I’m pretty big on the idea of purpose. Not that I go around wondering what my purpose is to where I’m on top of buildings screaming, “Who am I?” but that I keep seeking the reason I’m still alive. I do this because there have been several moments throughout my life where people have told me I’ve impacted others, done something good, or helped bring about something that lasts. As far as I know, they weren’t lying to me. Essentially what all that comes down to is this: If I found out I would die tomorrow, I would have peace because I’d feel like I spent my time well. Yes, I have regrets, but not enough to where I’d feel the need for a do-over. And that is liberating.
But I’m at this weird point in life where a lot of things could or could not happen. I remember thinking when I turned twenty, “This will be the most hectic decade of my life. I’ll graduate college, get married, have a kid or two, maybe go to grad school, be well into a career, et cetera,” and the thought was exciting and daunting. I shared it with a friend who was also twenty, and we both kind of laughed nervously. But four years later, I’ve only accomplished one of those things, so perhaps my forecast was off. But even so I don’t feel less purposeful. And so I realize the list I conjured up for this decade really has no bearing on a life loaded with purpose and intention. Not that the things on the list are bad, but aside from them I still feel like most of my time has been filled with significance. So then the challenging part comes when I stop and think about the following.
I’m still alive.
I firmly believe God foreordains good works for all of us and that his specific plan for us will be accomplished by the working of the Holy Spirit through us. (This is not my idea, but rather, can be found in Scripture; I’ve seen it occur in others and have experienced it myself.) So, that said, when he’s done what he’s needed to do, there’s no reason for me to still be alive. But I am still alive. Why? The only answer I can come up with is that there is still more for me to do; otherwise, I’d be dead. But what is it I need to be doing?
I ask myself this question repeatedly, especially when I enter a new season of life. Starting college, it popped up occasionally. Upon graduating and moving to Nashville without the slightest clue what I was doing, it ravished my thoughts. As I get ready for graduate school, it appears again. And as much as I’d like to think my life will be really exciting and adventurous—and it isn’t always—sometimes the purpose for a season will be very simple and almost hard to find.
For example, this summer came at a weird time. It’s been a period of life sandwiched in between excitement. My year in Nashville was an unbelievable time of growth, and I still wonder from time to time if going to graduate school and leaving Music City was the right choice. But at the same time I’m eagerly anticipating being in a classroom studying again, so that will be exciting, too. Between these two exhilarating seasons, though, came this summer, and everything that was previously moving and churning came to a grinding halt.
All of the sudden I was home having shoulder surgery. It’s disheartening to lose independent mobility of an extremity, to take off your sling and see your atrophied arm, and to have to sit and do nothing except read. I think all my summer reading combined to around 3,500 pages. To say I was asking, “What is it I need to be doing here?” a lot this summer doesn’t really even need to be stated. But in retrospect I think this was one of those times when my purpose isn’t too flashy and is almost invisible.
My old church here at home has been going through a rough time. We’ve had a leadership change in the pastor position, and though the elders are confident they made the right decision, not everybody in the congregation is happy with them. There are still some bruised consciences, damaged relationships, and wounded egos almost two months later.
I felt like our elders needed a lot of encouragement, so I’ve tried to bring that, but it’s kind of hard to accomplish this when you’re not really even a member of your old church anymore. And while I might be tempted to argue that I could’ve accomplished this task from Nashville, that I didn’t have to be here to do it, and so on and so forth, I’m not sure that’s true. There’s something about being present in a community that can’t be replicated from afar because, well, you’re not actually there. Something about your actual flesh and blood residing in the same spatial confines as another person’s or group’s is wordlessly powerful.
And, you know, that may very well be the only reason (other than shoulder surgery) that I was here this summer. Sure, that wasn’t all that happened. There have been other blessings I’ve experienced like getting to spend lengthy time with my parents for a few months, seeing old friends, and other benefits of being “the boy returning home.” But since I’m usually so focused on this idea of purpose, I tend to only look for the things I can be “doing”; however, sometimes one’s purpose can be to simply be present in a place. (If you haven’t guessed it yet, I am a workaholic and do not know what Rest means.) Maybe another purpose of this time was to be a season of calm before the academic onslaught of the storm named Grad School. There will be plenty of things to “do” there.
Which means I’ll be asking myself the question, “What am I supposed to be doing?” when I move to Georgia in a few days. I keep pestering myself with this question because I can not even begin to explain to you how cluelessly I move through life. Rarely do I ever know what I’m doing. If I seem full of confidence, it is only because I fake it really well, and I have psychological counseling in college to thank for that. The greatest nugget of truth my counselor gave me is the following.
“Almost nobody is truly confident. They don’t know what they’re doing,” he said as he nodded to the students walking on the campus’ front lawn beyond his big windows. “Many of us are insecure because we know who we are beneath the surface, and we don’t want anyone to see that. So we fake confidence. We fake it till we make it. The ones who seem the most confident are the ones who have been doing it for so long to where they are somewhat comfortable in their own skin. Confidence is just like anything else: It takes practice and a healthy dose of indifference to what other people think about you.” (This is why Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind is a personal hero of mine; I believe it is he who said something akin to, “A reputation is too much work to maintain.”)
And so my cluelessness doesn’t bother me or bring my self-esteem down a notch because I know the Holy Spirit has more than enough perspective to do with me what he wants. So I don’t need to manufacture my own confidence anymore (which was eventually my counselor’s point). I think it’s the apostle Paul who says, “It is for freedom’s sake you are free.” Not for feeling good, not for a mental salve, not for a confidence booster. Freedom is not the means to an end, it is the end.
If I am free, then that means anything and everything can and maybe will happen. Which means I could die, and that’s fine. It means I could wake up tomorrow, and that’s fine, too. I think all people—especially people of faith—should be surprised when they wake up in the morning. Shocked, even. I have no right to life, no stake in it I’ve laid claim to, no proper demand that it continue. I should be excited when I get out of bed because the simple fact I’m alive means there’s purpose inherent in the coming hours. Before this gets too Miss America for you, I should note how often the day will be difficult, a trial, and a burden, but there can be purpose in that, as well.
For example, leaving Nashville was difficult, but there is purpose in leaving because God needs my story to continue elsewhere for now (though I do hope Nashville appears in another chapter soon). Graduate school will be difficult, but there will be purpose in that. The challenge, the molding, the shaping that comes with all of this is needed and is part of the significance given to the glimmering sheen of life. And life does glimmer. It always does. Not too brightly to where it blinds us and throws us back, but rather, just brightly enough to where we continue to see there is a reason we’re here, enough to where its allure draws us closer, rather than repels us. You’ve got to be close enough to sink your arms in up to your elbows and wash yourself in its waters. Purpose is not something with which you speckle yourself; rather, it demands a good drenching.