Some years back after Henry Norris Russell, the Princeton astronomer, had concluded a lecture on the Milky Way, a woman came to him and asked, “If our world is so little, and the universe is so great, can we believe God really pays any attention to us?” Dr. Russell replied, “That depends, madam, entirely on how big a God you believe in.”
One of our greatest needs is to have a purpose in life.
God has built into each one of us a desire to do something meaningful with our lives—to make a contribution. The American naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau wrote, toward the end of a life in which he could find no ultimate meaning, “most of us live lives of quiet desperation.” While his statement is perhaps overly pessimistic, it is generally agreed that most people seem to be seeking for something more out of life than they are able to find. The good news is that not only does God instill that desire within us, but He also has a plan for each of us to satisfy that desire and find great meaning and significance in our lives. Along with the astronomer Russell, we worship a God big enough to create the universe and gracious enough to design a special place for us in it.
God has a plan for each believer.
God grants both the need for meaning and the opportunity to find it. This has been part of His master plan from the beginning. As Paul wrote to the believers at Ephesus, “We are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so that we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (New Living Translation, Ephesians 2:10). In the original language of scripture, the word “masterpiece” literally means “poem”. Think of your life as a poem written by God, with each day a new opportunity to do the things that He has planned for you to do. As living poems, we find meaning and significance in fulfilling the desire of the Author of the universe.
God’s design involves both privilege and responsibility. Philippians chapter two, verses 12 and 13 say, “Dearest friends, you were always so careful to follow my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away you must be even more careful to put into action God’s saving work in your lives, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him.” Note that the verbs are active on both sides of the equation. The believer’s role is by no means passive. As Paul reminds the Christians in Philippi, we have a responsibility to do the things that please God. However, he also reminds them that it is God who gives the ability to fulfill the responsibility.
God progressively reveals His plan for each believer.
Once we understand that God has things for us to do, we must think through how we come to understand what He expects us to do. The believer is not given a playbook at the time of salvation or upon being baptized or joining a church. In reality, the rest of the believer’s life is a process of discovering and doing the will of God. In His infinite wisdom, God reveals His plan more fully as we grow in spiritual maturity and understanding. This is similar to the work of an artist who starts first with the background and covers the canvas with broad strokes. Then he paints in the major points of interest. Finally, he fills in the details.
God’s plan for the believer has both an internal component (spiritual growth) and an external component (ministry). The internal is “being” and the external is “doing.” The internal component has priority. We must be what God wants us to be before we can do what God wants us to do. Ministry (the external component) is an overflow of the inner life. However, ministry is also a means of future growth. So we see a circle where spiritual growth leads to ministry, and ministry leads to more spiritual growth.
The general expectations that God has of all who follow Him are woven throughout scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. These expectations generally focus on the believer’s inner life and include such things as maintaining an attitude of prayer and dependence on God, keeping ourselves pure, giving thanks in all situations, being kind and considerate to others, and so on.
Specific expectations, or details of the plan, often revolve around the good works (ministry) that God has planned for us to do. One of the primary ways that we fulfill our purpose is by using our spiritual gifts. Scripture makes it clear that God’s Holy Spirit has endowed each believer with one or more spiritual gifts in keeping with His master plan. As we develop and use these gifts to His glory, we are fulfilling our role in His plan. Other dynamics are also at work that help define God’s will in our lives (personality, interests, passions, etc.).
When it comes to discovering God’s will for their lives, many Christians seem most concerned with major decisions such as who to marry, what career to pursue, where to live, and so on. We don’t find this preoccupation in scripture. Rather, the emphasis there is on godliness and ministry. These twin pursuits provide a context in which to make the other decisions.
At each point along this path, God presents us with ministry opportunities that are appropriate for our level of spiritual maturity. Consider the example of a father who wants to teach his son carpentry. The father, himself a master craftsman, can see from the beginning the potential of his apprentice and the beautiful objects he will someday create.
However, he starts with very simple tasks. In the early years, the son’s primary responsibility is to watch his father and to help when asked. The father starts by teaching his son how to use simple tools. He gives him scrap pieces of wood to practice on.
As the son gains physical strength and maturity, the father increases the level of responsibility. At some point, he allows the son to begin using power tools. Once the son gains proficiency, the father gives him the opportunity to work on real projects, but always under the father’s close instruction and watchful eye. After many years of instruction and development, the son is ready to use any tool to tackle any project.
So it is with our heavenly Father as He develops His workmanship into workers. Just as a wise and considerate father would never give a young boy a dangerous power tool and leave him alone to complete a complex project, so our Father does not require anything beyond our capability. We see this pattern in the life of Christ as He worked with His disciples. From a relational perspective, Jesus asked his followers first only to trust in Him as the Messiah they had been looking for, then as their provider and protector, and finally as the One who desired and was able to work through them. From a ministry perspective, Jesus first took his disciples with him so they could observe. Gradually, He began to give them more responsibility and involve them in the ministry. Finally, He sent them out on their own.
Over a period of many months together, the conversations between Jesus and His disciples went from “Come and see” to “Follow me” to “Work with me” to the point where He could finally tell His disciples on the night before His crucifixion, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” And also, “You shall do greater works than you have seen me do.” It would have been absurd for Jesus to utter the last statements as soon as His disciples began to follow Him, but from the beginning His design was to prepare them to hear and respond to these words.
God works out His plan in the midst of the challenges of life.
If God’s only desire were to bring us safely home to glory, He could easily choose to arrange things so that Christians would be protected and immune from all the bad things of life. But because He desires for us to grow into His likeness, to be His agents for change in this world and to help accomplish His purposes, He allows us to face life as it comes and teaches us in and through these circumstances.
Challenges are a daily fact of life for the child of God. These difficulties come from any number of sources including our own sin nature, the fallen world, the sins of others, spiritual warfare, human limitations, emotional issues, and sometimes even from God Himself. Because of these challenges, the working out of God’s plan is not a smooth process. It is often not predictable, easy, or comfortable. In fact, the path we are called to follow is often difficult, sometimes painful, confusing, and dangerous, and may even appear to be a dead end at times.
There is much written in scripture about the role trials and troubles play in the Christian’s life. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote that we are to joyfully welcome difficulties as friends because of the good that they accomplish in our lives. Granted, this can be a difficult thing to do in the midst of the trial. But we should focus on the outcome, knowing that challenges, when responded to properly, produce perseverance, endurance, strength of character, and spiritual maturity. In short, they help conform us to the image of Christ. An important point to remember is that there is nothing that comes into our lives that cannot be redeemed by God for our good and for His glory.
To further understand the role of difficulties, let’s return to the earlier illustration of a painting. The artist starts first with the background and covers the canvas in broad strokes. Then he begins to add the details. A frequently used technique to add definition and focus to a painting is to use darker colors for contrast, adding outline, shadow, and depth. So it is with the difficult challenges—the darker colors—that God uses to bring greater clarity to His plans for us. Challenges are part of the plan. Difficulties give definition to the picture, and make it come more clearly into focus.
God links His plan for each believer with His greater plan for all creation.
Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy, “It is always true that meaning is found, when it is found, in some larger context.” A further element of significance for believers is that we play a role in the larger scheme of things. It is God’s design to involve us in His unfolding drama of redemption. Ours are not simply unrelated bit parts to fill time between scenes. Rather we are players on the stage of human history with significant roles to play.
Throughout history, God has chosen to use humans to accomplish His purposes. We see this consistently throughout Scripture. Then it was an Abraham, a Moses, a Ruth, a David, or a Mary. Today it may be a Fred or a Tiffany or a Charles. Reading through the written record, we can plainly see how God had determined for people to be involved in His plan. It is often not as easy to see or even to believe that we also are part of His plan. But this is the startling truth.
When John the Baptizer came to prepare the way for the Messiah, he proclaimed, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” As Jesus walked and ministered among the people, He taught, “The Kingdom of Heaven is among you.” And so the Kingdom of God has already been established in the hearts and lives of those who have chosen to follow Jesus. And it continues to grow today as His Word goes out and more are brought to faith in Christ. As we fulfill His plan for our lives, we are doing Kingdom work. And Scripture tells us that someday we will rule with Christ when He establishes His eternal reign. Significant work indeed!
The things that we have considered should bring great joy to the heart of every believer. Each of us can have full confidence that our lives have purpose and meaning because of the following truths:
1. God has a plan for every believer, which He progressively reveals to us.
2. God works out His plan through and in the difficult challenges of life.
3. We are part of God’s larger plan for the whole world.
• Meditate on Ephesians 1:9-12 and Ephesians 2:10.
Ephesians 1:9-23; Ephesians 2:10
• Write down how you see God working out His plan in your life right now.
• Set aside time to give thanks to God for His plan for you and the world.
• Look back at your life and reflect on how God has used challenges to work out His plan for you.