Dr. Barry Thornton
Forrest Gump, at the grave of his beloved Jenny, lamented life’s design: “I don’t know if we each have a destiny or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze.” Some form of Forrest’s pondering is what we all have asked at some time in our lives.
Our purpose for existence has been carefully revealed to us in the Bible. From Genesis 1:26, where we are told that we are made in the image of God, all the way to Galatians 2:20, where we discover that we no longer live, but Christ lives in us, God carefully shows us throughout Scripture that the fast track to understanding our purpose lies in the enigmatic understanding of contrasts:
• In order to live, we must die.
• In order to be great, we must be a servant of all.
• In order to win, we must surrender.
• In order to be forgiven, we must forgive.
The list goes on as we face the formulation of our purpose in direct relation to our relationship to Jesus Christ.
The unveiling of our true purpose in life cannot be discovered in the self-help section of any bookstore but in the honest pursuit of biblical realities applied fully to one’s heart and life. The Christian life is a paradox. The New Testament teaches us that the outward person has to perish so that the inward person can be renewed. The desires of the flesh have to be crucified to let the Spirit have control.
The apostle Paul wrote what have been deemed as “The Prison Epistles” (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon), namely because Paul wrote them while under house arrest. He often used metaphors to encourage readers to live the Christian life to the fullest. One particular metaphor, spiritual armor (Ephesians 6), could have readily been penned as Paul sat looking at a Roman soldier guarding him. As a Roman citizen, Paul would have known the absolute obedience that Roman soldiers had to have and the sacrifice and disavowing of family ties they would have undertaken. This sacramentum militiae was a solemn swearing of allegiance to Roman authority and preeminence.
A Roman soldier lost his own identity for the sake of the empire. He became a nobody. His focus was not upon mere personal interest. As a governmental guardian, his focus was upon the empire collectively. You could say his commission was tied to everybody. A Roman soldier knew that his loyalties were to Caesar as the ultimate authority in his life. His loyalties were singular to a somebody.
I am confident that underlying Paul’s repeated imagery was an understanding of this. He made application to the selfless image that Christians should have in fulfilling the spirit and letter of our life’s purpose as soldiers in God’s kingdom. We have a citizenship that is not of this world and a calling of selfless loyalty in our identification with our potentate, Jesus Christ. As the saying goes, we are nobodies trying to tell everybody about somebody that can save anybody!
Just like Roman soldiers, Christians have been drafted to serve in a kingdom. The terms for service are not built in the discovery of one’s self-image but the transformation into a selfless image. The rich, young ruler soon found out that, in order to follow Christ, his image had to disintegrate into the transformed image of Christ. Students of rabbis knew that the quest for transformation needed to transcend the quest for information—students found themselves imitating their rabbis, transforming themselves into who he was and not just subscribing to what he taught.
As Christians, the New Testament often describes us as dying. Paul, in addressing Roman Christians, reminded them that they died to themselves and in the process died with Christ, their entire identity wrapped in who he is (Romans 6). When we are raised with Christ we no longer espouse a self-image, inwardly focused. Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
We are most effective in serving God when we have eliminated all the constraints of our self-focused image. Before we become Christians, most of the earthly concerns we have revolve around self-preservation and self-fulfillment. When you’re dead though, these concerns disappear. It is impossible for a dead person to be concerned anymore about self-preservation. Likewise, a dead person isn’t enamored by the quest of personal fulfillment. When we have died with Christ we rise with him to live for him.
Frankly, it takes all the pressure off. A dead person has no selfish pursuits! Living life for Christ and reflective of Christ creates a fully selfless image. We become “nobodies” wrapped in the image of Christ. Who we are and all the ambitions and dreams we have are wrapped in him.
A Roman soldier’s selfless image focused upon the emperor’s will and also upon the emperor’s constituents, the people within the Roman Empire. In carrying out the emperor’s will, the Roman soldier left personal concerns behind for the sake of the empire as a whole.
It is no different as a soldier for Christ. We serve our King, but we also serve one another in the church as a direct reflection of our service to Christ. To fulfill our mandate as recruited soldiers of the kingdom, our selfless image is formed and shaped in service—dying to self, living in Christ, and serving others.
In the Great Commission we are called to go into all the world. In the original Greek it translates, “as we are going.” This means that as we fulfill the mandate of the Great Commission, our lifestyle must be transformed for the purpose of reaching others as a natural part of our Christ-centered loyalties.
This transforms how we function as the church too. No longer should we see church services as the sole location for reaching others but rather one in a series of opportunities to reach everybody. Selfless interests, then, transcend church services as an end in themselves. Our selfless images become purpose-bound, not simply to maintain the aquarium but to be transformed into fishers of men!
As previously stated, a Roman soldier was duty-bound to focus upon the emperor’s will in all ways. Forsaking family, friends, and self-interest, he was singularly focused upon serving the will and mandates of the emperor. A selfless image in Christ must be transformed in the same way.
Since Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), who we are must be tempered by who he is! Each Christian must then face the mandate of not simply wearing spiritual armor but looking deep within and dying to selfish, narcissistic desires that are not congruent with our King. When Jesus was asked who was the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven, he picked up a towel and basin. Our task is to become like the one who beckons us to serve.
All those willing to swear allegiance to the Roman emperor became qualified for kingdom service. Diverse in background, servants of the emperor were bound together in their diversity—not simply by the uniform they wore and the sword they carried, but by the solemn pledge they espoused.
There are no qualifiers that eliminate anybody from serving Christ either. Those willing to swear allegiance and bear the spiritual armor indicative of a kingdom “not of this world” are considered inclusive of the call.
For Christians, a selfless image revolves around not only bearing the raiment of the kingdom but in swearing our sacramentum militiae—the sacred pledge to transform our life’s purpose into kingdom-centered concerns. Our selfless image is thus built around becoming a nobody, trying to tell everybody about somebody that can save anybody!
Dr. Barry Thornton is the Vice President for Advancement with Louisville Bible College and lives
in Mt. Washington, Kentucky.
Are You Selfless on Social Media?
“Research on compassion shows that helping others and altruism is the best kept secret to happiness and well-being. Facebook presents countless opportunities to check in with loved ones and friends and be there for them if something seems off. Similarly, social media is a place where you can express need for support.”
—Emma M. Seppälä, Ph.D. (“Selfies or Selfless? 6 Top Habits of Happy Social Networkers”)
“Social media holds up a mirror we can use to see more clearly whether we care about others as much as we do ourselves.”
—Gail Gardner (“Social Media: Are YOU Selfless or Part of the ME Generation?”)