My son loves trains, as do most boys his age, I'm sure. So naturally, he has fallen in love with Thomas the Tank Engine. As an aside, you can tell the difference between truly devoted Thomas followers and mere recreational viewers based upon what kind of engine they say Thomas is. To call Thomas a "train" engine is truly a novice error.
Now, if you have watched even one episode of Thomas the Tank Engine, then you know the routine:
- Thomas gets a job to do;
- Thomas gets distracted from that job for some reason;
- Thomas fails to do his job as he was supposed to;
- Sir Topham Hatt (the closed captions call him the 'Fat Controller') scolds Thomas, "You have caused confusion and delay!";
- Thomas feels sorry for letting down Sir Topham Hatt;
- Thomas does the job he was supposed to do in the first place;
- Thomas is then praised for doing his job. "You have been a very useful engine, Thomas," says the Fat Controller.
It's a cute. It's clean. It's cheesy. It always ends well. It's an all around fine show. (It was created by an anglican minister, after all.)
However, what's interesting to me about Thomas the Tank Engine, is that it is a rather accurate—and unfortunate—commentary on much of American Christianity.
A simple Google search will reveal how obsessed we are with discovering our purpose. And this isn't inherently bad, I suppose. It's good to have direction, motivation, and something for which to wake up in the morning. But there is a dangerous move that is made in this vein, specifically within the Church, that can wreak spiritual havoc on the lambs of Christ. It is this: the Gospel of Christ, crucified and risen, is being replaced with a gospel of purpose. The good news that God has to give you, it is presumed, is that he truly has a special and unique purpose just for you, unlike anyone else on the face of the planet.
Your job: just figure it out.
But here's the problem. The Gospel of Jesus is given to deliver us from the depths of our hell-deserving sin. But when that Gospel is replaced with the good news that God simply has some unknown, vague, yet-to-be-discovered "purpose" for you, then the bad situation that you are delivered out of is not your sin, but your mundane, purposeless life. As a result, rather than proclaiming "repentance and the forgiveness of sins" in the name of Jesus to all nations (Luke 24), pastors have begun to proclaim usefulness and purpose in the name of Christ. We are no different than little blue Thomas, who is just on a journey, trying to find his purpose. We just want something to point to that will assure us that God does need us, by golly.
But wait. There's more.
Not only does the good news of purpose take our sin far less seriously than it should, it also diminishes our good and sacred vocations, and turns God into a fat and angry train-yard operator in a top hat who scolds us for not doing what he "really" put us here to do. After all, he's given you a purpose, and if you're not fulfilling it—if you're not being a "very useful engine"—then you're only causing "confusion and delay". To fail living out your God-given purpose is to disappoint the grand train-operator in the sky. So, what's the solution? Get to work and "find your purpose"—which is just another way of saying, "Get on the rat wheel of endless searching and try to make God happy with you." The spiritual havoc that is wreaked by this perspective is that a person can never actually know when they have discovered their apparent "purpose", and therefore can not be sure if they are making God happy or angry. And so the quest for usefulness is much like my son's loop of a train track: you'll keep going round and round in circles, never arriving at your supposed destination of "purpose".
I remember listening to a sermon wherein the pastor was proclaiming the good news of purpose. In order to set up this good news, he first had to proclaim the bad news. "Have you plateaued? Does every day you live look like the last one? Do you feel like you were made for more than the same old job every day? Has all the excitement gone away? Do your dreams and passions seem so distant that you will never accomplish them? Well, I have good news for you..." As I heard the sermon, I tried to put faces to his description of "purposelessness".
He was describing the mother of three, whose days all look the same, as she wakes up to often-whiny children who want breakfast; who have taken one another's things; who have tripped over their toys, skinned their knees, peed their pants, pooped their diapers, pushed one another, punched one another, screamed, cried, and thrown tantrums for the smallest of things.
She's needs to find her "real" purpose, apparently.
He was describing the father and husband, who wakes up every day, goes to a rather standard job (dare I say a 'dead end' job?) with no accolades, no big accounts to land, faithfully performing his duties, paying his bills, not becoming wealthy, but making ends meet and having enough. Day in. Day out. Week in. Week out. For decades. And he does it all for his family so that they would be safe and provided for.
He needs to find his "real" purpose, apparently.
He was describing the elderly woman in the nursing home, whose days could be xeroxed. Copy, paste, copy, paste. And yet she lives them as they are given to her, making what friends she can and loving them as she is able.
She probably needs to find her "real" purpose.
He was describing the old man and his wife in my home congregation. When they were still young, she had a spinal tap that went horribly wrong, and that dancing, accordion-playing, spry woman was transformed overnight into a mostly paralyzed, stiff, homebound woman, who was very hard to understand and who contributed zero to her own care. Her faithful husband woke up every morning to bathe her, clothe her, feed her, and take her to the bathroom. He would read to her every day from the Scriptures so that she could hear God's Word. They couldn't make music together anymore; they couldn't make love anymore; they couldn't even talk like they used to. It was the same, mundane thing every day for decades. He had "plateaued". No "excitement" to be found. His "dreams" and "passions"—thwarted. Now he was "stuck" in a marriage that he probably never imagined to have, and from which he could have easily walked away.
Yeah, that pastor was right. This was probably not the husband's "real" purpose in life. Just an annoying and necessary side job, that probably got in the way of his usefulness quest.
You see the problem? In all of these scenarios, the people that are run over by the selfish steamroller of "finding a true purpose" are the very people that God has given you to serve. Your spouse, your children, your co-workers, your next-door neighbors, your parents, and your friends are not barricades on the road of your narcissistic quest for usefulness. Rather, they are the way you know what God's purpose for you is.
You do have a purpose from God. You do exist for a reason. But your purpose is not a secret. It's not some enigma that you need to figure out through journaling, meditation, melancholic prayer, or any other treadmill of placating God. And it's probably not exciting or successful by any worldly standard. Rather, your purposes for existing are quite obvious. They have faces. And names. They are right in front of you. They have joys. They have aches. They have sin. They have a need to be loved. They are people. They are your neighbors, whom God has dropped in your lap.
As much as our sinful flesh hates to hear it, it's true: God doesn't need you. He can do perfectly fine on his own. He has up to this point; he will once you are gone. God doesn't need you.
But your neighbors do.
They need you to love them. To serve them. To look after their well-being. To protect them when they can't protect themselves. To speak for them when they can't speak for themselves. To encourage them. To rejoice with them. To mourn with them. They need you.
People ask me, "How did you know your wife was 'the one'?" My reply: "Because I asked her to marry me and she said yes." Apparently, God's purpose for my life is that I be her husband.
"Is it God's purpose for me to have children?" I don't know. Do you have any children? If you do, then I guess part of God's purpose for you is to be a parent.
"I just don't feel fulfillment in my job." Ok. Then get a new one. Just don't put your family in jeopardy as you search for different employment. And, by the way, your new job will eventually become rather mundane, too.
I know. Boring, right?
Well, that's ok. Because here's the beauty: the only reason we can say any of this is because we keep in mind what the real good news is—the real Gospel is that Jesus was crucified and risen for sinners like us. Jesus has stood under God's wrath for us so that we don't have to. Jesus has liberated us from the endless search for purpose, and as freed sinners under his cross, he now points us to our neighbors. We love and serve them, not to get on God's good side, but because we already are through Christ.
So, take heart. You're not a little blue engine who is in the business of pleasing the Fat Controller by discovering some enigmatic usefulness and purpose. Stop searching, and instead look at what and who is in front of you. Serve your neighbors, all the while rejoicing that, in the cross of Jesus, God is already pleased with you—even when your life is mundane beyond belief.