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Searching for a Purposeful Life

by David Jordan

The Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among (within) you” (Luke 17:20-21).

It was the best fortune cookie ever.  I opened it at the conclusion of my Thai meal and read with chagrin: “The fortune you seek is in another cookie.”  Wow, not quite what I expected from a simple fortune cookie.  But the truth was there.

Perhaps you have looked in the wrong place, worked for the wrong company, bet on the wrong team, joined with the wrong friends, invested in the wrong education. You were looking for something special—and probably thought you found it at the time—then realized the fortune you sought was in another cookie.

The Bible is realistic about this.  The enigmatic Nicodemus of John 3 appears to be searching for meaning. He comes to Jesus “by night,” also a creative way to say: he’s “in the dark.” He’s successful, influential, and important. And yet, like the Pharisees in Luke 17, he’s looking for something more. The fortune he sought was in another cookie.

Ecclesiastes, too, speaks openly of how easily we can be misled.  Early on, the teacher of this fascinating biblical book speaks in parody as a king who purchased, built, pursued, and exploited virtually everything one could imagine.  To his early audience, much of what he relayed would have been represented in their culture. Yet, this imaginary king of Ecclesiastes declared all he had accomplished, owned, and attempted to enjoy as mere “vanity”—nothing but a mist, an ephemeral fog drifting quickly away.

It is far too easy to become jaded.  Scams happen all the time, with unscrupulous people taking advantage of our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties.  We want our dreams to come true and to happen easily and without much work.  “You have just won a free vacation!  All you have to do is call this number and give us your credit card information!”

No. There are no free lunches. And the Bible is clear about this.

The corporate world is no better.  Like the landowners of Jesus’ parables, corporations generally don’t care about us.  They use us until we are used up, take advantage of us, maybe even get rid of us before we can take advantage of the fine retirement plan we expected. We can ask, when will the kingdom of God come?  When will we find our meaning, realize our hopes, capture our dreams? Or is the fortune we seek in another cookie?

Image is everything, they say.  How we present ourselves, what we drive, where we live, who we associate with, how much money we make in a year have tended to be measuring rods of personal success in our time.  The people and images we understand to be signs of success and people of repute stand before us in all their wealth and prestige, telling us life is full and rich and meaningful if only… But the fortune they peddle is not as it seems.  The richness of existence comes in both smaller and larger ways.

An Emerging Purpose

A purposeful life emerges smaller than advertised,whether in poverty or wealth, obscurity or fame, gradually, mysteriously, quietly, and without fanfare.  Smaller because, according to Jesus, the purpose comes from the inside out.  Like joy rising in the heart in spite of circumstances and difficulties, a purposeful life begins in the small interior spaces of heart and mind, places where only we and our Maker have access.  Detached from surrounding events, a sense of meaning for who we are and whose we are often rises unexpectedly, un-coerced, unrehearsed.

Both in and out of mystery, true meaning can be unplanned and unexpected.  Sometimes, it is a process, sometimes an experience, and usually a surprise.  C.S. Lewis describes this when he discovers his unexpected Christian faith birthed in his heart without his knowing, and in spite of his best efforts.  It tiptoed in cautiously, squeezing gently through the cracks and crevices of his intellectual armor.   It began small.  And it changed his life.  He referred to it as being “surprised by joy.”[1]

This might well have been what Jesus meant in his response to the Pharisees: the fortune you seek, the kingdom you anticipate, is actually within you ready to surprise with joy.  And this seems to fit, for the word used in Luke for what Jesus said can be translated “within you”.[2]

An Expanding Purpose

A purposeful life is larger than we imagined,lifting us in the midst of ourselves, raising the specter of hope and regeneration when we least expect it, opening us to new horizons just when we thought personal limitations constricted our world to a tiny space.  New vistas open, unexplored paths beckon, the world widens, shadows narrow, colors brighten, vision sharpens, light illuminates.  And life, now wider and more beautiful, no longer constricts, strangled in the smallness that was.

Such was the experience Paul described in his own conversion experience.  Struck blind, figuratively and literally, his eyes gradually opened to a new world of less restrictive boundaries, new friends, and better relationships – and larger than he imagined before his transformation.

The fortune we seek is often one we don’t expect—unobtrusive, unpredictable, and unseen yet as real as all the well-publicized plans for popularity ever invented by human ingenuity. Look closely.  Listen carefully.  Be ready to be surprised by the unexpected goodness alive and well all around us in big and small ways.  Through people and events, interactions and smiles, the cooing of babies or the changing of the seasons, the fortune you seek might not be a fortune at all.  Rather, what we want, what we need, moves all around us, calling us to blossom where we are and with what we already have.  According to Jesus, all we need is here, among us, around us, within us.  Therefore, let us enjoy more fully the life God offers right here, right now.


[1]He offers his testimony in his 1955 book, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.

[2]And it can also be translated equally accurately as “among you.” Likely, it was intended to mean both simultaneously.


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