Sometime in the early 2000s, a book appeared in Christian readership circles that took them by storm: “The Purpose Driven Life”. Churches went nuts for it, recommending we all read it.
I did try. I got one and a half chapters in, and wanted to throw my borrowed copy across the room.
I mean no disrespect to the author. Clearly he intended to inspire people to get off the bench and into the game, and he did – and kudos to him. But I had the opposite problem: game addiction. I’m wondering if I can get a “Holla!” from other missionaries’ kids out there.
This is how it was for me. I was born the child of a first- and a second-generation Christian. I was the first baby born into the little church my parents helped plant, back in New Zealand (still thriving today). So, I was literally in church from birth. In addition to this, my parents were riding the crest of the wave known as the Jesus Movement. They were not pew-warmers. They were sold out to Jesus Christ. They had a destiny. They had a purpose. They had a calling and a mission. There were just so many people who didn’t even know Him …
When I was 7, and my brothers 5 and 3, we went to the Philippines as missionaries. It was much like any other adventure, at that age, only it went for two and a half years instead of a few days. I loved it (most of it!). I got to see my parents work their ministries – and it turned out they could do a lot more than sing and songlead: they could teach, and preach, and mentor, and minister healing, and live the faith-walk others just imagine. Nobody does it perfectly, but my folks were the real deal. It never occurred to me that you could have a life in Jesus that was not purpose-driven. We were here to win the lost, people! Even at 7 I understood that many people on the mission field, and general believers in harsh places, were facing incredible trials and threats, while we were relatively safe so long as we didn’t mouth off about politics and bring the local guerillas down on us.
Here’s where it gets personal. We were a team. I can’t say for sure if this (or being confronted with the concept of martyrdom/torture at a young age) was definitively harmful. My parents’ philosophy in those days was “if God calls you, He calls you as a family”. I understood, as the eldest and possibly the whiniest child, that I had to set a good example, not only to my brothers but to the community we lived in. We had to be above reproach and united in reputation.
This hit home harder on the second trip, when I was 15. I hadn’t wanted to come. It had taken me five years to finally feel like I belonged, and I was most loath to give that up. My English teacher told me it would be good for my all-round development. My parents prayed that God would speak to me, and He did. “I gave up 33 years of My life for you. Couldn’t you give Me a measly 3?” Well, when you put it like that, Lord …
Like most teenagers, I wanted to “find myself” as I navigated the transition between child and adult, holding tight to my Christianity like a life-preserver. I told my dad that I felt like a piece of furniture, carted here, carted there. He sought to resolve this by making me feel like part of the team he was in, giving me some responsibility, letting me know my good behaviour would make them look good, and any out-of-place behaviour would reflect poorly on the mission as a whole, which none of us wanted. It did, indeed, straighten my backbone. I knew the importance of what we were about. I certainly didn’t want to jeopardise it, and I appreciated this small piece of adult-treatment. In fact, all the adults on that team were fantastically gracious and understanding toward me. They took me seriously as a Christian.
The weight of a mission’s reputation is a very heavy burden to bear when you’re 15 … and especially when you’re 15 and longing for affirmation. I was old enough by now to realise that it wasn’t just MKs who needed to stand up straight for Jesus. The whole world was looking at – scrutinising – every Christian, looking for excuses to put us (and by extension our Lord) down. That must not happen. He must not be discounted because I failed to represent Him well. This was the moment when I began to see myself as a billboard living in a fishbowl. I pasted on my smile and took one for the team.
Pretty soon I realised that being fake wasn’t the answer. There were too many fake people already, too many people that could be termed hypocrites because their insides didn’t match their outsides. I didn’t want to live a lie. So I made an all-out effort to not just look good, but to actually be good. This was ten times the pressure. I tried really, really hard, but of course it can’t actually be done. I thought this was my fault, or at least the fault of my inherent sin nature.
In all of this, I knew God loved me. But because I knew of my inability to be consistently good, I imagined Him in the role of exasperated father. He was obligated by His Word to love me, but He couldn’t possibly like me very much. Just look how often I let Him down. Crappy attitudes, sinful thoughts, off-limits emotions, missing the mark, dreams that fell outside of my mission role, wishing I was not where He’d sent me. When I imagined my Heavenly Father, I saw Him rolling his eyes upward, running His hand through His hair in frustration. When I came before Him, it was always in a hangdog posture. Thank You for saving me in spite of my many, many deficiencies. I don’t know why You bother, I can’t imagine what You are possibly getting out of this, but thank You. You are so faithful. I am so not.
After a year and a bit, I hit critical mass. Looking back, I may have had or been on the brink of depression; it’s hard to say now. I missed my home culture and my friends terribly. I had lovely local friends who tried hard to include me, but the social model was completely different, and I longed for the old one. I wasn’t getting along with my dad and I couldn’t feel God at all. I found it hard to be present. My parents made the difficult decision to let me go. They offered me a choice between an American boarding school in the capital, or returning home to New Zealand. I chose home. I was 16.
Thus began a reversed cultural shift. In the Philippines with my parents, I was in home base in a strange place. Moving in with my New Zealand youth pastors, I was in a familiar place but not in home base. They lovingly opened up their home to me, but it was not the same home, of course. The rules were different, the vibe was different. They looked after me well and taught me many things. I repaid them by being a rather repellent teenage girl. I sincerely hope this behaviour helped get any kinks out of their parenting style early, so that their two small girls eventually lived to benefit from my mistakes!
The biggest thing I learned in this bustling new home was that involvement was not optional. We had stuff on every night. Those were the times: idle hands, etc. There were youth meetings and prayer meetings and church meetings and rehearsals and other young people dropping in every day. We were the hub of the church social life. I learned important ’80s words such as motivation and commitment and priorities and perseverance and purpose and zeal and faithfulness. We were in it to win it. Born to win, in fact! We shook that city; we rose up; we wanted to serve the purpose of God in our generation – and other songs.
I can’t help but applaud the zest with which our pastors and flock attacked Christian life. It was commendable and inspiring and driven by a love for God. Was it sustainable? Maybe, for some. But it was tiring. And for me, whether because I didn’t listen in the right bits or because the right bits weren’t the current emphasis, it was all about effort. And constantly trying to get the slippery inner self to keep up with the frenetic outer self. If at any time I flagged, “let us not become weary in doing good” was there to flagellate myself with on a moment’s notice. I wonder now if the correct interpretation might be “don’t burn yourself out; pace yourself, for Heaven’s sake!” But at the time, I thought this cycle of flagging and flagellation was normal. Gee up.
I have no idea how this display actually affected the unchurched people around us, whether they appreciated this all-out thirst for life and godliness and went Wow!, whether they noticed how hard we were trying to not be hypocrites. Maybe they saw us as frazzled rats on a treadmill, too worn out with Christian activities to be kind friends, too preoccupied with winning the lost to get to know them, too insulated in our exciting Christian bubble to admit the unlathered.
I boarded with the senior pastors for a short time and finished high school, moving to the city and into yet another home culture. This one seemed strangely reticent to me. Involvement was still not optional, but it was restrained. My new landlady was dumbfounded by my notion that a good Christian girl should be out every night engaged in good Christian activities. She thought that was nuts. She was right. But I was coming off the back of two years of solid sprinting for Jesus, and I resented the idea that my drive to “serve God” was being looked down on. When the opportunity to move to Australia with my best friend came up, I went. And the first thing I did was find a church that encouraged me to continue to live on overdrive. I was sold out to Jesus Christ. I had a destiny. I had a purpose. I had a calling and a mission. I had a ministry. I wanted that “Well done, My good and faithful servant!” I thought turning down ministry and involvement opportunities had to be justified with an iron-clad alibi. So I was at everything. And, to my shame, I discounted those who were not.
Imagine my surprise to discover in my 20s this newfangled thing called grace. It turned out that salvation “does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on the mercy of God.” There was a sharp sense of you’ve been doing it wrong!, and it wasn’t the last time I was to feel it.
The church, as a whole, went through something of a transition in the 90s. We were still urged to be committed and involved, but we were rediscovering the idea that God was His own agent, it wasn’t all up to us to transform either the world or our hearts. Certainly not from the ground up. It turned out that God had been planning and doing stuff and taking care of business the whole time…! And in the middle of that decade came the renovated version of the House Church movement: Cell-Based Church. After hearing all the wonders of what could be achieved if we concentrated on small group ministry, enfolding unchurched people lovingly into our world rather than yelling at them from some holy sideline, we enthusiastically adopted the idea. The problem was, we were supposed to exchange Big Church for Little Church, freeing us up from feeding the Big Beautiful Machine to actually live community lives. But what we actually did in practice was to add Little Church to Big Church – making us twice as preoccupied as before.
If you’re wondering at this point if I’ve completely wandered off topic, rest assured, dear reader, I am getting to the point. I just take a long time to get there … as you’ll have noticed in my life as well as this screed!
All of this is to help you understand that not everybody burst on the scene in 2002 going, “Oh hey, God has this thing for us called a purpose-driven life – let’s try that!” No. Some of us were already desperately ragged from decades of trying to live a purpose-driven life. And what we poor sods needed was to live a loved-driven life. And that is why, from the late ’90s to the early 2000s, God brought us what some have termed “the Princess Culture”. Because, much as the idea is attractive that God has a Huge Grand Plan for this world, and you have a Huge Grand Part to play in it, that’s not the whole story. I used to hear people say things like, “Your life is not about you, did you know that?” and “Worship is not for you, it’s for God.” These statements are designed to push people out of self-absorption and entitlement, and into the Huge Grand Plan. But when you are living in self-rejection, when, despite your best efforts, you have not changed the world or even rid yourself of your character flaws, they are further confirmation that finding your place in the love of God is a self-seeking exercise in gratification, and therefore unholy.
What. A. Gyp.
When a family adopts a child, is it their dream for that child to cower forever in the corners of the house, gnawing on a dry bread crust, because they were once outside and unworthy? Do adoptive parents have a vision of family life that involves the new child settling always for the smallest pork chop, the raggedest second-hand clothes, the tiniest amount of bathroom time, quick to apologise for breathing, trying to remain invisible and never inconvenient, all because they have received the unmerited gift of housing?
How could we ever imagine God to feel this way about us? Does the Word tell us to come cringing and downcast before the Throne of Grace, wearing our impostor syndrome, a sinner saved by some freak of Divine nature, or a glitch where we were overlooked in the count of Worthy People, or as though He had given a huge sigh and said “I suppose I’ll have to save you, too, since you’re too dumb to save yourself and I’m already invested”? Is this the definition of humility? Is this a proper use of the gift He has intentionally paid blood for? Is He really throwing good money after bad?
No. He isn’t. And yet this was my posture for years. I was trying to compensate God for saving a wretch like me, by working my guts out for Him. I thought He wanted me to remember my place. Don’t get me wrong, my purpose-driven life was an all-out belief that the purpose was worth my life. But there was resignation and anxiety behind it. And this is not what He built me for. I was adopted into the family of God. I was not adopted to snatch at crumbs under the table, fit for nothing else. No. I was adopted in the hope that I would put my shoulders back, stand in the Name bestowed upon me as a child of God, lift up my head, and take my place as a dearly-loved daughter. Because what adoptive parents want in their family is seamlessness. And God wants that too. His parenthood status is never threatened by verisimilitude; in fact, it is glorified. When an adoptive daughter lives as though she was born into that family, her adoption is proved complete, and the love of the parents is proved complete. All are served well. The family comes of age.
And I am dearly loved. Greatly loved, and made to be greatly loving. Not so that I can merely help others feel like natural children of God, with me just the lowly servant in the background, but to display that great love’s evidence in my life. Demonstrating the love of God is not only about giving to others. It’s also about showing that we live in it ourselves. And that’s why I loathe dichotomies such as “it’s not about you”. Of course it’s about me. It has to be about me. And you. And our world. And our beautiful God. It’s about all of us who are dearly loved, and it is all of us. I am important and you are important and if one side of that equation comes down, the whole equation comes down. There will be times when I have to put aside my importance, act sacrificially, when to be greatly loving requires such things of me. But my status will remain unchanged. I will not be less important; I will simply be less focused on my own importance. It’s not about negating yourself. It’s about projecting past yourself.
Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are His workmanship, created for good works in Christ, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We are His stuff, and we do His stuff. But that’s not all. Revelation 4:11 adds, “For You have created all things, and for Your pleasure [or by Your will] they are created.” Lest we be tempted to think this will divorced from the idea of pleasure, Zephaniah 3:17 affirms that “He will rejoice over you … you will rest in His love … He will take great delight over you with singing”. That doesn’t sound like resignation, does it? It sounds like glee! And for the final clincher, early in both Old and New Testaments is the injunction that after loving God with all that’s in you, you must “love your neighbour as yourself”. If we don’t do a good job of loving ourselves, will our neighbourly love not be just as shoddy? And if our neighbourly love is top-notch, are we then not entitled to also love ourselves similarly? Again, I’m not talking about selfishness. I’m talking about equality. If the next person is worth just as much as the following, then so am I. If what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, then it’s good for the goose.
And – side note – as for “worship is for God, not for you”, well, worship is, to put it crudely, a lot like sex. When one partner physically adores the other in that intimate moment, are we going to say it’s “all about” the other partner? Is the giver not allowed to enjoy the act of giving? Does consequential pleasure negate the unselfish love in the act? And is only one partner permitted agency? Is it wrong to seek connection out of need as well as out of generosity? Who else should we go to in time of need? Is that not an expression of confidence in our partner’s love? Is that not faith?
So it is with worship. God is generous, whether we approach Him with need or with effusion. When we go all-out in our love and appreciation for Him, He cannot help but reciprocate. And we cannot help but benefit. It is truly more blessed to give than receive, but that’s because receiving is built into giving. Giving is fun – especially when the gift is perfect for the recipient. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Worshiping God is glorious. It does not become selfish or defiled if we revel in it. Even in difficult seasons, where we worship God and don’t feel as though much is coming back toward us, we are changing and lifting our eyes and growing. And so that is what is coming back: maturity, and perspective. You can’t interact with God and not receive. He is Love, and love gives.
Preaching families of the past have been so Heaven-bent on “winning the lost” that they have failed to take into account that they might become “the lost”. I believe this is a large part of why so many PKs and MKs leave the faith. We are so busy being other-focused – sharing the love of God with the uninitiated – that we lose sight of the fact that we are ourselves loved and eligible for all the riches there are in Christ.
If you find it hard to get off the bench, then developing a purpose-driven life may be for you. But for me, I am spending the rest of my life not just fulfilling my purpose, but coming at it from the position of a loved-driven life. I am greatly loved, and made to greatly love. I believe this is bigger than, or rather defining of, my purpose. I want to love God with all I am and love my neighbour and love myself. I want to demonstrate that He loves me by loving my neighbour as He does or as if they were Him. And I will also demonstrate it by loving myself as He does and standing in the name He gave me as His daughter. Old identities are irrelevant; I’m adopted now. Because in the end there will be a reckoning: did I identify Jesus in every person who needed love, and love them accordingly? And since He is in me, did I walk in the love He said was mine, and show the world its veracity? Not that I will do any of these things perfectly. But they are the shape of the clay on the wheel.