What Is Your Purpose in Life?

When I was a boy, I would sometimes think about what I wanted to be when I grew up, as well as other aspects of being an adult; I settled on being an astronaut. By the time I was in high school, I had decided to become an astronomer, realizing that if I wanted to get married and have kids, perhaps being Earth-based was better! While I retained my love for astronomy, I eventually became an ESL teacher. By the time that happened, I had become a Christian, and while my job was very important to who I was, I discovered that being a child of God was my identity.

So, my identity had been established; I knew who I was. Then I started to think more about my purpose in life; in other words, I wanted to live in obedience to Christ in my actions, but what overriding goal was to pervade everything I did? I was still single, but that would soon change. Was becoming a good husband and father what I should strive for? While I realized that both of those would be incredibly important, I understood that they would not completely define me in terms of what the Lord wanted. Eventually, as I was systematically reading through the Bible, I found it, in I Corinthians 10:31, which says, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” I knew immediately that was it, and I was excited about sharing it!

At the time, I was teaching in a Third World country, and two American friends and I were getting together with a group of Americans to worship the Lord–at least that’s what we thought at first. Different people in the group took turns leading, and early on there was one young gal who spoke about how Jesus believed in His disciples and others who came to Him. Thankfully, one of my friends spoke up and said, “You’ve got that turned around. Jesus called people to believe in Him.” As the weeks went by, different members of the group enjoyed raising an issue and then almost gleefully asking, “Where do you draw the line?” It soon became apparent that they had no real interest in answering the question. One Sunday I said, “Here’s what I Corinthians 10 says: Do everything for the glory of God.” People in the group looked at me like I was an alien, and one guy said mockingly, “Oh great; yeah, that’s really helpful, Keith.” Although there were two people in that group who seemed like they were on the right track spiritually, my friends and I decided that it was time to spend our Sundays elsewhere. Thankfully, we were regularly receiving sermon tapes from my friends’ home church, so we usually listened to one of them on Sunday mornings. I should also add that a couple of years later when my wife and and I taught in that same country as newlyweds, we found a group of American believers that we enjoyed true koinonia (fellowship) with.

A few years later, in an advanced ESL class back in the U.S., I had my students listen to and discuss a couple of songs, including U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and Styx’s “Man in the Wilderness.” I then assigned them to write an essay about their purpose in life. The vast majority of them wrote about being a good spouse or parent, or being good at their job–very similar to the thoughts I had before I discovered my true purpose. One student, however, wrote about how she didn’t know what her purpose in life was, but that she was looking for her “signpost.” What an open door! I met with her privately and shared my faith with her. She said that she wanted to become a Christian, so I prayed with her. After the semester was over, I introduced her to my wife, who regularly met with her to study Scripture. Not all stories have a happy ending, however. She subsequently said she didn’t want to follow Jesus and divorced her husband. Later, she remarried, and although we have since lost touch, I pray for her every time I think of her.

I have written two posts about humility; here is a link to the second one, which I wrote last summer: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2021/06/03/more-about-humility/ As I thought about humility in relation to my purpose in life, I realized that the two dovetail perfectly because at the heart of it, humility means giving the glory to God and not yourself.

I try to evaluate virtually everything I do by my purpose in life. When it comes to entertainment, for example, I like to ask myself whether a given movie, TV show, or book is likely to have any redemptive value. (The Internet is a wonderful tool!) Are there likely to be any negative consequences for bad behavior? If it involves some criminal activity, for example, is there likely to be justice of any kind? Is there any depth of character, whether good or bad? If it’s a sitcom, does the humor mock the Lord in some way? Does the show portray family life in a positive way?

Have you ever thought about your purpose in life? If you’re a Christian, maybe it isn’t exactly what I decided on all of those years ago; that’s for you to work out with the Lord. If you can define it clearly, then you can evaluate anything you do by it. If you’re not a Christian, my prayer is that you will investigate what it means to be one.

Benefits of Traditional Two-Parent Families

A few weeks ago, the following headline caught my attention: “Now Two-Parent Families Are Racist Too.” I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t surprised; it seems that race has become the only thing that matters to some people, especially looking for examples of supposed “racism” and calling them out.

I had never heard of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) before reading the article. Here’s a quote from it: “[The NFCR] claims that the nuclear family – consisting of father, mother, and children – is merely an extension of white supremacy. NCFR has joined with critical race theorists and Black Lives Matter in this outright attack on the foundational values and norms of American culture.” In the same article: “NCFR now says the family of mom, dad, and kids has mistakenly been upheld as ‘superior to all others’ and ‘creates systemic barriers to equal opportunity and justice for all families.'” (Here’s the link to the article in case you’re interested in reading further: https://thefederalist.com/2021/10/13/now-two-parent-families-are-racist-too/) As I read through the article, the first part of Isaiah 5:20 came to mind; here is the whole verse: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” So yes, the NCFR is in essence calling the traditional two-parent family evil as an “extension of white supremacy.” This is obviously ridiculous even taken at face value since whites are not the only race with “famil[ies] of mom, dad, and kids.” However, rather than rail against the NCFR even further, I thought it would be better to focus on the benefits of traditional two-parent families.

Here are some benefits, adapted from this article: https://www.usccb.org/topics/marriage-and-family-life-ministries/why-children-need-married-parents

  • Children raised in intact married families are more likely to attend college, are physically and emotionally healthier, are less likely to use drugs or alcohol and to commit delinquent behaviors, and are less likely to be raised in poverty.
  • Children receive gender-specific support from having a mother and a father. Research shows that particular roles of mothers (e.g., to nurture) and fathers (e.g., to discipline), are important for the development of boys and girls.
  • A child living with a single mother is fourteen times more likely to suffer serious physical abuse than is a child living with married biological parents. A child whose mother cohabits with a man other than the child’s father is thirty-three times more likely to suffer serious physical child abuse.
  • In married families, about one-third of adolescents are sexually active. However, for teenagers in step-families, cohabiting households, divorced families, and those with single unwed parents, the percentage rises above one-half.
  • Growing up outside an intact marriage increases the chance that children themselves will divorce or become unwed parents. Children of divorce experience lasting tension as a result of the increasing differences in their parents’ values and ideas. Children of so-called “good divorces” fared worse emotionally than children who grew up in an unhappy but “low-conflict” marriage.

In summarizing the benefits, there are clear physical, emotional, educational, and financial benefits for kids raised in two-parent families. I find it particularly worthy of note that it’s better emotionally for kids to be raised in the context of an unhappy but low-conflict marriage than in a broken home, even if the broken home is the result of a so-called “good divorce.” Speaking of divorce: it should be no surprise that kids in divorced families are more likely to get divorced themselves; it should also not be surprising that teens in divorced families are more likely to be sexually active. Regarding abuse of children in broken homes: most of us have probably read and heard more than enough horror stories. Finally, there are intangibles regarding gender-specific support from mothers and fathers. I remember when I was a very young father, my pastor (also a young father at the time) told me that he had gone to a conference where one of the speakers talked about the incredible importance of fathers in raising children. He spoke of it with an air of wonder, as if he didn’t understand it well. I don’t claim to understand it well, either, but like my pastor back then, it encouraged me to be a very involved father. In addition, here’s a good quote (most commonly attributed to Theodore Hesburgh) for every father to remember and to put into practice: “The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” In connection with this: A year ago, I wrote a post called “Keys to a Successful Marriage.” If you’re interested in reading it, click here: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2020/12/29/keys-to-a-successful-marriage/.

For those of you reading this who are a mother or father, I hope that you will give your kids the incredible gift of your time; they will thank you for it later.

Unpacking the Theology of a Christmas Hymn

When you sing your favorite Christmas hymns, have you ever really focused on the words? Many years ago, when I was teaching at a university in a Third World country whose government was hostile to Christianity, I found out that I was allowed to tell my students something about American holidays. With Christmas approaching, I decided I would show and tell them something about it, including through a couple Christmas hymns. One of my favorites is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” so I printed up the words and handed them out to my students. However, it soon became apparent that many of the words, as well as the theological truth behind them, were well beyond my students! I decided to just play the song on a cassette tape and let them sing; while they may not have understood what they were singing, they enjoyed it anyway.

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought I would take another close look at this wonderful hymn. Following are the words with my attempt at exegesis. (You may be more familiar with a version of verse 3 that essentially switches lines 1-4 with lines 5-8. There are also two more less-well-known verses that I am not including.)

Hark! the herald angels sing, (Listen to the message that the angels are singing!)
“Glory to the newborn King!” (Give Jesus, the baby King, all the glory!)
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, (Jesus is merciful and will ultimately bring peace on earth.)
God and sinners reconciled (Through Jesus, we can be made right with God.)
Joyful, all ye nations, rise, (Jesus is for people from every nation and language; arise and be joyful!)
Join the triumph of the skies; (Sing with the angels.)
With the angelic host proclaim, (Along with the angels, tell everyone.)
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.” (Jesus has been born in Bethlehem.)
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest heaven adored: (All of heaven worships Jesus.)
Christ, the everlasting Lord; (Jesus has always been and will always be the Lord.)
Late in time behold him come, (The prophets have been telling us about the coming of the Messiah for many hundreds of years, and now He’s here!)
Offspring of a virgin’s womb. (Jesus was born of a virgin.)
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; (Jesus is both God and man; what a wonder!)
Hail, the incarnate Deity: (Give glory and honor to the God-man, Jesus.)
Pleased, as man, with men to dwell, (Jesus is pleased to live with us on earth.)
Jesus, our Emmanuel! (God is with us!)
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail! the heaven born Prince of peace! (Give glory and honor to Jesus, Who has come to us from heaven; He alone can give you the peace that passes all understanding.)
Hail! the Son of Righteousness! (Jesus is God’s Son and is holy.)
Light and life to all he brings, (Jesus is the Light of the world and the Giver of all life.)
Risen with healing in his wings (If you trust Jesus, He will save you and spiritually heal you.)
Mild he lays his glory by, (Jesus loves us so much that He has temporarily given up His home in heaven.)
Born that man no more may die: (Jesus has come so that we can have eternal life.)
Born to raise the sons of earth, (Jesus will save and ultimately resurrect to eternal life all those who believe.)
Born to give them second birth. (Jesus will give you a new heart that is turned to Him.)
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

May the words of this hymn bring peace and joy to your soul. Merry Christmas!

(A year ago, I made a quiz about Christmas that you may enjoy taking a look at; click here if you’re interested: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2020/12/16/a-christmas-quiz/)

Alienated America

I recently read a book by Timothy Carney called Alienated America; the subtitle is Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. The answer to that question is simple, yet profound. Before we get to the answer, however, let’s backtrack a bit. First of all, let’s define the word “alienated.” The simplest definition is this: a feeling of not belonging. This can be viewed at the most local of levels–the family–at a national (or even world) level, and at all points in between.

Carney’s purpose in writing this book was to try to understand why Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Carney’s conclusion is that wherever there was widespread alienation, Trump garnered the most votes. How is alienation measured? One of the easiest ways to do it is to measure community involvement, or the lack thereof. For example, are people involved in any community organizations? Even if they’re not formally involved in an organization, is there a restaurant or some other place in the community where the locals like to hang out? Where there was little to no involvement in the local community, Trump usually won, and rather easily. The converse was also true; where there was high community involvement, Trump usually lost to one of the other Republican candidates.

As one example of a place with high community involvement, Carney writes about Oostburg, Wisconsin (pop. 3077 in 2020). Another similar place he writes about is Orange City, Iowa (pop. 6267 in 2020). (On a personal note, Orange City happens to be just 11 miles from Sioux Center, which happens to be the home of Dordt College (now Dordt University), where I got my Bachelor’s degree. Sioux Center and Dordt are also mentioned in the book. Oostburg happens to be the home of a friend of mine who also went to Dordt.) A third place Carney writes about is the Village of Chevy Chase, Maryland (pop. 2062 in 2020). One similarity you may have noticed between these three places is the small populations; however, while Orange City and Oostburg are populated by people of relatively modest incomes, Chevy Chase is a haven of the rich. Regardless, Trump’s share of the Republican primary vote was low in all three of these communities. However, I should add that during the presidential election, residents of Oostburg and Orange City went for Trump, while Chevy Chase residents went for Hillary Clinton.

At the other end of the spectrum is Fayette City, Pennsylvania (pop. 544 in 2020), a place that has low community involvement and which voted heavily for Trump, both during the Republican primary and during the presidential election. Fremont County, Iowa (pop. 6939 in 2020; yes, that’s the entire county!) is another place with low community involvement and which voted heavily for Trump. Fayette City (a misnomer if there ever was one!), however, is very poor, while Fremont County is more similar to Orange City, Iowa.

There have been people who have said that Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination–and then the presidential election–because of poor working-class white men who see the American Dream as dead. While it’s true that working-class whites voted heavily for Trump, it should be clear by now that the picture is more complex–and yet simpler–than that. Community involvement, or lack thereof, explains the 2016 Republican primary results better. That’s why, for example, Orange City, which has heavy community involvement, didn’t vote for Trump, while economically similar but low-community-involvement Fremont County did.

Since my blog focuses on Biblical answers to questions and issues, what does all of this have to do with Christianity? Just this: Carney, quoting Robert Putnam, says that nearly half of all memberships, philanthropy, and volunteering in the U.S. occurs in a religious context. In addition, again referencing Putnam, churchgoers get more involved in nonreligious activities and organizations than non-churchgoers. Places like Oostburg and Orange City have strong church involvement, while Fayette City and Fremont County don’t. I should add that religiously observant Jews and Muslims also tend to be a part of strong communities.

There are various ways to become involved in a community; strong parental involvement in schools comes to mind. Church, however, is one of the best answers to the problem of alienation, to put it mildly. Even though church attendance has been declining for decades, it still holds up well compared with the decline of other community organizations, like Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary Clubs, and bowling leagues. If you are part of a local church body where you know fellow believers and can also serve, you probably don’t feel alienated; I certainly don’t. Another way to belong is online; for various reasons, including COVID concerns, some believers are part of an online church. Joseph Geiser, for example, who I’ve been getting to know online since last year, pastors the Hebrews 10 Church, which meets via Zoom; here’s a link to it via Telegram: https://t.me/Heb10Church.

If you’re not part of a church, I hope you will seek one out. Not only can you find a place to belong; you will find people who can introduce you to Jesus Christ, if you don’t know Him already.

Being Thankful vs. Complaining

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about giving thanks, as well as its opposite, complaining. I don’t claim to be an expert on this; like I would guess everyone, I have done my fair share of complaining.

I think that a good place to start is to define complaining. Here are a few synonyms: expressing dissatisfaction; whining; grumbling. As an example of expressing dissatisfaction: when my son was little, he and I went to a fast-food joint with another dad and his son. The fries were not the freshest, but having spent five years in a Third World country, I thought they were fine. The other dad, however, returned the fries for fresh ones. I essentially give him a pass because he was a manager in the restaurant business! I’m pretty sure he had never spent time in a Third World country, either.

If you watched Saturday Night Live in its first decade, you’re probably familiar with the Whiners. You can see one of the skits here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xH8yt71CDNU While we can laugh–and believe me, I do!–at the exaggerated whining, it illustrates the problem. Another example of exaggerated whining for the sake of humor is Weird Al Yankovic’s song First World Problems. The first three lines go like this:

“My maid is cleaning my bathroom, so I can’t take a shower
When I do, the water starts getting cold after an hour
I couldn’t order off the breakfast menu, ’cause I slept in till two”

Again, the song always makes me laugh, but also again, it illustrates the problem of whining!

On a more serious note, I like the word “grumbling” as a synonym of complaining. When you read the Old Testament, you frequently find the Israelites doing so, especially while they are in the wilderness. In Exodus 16:2-3, we read: “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.'” Later, in Numbers 11:4-6, we read: “The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost–also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!'” Apparently, the Israelites had very short memories, reminiscing about the “good life” in Egypt, where they were slaves! And yet, how quick we are to complain about something as basic as the weather that the Lord gives us.

A friend of mine once said, “You can live either a life of thankfulness or complaining.” Yes; the antidote to complaining is being thankful. I was recently reading through Philippians and Colossians; in Philippians 4, as well as Colossians 1 and 2, I noticed the word “thank” or one of its variants, like “thanks,” “thankfulness,” and “thanksgiving,” at least once in every chapter. I kept going through Colossians 3 and 4, as well as the first three chapters of I Thessalonians, continuing to find “thank” or a variant of it. It wasn’t until I got to I Thessalonians 4 that I didn’t find it. Eight consecutive chapters where the Apostle Paul tells us to thank the Lord! There are many other examples in the New Testament. The Old Testament also has plenty of exhortations to give thanks, especially in the Psalms, which has been called “the hymnbook of the Old Testament Jews.” One of many examples is Psalm 107:3, which says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

How does this work in daily life? First of all, when we pray, do we come to the Lord with a list of requests? Do we habitually thank Him? Second, how do we react to problems? Let me illustrate with a story. A few years ago, I was driving my wife, son, and daughter to the airport when the car broke down. I managed to pull over to the side of the highway, and my son summoned an Uber. Within one minute–I’m not exaggerating–an Uber pulled up behind us, and we managed to squeeze three people and all their stuff into the small car, which promptly continued them on their way. Meanwhile, I waited ~45 minutes by the side of the road for a tow truck which had been summoned. The driver took me and my vehicle to my mechanic, and I got home by noon. I still had ample time to prepare for my class that night.

Was I thankful that my car had broken down and that I had to pay several hundred dollars for the tow and a new alternator, plus labor? Not exactly! However, here are several things I was thankful to the Lord for:

  • My son had the Uber app on his phone.
  • The Uber driver arrived almost immediately.
  • My wife, son, and daughter, plus all their stuff, fit into the small car.
  • They reached the airport with plenty of time to spare.
  • I was much closer to home than the airport, which greatly reduced the towing cost.
  • I got home in plenty of time to finish preparing for my evening class.
  • We had a second car that I could use to get to work.

In the immediacy of a problem, it can be hard to be thankful; however, when we think about it, it’s usually not difficult to find things to thank the Lord for. As we approach Thanksgiving, may we all have a thankful heart and express it. On that special day at our house, we go around the table, giving each person the opportunity to say at least one thing they’re thankful for. Over the years, we have also enjoyed having people from outside our family join us. Maybe there’s someone you know who would really appreciate being part of your Thanksgiving celebration.

Have a very blessed Thanksgiving!