My Life Has Purpose and Meaning
Whether you know it or not, God has a purpose for your life that is greater than you could possibly think or imagine.
I want to begin by telling you a personal story. I was brought up in London in a Polish family. My parents came separately to this country during the Second World War. They met here and married. Both came from large farming backgrounds in remote rural parts of southern Poland. But their journeys throughout this time of conflict were very different. When war broke out, my father was training in a seminary to enter into ministry in the Catholic Church. During the German invasion of Poland, he, like so many others, was separated from his family, forcibly conscripted into the German army and sent to fight on the Russian front. Cold and hunger were his predominant experiences and to survive this nightmare the only thing my father would shoot at was any moving animal that might be deemed edible. Dogs, cats, even rats became a scarcity in such an environment. His bayonet was used not to lunge at Russian soldiers but to dig up any rarely found frozen potatoes or root crop still in the ground.
Many of his fellow soldiers went to extremely drastic measures to escape this madness. My father himself was wounded in the leg and sent to a field hospital to be treated. Following his operation to remove the embedded shrapnel from the explosion he was caught in, he tucked an old copper coin under the bandage and into the wound in order to cause an infection to spread and delay any recovery which would have sent him back to the front. Such was the fear of returning that he was even prepared to lose his leg as a consequence, in order to escape the horror he knew awaited him.
Many tried similar things with catastrophic results. It worked for him to a point, but his intentions were discovered before any real damage was caused and, inevitably, he soon became fit to return to the war. But as fortune would have it, he was not sent back to the Russian front, as most of his unit no longer existed. Instead he was moved to the Western front in France. There he was captured by the Allied forces and joined the British army. Having survived the rest of the war, he found himself in England.
My mother’s journey was quite different. She was twelve years old when the German army marched into her village. Men were conscripted, and children, my mother being one, were sent to labour camps in Germany. She found herself, as a twelve-year-old, alone in a hostile and threatening environment with harsh working conditions and no respite or consolation, totally cut off from the rest of her family. She spent most of the war in this situation until she was liberated by the invading Allied forces. She joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) at eighteen and eventually ended up in Scotland, from where she was then moved to England. My mother never recovered from her ordeal of such oppression and spent the rest of her life with emotional trauma and nervous breakdowns, in and out of hospitals.
And here’s where my own story of identity begins. At the end of the war, all those in the Allied armed forces who were foreign nationals and found themselves in England were given a choice to return to their native countries or be nationalised and remain in England as British citizens. Some returned while others stayed. My parents both chose to stay. They were drawn into a Polish community in Cricklewood, where they met and married. It was at this time that the Iron Curtain came down and all communication between East and West was cut off. Neither of their remaining families in Poland knew if they were alive or dead, as not even letters were initially allowed through the communist bloc. They found themselves strangely without identity. The Poland they left no longer existed, as under a communist regime it had completely changed. My parents were foreigners in a country not their own, even though they were welcomed. Some of the Polish community they lived among claimed to be aristocracy or upper/middle class in status and even here they found themselves isolated culturally and sometimes socially. They struggled to fit in.
Neither of my parents could speak English for a long time, and neither did my sister nor I until we started school. I found myself owning this identity crisis, compounded by my mother’s long spells in mental hospitals and my younger sister and I being shunted to various homes and convents to be looked after while my father needed to work. There were no other family members or close friends to support us. It was a very lonely and isolating time, but my parents did the best they could to ensure we were looked after and cared for.
They maintained the culture and tradition they knew, and this is what became important to us in this environment as we grew up. The one anchor they both had was a strong faith in God. The most important gift they gave us, apart from their love, was a knowledge and understanding of God, as best they could, ensuring that we grew up with a foundational framework that we would later build on. I will forever be grateful to them for that, as it has been a springboard in making me who I am today.
In later years, as I began to study the Bible, I grew more aware of so many stories in these scriptures of ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances and hostile environments, led into the unknown to discover a God who was tugging at their heartstrings, stripping them of what they imagined their life to be about and who they thought they were, in order to equip them for who He created them to be.
Abraham, called to leave all behind and travel to a new land he knew nothing of; Jacob, escaping his brother’s wrath having taken his inheritance through deception; Joseph, sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers and then imprisoned for alleged rape; Moses, exiled from Egypt, having to make life-changing choices following confrontations over his identity as a Hebrew and an Egyptian prince; Ruth, widowed and estranged from her homeland; David, who rose from being a humble shepherd boy to find himself pursued by a jealous king, and taken through many ordeals and hardships; Peter, called from being an impetuous fisherman to be a disciple who kept putting his foot in it; Paul, from a staunch Pharisee hunting down the newly forming Christian communities to a life-changing encounter that would transform his whole existence. There are many more.
But in each case, God had a greater purpose for their lives than they could possibly have imagined. A purpose that would radically affect communities and even nations. These were ordinary people called to do extraordinary things. They would each have to endure difficulties, life-threatening perils, transformation and a rediscovering of their identity to accomplish their destiny. God has a destiny for you too.
Living with labels
There is one particular episode in Scripture that I always find full of encouragement and challenge when it comes to destiny. It’s the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well while travelling through Samaria with His disciples en route from Judea to Galilee. We can often live our lives, contented or not, settling for what we have and accepting that as ‘our lot’ in life. Sometimes these ‘boundaries’ are self-imposed by the baggage we carry, and sometimes we can feel ostracised and isolated in the community we live in through other people’s judgemental opinions, whether well founded or not. We can end up with a label spoken over us that defines us in our subconscious being. This then affects how we behave and how we view ourselves in the world around us.
This was certainly the case with this particular woman. You can read the story in John 4:1-42. Jesus had paused at midday by a well, in order to rest from His journey. His disciples and travelling companions went on to the nearest city, probably Sychar, to buy some food. A woman, whom we know little about, approached the well to draw water. She was of a different race to Jesus and morally questionable, carrying the baggage of multiple relationships with a string of husbands and a current relationship outside marriage. That was her ‘label’. It was what defined her. It may have been why she came to the well to draw water at midday in the heat of the sun when no one else was around, in order to avoid conflict or confrontation with others in her community, preferring to keep herself to herself.
Whatever her reason for being there at that time, Jesus engaged with her in conversation, asking her for a drink from the well. The conversation quickly turned into a spiritual one, focusing on a thirst in life that only He can quench. ‘Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water”’ (John 4:10). And having caught her attention, He then takes it further.
Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.’
Our ‘lot in life’, as we perceive it, can sometimes rob us of the very thing that can give our existence greater meaning and purpose. Whatever we have in life, whether plenty or little, whether we are rich or poor economically, never fully satisfies us. There comes a point sooner or later, when we ‘thirst again’ and look for the next well to satisfy us. ‘He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; Nor he who loves abundance, with increase’ (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
This is what Jesus is alluding to here. Life can obscure who we really are and we can hide from that reality, knowingly or unknowingly. He comes to offer us something that will not only satisfy, but last forever. Jesus then gets to the heart of this woman’s dilemma and baggage in drawing attention to it, not merely to expose it but to deal with it. It is from a place of brokenness that this woman is about to be transformed and all her taboos addressed in order to bring healing and wholeness. The conversation continues, focusing now on her religious convictions and prejudices, and Jesus then homes in on the true nature of our relationship with God… just that – relationship.
But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
In other words, any relationship we have with God must be from the heart; it must touch the core of our being (spirit) and it must be genuine and real (truth). So transformed is this woman by her encounter with Jesus, that she runs back to her community, to the very people she previously shied away from, and publicly and enthusiastically addresses them: ‘Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?’ (John 4:29).
Not only was she transformed and emboldened, but such was the change in her that others no doubt were caught up in it. They came on her invitation to see for themselves and many more believed because of her testimony, and then experienced their own encounters with Jesus throughout the two days He remained with them. What brought about such change in this woman? I think, among other things, she rediscovered her true identity in God and was accepted for who she was, but also transformed by the compassion shown to her, where previously she would have experienced condemnation. She found a new place of belonging. Her perception of herself shifted, as did her perception of the world around her. Her view of relationships, of religion, of community were all turned upside down. All this through one encounter at a well. A daily ritual had become a life-changing wake-up call, not just for her, but her whole community.
Each of us has a unique story to tell that has made us who we are. Experiences in life, good and bad, shape us and influence us. They determine how we view the world we live in. They influence our hopes and fears, our dreams and aspirations, what drives and motivates us and how we respond to our circumstances. But one critical factor in all this is the question of our identity.
Understanding who we are and who we were created to be underpins our effectiveness as human beings. This is key in understanding our purpose in God’s kingdom and His will for our lives. But equally it establishes our relationship with Him, from which we exercise the authority He has given us to flourish and prosper. Our identity is one of the most important aspects of being an effective disciple of Jesus Christ. When I know who I am and who God has created me to be, I do not want to be anyone else. But this can be quite challenging when what we think we know is transformed by a greater reality and purpose that God shows us. Peter the fisherman discovered this when he encountered Jesus by the Lake of Gennesaret. It was his workplace, where he fished with his partners (Luke 5:1-11).
Catching your attention
God often uses our experiences in life as a starting point to enable us to discover something of who He is and what He wants to direct us in. How better to get someone’s attention than to alter their perspective of what they think they know, by changing the ordinary and expected into something extraordinary.
Peter and his partners had been fishing all night, their common practice, and caught nothing. Jesus gets into Peter’s boat and, after addressing a gathered crowd, tells him to cast off into the lake. How would you react to a stranger coming to your workplace and telling you how to do your work better? Yes, so would I. But something must have drawn Peter to be inquisitive enough to go along with this request, perhaps, if nothing else, to prove he knew best. After all, Peter saw himself as an experienced fisherman. But everything was about to change. He followed Jesus’ instructions and cast his nets out, only to be unexpectedly and terrifyingly overcome by arguably the largest catch he had ever experienced.
So great was the haul, he had to summon his partners to bring the other boat out and help them with the catch, lest they sink. Even then, both boats were seriously in danger of going under with the sheer weight of the catch. The drama over, and both boats safely ashore, Peter found himself staring into Jesus’ eyes and an unnerving reality suddenly hit him like a sledgehammer; so much so that fear gripped him because he struggled to comprehend what had just happened. He beseeched Jesus to depart, feeling inadequate and, no doubt, out of his depth. But Jesus reassured him and invited him to follow. He then led Peter and his partners to a new reality that would enable them to discover who they were to become in God’s plans and purposes for their lives. ‘“Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him’ (Luke 5:10-11).
Fear of the unknown and unexplainable events often cause us to step back and withdraw from an encounter, purely because we don’t understand what is going on and it doesn’t fit in with the experiences of life we are familiar and comfortable with. We can feel inadequate or unnerved by the suddenness and unexpectedness of such an experience. Even when something is beneficial and positive, we can shy away because we feel out of control of the circumstances and as such, out of our depth, not knowing how to respond.
I recall once having a Saturday job in a supermarket in the butcher’s department. This was before the supermarket set-up we are familiar with today, when you still had counters from where people would be served. I was in the sixth form then.
I befriended another ‘Saturday worker’ about the same age as me, and over the weeks we got to know one another better and I was comfortable with him as our friendship grew. He shared with me that he was a Christian and went to a Pentecostal church, which didn’t mean much to me at the time. One evening, there was a knock on my door and, as I answered it, there stood my friend. He asked if I would like to come to a church meeting with him, and went on to explain that they spoke in tongues and miracles of healing often took place. I hadn’t a clue what he meant by ‘tongues’ but fear gripped me when he started to go on about healings. I had visions in my head of some kind of weird sect that would take over my life. I slammed the door in his face and from then on totally avoided him. I didn’t at that stage of my life recognise the genuineness of what he was offering.
Exploring and discovering our place in God’s kingdom plans for each one of us runs in tandem with knowing who Jesus is – the two are inseparable. As such, this is where we start. It’s always about Him, from beginning to end.
· What gives your life purpose and meaning? To what extent is your identity shaped or influenced by what others say or think about you?
· How do you cope with criticism? Do you have avoidance strategies? If so, why?
· How do you perceive your future and stepping into the unknown? How challenging would it be if God completely changed your future direction?
Made in God’s Image
To understand who I am, I need first to understand who God is, because I am connected to Him, as are you. In the beginning of the Bible we read about the creation of the world. Throughout the whole process we see God as Creator bringing everything into existence ‘each according to its kind’ (Genesis 1:11-12,20-21,24-25). There is balance and harmony wrought out of chaos. But when it comes to the creation of humanity, we read something different. ‘Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness”’ (Genesis 1:26). We are created in the image and likeness of God, not just to be like Him, but to be one with Him. But who is this God who created us, and what is He like?
The first thing you will notice about this verse is that it speaks of God as ‘Us’. God is described here as community. There is a dialogue going on, a conversation within this community of God. A conversation concerning the whole process of creation. So, we discover that this creational God is also a relational God. God, as community, is a relationship of persons and we find, as we delve further into the Bible, that it is a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – One God defined in three persons. It is here we begin to see the nature of who we are.
If we are made in the image and likeness of a relational God, then it follows that we are relational creatures created to be in the kind of community that exists in God, made in His image and likeness. As community we were given authority and dominion over the earth, to reign over it, and nurture and look after it. ‘Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth”’ (Genesis 1:28).
I never cease to be amazed at the variety of species of all living things on the earth, at their awesome beauty and diversity, and there is more still to be discovered that we know little or nothing about in places we have still to explore. Their complexity is astounding, and yet so is their fragility and vulnerability, such is the precarious and delicate balance of nature that we are entrusted with. We were given stewardship as part of our relationship with God and in the context of that relationship with Him, we were called to reign over our planet and be creative in administering that overseeing role.
Humanity is distinct from the rest of creation. To have been made in the image and likeness of God, with moral intelligence and perception, elevates humanity to a greater place in God’s order for creation. It implies an intrinsic worth in each one of us as relational beings called to be in communion with a creator God. To have been given that responsibility suggests that this relationship is made up of trust and cooperation. For that is the nature of a loving relationship. It is positive, creative and giving. It builds and edifies. It is not independent but interdependent.
So far, so good. But something went wrong that created a dysfunctionality in what was supposed to be a blessed and prosperous assignment. Humanity bought into a lie. In the story of the Fall, we read that Adam and Eve were given instructions not to eat the fruit of a particular tree. We know the story, where Eve was tempted by the serpent and drew Adam in, and thereby both ate the forbidden fruit. The disobedience caused them to fall out of that relationship with God, and that which was unspoiled became tarnished and corrupt. Sin entered into God’s created order. But disobedience was not the only issue here.
Rather, this was a question of identity. Let’s recall the conversation between the tempting serpent and Eve.
And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, “You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.”’ Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’
This conversation created an identity crisis, because the real question concerned who they were created to be. Humanity was created, as we saw earlier, to be like God, made in His image and likeness. But according to the serpent, in order for that to happen, they had to take the fruit that was denied them. Here is the issue – they were already like God. But the serpent persuaded them they were not like God unless they did something to rise to that position. Let’s follow the argument for a moment. If God did not want humanity to be like Him, why make us in His image? If the only way we could be like Him was to eat the fruit, why penalise humanity for doing so? The reason God gave humanity the boundary, I suggest, is a trust issue. In effect, ‘Do you trust Me to know what I am doing and what is best for you?’
There were two realities present in the garden that I think were key for humanity’s future, represented by the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It was from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that they ate in disobedience to God’s instructions, severing the relationship of reigning with God and replacing it with a rebellious notion of autonomy from Him. I believe the instruction to never eat from this tree was given because it concerned the need for dependence on God from whom all life proceeds and in whom all life has its being. We are therefore not to be dependent on our own power and skills and not to transgress His divine law of obedience. By eating this particular fruit, humanity abandoned a state of innocence and instead experienced good and evil in ways God did not intend us to. This is the nature of rebellion against God.
Knowledge is a powerful thing and dangerously so in the hands of someone who through immaturity or irresponsibility is not able to handle it. There are many things to which a responsible parent will say no to a child when it comes to their safety and well-being.
God gave humanity free will, because having choice is part of our humanity and part of being created in His image and likeness. ‘Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” – therefore the LORD God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken’ (Genesis 3:22-23). To ‘know’ good and evil outside a relational obedience to God, I believe, has the potential for becoming destructive rather than profitable for the good of all and the enrichment of life.
Exercising the authority God gave humanity in having dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28) can only be realistically accomplished within the designated parameters He has given us. It is in the relationship we have with Him that we develop and grow in wisdom, knowledge and understanding in the context of being in community with Him. This then surely becomes an issue of trust in what is said, because this underpins our intimacy or lack thereof. Remember it was the serpent that questioned whether God said what He said, thus placing doubt rather than trust into their minds (Genesis 3:1-5).
Trust is about relationship, which in turn is about belonging; being part of community that is God. To know right from wrong and to exercise choice within the confines of a relational unity are paramount to securing our well-being and wholeness. The lie which the serpent planted into the minds of Adam and Eve brought doubt regarding their identity and caused them to make a fatally wrong choice based not on the confidence of being rooted in God, but on uncertainty regarding what He had said, making Him appear untrustworthy.
Because sin had entered into the world through disobedience and lack of trust, it became the anti-relational reality for humanity, whereby ‘self’ had replaced community, and trust was the victim in the breakdown of that relationship. To step out of the relationship that is built on trust and unity is to separate ourselves from God. This then begs the question, who are we? Because as relational beings, we have our roots in our relationship with God, from which all relationships stem. Outside that relationship, it’s like severing a tree from its roots. What do you expect to happen next?
We have been living with that identity crisis ever since. When it comes to knowing who we are, we can often fall into the error of having to justify our identity to others in terms of what we do rather than who we are. That then takes precedence in our priorities in life. Issues of acceptance based on status and approval can create insecurities in us because we are continually having to strive for approval and recognition on a variety of levels in our human interactions. If you think of unemployment, for example, many who experience redundancy, or have never worked, may also experience low self-esteem, depression or feeling a failure in life. There is a mindset emitted that robs us of self-worth and value, leaving us feeling lost. This can have devastating effects on people’s lives.
But it’s not just through unemployment that this identity crisis can hit. There are many areas in our lives where performance and approval can shape how we see ourselves. It can then take us on a path where we long to be something we are not and strive to become it, or want to be like someone else and try to emulate them, because we convince ourselves that we may then find contentment, direction or meaning in our lives and greater acceptance. But, inevitably, the bubble will burst, bringing us with a thump into reality. You can only be who you are created to be. Anything else takes us into a virtual world of illusion. All this stems from a need for acceptance and a need to belong.
When I was growing up in the Polish community in Cricklewood, I was surrounded by high achievers among my peers. They all passed the eleven-plus exam and went on to grammar schools, whereas I failed and went to a secondary modern. They achieved high exam grades and went on to university whereas I scraped by and went into the labour market with a string of temporary jobs before discovering what I was good at, and that by chance.
I remember at that time even my parents having high expectations of me, and recall on one occasion my father asking me, before I sat my exams, whether I wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge. This was on the back of his Polish peers boasting of their children’s high success rates. The pressure of failure and letting them down was, as you can imagine, at times overwhelming. It left a mark on me for a long time and on one occasion a few years later, I remember a friend saying to me casually, ‘You’re nothing.’ It was an insignificant remark made in jest, but I clearly remember taking it to heart and feeling pained for a long time.
Words can have a hold over us, particularly when we lack the confidence of knowing who we are, and it is from here that our fears and insecurities can stem consciously or subconsciously, that has its foundations in not knowing who we are created to be. We are made for relationships, not isolation. We have a purpose for our lives greater than we can imagine. And it begins with God. It is here that community has its meaning and essence. It is here we discover the fullness of life; life that sin has robbed humanity of, oppressing and disempowering us, while blinding us to our true identity (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). That’s why Jesus said, ‘The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10).
· When it comes to relationships, would you describe your nature as being dependent, independent, or interdependent? What makes it so?
· What is your understanding and perspective of the creation story in Genesis? How do issues of trust and obedience pan out in your experiences of life?
· Do you find you have to strive for approval and recognition, or are you comfortable and confident in being your own person?