In the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the twitter hash tag “Pray for Paris” quickly became a familiar site across social media platforms. While prayer is a natural response for many in the wake of such a tragedy, there are of course many secular individuals who viewed the Paris attacks as proof of the words famously uttered by the prominent atheist scientist Richard Dawkins: “religion poisons everything.” French cartoonist Joan Sfar, who works for the satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo, (and whose offices had suffered a terrorist attack in January 2015), had this response to the world’s sympathetic prayers: “Friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforparis, but we don’t need more religion. Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and Joy! #Parissaboutlife.” Now without getting into a detailed rebuttal of this rather shallow affirmation of humanistic thinking, I will say that I can nonetheless understand the point of view of a non-religious person who is disgusted by acts of violence which are justified under a faith-based rubric. Many such secular humanists have as their de-facto anthem the 1971 John Lennon hit “Imagine.” Here are some of the lyrics: “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try/No hell below us, above us only sky/Imagine all the people, living for today…Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too/Imagine all the people living life in peace…You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one/I hope someday you’ll join us/And the world will be as one.” Without even entering into the theological realm, history alone would suggest that it is simplistic and patently false to imagine that eliminating religion would solve most of the world’s problems. Some of the greatest mass murderers in history, including Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot, were all atheists, and promoted a vigorously atheistic state and worldview.
Like everyone, I was shocked and sickened by the recent terrorist attacks on Paris. The “City of Light”, a symbol of Western culture, was subjected over the course of a single horrifying evening to a series of savage assaults. The fact that some of the attackers chanted “God is Great” while carrying out their murderous rampage provided a chilling reminder of what Jesus prophesied in John 16:2-3. As with many sayings of our Lord, these verses, I believe, refer not only to a historical persecution of Christians in the time of the early church (including the murders perpetrated by Saul), but also foretell the specter of violence born from religious fanaticism down through the ages. “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me.” While the victims of the Paris attacks may have been chosen at random, the reality is that in 2015, Christians around the world are being subjected to violence and hatred, and the inevitable question arises, how do we as Christ-followers, as people who model our lives on the Prince of Peace respond amidst a world that seems to be in love with the perpetuation of violence and brutality. It can be easy to become either consumed by anger and thoughts of vengeance or to retreat into a resigned and pious world-weariness where we no longer care or seek to even engage the problems around us.
However I do think as Christians, our response to both religious fanaticism and religious indifference should be less about what we repudiate and don’t believe in and more about what we do profess. Along these lines, we have been talking with our students in Christian Challenge during the last several weeks about creating life purpose statements. These are designed to be concise summaries of what each individual feels is their God-given purpose and mission in life. We hope to challenge our students to start thinking even now, as undergraduates, about living intentionally for the Kingdom of God and to begin the process of discerning how they may be able to use their unique gifts and talents to make a difference in our world as Christ-followers. As I prepared a message to encourage our students to develop their life purpose statements, I thought it only fitting that I should compose my own. So here it is: “My life purpose is to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind—striving for emotional, spiritual, mental and physical health—while always remaining rooted in the Grace of the Gospel. I will also seek to love my neighbor as myself—a pursuit that will be rooted in a desire to foster God-honoring relationships. I pray that my love of God and others will be manifested through words, attitudes and actions, and that it will provide an encouragement for others to also follow Jesus.”
Personally, in crafting mine statement, I was inspired by Matthew 22:37-40. Jesus is asked to tell what is the greatest of all commandments, and in His response He offers what is effectively the perfect summary/commentary on the entirety of the Old Testament, and all of the rich wisdom and truth that is contained within its law. Jesus said: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” I was also inspired by Luke 12:51, a very rich verse which gives us insight into Christ’s “hidden years” between the time of his coming of age in the Temple until the beginning of His public ministry decades later. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Thus I wanted my life purpose statement to reflect this striving to find a holy balance, where spiritual and physical wholeness complement one another, just as our love and devotion to God extends into complementary love and devotion displayed for our fellow humanity. Now, as we told our students repeatedly, a life purpose statement could very well change over time because it is meant to reflect not only timeless truths but also the particular season of life in which God is working through us. Thus we wouldn’t necessarily expect the life purpose statement of a college student to be the same as that of a middle-aged person, or a freshman in high school.
The phrase “God-honoring relationships” in my statement is drawn from the motto of our campus ministry, Christian Challenge: “Changing the world through God-honoring relationships.” I wanted this to reflect my current calling to serve as a missionary to college students here in Boulder. The last part of the statement represents my attempt to be mindful of the missional implications of my life and work. After all, other religions may talk in their own fashion about loving God and loving people, but Christianity is distinctive as a faith that has always possessed a strong proselytizing impulse. Some people may be reluctant to embrace this reality, and prefer to keep their faith a private matter, but it is a historical fact that from its inception, Christianity has spread through evangelism and the preaching of the Gospel. At its core, Christianity teaches about a universal world Savior who has come on behalf of all humanity and so there is no possible way we can be faithful Christians if we do not each seek to the best of our ability to share with others the teachings and truth of Jesus. I realize that in the face of the overwhelming suffering and rampant evil that seems to hold the world in its grip, it might seem rather hubristic or alternatively naïve to proclaim a life purpose or mission statement. Much of my life is beyond my control, and I certainly don’t profess to know what plans God has for me in the future. But at the same time I serve a God who already proven Himself to be strongest from the point the world considered a symbol of abject weakness—the Cross. Audacious it may be, but in light of recent events, I can think of nothing better for students of a Christian ministry who soon will be launched out into a needy and hurting world than to proclaim the beautiful diversity of their plans and purposes—all united under the guiding principal of service to the One True God, and the proclamation of the Life, Work, Death, and Resurrection of the only Hope for our time and all times—Jesus!