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.)

Self care: an important part of building God’s Kingdom

A little while back, I wrote a short post entitled Tending to my corner of Creation. It talked a bit about our tendency to feel guilty taking time out for self care. It reminded us, though, that we’re a part of God’s creation — “fearfully and wonderfully made”, the Psalmist writes! So it follows that we should place a high value on looking after ourselves well. There’s no need for a guilty conscience where proper self care is concerned.

I’d like to go into a little more depth with some of the ideas I touched on back in that post. But first, let’s look some Scripture.

Elijah’s self care ‘fail’

Do you remember Elijah’s moment of despair — that little tale in 1 Kings 19? Poor Elijah was in fear for his life. He’d been faithful in prophesying God’s word — but for all his efforts, Jezebel was threatening to kill him. At this point in the story, it all seems too much for him. Elijah is tired of running and running, but never getting anywhere! He’s wondering if any of his efforts have even made a difference. He’s wondering what the point of it all is. Elijah has reached a place of desperation, and of bone-deep weariness. Perhaps you can relate.

“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

1 Kings 19:4b-6 (Read 1 Kings 19:1-9)

So what does God do? He doesn’t say, “Get over yourself, Elijah! Stop wallowing and get on with the job.” He doesn’t tell Elijah everything’s going to be fine, or to cheer up, it’s not that bad!

God gives Elijah sleep. God gives Elijah food and drink.

Then, He gives Elijah more sleep, and more food and drink.

Then, and only then, does Elijah decide he is strong enough to face what’s ahead.

Forgetting self care: the dangers of “running on empty”

Things often look better after a good night’s sleep, don’t they? A proper meal helps, too. When we take care of these basic needs in our own lives, we tend to see things with more clarity. We approach situations more rationally. We deal with set-backs with more resilience, and we’re less likely to take things personally.

Sometimes, we become so consumed by a particular task, that we end up neglecting our basic needs. Maybe we’re not even aware we’re doing it. We might still be going through the motions of eating and sleeping — but perhaps the meals are rushed and not as healthy as they should be, and the sleep is low on quality as a result. Like Elijah, we can get caught up in this cycle of running and running, and never stopping, but never really getting anywhere, either. Eventually, we end up running on empty. We become so exhausted that we forget our original motivations for whatever it was we were doing. We collapse in desperation, wondering what the point of it all is.

In today’s fast-paced world, constant busyness can seem like an unavoidable fact of life. Making time to care for one’s self requires intentional focus. It requires setting aside time to plan meals, to schedule quiet time, to get enough exercise and enough rest. That might mean consciously shifting our priorities.

Deferring self care to others

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life who picks up the pieces for you when you forget to look after yourself. You know the type of person I’m talking about — maybe a parent, or a spouse, or a close friend. That person in your life who makes sure you eat a vegetable every now and then. They remind you when you’re due for a health check-up. They drag you away from the computer screen at 2am, when you’ve been staring at it for so long you can’t keep your eyes open anymore.

These people are such blessings to have in our lives! But the truth is, we can so often take them for granted. We fail to notice that they’re spending time looking after things that we should be taking care of ourselves.

Now, in saying this, I don’t mean that we shouldn’t accept help when we really need it! If you’re struggling with your health, and you’ve got a supporter out there on your team helping you shoulder the burden, then skip over this section. This is not meant to make you feel guilty!

But sometimes, we place burdens on those close to us, when deep down we know that with wiser prioritising and more self-awareness, we could carry those burdens ourselves. If that’s the case, we need to make some serious changes. Neglecting ourselves so that someone else has to do the hard work instead is beneficial to no one.

“Because you’re worth it”

Ultimately, we bear responsibility for our own self care. We might justify overlooking our wellbeing because we’re too busy serving others. But if serving others comes at the expense of our health, we won’t be any use! We won’t have the physical, emotional, or spiritual fitness to be able to support or serve anyone.

Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Did you see that? God’s handiwork. That’s you! That’s someone worth taking care of. And someone who needs to be taken care of, so that you can do those good works that God has prepared for you to do. Carrying out those works has to start with discipline and faithfulness in our own lives.

God’s Kingdom: bearing each others’ burdens in balance

Once we’ve got the self care thing sorted out, we start to become aware of those areas where we’re pushed to our limits. We start to have a clearer picture of where we might need to rely on our friends and family to help us out.

And on the flip-side, we also become more aware of those areas where we have particular gifts to bring, where we can help carry burdens for others in our community.

This is how Kingdom living is done! This is how God intends for His community to work and live and love together. But none of it can be done well if we don’t get our own house in order first, so we have the strength and the endurance to live out our calling. So that we know, realistically, when we actually do need a hand up from a friend. And we know when we’re sturdy enough to be able to hold that hand out to someone else.

So go ahead. Make that doctor’s appointment; invest in that gym membership. Buy some fresh vegetables. Whatever it is that you know you’ve been neglecting about yourself, it’s time to tackle it. It’s time to look after the you that God made you to be, so you can carry out the good works he’s calling you to do.

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Lent begins this Wednesday March 6th. Traditionally, Christians observe Lent by giving up something, or observing a new spiritual discipline. How might you observe this season of Lent?

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.

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