For the past couple of weeks, we’ve looked at unhappiness in the United States. We’ve seen that Americans, in general, find no meaning, direction, or sense of purpose in life. So what is our purpose in life?
As starting point to consider that question, I’d like for us to look at Jesus’ illustration of the sheep and the goats. It comes from Matthew chapter 25.
The storyline is relatively simple. Jesus returns to earth, as Christians traditionally have believed He will, and all people are gathered before Him. This is generally interpreted to be what Christianity calls the Last Judgment. Jesus separates everyone into two groups. One group will inherit the Kingdom of God, which is generally interpreted to mean that they go to heaven. The other group is sent to punishment in everlasting fire, which is generally interpreted to mean that they go to hell.
What’s interesting is the criteria by which people are sent to either heaven or hell. Those who are sent to heaven have fed the hungry, given a drink to the thirsty, taken in strangers, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and those in prison. Those who are sent to hell have not fed the hungry, have not given a drink to the thirsty, have not taken in strangers, have not clothed the naked, and have not visited the sick and those in prison.
This is the only place in the New Testament that gives the specific criteria which will be used at the Final Judgment, and it comes from none other than Jesus Himself.
If you look at the criteria, you’ll see that what it’s really talking about is meeting basic human needs. They are food, water, clothing, shelter, and human contact—the most basic human needs. So according to this passage, what will determine whether we go to heaven or hell is whether or not we responded to the basic needs of people.
If you’ve been around Christianity much in your life, this might sound like it’s coming from some other religion. After all, how many versions of Christianity say that the way to get to heaven is to give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, shelter to those who have none, and provide human contact to people? Not the ones I’ve been exposed to.
This passage seems to come from an entirely different religion. This is definitely not what we’ve heard all our lives that Christianity is about. But yet it is in the Bible, and not only that, it comes from Jesus Himself, which means that we can’t just ignore it.
But, this passage is not emphasized much in Christianity. It’s not talked about a lot. The reason is simple—what many versions of Christianity say you have to do to go to heaven have nothing to do with meeting the basic needs of people. In fact, that’s not a factor at all, according to most versions of Christianity. Because of that, people have really, really gone to a lot of trouble to twist this passage around to try to make it say something else. I mean, people have gone through all sorts of gymnastics trying to find some way to interpret this passage to get it to mean something other than what it says. After all, it can’t mean what it says; it just can’t! Why not? Because it doesn’t fit with what we’ve already decided Christianity is all about.
So, let’s approach this passage not as most Christians do—trying to find some way to fit it in with what we already believe—but with open minds, and see if we can make sense of it.
Jesus said the ones who go to heaven are the ones who feed the sick, give a drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter those who need it, and visit the sick and prisoners. The ones who go to hell are the ones who didn’t do those things.
It’s interesting that there are no amounts given as to how much of these things you have to do. Jesus doesn’t say that you have to feed a certain number of hungry people a certain times, that you have to give a certain amount of clothes to a certain number of people a certain number of times, that you have to visit a certain number of people in prison a certain number of times.
So this is obviously not a checklist to follow to get into heaven. It’s not like, “Okay, I’ve fed the required number of hungry people; I’ll check that off. I’ve visited the required number of prisoners; I’ll check that off.” And then when you’ve done all the requirements on the list, you can get into heaven. It’s not presented like that at all.
So if it’s not a checklist, what is it?
I think it boils down to this: What principles guide how you live your life? I think what Jesus is trying to tell us is that first of all—first of all—the first principle that should guide our life is concern for, empathy for, and willingness to help others. That should be at the very top of the principles, the values, that govern how we live our lives—concern for, empathy for, and willingness to help others.
Remember how a man came up to Jesus one day and asked Him what is the greatest commandments. And remember how Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And remember, the biblical sense of the word love is not a feeling or emotional attachment; it’s an action. In the biblical sense of the word, love is doing something. Also remember, that someone once asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with a parable that indicates our neighbor is anyone in need.
And remember something else Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
So I think the focus here, in all these things, is that the main value, the main principle, by which we live our lives should be that we live our lives helping others, with a concern for, and empathy with, others. That is the main thing that should guide our lives. Living for ourselves, for our own wants and our own concerns, should not be what governs our lives.
But yet in today’s world, it often is. I never wanted to be the type of minister who got up in the pulpit and raged about how people are so degenerate today, raging about all the drinking and dancing and gambling and sex and stuff like that.
But, my wife showed me a little article from the paper a few weeks ago, and we both agreed that it illustrates, in a microcosm, the depths to which our society has sunk. Five teenagers in Florida came across a disabled man drowning in a pond. He was struggling. Instead of helping him, they made fun of him, videoed him drowning, and then posted the video online. The man died. We then thought about something we had seen on the news earlier in the week. At a car race, one driver’s car caught on fire on the race track, really flamed up. None of the other drivers stopped to help him; they just drove on by. His father ran out onto the racetrack and pulled him out of the car. His father got in trouble for doing that, because he was not supposed to run out on the track.
There are many more examples like this I could use, but you get the idea. How far has our society sunk when we produce teenagers who do nothing to help a drowning disabled man but instead mock and video him as he dies? How far has our society sunk when winning a race is more important to people than helping a man out of a flaming car? How far has our society sunk when the rule of not running out on a racetrack is supposed to stop a father from rescuing his son from burning alive?
Just think about that.
That’s the kind of society we live in. No wonder people are so unhappy. No wonder people have no sense of purpose, direction, or meaning in life. We have created a society where people have no sense of connection to anything bigger than they are, no sense of connection to anything beyond themselves, and that’s why everything seems so pointless, why people feel they are adrift in a life that has no meaning. “It’s all pointless anyway, so why help a drowning man? Just let him die and get a thrill out of it.”
And we wonder why so many people commit suicide in this country and why there are so many unhappy people.
Our goal in life, our purpose in life, where we fit in with the big picture—all that is summarized in one thing—how we treat others, how we respond to the needs of others.
But how is that so? How is it that that gives meaning, purpose, and direction to life? Well, above all, in order to have meaning, purpose, and a sense of direction in life, we have to feel we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Our purpose, meaning, and sense of direction in life comes from a connection with something beyond ourselves, being a part of a quest, or a purpose, that is larger than us.
And here is our purpose, meaning and sense of direction, here is how we are a part of something that is larger than us: We are co-workers with God.
First Corinthians 3: 9 says that “We are God’s fellow workers.” Second Corinthians 6: 1 says that we are “workers together with Him.”
That’s what gives our life meaning and direction. That’s makes us a part of something much bigger than we are. It means that we have a part to play in helping God. That’s what the Bible really means when it talks about us being “servants” of God. It’s not that we’re serving God like bowing down to and serving a deity. We are servants of God in the sense that we are working for God, helping God with His work.
Why does helping others form the major part of that? Well, let’s think of the big picture of the Bible. God created the world good. Remember, He placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a paradise where plenty of everything they needed was there. It was just there. When God made the world and put us in it, He intended for us to have the basic necessities of life because He intended for us to have a good life, a life without hunger or thirst, a life without sickness, a life without heartaches like being thrown into prison.
But something came in and changed that, and afterwards, we no longer had that kind of life. From the big picture of the Bible, we know God is working right now to defeat whatever it was that came in and changed things and made them like they are now. When God has succeeded in doing that, He will once again make things so that all will have a good life. Only God can do that. We can’t. Whatever it was that changed things and made them like they are today is much bigger and stronger than we are, and we can’t defeat it. Only God can.
But in the meantime, there is something we can do. We can help mitigate the effects of whatever it was that came in and changed things and made things like they are today. We can’t get rid of it. Only God can do that. But until God accomplishes that, we can be co-workers with God in the sense of doing what we can to mitigate the effects of it.
This is our real purpose in life, to be co-workers with God, in the sense that, although we can’t destroy evil, we can help, even if it’s only a little, mitigate the effects of evil.
We can’t feed the world. We can’t end hunger and poverty. We can’t heal all the sick. We can’t bring an end to all the suffering and heartache that’s in the world. But we can, in our little corner of the world, maybe help one person here, one person there. We can’t change the world, but that doesn’t bother us. God is the one doing that, and we know that one day, God will succeed. In the meantime, we are co-workers with God, doing the little bits here and there that we can. I think that’s what life is really about.
We are a part of something much bigger than we are. We are a part of a process in which evil and all bad and all heartache and all suffering is being destroyed. We know that God will eventually destroy it, but in the meantime, our part, the way we are co-workers with God and the way we are part of this that is much bigger than we are, is that we live our lives doing what we can to mitigate the effects of it.
That’s our purpose in life. That’s how we fit into the big picture. It’s not pointless. It’s not useless. It’s not without meaning or direction. We are part of a grand quest going on now, the biggest quest you could ever imagine. We are co-workers with the biggest victor of all—God.
Look out into the world at all the bad things. The natural disasters, the sickness and disease, the troubles and heartbreaks people go through, the wars and inhumanity perpetrated on people by governments around the world, the lies, the trickery, the deception, the greed, the pollution, the ghettos, the gangs, the hate—just look out and see what a mess is out there. God’s going to defeat all that and make a new world where there’s none of that whatsoever, where there will be nothing but good.
And we can be a part of that. No, we can’t defeat it ourselves, but we can ally ourselves with God and be His co-worker, playing our part and doing what we can to alleviate the suffering until He is able to finally end it. We can play a part in the biggest victory of all and then share in the rewards of the victory.
If you choose to, you can live your life based on this. You can choose to believe this, and you can choose to make this the basis upon which you live your life.