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What on earth are we doing?

This article was published in the January to April 2017 issue of Rapport magazine.

John Samways explores what it means to live a purposeful life in the Kingdom of God

‘When you align yourself with God’s purpose as described in the Scriptures, something special happens to your life.’ Bono

‘What on earth are you doing, John?’ I can recall hearing that question being addressed to me from my earliest years (often with a note of justified irritation), and it is a question I ask myself on a regular basis. Along life’s journey the answer we give will vary according to age and circumstances, but the relevance of the question remains from birth to death.

In some ways the question has become more pressing through the decades although, of course, we become ever more adept at sidestepping its challenge. Two observations of life in today’s western world have long resonated with me: ‘We have everything to live with but nothing to live for’ and ‘We have advanced the technique of living at the expense of the art of living.’ Both serve to question our priorities in life; both imply that our ‘purposeful’ living is somehow misguided. Yes, our lives are full of busy-ness but to what end? To coin a phrase, ‘What on earth are we doing?’

True riches

Positioned in the heart of the Bible, Ecclesiastes is a book which raises a number of challenging, timely questions about the lives we live. ‘I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labour. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.’ (Ecclesiastes 2:10–11) Listen to today’s news, consider the adverts that bombard us every day, reflect upon conversations you’ve had today – has anything changed? ‘We need no reminders that today we live in a world that is terribly confused about what is truly valuable.’ (Michael Mitton)

Throughout Ecclesiastes the author, whilst repeatedly raising uncomfortable questions without proffering easy answers, directs us to put our roots into God with such phrases as ‘Remember your Creator in the days of your youth …’ and … ‘here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of mankind.’ (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13). As the psalmist cryptically reminds us, ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”’, and the author of Ecclesiastes similarly concludes that no answer to the perplexities of life will be found on
our own.

Called for a purpose

From the first to the last page of the Bible we are reminded that the God of Creation and Re-Creation is a God of purpose – and, from the outset (Genesis 2:1,2), it is profoundly comforting to know that such purpose embraces rest!

As each of us is ‘made in his image’ (Gen 1:27), we too are created to live purposeful lives, and throughout the scriptures God’s calling invests people’s lives with purpose. Consider the call of mankind (Genesis 1:28); the call of Abram (Genesis 12:2,3); the call of Moses (Exodus 3:10); the call of Joshua (Joshua 1:6-9); the call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10) … the list is long.

Jesus’ purpose

What are the first recorded words we have from the lips of Jesus? When he was twelve his parents became separated from him as they returned from a festival in Jerusalem. When they returned and found him in the temple it is not difficult to imagine them asking him ‘What on earth are you doing, Jesus?’ ‘He said unto them, ‘How is it that you sought me? Knew ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’ (Luke 2:49 KJV). Not only do these opening words in the Bible from the incarnate Jesus frame the whole of his life on earth, they frame too the lives of all who claim to be his disciples.

It is impossible to imagine a better description of how Jesus set about living a purposeful life. At any moment through his public life he could have received a tap on the shoulder and been asked ‘What on earth are you doing?’ His reply would have been the same each time. Can the same be said for you and me …? If only!

Servant King

The shape of Jesus’ purposeful life is neatly summarised in one verse in Mark’s gospel:

‘… the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45) and the intention of this life in one verse in John’s gospel, ‘ … I have come that
they may have life and have it to the
full.’ (John 10:10)

It is as Jesus prepares his disciples for his departure that he imparts his purpose to his disciples in unequivocal terms: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:19–20) They are reminded, in the moments just before his ascension, that they cannot do this in their own strength but through the Holy Spirit (Act 1:8).

New life and a new purpose

Throughout his ministry, Jesus is making clear that he is working to take the world from where it is back to where it is meant to be. That is what it means to be building the Kingdom of God. He now continues this work, bit by bit, primarily through his disciples … The common grace of God is extended to every human alive and reveals God’s care for all people through the provision of rain, sunshine, government etc. The fruit of such grace is shared by all and hence we discover the fingerprints of God almost everywhere but this common grace is limited in its ambition through the fall of mankind.

Rather, it is the saving grace of God, realised through faith in Christ, which opens our eyes, sets us free and imparts ‘new life’, literally new purpose, into our lives. Tom Wright, in his commentary on Galatians, describes how a prisoner freed from prison has to decide what to do with his newfound freedom. He writes: ‘Freedom from restraint, if it is to be any use, must be matched by a sense of freedom for a particular purpose.’ See Galations 5:13: ‘When God called you, my dear family, he called you to make you free. But you mustn’t use that freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Rather, you must become each other’s servants, through love.’

Purpose for each life-stage

Quite simply, living a purposeful life in the Kingdom of God is the daily challenge and aspiration of every disciple of Christ. There is no simple, ‘catch all’ blueprint – our lives are all unique – but there are foundational principles that can inform our lives whatever our age/mobility/stage on the journey. There are few greater joys than encouraging one another with shared reflections on what we have learnt and are learning in the midst of (hopefully!) purposeful living.

John Samways

Join us at Lee Abbey Devon for:

Living a Purposeful Life in the Kingdom of God
16–20 January 2017 (Mon–Fri)
with John Samways

Life is busy. Hurry sickness pervades almost every waking moment and interferes with our sleep. How is it possible to live a purposeful Kingdom life in this context? This is one of the  questions we shall be addressing in the course of this conference.

Does ‘living purposefully’ exclude all the things we love to engage with … or does it necessarily include them?

Other areas which will be covered are:

  • How does the shape of our day reflect our intentions?
  • How does God ‘speak’? The importance of being rooted in the Word, ‘coming to our senses.’
  • What is good practice?
  • What does it mean to ‘Go on being filled with the Spirit’?
  • Unhelpful diversions
  • Helpful reminders


  • How do we gauge a purposeful life?
  • What are the goals?
  • Is this sustainable?

The week is planned be be one of enjoyment, sharing … and purpose.

More information and booking…

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