Where do I belong? The search for purpose and place

I’ve written a few times in earlier posts about the importance of understanding our identity. Today’s post looks at how that fits into our quest to find our place and purpose in the world. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out not just who we are, but where we belong.

Identity crisis: when we lose sense of where we belong in the world

Sometimes, a thing we might have seen as central to our identity and purpose gets taken away from us.

When I was a young child learning piano, I had a bad habit of carelessly dropping the heavy lid of our upright piano so that it made a loud bang, and all the strings in the piano vibrated and echoed with the impact. After a few too many loud crashes, my dad told me a story about a young girl who was training to be a concert pianist. One day, this unfortunate girl carelessly allowed the piano lid to drop on to her hands — and she lost all her fingers! Her carelessness ended up destroying her bright future.

In retrospect, I’m not so sure this story was entirely true… but at the time, it had the desired effect on me. “What if that happened to me?” I wondered. “What if I lost all my fingers? Would I still be me, if I couldn’t play piano anymore?” Even at that young age, music-lover that I was, I’d learned to associate my passion for playing piano with my identity, and with my sense of purpose in the world.

And this is a fear many of us have, I think. What if tragedy strikes, and we’re no longer ‘useful’ in the things we’ve become valued for? No doubt you can think of examples that would be powerful for you.

  • What if I lose my job, and can’t support my family?
  • What if my marriage breaks up, and I end up on my own?
  • What if my health fails, and I can’t look after myself anymore?

Holding life with a looser hand

Often, things like this happening might cause a kind of ‘crisis of identity’. Not only do we grieve the loss of whatever has gone, but we grieve the death of who we were. We fear our identity has gone, along with the job, relationship, skill, whatever it was. We end up unsure of who we’re supposed to be, and of what we’re supposed to be doing.

I think we all have this awareness that on some level, our lives are very fragile. And all the blessings, the gifts we have are fragile. We’re not in control, not really, even though we like to think we are.

That might leave us feeling uncertain of our ‘place’, our purpose, and our identity. It might make us fearful. It might cause us to cling on to things too tightly — jobs, for instance: making sure no one else knows how to do your job so they can’t replace you. Or relationships: trying to find your meaning and purpose in the other person, to fit them into a particular mold of some ‘ideal’ in your mind which isn’t really them.

When we’re not confident of our identity and our purpose, we take these things in our lives that are meant to be gifts and blessings, and we try and squeeze all the meaning we can out of them.

We try and force them to provide the meaning and the purpose that we’re craving.

But the truth is, as Christians, we don’t need to operate out of that kind of fear. Instead, we can afford to hold the blessings in our life with a looser hand.

Belonging in God’s house

Because, as I’ve written elsewhere, Scripture tells us our identity is in Christ (Gal 2:20) and that we are beloved children of God (1 John 3:1).

When we know this, when we remember this deep truth about ourselves, it changes us. It has far-reaching implications for how we live our lives, because it means that no matter what happens to us, we can lean on this sense of belonging.

Jesus describes beautifully to his disciples this knowledge of belonging somewhere:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?

John 14:1-2

Notice how he doesn’t just say that God has “left a place vacant for you”, or that there’s “space for you to fit in God’s house”. He goes much further than that. There’s a room prepared, just for you. And we know the difference, don’t we? Between someone that just ‘makes space’, and someone that goes the extra mile to make sure you belong somewhere. God is doing the latter. God is excited about your uniqueness, your distinct personality that you’re bringing to the Kingdom, and God is making his house ready for that.

A resetting of priorities and purpose

Now, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t pursue passions and gain satisfaction from them. None of this means we won’t have things we love, experiences we learn and grow from, pastimes we find meaning in. Nor does it mean that we can’t look for motivation and fulfilment from our jobs, our marriages, our families, or our hobbies.

But it does mean that we don’t need to be fearful if those things don’t give us that deep purpose we desire. Because the truth is that they’ll never fulfil us completely. They’ll never provide you with that ultimate understanding of who you are, where you belong, and what you’re doing here. Because none of these things are the most fundamental aspect of your being, which is this: You’re a beloved son or daughter of the Most High, and there’s a place prepared for you in God’s house.

You belong — if you’ve never quite felt that before, then know it now. And if you’ve been searching for that feeling of belonging in certain groups, certain labels — maybe even within the church! — then as of now, you can let it go. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Nothing can take away that place He’s prepared for you.

Prayer: Lord, thank you that you call us your children. Thank you that we can rest knowing that you’ve prepared a place for us in Your house. Help us to live in the certainty of these truths: that we belong, and that we’re loved. Help us to live our lives grounded in this knowledge, and willing to love fearlessly and freely, just the way you did.

(Note: This, along with the post Who am I? The quest to understand our identity, is adapted from a sermon I delivered on 12 May 2019.)

Forgiveness and acknowledging sin

So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.

Luke 17:3

Forgiveness is important, but we can’t really forgive someone until we’ve acknowledged — even if just to ourselves — that we’ve been sinned against.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a tendency to brush aside offences against me, and to act as though they didn’t happen. Maybe for the sake of keeping the peace. Or maybe because I don’t want to admit that someone’s managed to hurt me. Admitting hurt means admitting vulnerability, and showing vulnerability might make me look weak.

Or sometimes it might be because I’m all too conscious of my own sins and offences against others. This might leave me feeling as though I don’t have the right to speak out when someone else is at fault. But this is a false line of thinking that only leads to further deception and hurt down the track. The response to my own sin and guilt needs to be repentance, not covering up the sins of others.

The end result of all this soldiering on and pretending everything is fine is that resentment builds up without me noticing. Without realising, I end up holding on to unforgiveness towards my offender, because I didn’t acknowledge that forgiveness was necessary.

Sometimes it’s important to just take a step back and admit: yes, this hurt.

Maybe the next step might be to confront the person directly about their offence — or maybe not. What happens next really depends on the situation, and on the people involved. Maybe the next step might be to share the experience with another trusted person in your life. Or to talk honestly to God about your hurt.

Whatever follows, the important thing is that we need to acknowledge when someone sins against us. Admitting this doesn’t make us weak, or a victim. Nor does it mean we’re saying that we’re faultless in our own lives.

It does mean that we can begin the process of working through the hurt, of letting go, and of granting forgiveness, just as we’re called to do.

Head or heart? Faith has room for both

There’s a lot of talk about how faith in God should be a “heart relationship, not a head relationship.”

But let’s be honest for a moment here. Our hearts don’t always do what we want them to do.

What about those days (… weeks, months, years?) when you just “don’t feel God”? Does that mean your faith is useless?

I don’t believe so: here’s why.

Faith is a journey of mountains and valleys

We don’t get to float through on the mountain-top experiences all the time. Sometimes walking in faith means we keep doing the hard work of trusting, even though we don’t have any real feeling of assurance to go on. All we have to go on are past experiences, and the commitment we’ve already made to believe.

Sometimes all we can do is fall back on our head knowledge: pray the Lord’s Prayer, read the Psalms, let the spiritual disciplines we’ve learned carry us through. Pray that in doing so, eventually the joy of that “heart knowledge” will return.

Head and heart

Perhaps it’s a false dichotomy to talk about “head vs. heart”. I wonder even if this is a particularly western kind of division to make. Apparently the Hebrew word for heart and mind is in fact the same word (lebh). The same is true in Chinese (xīn 心 ),1 and I would suspect a number of other languages as well. There’s a different kind of cultural understanding at play here, one that sees the heart and the head as working in harmony with one another, rather than as diametrically opposed.

Jesus certainly doesn’t seem to favor faith-with-the-heart over faith-with-the-head. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,”1 is his exhortation — the first, most important commandment! — that we know so well.

Jesus seemed to advocate a whole-of-body kind of faith. His was a dirty, messy, hands-on faith that involved putting mud on people’s eyes and spitting on the ground. It involved the messy actions of feeding people, tending to their needs, listening to them, weeping with them. It involved his heart, his soul, his mind, and his strength — no one part more or less than the other.

But it wasn’t always about “feeling” the right way. At the pinnacle of Christ’s story, as he hangs on the cross, Jesus has nothing to go on but his head-knowledge of who He is, and of who His Father is. His heart-cry to the Father, on the other hand, is one that breaks our own hearts to hear: “Why have You abandoned me?”

Lean on the ‘head’ until the ‘heart’ catches up

So if believing with your “heart” is something you can’t quite muster up some days, take comfort that you’re not alone in having experienced this. Trust in the remembrance of times past; the things God has done for you. Pare everything back to the foundations of your faith: what unshakeable truths do you know about God? Start from that. Sit with that, and trust God in the midst of the unknowing.

Many times, for me, it’s about going back to the Gospels and re-reading who Jesus is; the kind of person He lived as. When all else seems murky and unsure, I trust that this person, this person who lived and loved in such a revolutionary way, is the revelation of who God is. I trust that his life lived in rebellious love is the only real answer we have in our broken world.

And this head-knowledge carries me through, until my heart can sing out in praise again.

Today you will be with me in paradise

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:39-43

Two thieves, suffering the same fate as Jesus — hanging on a cross, experiencing unimaginable pain.

Both men speak to him, but in very different ways.

To the second thief, Jesus speaks in return: offering a promise of hope.

We might have expected Jesus to speak to the first thief, as well; the one who “rails” at him and hurls insults. But there are no words for this first man — no words of hope, but no words of condemnation or judgement, either. Jesus only has silence to offer the first thief, and his own suffering alongside him.

It’s easy for us, I think, to pass our own judgement on this first man. In doing so, we tell ourselves that we’d never speak to Christ like that.

It’s easy to forget the pain this man was in was equal to that of Christ; that he suffered in the same way, that he also hung on a cross.

This man was speaking out of his pain.

Maybe you also know what that’s like. Have you ever railed at God out of a place of pain? Or perhaps not at God directly — perhaps it was at another person. But then, remember Christ says that “whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me”, so when we say hurtful things to one another, even if it’s because we’re in pain ourselves, we’re no different to that first thief on the cross.

And in the same way, when we do this, Jesus doesn’t speak to us harshly in response. He doesn’t give us any words of condemnation and judgement. Instead, He remains silent, and shares in our suffering, waiting for us to finish whatever it is we have to say.

Eventually, we’re done with our railing and our anger. We finally get to that point in our pain where there’s no more hurtful words left to say. We reach a place where the only thing left for us to cry out is, “Jesus — remember me!”

That’s the point when Christ finally speaks. That’s the point when He turns towards us, and He says, “Today — today, you’re with me.”

(Note: This article is adapted from a short message I delivered at my church on Good Friday, as part of a series on Jesus’ seven final sayings on the cross.)

Being right: how important is it to you?

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Mark 2:23-24 (Read Mark 2:23-27)

There’s an oft-shared comic by popular webcomic author xkcd, in which someone ignores his partner’s pleas to come to bed, because “Someone is wrong on the internet!”

The popularity of this comic no doubt stems from its relatability. We all know that frustration of hearing someone misrepresent a topic we feel strongly about. We can relate to that driving impulse to correct and inform, when we’re confronted with something that’s wrong, so wrong!!

Sometimes the frustration arises because it’s us who is being misrepresented. Have you ever felt the fury and indignation that comes with being falsely accused of something? The burning desire to set the record straight and vindicate ourselves overpowers anything else.

But other times, we can get all riled up over something that’s got nothing to do with us personally at all. And yet, defending the “rightness” of our ideas can seem as close to the heart as defending our own reputations.

The idol of being right

It’s easy, I think, for our ideas and beliefs about the world to become intertwined with our identity. So when someone challenges what we believe, we take it personally. We see it as a false accusation, as slander, if someone disagrees with us, and we take it upon ourselves to correct them by any means possible, in order to clear our name and restore truth to the universe. Being right, and being seen to be right, becomes not just academic, but of personal importance.

I get the feeling the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were a bit like that. They were so infuriated by Jesus and his disciples doing things differently — ignoring the prescribed traditions by not observing Sabbath correctly. Following tradition in the ‘right’ way had become an entrenched part of their identities. But Jesus has a simple, yet brilliant response for them:

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

The Pharisees had become so concerned with the principle of observing the Sabbath, that they’d forgotten the very people it was intended to serve and benefit. They were all hung up on being right.

People over principles

It’s easy for us, too, to forget that people are more important than principles. Let’s try to keep this in mind the next time someone disagrees with us. Is the argument worth your relationship with that person? Is it worth making them feel bad about themselves? Do we really know everything we think we do about the situation, and where the other person is coming from?

Sometimes we’re better off just going to bed and getting a good night’s sleep. What seemed like a life-and-death dispute the night before is often revealed for the petty spat that it really is, with the clarity that morning brings.

People are more important than principles. Click To Tweet

Have you ever participated in an argument that seemed more important than it really was?

Have you ever “lost” an argument, for the sake of keeping the peace? 

What does it mean to love as God loves us?

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:34-35

What is it to love as God loves? So many of our own experiences of love, whether giving or receiving, are flawed in some way. Flawed in their motivations, or flawed in the execution — both, usually.

So given that God’s love is without flaw, that leaves us to wonder: how, exactly, does God love us? Not in the same way that any other person has ever loved us. And not in the same way that we’ve ever managed to love anyone else.

Some people take this notion of perfect, godly love to mean a gritted-teeth kind of love. “You don’t have to enjoy it,” they say, “you just have to do it!” Love isn’t just about warm-fuzzy feelings, these people admonish us. It’s about doing what’s right, doing what’s best for the other person and putting our own needs last.

Well, there’s truth in the saying that love is a verb; that it only becomes meaningful through action. I’ll agree that it’s not just about feeling nice all the time. Sometimes love hurts, just like all the songwriters say.

But you know what? I don’t think God has to grit his teeth in order to love us. I think God rejoices in us, that He delights in the wonder of his own creation.

And this might be a bit controversial, but you know what else? I think God rejoices in who we are even when we stuff up. I don’t mean to say that he rejoices in our sin. But I do believe that God sees and loves the beauty, the potential, in who he’s created us to be. He sees this and rejoices in it, even through our mistakes and our falling short.

Perhaps, then, real love, loving as God loves us, means to see the beauty in someone’s humanity. Maybe this is how we’re called to love others: to recognise their beauty and potential, just as God does for us. To see and be awed by the image of God residing in them, just as it does in us. Instead of responding and reacting to their faults and shortcomings, to try instead to connect with and draw out the person that God has created them to be.

Lord, help me to love as You love. Help me to see the beauty and the uniqueness that you've placed in each person that I encounter today. Click To Tweet

The kingdom is in our midst

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Luke 17:20-21

In some church circles, people talk a lot about revival. They talk a lot about praying for revival, and how we’ll know when it’s here. Often, in these circles, revival means big, showy, awe-inspiring miracles that can’t be mistaken for anything but supernatural. It means gold dust clouds descending mid-worship service, or people tossing their wheelchairs and dancing around the room.

Look, I’m not here to say that such things can’t happen, or that they aren’t from God. I’m not even saying it’s wrong to hope for them in your own community. But I worry when we get caught up with thinking they’re what represents this notion of revival. I don’t think those overly-conspicuous, plays-well-for-TV kind of miracles are really the kind of signs we should be looking for to indicate God’s presence, or his stamp of approval.

Already in our midst: the ‘unremarkable’ miracles

Instead, how about we focus on those pieces of God’s kingdom that are already happening in our midst? Think about those small, unsung miracles that are bound to happen within any group of people who love God. You know the kind of stories:

  • An elderly lady, too afraid to leave her house for years, finally finds the courage to start attending church again. She starts smiling again, growing in confidence, and thriving with the love and support from her church community.
  • A young man from another country is trying to make a fresh start, but with limited English and no support network, he’s struggling to find work. Someone else at church mentors him and offers him a job, helping him to get on his feet.
  • A single mother with no time to spare is given a fresh lease on life by someone simply offering to look after her children every now and then.

I’m sure you can think of stories like this in your own church. Stories from the “least of these” — stories that might not even sound all that earth-shattering on their own. But this — this is revival! This is the Kingdom of God, happening right here in the midst of us.

Let’s not overlook the little things God is rejoicing over, because we’re waiting for big shiny miracles that will make the evening news headlines. Let’s recognise those simple, small miracles that might seem unremarkable on the surface, but that actually change lives. And let’s celebrate those miracles as they happen, and not dismiss them for their simplicity.

Let's not overlook the little things God is rejoicing over because we're waiting for big shiny miracles that will make the evening news headlines. Click To Tweet

What ‘unremarkable’ miracles have you seen in your own church or community?

Respect: words or actions?

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 7:21

Some people love titles. Whether it’s “Sir”, “Ma’am”, “Pastor”, “Dr”, or some other honorific, it makes them feel important and respected. It makes them feel like they matter more to the person speaking.

I have to confess, I’ve never really understood this sentiment. That’s probably because I was raised in a household where we spoke fairly casually and informally to one another. My parents weren’t big on pomp and ceremony; they didn’t hold much stock in those kind of traditional outward displays of respect. As a child, I joked around with my mother and father in a way that I imagine more traditional adults might have seen as disrespectful.

But my parents knew better. They knew I respected them, despite my casual language, because they observed my actions. They saw that I did what they asked, and they saw that I modeled my life and my values on how I’d seen them behave.

Respect via action

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

Luke 6:46

I struggle sometimes with the way language is used Western Christian culture. I dislike the way we often emphasise knowing the “right” phrases to use about God. We turn speaking about God correctly into a moral virtue. We stress the importance of calling Him certain titles and addressing Him in a certain manner. But a lot of the time, all this verbal “respect” turns out to be nothing more than a deflection from the fact that our actions aren’t showing any respect at all. If we’re not doing anything like what Jesus asked or modeled, then the words we use to honor God have very little meaning.

What represents respect and honor to you?

If we're not doing anything like what Jesus asked or modeled, the words we use to honor God have little meaning. Click To Tweet

In the beginning…

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God;
3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:1-5

We all need to begin somewhere.

Starting a new phase of life—whether it be a new job, a new relationship, a new project of some kind—can be challenging, scary. Often we put off taking that first step, preferring to stay in the comfort of well-trodden paths rather than risk branching out into the unknown.

But whatever it is we’re starting, we can be assured that God has been there first. God, who has been there since the beginning, has walked these unknown paths before us, and will be there alongside us as we step out in faith.

So take that first step—and trust that you are not alone, and that the journey which follows will be worth it.