Unfinished business: Rich Stearns on finding our life’s purpose

It’s only when we say yes to Jesus’ invitation to change the world that we discover real purpose for our lives.

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to meet and speak personally to thousands of individuals as I have traveled around the world on behalf of the world’s poorest people. Many of them have come up to me to tell me a bit about their own lives and how they have sought to put their own faith into action. There is a powerful common thread of longing that I hear from them — a yearning for a deeper sense of purpose and significance in their walks with the Lord. They want to discover that one thing that God is calling them to do. They long to feel that they are doing something important for God and that their lives really count for something. Many of them tell me they feel incomplete, as if something about their lives is unfinished. They are young and old, male and female, wealthy and not so wealthy. They are lawyers and real estate agents, homemakers and students, accountants and engineers, receptionists and CEOs. All of them want to experience the satisfaction of really knowing that their lives matter and that they are living in “the zone” of God’s calling and purpose for their lives.

But if I have learned anything about the purpose, meaning, and significance of life over the years, I have learned that, for a Christian, it is not found in any job, even a job like mine. It is not found in any human relationship, no matter how important. Nor is it found in any accomplishment, no matter how significant. Meaning, purpose, and significance are found only by aligning our lives with God’s purposes, in lives committed to following Jesus Christ. That bears repeating: The meaning, purpose, and significance of our lives are found only by aligning our lives with God’s purposes, in lives committed to following Jesus Christ.

In other words, it is not our work that brings purpose to our lives; nor is it our spouses, our families, our educations, our abilities, our money, or our accomplishments. Rather, it is the purpose of our lives that brings meaning to everything else. And we find the purpose for our lives only in Christ. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). So why is it that so many Christians seem to lack that sense of fullness of life? They go to church, read their Bibles, and say their prayers but still feel that something is missing.

The big story

We all know the familiar expression “He can’t see the forest for the trees.” It is used to describe a person who is so absorbed in the things right in front of him that he has lost a sense of the bigger picture. I believe that this is exactly what has happened to many Christians in the 21st century — we have become so absorbed by the “trees” of our everyday lives that we have lost a sense of the bigger story within which our lives take place. We grow up, go to school, begin careers, get married, have kids, and struggle daily with life’s challenges. These are the “trees” of our lives that occupy most of our waking hours.

Our church lives aren’t all that different. We go to church each week, sing some songs, and listen to a sermon. Maybe we even pray before meals, read our Bibles daily, and participate in small-group Bible studies. But they can become just more trees in a life already cluttered with trees. What happened to the forest; what happened to the bigger story? Who are we? Why are we here, and where are we headed? How do we fit into God’s big story? If we are ever truly going to find purpose and meaning in our lives, we first have to rise above the trees to rediscover the forest — we have to understand what God is doing in the world and how we fit in.

Fortunately, as Christians, we have a way out of this dilemma. If God is the Author of the bigger story within which our own stories take place, if he is the Creator of the forest in which we all walk, then we can only find the deepest meaning and purpose of our lives when we discover the role he uniquely created for us to play in his bigger purpose. Doesn’t it make sense that the Author of the bigger story, the Author who created each of the characters in the story, would have a specific role for each of those characters to play?

The implication of this is profound. God created you intentionally to play a very specific role in his unfolding story. God didn’t create any extras meant to just stand on the sidelines and watch the story unfold; he created players meant to be on center stage. And you will only feel fully completed when you discover the role you were born to play.

God created you intentionally to play a very specific role in his unfolding story.—Rich Stearns

So just what is that unfolding story in which we are to play our parts? How do we discover it? Mary and Joseph played their parts. So did Peter, Paul, Luke, and John. But now, 2,000 years after the resurrection, we seem to have lost the plot. Where are we now in the bigger narrative, and what is it that we are supposed to be doing?

The title of my new book suggests that there is some unfinished business for followers of Christ in our world: And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14)

This plain statement by Jesus in Matthew 24 lays out a simple premise: once the “gospel of the kingdom” has been satisfactorily taken throughout the world, the end will come. Jesus’ promise that the end would come was not a bad thing. He was referring to his grand promise to reconcile all things, to right every wrong, to wipe away every tear, to raise the dead to eternal life, to judge the wicked, to restore his creation, and to establish his wonderful kingdom forever and ever. He was promising to tie up all the loose ends of the big story and bring it to its amazing conclusion. But before all of this happens, Jesus called his followers to complete a crucial assignment he gave to them just before he left.

A revolutionary vision

This assignment Jesus gave to the disciples just before his ascension appears in several key New Testament passages and is generally referred to as the Great Commission. It was revolutionary in its vision. It involved going into all the world to establish and build a different kind of world order — one that Jesus often called the kingdom of God. It was a clarion call to follow him by joining him in his mission to reconcile humankind to God’s purposes. It was a call to action to join God in his intent to form a new kind of kingdom that would become a blessing to all nations — one based not on land, politics, power, and dominion but on God’s truth, love, forgiveness, and compassion — a kingdom within kingdoms. It was not a call to give up on the world, holding our “tickets to heaven” firmly in our hands and retreating into our churches. It was a call to go into the world to reclaim, reform, and restore it for Christ. It was a call to launch a revolution that involved nothing short of the overthrow of the prevailing world system. And before Jesus left, he commissioned his church to lead this revolution, promising that the very gates of hell would not prevail against it.

Those first disciples were on fire. Nothing could stop them. Within 300 years, the gospel revolution had conquered the Roman Empire and changed the known world. Their radical lifestyles were characterized by a sense of urgency and divine purpose. Nothing was more important and no price was too high to pay. Many of the first disciples were martyred for the cause, but others rose to pick up the banner and lead the charge. But 2,000 years later, the Christian movement, especially in the global north, has lost its sense of urgency. We’ve lost a sense of the plot and the big story — the arc of history. Affluent, comfortable, and distracted, Christians today seem to have lost the fire to change the world. The work of God’s kingdom lies unfinished, and God’s people seem to have lost their very sense of purpose in the world.

There is something terribly disturbing in this.

The very Son of God became flesh and lived among us. He died that we might find forgiveness and reconciliation with God. He commissioned us to bring this same good news to the nations of the world, yet we have failed to deliver. What happened to the revolution?

Jesus’ mission and yours

I believe there is a direct connection between the unfinished work of God’s kingdom and our sense of feeling incomplete in our Christian faith because there is a connection between our story and God’s story. If we are not personally engaged in God’s great mission in the world, then we have missed the very thing he created us to do. We are like birds meant to fly but living in a cage; fish meant to swim but floundering on the beach.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. God created each of us uniquely, and he created us for a purpose. God doesn’t coerce us — he invites us. He offers meaning, fulfillment, and significance in our lives but always gives us the option to decline, and sadly, many do.

Simply stated, my message for you is that:

  • God has invited you to join him in changing the world.
  • God has a dream for this world that Jesus called the kingdom of God.
  • God created you to play an important role in his kingdom vision.
  • And you will never find your deepest purpose in life until you find your place in building God’s kingdom.

Listen carefully to these next few statements: You don’t have to go to the Congo or to Uzbekistan to change the world. You don’t have to be brilliant to change the world — or wealthy or influential or a spiritual giant. But you do have to say yes to the invitation. You do have to be available and willing to be used, and you may have to pay the price that comes with following Jesus because changing the world and following Jesus isn’t easy and it doesn’t come cheap. There will be some sacrifice involved — there always is.

Our Christian faith is not just a way to find forgiveness for sin in order to enter eternal life, yet it is that. It is not just a system of right beliefs about ultimate truth and the order of things, though it is that. Nor is it just a way to find God’s comfort in times of trouble or a helpful code of conduct for how to live a good and productive life, though it is those things too. Fundamentally, the Christian faith is a call to leave everything else behind, to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and to join in the great mission of Christ in our world. It is a call to forsake all else and follow him. Only then will we become completed people — people living according to God’s deepest purpose for our lives.

It is time to rediscover God’s vision for our world and his call upon your life. Where do we fit into this big story of God, how can we discover the role God created us to play, and what are the implications of this for our lives, our world views, our careers, and our families? I invite you to revisit the breathtaking truth, the urgent mission, and the profound personal significance of our Christian faith as we seek to follow the One who died that we might have life and have it to the full.

We can rediscover this great calling upon our lives and reignite the revolution. The 21st-century church has everything required — the resources, the knowledge, the scale, the mandate, and the power of God’s Holy Spirit. All we lack is the will. It’s time to finish the job.

Excerpted from “Unfinished: Believing is Only the Beginning” by Richard Stearns (April 2013, Thomas Nelson). At the author’s request, all royalties due to him will benefit World Vision’s work with children in need.

Start to finish

Where do you fit in to God’s big story? What role has God created for you to play? These are tough questions, requiring reflection and prayer. To help you take the next steps in finding the mission God is calling you to finish, order Unfinished DVD-based study, available from Thomas Nelson publishing. The six-session study features Rich Stearns and some of the people he mentions in his book as it guides you deeper into the themes of “Unfinished.”

World Vision U.S. President Rich Stearns is the author of The Hole In Our Gospel and Unfinished. Follow him at twitter.com/richstearns.

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