Who Are You and What Are You Here For?

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Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a lump of stuff, smaller than a pinhead, but weighing as much as the whole universe. And entirely by chance, and to quote Stephen Hawking, 'something unusual' happened: it exploded in all directions, and around one of the billions of stars that came from it, a bit of rock became a planet – later called Earth. And entirely by chance, it was exactly the right distance from the Sun to have liquid water. And entirely by chance, in the water, chemicals got together into things which would later be called genes – which could duplicate themselves. And the genes made cells around themselves – and so life began. And from there, entirely by chance, random changes led to every organism that's ever lived. And finally one appeared which had the unique ability to ask, 'Who am I and what am I here for?'

That's our culture's story of who we are, isn't it? – 'atheistic evolution', to give it a label. In other words, there is no God and we're here entirely by chance.

1. Our Culture's Story: 'Atheistic Evolution'

So, on that story, who are you and what are you here for?

Well, 'Who are you?' turns out to be the wrong question. Because you're not actually a person. You're a machine – a biological machine, a what, not a who. So in The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins wrote:

"We are all survival machines for DNA [in other words, the genes inside us]. A monkey is a machine which preserves genes up trees. A fish is a machine which preserves genes in water; there is even a small worm which preserves genes in German beer mats… We are machines for propagating DNA. It is every living object's sole reason for living. We are the throw-away survival machines of genes."

So there's your reason for getting up tomorrow: 'Must propagate my DNA.'

So that's your identity. You thought you were a person, making real, meaningful choices – for example, to love instead of not to. But in fact, you're just a machine – just a bunch of chemicals caught up in this great chain of cause and effect ever since the Big Bang. So you're actually entirely programmed by your chemistry. But your genes have made you a brain which gives you the illusion of freedom and choice so that they can manipulate you to do what's best for them. So, for example, today is my wedding anniversary. Twelve years ago, Tess and I were down there at the front of the church saying, 'I will love you' to one another. And I thought I was making a real choice to love her. And I think what I've done for the last twelve year has really meant something. But atheistic evolution says: no, that's all an illusion – because I'm a machine not a person.

That's your identity on this story. What about your worth? Well, this story says: you're worth no more than any other bunch of chemicals. And you may be worthless. Because, as the philosopher CEM Joad said:

"What is man? Fat enough for 7 bars of soap, iron enough for one medium sized nail, sugar enough for 7 cups of tea, lime enough to whitewash one garden shed, magnesium enough for one dose of salts, phosphorus enough to tip 2000 matches, and sulphur enough to rid one dog of fleas."

And at today's prices, that's been estimated at £44.30 – that's your worth.

I'm a gardener, so I'm deeply anti-slug. And one Christmas, my Mum gave me a little book called Fifty Ways to Kill a Slug. And it includes some of the classics like salt and beer traps. But it says the best thing is still simply to go out at night with a torch and scissors – and cut them in half. So why shouldn't we deal similarly with human beings who get in the way of our plans? Why was Hitler any more wrong to try to rid Germany of Jews than I am in trying to rid my garden of slugs – if there's no real difference in worth between you and a slug? Which, on the atheistic evolution story, there isn't.

Then what about purpose – what does this story say you're here for? The answer is: it says there is is no purpose behind all this, for us to discover and fit in with. Because atheistic evolution means an entirely chance, random, unguided process with no aim or goal.

So that's our culture's story – just spelt out to its logical (and I would say unlivable) conclusion. And I suggest we need to ask two questions about it.

One question is: Is it true? Because despite constantly being presented as unquestionable fact, that's still the live question. Because the story says, for example, that from a single cell all species of life have developed. But it hasn't actually got the evidence to show for it that species have really changed into new species.

But the other question is: Is it true to our experience? In other words, do we actually live like we're just machines, with no more worth than slugs, and no purpose? And I suggest the answer is, 'No'; and that, deep down, we revolt against that view of ourselves; and that we actually don't live it – which means we actually don't believe it. Because most of us do believe that we're persons with unique worth and that there's got to be more to this whole show than the atheistic evolution story says.

Which begs the question: what explains that? And whereas atheistic evolution doesn't, the Bible's story does. So:

2. The Bible's Story Part One: We're Here by God's Creation

And before we turn to the Bible's story, let me say: Christians disagree on how the Bible's story relates to the current scientific story. Some Christians doubt the evolutionary story – because of things like lack of evidence for one species changing into another – and they see it as a theory awaiting major revision or replacement. Other Christians believe that some form of evolution guided by God is how he created everything. But either way, Christians believe that we're here because a personal God made us to live in relationship with him.

So would you like to turn in the Bible to Genesis 1. And just look down to the very first line:

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth [in other words, everything]."

And Genesis doesn't tell us how he did it – it doesn't go into mechanisms. So maybe a Big Bang and some guided evolution were involved. But the Bible doesn't go there, because what it's out to do here is to tell us who we are and what we're here for. So look down to verse or little number 26:

"Then God said, 'Let us make man [which means mankind, men and women] in our image, after our likeness.'"

And skip to verse 27:

"So God created man[kind] in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them."

So who are you? The Bible's story says: you're the image of God. And for one thing,

  • Being the image of God means we are, in some ways, like God.

So you've probably got an image of yourself or your girl or boyfriend or husband or wife or dog on your phone. And in some ways it's not like the real thing – it's not 3D, it's not alive, you can't take it for a walk. But in some ways, it is like the real thing.

And it's the same with us and God. In lots of ways, we're not like him. For example, hands up if you've ever created a universe from nothing; or if you can be here and in New York at the same time; or if you know everything about everything.

But in some ways, God has made us uniquely like him. And one of those ways is that we're personal. So God himself is a person. And if you follow the Bible's story of how he's shown himself to us, you find he's actually three persons in relationship – Father, Son and Spirit – and that his Son has actually been here on Earth in Jesus, which is why can know that God is actually there.

And that explains a whole lot about us that atheistic evolution doesn't. You see, why is it that we need relationships, and that relationships matter to us, more than anything else? Why is it that the worst punishment for human beings, short of capital punishment, is solitary confinement? The answer is: because we're made in the image of a God who is three persons in relationship.

And that's why we won't find our identity in ourselves – in our gender or sexuality or colour or whatever. We'll only find it beyond ourselves in relationship – and, above all, in relationship with God.

Because another thing is that:

  • Being the image of God means that we can actually relate to God.

So just look down to Genesis 1, verse 28 where it says:

"And God blessed them [in other words, human beings]. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion…'"

And if you follow the Bible's story, you find that God has spoken to us in various ways – but above all, in giving his Son to become human in Jesus. And that's all been recorded in the Bible. Which is why the Bible is the go-to place if you want to get beyond just thinking, 'Maybe God is there,' to actually finding out what he's said about himself and about you, so you can start relating to him properly.

But even without the Bible, whether we've realised it or not, we're all relating to God all the time through our consciences. Because they tell us what we ought to do – they give us that sense of obligation. But as C.S.Lewis says, you can only have a sense of obligation to a person. And conscience is actually just another name for our sense of accountability to God – our sense that he is there, and that he is watching, and that everything we think and say and do really does matter.

And then another thing is that:

  • Being the image of God means we really do have unique worth.

I mentioned our wedding anniversary. Two years later, we had twins. And our ante-natal class midwife took us around the RVI Special Care Baby Unit, in case they were premature and needed to go there. And it is amazing to see the tiny ones in there being looked after, and pulling through. But our midwife said to me, 'The tragedy is that just the other side of that wall, babies just like this are being aborted. And the only thing that makes the difference is what value a parent puts on them.'

But this says, no: God puts equal value on all of us. He looks at each of us, whatever our sex, race, age, background, abilities, disabilities – and he says, 'I made you and you are of ultimate value to me.'

So to the question, 'Who are you?', the Bible's story says: You're the image of God. And then to the question, 'What are you here for?' it says: You're here to live for God. Just look down again to verse 28:

"And God blessed them. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion…'"

I'm not going to unpack that. But what's obvious is that we're here to live for God: he tells human beings what he wants us to do as part of his plan. And the way we find ourselves and our purpose is to fit in with it.

And can I say: living for God doesn't mean giving up normal life – I'm not talking about something weird, something that makes you less human. I heard an interview with a nun called Sister Joan. And she had founded a community of solitary nuns. Now to me, that's a contradiction in terms – I mean, if you want to be solitary, why get together with others to do it? But anyway, they did. And they each lived in a separate caravan in these woods.

And that's not what this is talking about – living for God isn't giving up a normal life for something weird. And I say that because you may be worried that being a Christian would mean having to become weird. But as another preacher friend of mine says, 'If you meet a weird Christian, nine times out of ten the explanation is that they were weird, anyway, before they became a Christian!'

And this is talking about normal life lived for God – the business of work and making society work and, if it comes our way, marriage and bringing up children. And it's talking about doing all those things – all we do for God, with new purpose. In other words, not just doing them out of need or ambition or fear or pride or any of the other things that drive us – but out of looking up to God and saying, 'How do you want me to live this area of my life? What kind of student, worker, friend, lover, spouse, parent, child, sportsperson, musician, artist, academic, do you want me to be?' Which is an exciting question and injects normal life with real purpose.

But at this point, it becomes obvious that we don't live in the world of Genesis 1 any more. We don't live in a world where, by nature, we all look up to God and say, 'How do you want me to live?' Instead, we now live in a world where, by nature, we all say to God, 'I don't want you to be God in my life, telling me who I am and what I'm here for. Instead, I'm going to be 'God' and create my own reality.' So:

3. The Bible's Story Part Two: We've Each Said We'll Be 'God' Instead of God

And so we try to create our own identity. Instead of finding it above all in relationship with God, we look for it in other relationships. And, especially in our culture, in that one relationship – the romantic or sexual relationship. But as a newspaper column shrewdly said recently:

One reason more relationships and marriages are breaking down is that we're looking to them to supply all our emotional and psychological needs – which is a burden heavier than they can bear.

So we create a shaky identity – looking outside God for what only God can provide. Does that ring bells with you?

And then we try to create our own worth. Instead of finding it above all in the worth God places on us, we look for it in the worth other people place on us – and often, especially, the worth we can make them place on us, by performing well. So for example, I had a good Dad in lots of ways. But I can't remember him showing affection or giving praise. Which was probably part of what drove me to be the academic success I was. Because if you perform well, you make people give you worth in the form of marks and coming top and exam grades and degree classes. And all of that becomes what you're worth. Or for others, your salary or financial position becomes what you're worth. (For example, 'what is Bill Gates worth?' – and back comes the answer with a dollar sign after it.) Or your last performance in sport or music become what you're worth. Or for the unborn child, what you'll be able to do in future becomes what you're worth. Or not worth.

And so we create shaky worth, too, compared to the worth placed on us by our Creator – who loves us for what we are, not for what we do. Does that ring bells with you?

And then we also try to create our own purpose. And Richard Dawkins is right to protest that believing there's no God doesn't leave you with no purpose. You can still say, 'My purpose is…to become the best brain surgeon in Britain; or to get the largest stamp collection in the world (which, I think, means you're looking at over two million); or to climb every Scottish munroe before I die; or to settle down and commit to someone for life.' Or whatever.

But the point is: those are only purposes of your own making. Which may leave you asking one day, 'Was this purpose really worth living for? Was 2 million stamps what it's really all about, or have I missed something?' Or it may leave you struggling to stick to it. After all, if the purpose of being committed to someone for life is only of your making, then when it becomes difficult, what's to keep you from unmaking it – if there's nothing – or rather, No-one – beyond you to give it any weight and say it really matters? If you're accountable to no-one but yourself? Does shaky purpose ring bells with you as well?

I must wrap up. The question tonight was, 'Who are you and what are you here for?' And the Bible says we'll only find the answer in relationship with God. So:

4. The Bible's Story Part Three: What God Has Done to Bring Us Back Into Relationship With Him

And the rest of the Bible's story is basically about what God has done to bring us back into relationship with him.

Because saying to God (as we all have), 'I don't want you to be God in my life,' is unbelievably offensive to him, and rightly brings us under his judgment. And the Bible says: for that offence and judgement to be removed, Jesus his Son had to take it on himself on the cross. So the only man who has ever lived out Genesis 1 perfectly – because he was God-become-man – lovingly took the judgment for all of us, who've failed to live it out. And that was so we can be forgiven back into relationship with God – if we're willing to admit that's where we should be, and need to be.

And that's what Jesus was on about in that reading from John's Gospel when he said,

"You must be born again." (John 3.3)

He was saying: 'You've all been born a first time with a nature that says, 'I don't want God to be God in my life.' And now, metaphorically speaking, you need to be born again.' He's saying, 'You need a radical new start. You need God to forgive you for how you've treated him so far, and you need his Spirit to come into your life to enable you to live for him, as you were made to.'

And I'm going to end with a prayer for anyone who wants to ask God for that new start. Now you may be much further back. You may be thinking, 'This does make some sense.' But you may equally be thinking, 'I'm really not sure it's true.' In which case, can I say: Please keep coming and listening and thinking; and why not try our Christianity Explored course, which could be ideal for you. But if you're thinking, 'I know it's true and I want to ask for that new start,' then this prayer might be tailor-made for you.

Let me just read it first, so you can see if it would be appropriate for you:

Father God,
Thank you for your love in giving Jesus your Son to die for me.
Please forgive me for living as if I was God and you were not.
And please come into my life by your Spirit and enable me to live for you from now on.

You may be further back than that, or further on. But if you want to ask God for that new start, you could echo that prayer in your mind as I lead us now.

So let's pray.

Father God,
Thank you for your love in giving Jesus your Son to die for me.
Please forgive me for living as if I was God and you were not.
And please come into my life by your Spirit and enable me to live for you from now on.

Let me say three quick things if you've prayed that prayer. The first is to encourage you to trust that God has heard and answered it – and that that'll become real in your experience. The second thing is to encourage you to take away a free copy of this booklet Why Jesus? – which would help you be more sure about what you've done. And the third thing is to encourage you to tell another Christian you've taken that step. Because that'll help you start being public about it; and they can also make some suggestions about how to go on from here.

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