Building a Life of Purpose (Nehemiah 1:1-10; 6:1-3)
We’re in a series called “Building for Life,” and today we’re going to talk how to build a life of purpose. I’d like you to travel with me back to 1940. The place is London, England. The man we’re going to look at is Winston Churchill – a man who lived with purpose.
In 1940, the world was in crisis. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany was overrunning Holland and France. The German advance appeared to be unstoppable. On May 9, 1940, the Prime Minister of England, Neville Chamberlain, resigned in disgrace. He had been duped by Hitler and discredited. When he resigned, it was if he threw up his hands and said, “Let’s see if anyone else can handle this mess.” It’s safe to say that the outcome of the war and the future of Europe would rest on the leadership of the new Prime Minister.
On so May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill was summoned to Buckingham Palace to see King George VI. The King stared at Churchill quizzically for some moments and then said, “I want to ask you to form a Government.” Churchill agreed to do so. How would you feel if you were Winston Churchill?
Following his appointment, Churchill met with political and military leaders and advisors, and they put together a coalition government. If I were Churchill, I no doubt would have felt the terrible pressure of leadership at that moment. But Churchill wrote:
As I went to bed at about 3 A.M., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial…My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.
What caused Churchill to possess such confidence? He was taking over an unprepared country against the greatest military machine that had ever been created up until that point in history. What caused Churchill to experience relief? I would say that Churchill had built a life of purpose. Churchill hadn’t lived an easy life or even a successful life. But Churchill knew his purpose. And through the efforts of one person, strategically placed and courageously living out his purpose, the spirit of Britain turned from despair to hope. And gradually the war was won, not only saving Britain from defeat, but some would claim, in retrospect, saving democracy as a form of government in the world.
This morning I’d like to talk about living a life of purpose. Everybody ends up somewhere in life. Some end up there on purpose. Like Churchill, you have a destiny to fulfill. I know that right now many of you are saying, “I’m no Churchill.” You’re right. But you’re you. And God has placed you here for a purpose. You were put on this earth with gifts, talents, and relationships that are waiting to be exploited to fulfill God’s purpose for you. But the sad reality is, most people do not live a life of purpose.
A man started a hobby of writing to famous philosophers and scientists and authors and asking them, “What is the purpose of life?” The responses he got back were depressing at best. Isaac Asimov wrote back, “As far as I can see there is no purpose to life.” Karl Jung, the Austrian psychiatrist, wrote, “I don’t know what the meaning or the purpose of life is but it looks like as if there were something meant by it.” Arthur Clark, who wrote 2001, wrote, “I’m afraid I have no concrete ideas of the purpose of life.” Albert Ellis, the psychiatrist who invented RET therapy said, “As far as I can tell, life has no special or intrinsic meaning or purpose.” Thomas Nagle, “I’m afraid the meaning of life still eludes me.” With a sense of resignation, author Joseph Heller wrote, “I have no answers to the meaning of life and I no longer want to search for any.” Most people do not live a life of purpose.
Welch poet David Whyte wrote: “I don’t want to have written on my tombstone, when finally people struggle through the weeds, pull back the moss, and read the inscription there: ‘He made his car payments.'” You were designed for more than that. God has a purpose for your life. And until you discover his purpose – and follow through – there will hole in your soul.
There’s one individual in Scripture who illustrates this better than anyone else. His name was Nehemiah. In 587 B.C., the Babylonians invaded and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed. Some eighty years later, the Jews had returned to Jerusalem, but things did not look good. The temple was not being maintained. Sacrifices had ceased. The Jews had adopted the lifestyle and culture of the surrounding nations. The spiritual and social conditions in Jerusalem were deplorable.
But one man, back in Persia, was about to be used by God. His name was Nehemiah. Nehemiah was about to discover and live out God’s purposes for his life. How can I develop a life of purpose? Nehemiah teaches us three actions that we must take:
1. CULTIVATE A CONCERN
A life of purpose always begins with a concern that God has given you. Purposeful people cultivate that concern. Churchill spent six years learning and preparing and strategizing. Why? Because God had given him a concern years before. Purpose always begins with a God-given concern.
Read with me Nehemiah 1:1-4:
In late autumn of the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had survived the captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem. They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been burned.” When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.
Nehemiah’s concern over Jerusalem consumed him. He couldn’t get it out of his mind. For days, he mourned and fasted and prayed. It changed the way he looked. Later on, we find out that the king noticed that he was feeling down. This was bad news because the king had the power to kill you if he didn’t like the way he looked. Something was bothering Nehemiah and others, frankly, couldn’t care less. And it’s from here that we learn the first action about living a life of concern: cultivate a concern.
God’s purpose for you will always begin as a God-given concern. I’m not talking about a passing concern. I’m talking about something that sticks with you. Andy Stanley writes:
You will hear or see something that gets your attention. A thought related to the future will generate an emotion. Something will bother you about the way things are or the way things are headed. Unlike many passing concerns, these will stick with you. You will find yourself thinking about them in your free time. You may lose sleep over them. You won’t be able to let them go because they won’t let you go. (Visioneering)
I believe that God is in the process of birthing and maturing that concern in many of your hearts right now.
A few observations about concerns or burdens: NOT EVERYONE WILL SHARE YOUR CONCERN. Did you notice that nobody else seemed to be concerned about the wall? For years, the walls of Jerusalem had been broken down. But as I read Nehemiah, I get the impression that no one else was crying about the broken-down walls. Nehemiah’s concern was Nehemiah’s alone.
It’s possible that God has given you a concern, but you haven’t cultivated it because nobody else seems to share that concern. Stop waiting for other people! God h as given you that concern for a reason. It’s up to you to begin to cultivate and to pray about that concern.
A second observation: NOT EVERYONE WHO HAS A CONCERN WILL DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT. Question for you: do you think that anyone else had tried to rebuild the walls? Yes! Some had even tried, but had given up. But I imagine that many had the concern and had done nothing about it. Talking and doing are two different things. Even if others are concerned, they don’t always act.
Third observation: GOD OFTEN GIVES A CONCERN BEFORE HE GIVES A SOLUTION. A lot of you have God-given concerns, but you haven’t done anything about it. Why not? Because you can’t see yourself as the solution to the problem. Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king. He was responsible for ensuring the safety of the king’s food and drink. Nehemiah wasn’t really in a position to do anything about the broken-down wall. He didn’t have the authority to go and rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. Many times God will give you a concern, and it won’t be immediately obvious that you can do anything about it.
I do know one thing: God has given a concern to every single person here. It may be something that you have ignored. The concern he has given you might be completely unique. There may be nobody else who shares the same passion as you do, at least to the same extent. God may have given you a passion for recent immigrants or for young adults or single parents or for business executives. But I guarantee that God has given you a concern. Your job is to cultivate that concern. Pray about it. Fast over it. Bring it before God.
Somebody has said, “There are many things in life that will catch your eye, but only a few will catch your heart. Pursue them.” The first action that you need to take to build a life of purpose is to cultivate a concern.
The second action is this:
2. CENTER ON THE ETERNAL
God-given concerns all have one characteristic in common: they focus on the eternal. God-given concerns are never really about you. There is always a correlation between what God wants to do in the individual and what God is up to in the world. God-given concerns always center, in some way, on the eternal. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He has planted eternity in the human heart.” You were made to last for eternity. A life of purpose always centers on making an eternal contribution.
There’s a big difference between good ideas and God ideas. God ideas always center on the eternal. What made Nehemiah’s concern a God idea? Nehemiah 1:8-10 tells us. Keep in mind that we’re overhearing Nehemiah’s prayer to God. Nehemiah said:
“Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you sin, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands, even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’
“We are your servants, the people you rescued by your great power and might. O LORD, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success now as I go to ask the king for a great favor. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”
Why was Nehemiah concerned about the broken-down walls? God had made a promise to his people. God said that if his people returned to him, then he would restore their fortunes. He would bring them back from exile and make them even more prosperous than their ancestors. Nehemiah’s concern wasn’t really about a wall. His concern was about God’s people taking their rightful place in God’s plan.
There’s only one thing that will last into eternity. Your career won’t. Your reputation won’t. Your bank account won’t. Only one thing will last into eternity: people. Our job is to use our money, time, and abilities to influence people eternally. Nothing else matters.
The Bible teaches that everything that we have is a trust from God. A trustee owns nothing, but they are legally accountable for everything. A trustee doesn’t ask, “What percentage should I give away?” A trustee is responsible to use all that they have to grow the resources to do the most good. You are not an owner of your time, your money, or your abilities. You prove that the moment that you die. The reason God has given you your time, your money, and your abilities is so you could make an eternal difference.
How does this work? 1 Timothy 6:18 says, “Use your money to do good…always being ready to share whatever God has given you. By doing this you will be storing up real treasure for yourselves in heaven – it is the only safe investment for eternity! AND you will live a fruitful Christian life down here as well” (RLB). When we use our time, money, and abilities for eternity, we not only make the only safe investment, we also gain the benefit of living a fruitful life here as well.
What are some of the ways that you can center your purpose on the eternal? Ask yourself these questions:
WHAT PEOPLE CAN I INFLUENCE? Take a look at the people around you – your family, your neighbors, your co-workers. The reason why God has put these people into your life is so you could influence them. You’re not living where you are because of some co-incidence. What people has God brought into your life?
By the way, you don’t even need to influence them alone. You don’t have to take the entire responsibility. We as a church want to partner with you in that effort. The main thing we want you to do is to build relationships with them, and then to invite them to an event here geared just for them. This Christmas Eve, we’re planning two identical services. Our theme is “The Day God Got Personally Involved.” The whole goal of that day is to partner with you in influencing people for eternity.
A second question you can ask is:
WHAT MONEY CAN I INVEST? Industrialist Andrew Carnegie said, “The man who dies…rich, dies disgraced.” His goal was to leave nothing behind. You and I have incredible opportunities to invest our money for eternity. If we’re to live a life of purpose, it will completely change the way we look at money. A lot of us think, “If I give God 10%, then everything is fine.” We give God a little and keep the rest to ourselves. But when I go to a restaurant and receive good service, I wouldn’t think of just leaving a 10% tip. Smart people invest all of their money for eternity.
Leonard Sweet tells the story of Fran and Chuck, a couple in their eighties, who decided that they were at a time of life that they could live on a reverse tithe. They lived off of no more than 10% of their income, and gave the rest away. Their goal was to spend as little as possible on themselves and to give away as much as possible on causes they believed in. They followed the advice that John Wesley gave years ago:
Gain all you can, without hurting either yourself or your neighbor…with unintermitted diligence, and with all the understanding which God has given you. Save all you can, by cutting off every expense which serves only to indulge foolish desire…And then, Give all you can, or in other words, give all you have to God.
Jesus said, “I tell you, use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. In this way, your generosity stores up a reward for you in heaven” (Luke 16:9).
One more question: WHAT CHARACTER CAN I DEVELOP? The best way that I know how to build a life of purpose is to build my character. The more I’m like Jesus, the more God can use me. Jesus said in John 15:4, “You cannot be fruitful apart from me.” You’ve got to establish a relationship with Christ, and build his character into your life.
How do you build a life of purpose? Three actions. Cultivate a concern. Center on the eternal. There’s one more action you will need to take:
3. CONCENTRATE YOUR ENERGY
I’m going to fast-forward a little in Nehemiah’s story. Nehemiah overcame years of lethargy and opposition, and when we pick up the story in Nehemiah 6, the wall was almost complete. Nehemiah was only days away from completing the project. But Nehemiah’s enemies were stirring up trouble. Listen to Nehemiah 6:1-2:
When Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies found out that I had finished rebuilding the wall and that no gaps remained—though we had not yet hung the doors in the gates—Sanballat and Geshem sent me a message asking me to meet them at one of the villages in the plain of Ono.
Sanballat and company invited Nehemiah to a meeting. Their plan was to get him off the project, away from all his supporters, and kill him. I don’t think Nehemiah knew the full extent of their plan. But listen to Nehemiah’s response in Nehemiah 6:3. It’s a verse that every person here should underline, highlight, and circle, and then underline again in their Bible. It says: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down” (NASB). This is a verse that all of us need to keep in front of us: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” Nehemiah knew that if he was going to live a life of purpose, he would have to deal with the greatest enemy of purpose. He would have to deal with distractions.
Every day of our lives, opportunities have a way of coming up that have the potential to distract us from the main things that God has called us to do. Many of these distractions aren’t even bad things. But we can be out six nights a week taking advantage of good opportunities. At the same time, we could be making less and less progress toward the purpose God has four our lives. To build a life of purpose, we have to learn how to say no to some good things. When you begin to live a life of purpose, you need to live with this verse etched on your mind: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.”
I wrestle with this as much as anyone. When I was five or six years old, I clearly felt God calling me to be what I do today. I have the joy of living out my purpose. I could tell you my mission, my values, my roles. And yet I’m amazed by how easy it is to get pulled off purpose every single day. I could be out seven nights a week. I have more opportunities than I know what to do with. All of them are good. And yet I have to constantly remind myself, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” The good is the enemy of the best.
One man wrote, “Keep in mind that you are always saying ‘no’ to something. If it isn’t to the apparent, urgent things in your life, it is probably to the more fundamental, highly important things. Even if the urgent is good, the good can keep you from your best, keep you from your unique contribution, if you let it” (Stephen Covey).
You were put on this earth for a purpose. Truly great people live out their God-given purpose. Which would you like as your epitaph? “He made his car payments”? Or would you like the epitaph that was given to David in Acts 13:36: “David had served God’s purpose in his own generation” (NIV).
You were designed to live a life of purpose. God has given us all a unique contribution to make. He’s given you a burden, a concern, a passion. And he’s calling you to invest your life for eternity, and to concentrate all your energies on that task.
The most important step that you can take is to give your life for eternity. If you’ve never given your life to Jesus Christ, would you pray this prayer in your heart:
“Jesus Christ, I want to get to know you. And I want you to come into my life and I want to follow your plan and purpose for my life for the rest of my life. I turn away from my sins and follow you, and ask you to take charge of my life, beginning today.”
If you’ve already done that, what’s your next step? What are you going to do to grow? How are you going to center your time, your money, your abilities, your relationships on eternity? Have you been baptized? Have you taken Class 101? How are you going to concentrate your energies for eternity?
Pray this with me, “Lord, help me to live for eternity. Don’t let me waste my life on temporal things. I want to make the rest of my life count for eternity. I give you my time, my money, my abilities again. Use them and use me as a good trustee. Make my life a life of purpose, I pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”