality finding its fullest expression in community, a mystery modeled by the triune God.
Standing in stark contrast to the centrifugal force of the world system that threatens to spin us off into painful isolation, Kingdom culture exerts a centripetal force drawing us into relationship with God and others. And from this safe place of belonging, our unique gifts, talents and experiences serve a singular, but complimentary role with others in bringing glory to God.
In essence, the personal quest focused on establishing my individual worth transformed itself, through faith, into a corporate pursuit. Safely hidden in Christ, we mysteriously become His bride – and our relational existence unites us in the common goal of loving God and others.
Love, then, replaces accomplishment as the metric. Rather than being something grand, overwhelming and all consuming, purpose in life becomes something more sublime, fluid and collaborative.
Curiously, the fruit of this new mindset is peace, not angst. Purpose in life becomes attainable because it only has to do with the “now.” Tomorrow isn’t promised, and yesterday is gone.
As a result, I now resist the urge to question whether my life has meaning. Rather, I’m seeking to understand what loving God and others should look like today in my sphere of influence. I’m trying to discern where God is working and, in light of my unique gifts, prayerfully consider how I can best contribute. And I’m examining my life for old patterns that no longer fit so I can discard them and be freer to love.
It is something of an art, I think, to live this way because it requires the conscious letting go of what seems natural to embrace a new way. It calls for faith to really believe that in losing my life, I’ll find it, and that this journey is best travelled in community, never alone.
Of course, there is an inherent tension between planning for the future while living fully in the present, but I now choose to look at life purpose as more of an adaptive stance as opposed to a rigid quest; a unique dance that infuses transcendence into the ordinary and transforms what is commonplace into something sacred.
And from this viewpoint, I think it clarifies, at least partially, what is meant when Jesus prayed that the Father’s Kingdom would come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Tamara Carpenter is part of Newsong’s Board. You can read more of her writing on her blog: tamaracarpenter.com