We see in the story of the Prodigal Son the way in which allowing God to define us is far more effective than allowing others to do so. One of the great joys God gives us is the opportunity to make choices, with profound impact. The process by which we arrive at a more compelling definition of how to live looks something like this:
First, it’s important to re-evaluate our life purpose along the way.
If we don’t choose to define ourselves, often life forces us to. A crisis comes that requires an intentional reevaluation, readjustment, and refocusing. And sometimes, as in the case of Paul, we discover that we’re living with a less than meaningful purpose and need to change the focus. In other words, some purposes are more worth living for than others. And it would be tragic to come to the end of life and make that painful discovery. Better to evaluate now whether we’re living for a worthy purpose or not and make necessary adjustments. It takes courage. But it’s absolutely worth it to end with no regrets. Are you living the most meaningful purpose possible for yourself? Is your purpose in harmony with what God wants for you and what you were created to live for?
Second, to achieve your life purpose well you need to “forget” the past.
That is, don’t let the past define you, whether it’s your successes or your failures. We tend to do several things when it comes to our past: we glory in it in pride or we wallow in it in shame or we deny it in pain. Any of those responses fixates us in the past and immobilizes us from pursuing God’s goal for our lives.
A man complained to his rabbi of depression. His life had become a seemingly endless string of failures, disappointments, and missed opportunities. Why, he asked, had God condemned him to live such a frustrating existence? The rabbi listened carefully and after some moments of contemplation, he asked the man to reach behind him and remove a large volume from his bookshelf. Assuming this was some profound tome of spiritual wisdom, the man reached for the volume. He noticed to his surprise that it was an almanac of sports statistics.
“Read page 543 aloud,” the rabbi instructed. And the man began reading the lifetime batting averages of baseball’s greatest hitters. Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams. “Not one of them batted more than .400,” observed the rabbi. “That means more than six in ten times, the greatest of the great struck out, popped out, or flied out. More than six in ten times, they failed. Are you better than they were?” the rabbi asked the man. “Why do you expect more of yourself than they did?”
It’s easy to become fixated on our past. But that only immobilizes us from pushing ourselves toward the goal of our life purpose. We become conservative in our actions, afraid to do anything that might lead to failure again or that might make us look bad. We end up paying attention to things we ought to be overlooking. William James, the American philosopher, psychologist, and educator at Harvard University, in 1890 wrote, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
Third, we must point ourselves in the “right” direction.
If we want to live God’s plan and purpose for us, not just any direction or any goal will do. Some directions are much more meaningful than others. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “When you come to the end of your life, no one wishes they had spent more time at the office.”
That’s referring to priorities. Right focus. A worthwhile purpose typically revolves around relationships—building meaningful, significant, fulfilling relationships. And that kind of purpose usually involves using your resources to make a difference in people’s lives in some tangible way. The whole idea of service and showing compassion to others makes up the kind of life purpose that brings the highest degree of fulfillment and meaning.
Paul focused the second part of his life on following the example of Jesus and helping
people experience Jesus’ love and compassion. And Jesus had once stated clearly His life purpose in this way: “ ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many’ ” (Mark 10:45, NKJV). That example by Jesus is what empowered and motivated and shaped Paul’s life purpose. He kept his eyes on that picture of Jesus and refused to live the many lesser ways to live. He devoted his energies and skills and resources to serving others in the best way he could.
A life purpose that involves serving others (loving and giving compassion in tangible, meaningful ways) is the most satisfying in the end. It is congruent with the highest, strongest human value, love.
Jesus lived His life passionately on purpose, too—to serve and give Himself to others. A few days before He died, He was in a room with His twelve disciples to celebrate the Jewish Passover. Here’s what the story describes in that setting: “Jesus knew that his hour had come to leave this world and return to his Father. He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end. It was time for supper, and the devil had already prompted Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.
Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him” (John 13:1-5, NLT).
Notice that the way Jesus chose to show the full extent of His love was to kneel down and wash the dirty feet of His disciples (something the servants were supposed to do but apparently weren’t there to do that evening). Jesus’ willingness to serve was evidence of His love. That’s the most divine thing we humans can do: lovingly serve others. And notice what it was that empowered Jesus to serve via such a menial task. The story says that Jesus knew who He was, what His life purpose and calling were, and where He was going. His identity was completely clear to Him. He was living with clarity and full acceptance of Himself. And that confidence and profound self-awareness empowered Him to serve unselfishly and boldly and radically.
Four, to live out your highest purpose and calling, know yourself.
You must embrace your identity (as Jesus did) with confidence and complete acceptance, an identity that transcends your place in life and your various accomplishments (good or bad) and centers in your status as a fully loved child of God. That kind of self-awareness and acceptance is what empowers you to live “on purpose” through thick and thin, ups and downs, successes and failures.*