With every breath you take in, oxygen from the air leaches out from your lungs into your blood stream. At the same time, carbon dioxide creeps out of those dark, silent rivers and into the caverns of your lungs. From there it moves back into the world. You do this about 20,000 times a day.
At some point, you know that’s going to stop. You probably don’t really accept it yet. Not many people do, I think, until they’re at death’s door, looking behind themselves at the surreal dream of life, wondering how such a thing could really end. But at least in theory you know it’s going to stop. So, what’s it all about? If it’s all going to end, then what’s the purpose of right now?
Here’s a short negative response to start with: It’s not about you.
Why It Can’t Be about You
When I watched my cancer-ridden father take his final three breaths in our living room, I got a sit-down with death. I didn’t like it. Death was a blue flame in that moment; my soul was tissue paper. I felt marred beyond repair. In fact, that experience from my 18th year of life is probably what brought my anxiety disorder to the surface.
I distinctly remember there being nine people in the room before he took his final breath. And then — just like that — there were eight. I felt the absence. I felt the space left by a human soul. Before that moment, I had never really grasped that things end for us.
We have this tendency to make ourselves the gravitational center of reality, to act as if the whole universe is secretly revolving around us and out tiny decisions. And so we take up the daily task of building something, building ourselves, trying to establish something that will survive, something that will stay when so much around us is leaving and ending. But that doesn’t change the cold truth that some day the end will come. I’ve heard it said that being young is secretly believing that you’ll be the one person who lives forever. If that’s the case, then being older is quietly knowing that you won’t, and finding some way to come to peace with that.
Here’s how I’ve come to peace with it: If things are going to end for us, as they did for my father, then it’s obvious that it’s not all about us. We are not the gravitational center of the universe. We’re in orbit around something else, around someone else. And I believe that this someone is God.
God the Giver
You may disagree with me, but before you do, let me just put something out there that’s often overlooked. God is a giver. People perceive God oftentimes as a taker, as a being who wants all praise and honor and recognition given to him. And that’s true, since no one else deserves that. But it’s equally true that God is always giving himself to us. In fact, he’s always giving himself to himself, as strange as that sounds. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity affirms that the Father is always giving the Spirit to the Son without measure. Person giving to Person giving to Person.
The nature of God as a giver then pours out into the world around us, where God brings us into a place of gifts. The computer at my fingertips, the desk at which I sit, my cushioned chair, the cotton clothes on my legs and torso, the Band-Aid on my right ring finger — these things are gifts. They are things given to me in this present moment, things to use and enjoy and give to others. And deeper than all of them is the life in me, that breath that I keep moving 20,000 times a day. Gifts are things received without merit or compulsion. That’s what I have all around me in this spinning, throbbing, blooming world. What have I done to merit any of this? What compulsion of mine could have brought any of this about?
I’m a rich man. I’ve been given the world around me and the life within me. Someone’s been prodigal towards me.
To Take or to Give
That still means I have a host of simple decisions each day: to take or to give. Of course, we do both. Part of being human is being both a taker and a giver, being a player in what I call the circle of giving. But it’s also true that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Giving pushes us into the golden orb of the nature of God. It reminds us with beautiful and penetrating clarity that it’s not all about us.
The Ultimate Purpose: Giving Ourselves
In the end, life is really not about you; it’s about what you give. It’s about how you give yourself to others each day. I’ll share one of my favorite quotes from the pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson.
Giving is what we do best. It is the air into which we are born. It is the action that was designed into us before our birth. Giving is the way the world is. God gives himself. He also gives away everything that is. He makes no exceptions for any of us. We are given away to our families, to our neighbors, to our friends, to our enemies — to the nations. Our life is for others. That is the way creation works. Some of us try desperately to hold on to ourselves, to live for ourselves. We look so bedraggled and pathetic doing it, hanging on to the dead branch of a bank account for dear life, afraid to risk ourselves on the untried wings of giving. We don’t think we can live generously because we have never tried. But the sooner we start the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of grace.
Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses
We are made to give. That’s when we’re most human. As painful as it was, that moment when my father gave up the ghost was when he was most human. That was the threshold he crossed before entering the presence of the prodigally giving God. He’s with the Giver now.
And me? I’m still here. I’m still taking my 20,000 breaths a day. I’m still opening gifts by the moment. I’m still learning that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. I’m still understanding that what it means to be human is resembling more and more the God who always gives himself away.
Giving yourself to others is your ultimate purpose. You’ll have a hundred opportunities to do that today. That’s a hundred opportunities to more closely resemble God. A hundred opportunities to move towards your destiny. A hundred opportunities to realize that it’s not all about you. And every time you take one of those opportunities, you add a feather to the wings of your soul.