By Jonny Ivey /
Hi. We’ve not met. I know almost nothing about you. I don’t know your name or your age or even your gender. I don’t know how you like your tea or if you even like tea. (I hear that some people don’t?) I certainly don’t know what you believe about the bigger questions of life. But there is something I know about you.
You believe in purpose.
I mean, you’re reading this, right? And you’re doing it for one purpose or another. The same would be true if you’d chosen to watch a movie. Or put some bread in the toaster. Or brush your teeth. Nobody brushes their teeth for no purpose. That would be weird. Why not finish up by brushing your knees? No. We don’t do stuff at random. We do it on purpose.
This morning I got out of bed, not aimlessly, but because I had things to do. I ate some breakfast, not arbitrarily, but so that I’d have energy for the day. I chose this coffee shop because I like the coffee here, better than the one next door. I ordered a flat white because it tastes better than the cappuccino. I’m now writing this sentence, like everything else today, for a particular reason—to show that whatever we do, we do it purposefully.
Purpose in a Box
Or so I thought. One day I was just happily wandering back to London Waterloo train station when I saw him. A man sitting in a glass box suspended thirty feet above the River Thames. Seemingly unaware of the screaming crowd below, he was staring across the river toward the iconic Tower Bridge. An American tourist, I assumed. In a box?
“It’s David Blaine, the American magician guy,” said a voice from my left. The balding man must have noticed the confusion on my face. “He’s spending six weeks in there with no food, just water,” he said, opening a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.
Now, you can call me conservative but it’s not glaringly obvious to me why someone would sit in a box, thirty feet in the air, with no food, for six weeks. Or six days. Or even six minutes. If there was ever an act of supreme pointlessness this was surely it, right?
Blaine wasn’t a prisoner. Before he began his stunt, a London journalist asked him why he would put himself through it and he responded calmly and candidly:
“I think when you have nothing, when you’re living with nothing, there’s no distractions, you’re just there as you are, almost struggling. I think that’s the purest state that we can be in.”
Looks can be deceiving. It turns out that Blaine wasn’t doing his self-starvation, jack-in-a-box stunt for nothing. Quite apart from the fact he has built an international career on these exercises in the unusual, I believe him when he suggests that his reason for doing this ran a little deeper than my choosing a flat white or your decision to read a blog or pick up a book.
Blaine climbed into his glass box to escape everything that wasn’t his mind, body, or soul in order to experience his “purest” humanity. That is, the ultimate purpose of being human. No frills. No extras. No iOS updates. Which all sounds very profound but it’s actually what you and I are doing every day. We all climb into our glass boxes. We just call them something different.
What Are You Living For?
To experience his purest human purpose, Blaine climbed into an empty box; we normally fill ours to the brim. Experiences. Approval. Pleasure. Success. Stuff. Comfort. Technology. Relationships. Recognition. Reward. What is true of picking up a book is true of our lives as a whole. We’re living for something. We are trying to achieve something. We’re desperate that our lives are not pointless, that they count for something. We want purpose. Well, what about you? What are you living for?
I remember that question well. During my first month at university, the student pastor offered to take me out for coffee. Because flat whites didn’t exist yet in the UK, I sat down and began to draw patterns in the frothed milk of my cappuccino. Then he just came out with it.
“What are you living for, Jonny?”
Now, for anyone who doesn’t originate from this neck of the global woods, let me just fill you in. We Brits like to talk about the weather. We discuss tea and cricket (Wikipedia it—or just imagine the Queen playing baseball). We’re not so great at saying we’re happy or sad, much less discussing the existential foundations underpinning our broken lives. But he asked it. And the same silent glare of youthful naiveté would have come his way in response had he asked in Arabic. I had no idea. Something about Jesus, maybe?
His question didn’t go away. It did the rounds in my mind for some months. What was I living for? I knew I had come to university in order to get a degree. In order to get a job. In order to have a family. In order to, in order to, in order to, but then what? In order to ultimately do what? To be what? To have what?
I wanted to be married. I wanted children. If possible, they’d be better behaved than other children, on their way to Oxford or Cambridge.
I wanted a respected job where I would demonstrate enough leadership to be thought of as successful, and enough subordination to be deemed humble. I wanted a house, big enough to speak of God’s undeserved kindness, but small enough to be seen as living radically.
I wanted a church, blessed enough by good teaching to call it home, but needy enough that I’d be considered necessary. I wanted to have friends I could speak to about trivial struggles so that in comparison I would look godly, honest, and accountable.
This was the glass box that I had entered in order to achieve a purposeful life—not in front of crowds of people, but in the depths of my own hungry heart. In short, I wanted to be someone to others. I wanted people to celebrate me. That’s what I was living for. “Who are you living for, Jonny?” may have been a better question.
Even twelve years on it feels brutally arrogant writing that down. It would feel even more brutal to say that I still seek purpose in many of the same ways.
I still want people to like me and think that I’m a godly, successful, humble kind of a guy. I even want you to like me—and I haven’t even met you. I still want to be recognized. To achieve stuff so that people will notice when I enter a room.
How could I feel like my life is purposeful if nobody knows me? If the world is unchanged by my existence? If I have nothing to show for my days? Sound familiar at all? Maybe. But if nothing had changed in twelve years I would tell you to stop reading now. It wouldn’t be worth your time. But fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. For me, it was just the beginning.
The Purposeful God
So, if you hadn’t guessed, I’ve written a book about purpose (and what you’re so purposefully reading right now is a very close approximation of the opening chapter). More than that, it’s a book about what the God of the universe says about purpose. “In the beginning, God created” (Genesis 1:1).
It’s hardly surprising that as those made in this God’s image, we all pursue purpose. The first line of Scripture speaks of a purposeful God. He created.
Have you ever created something for no purpose whatsoever? Not even because you enjoyed creating it? Have you ever cooked a meal with no regard for how it tastes? Decorated a bedroom, paying no attention to how it looks? Built a Lego house with no care that it should look like one?
No. We create meals, homes, computer games, paintings, even Play-Doh models for all intents and purposes—from mere enjoyment, to nourishing our bodies, to making things beautiful. In the same way, God created the world on purpose and stamped his purposeful image all over it.
You only need to read on a few verses to see what he says to us humans, whom he’d just created. God told us to subdue the earth and rule over it. God’s saying, “Go do something.” Go make culture. Make milkshakes. Work and play, eat and drink. Do.
But why? For what purpose? For any we choose? Can we really do whatever we want in his world?
Thankfully God doesn’t just give us his world. He gives us his word, in a book. In it he tells us what his world is for. Why he created us. What we are for.
Have you ever stopped and asked yourself that question? What am I for? Is what you’re living for actually what you’re for? Are you sure? Well, you can be because God’s word gives us answers. It doesn’t leave us unsure. This is the purpose of God’s book: to understand the purpose of books. And everything else in God’s world. Including your life and mine.
Can you imagine how David Blaine must have felt coming out of that box after six weeks? The vast expanse must have felt like pure freedom. The first morsel of bread must have been a feast. The first sip of juice like honey.
You see, God doesn’t invite us to switch from one little box to another. He invites us to step out of our own constricting, claustrophobic box and into our truest, purest human purpose—to enjoy life as it was intended, to come to the feast of his finest produce and the sweetness of eternal joy. It’s quite an offer, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Jonny Ivey serves as an elder of The Gate Church in Birmingham, UK. He’s married to Joanna and they have three children: Josiah and Halle who are in their care, and Edith, who is in the care of her heavenly Father. He is the Senior Editor of Heirs Magazine, a digital platform that applies the gospel to British culture. This article was adapted from chapter one of On Purpose: Living Life as It Was Intended.