Living on Purpose
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 20, 1997


Leviticus 26:14-17, 36-38 Running from the sound of a wind-driven leaf
John 8:31-36 Slave to sin, freed by the truth
Marital Love #527.2 Our purposes come from our inner desire

The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall though no one pursues. (Leviticus 26:36)

When I was in elementary school in Webster Groves, Missouri, my friends and I had a game we liked to play out in the playground on a windy day. In one corner of the school yard, right by the building, there was a narrow place that was surrounded by three walls, formed by a hallway going between two sections of the building. It was an older building with several stories; when the wind blew, the buildings on either side formed a funnel that directed the wind into our little peninsula of playground. When the wind hit the hallway, it created quite an updraft. Our game was to see if we could get a leaf or a bit of candy wrapper to float up on the wind and go right over the hallway to the other side. Often it would swirl around this way and that, and come back down on our side. When we managed to get one to float right over the hallway, we let out a cheer!

Perhaps it is because if this childhood experience that the image in our text--the image of a leaf blowing in the wind--has always been very vivid to me. I can still see those leaves and candy wrappers that we used to throw up in the air by that brick wall in the schoolyard. I can see them swirling around, getting caught in eddy currents, and sometimes floating right up over the hallway. Most of the time they did not go where we wanted them to. When we threw them up in the air, we had no way of knowing which way they would go. It all depended on the currents. The leaf had no say in the matter; it was simply tossed around at the whim of the wind.

The image becomes even more vivid when we realize that it is used in the Bible to talk, not about leaves, but about people. Usually, we find the skittering of autumn leaves across roads and fields to be a soothing sound. But those who do not follow the Lord's commandments, says the book of Leviticus, will be frightened by a wind-driven leaf. Imagine running in fright from a blowing leaf! It seems improbable.

We may be able to appreciate this kind of hair-trigger fear if we imagine ourselves stuck in a dangerous part of the city, having to make our way through alleys and streets to get to a safer section of town. When fear is pulsing through our veins, every little noise becomes a potential threat. That wind-driven leaf, in our imagination, becomes a shadowy figure slinking up behind us. And we run from it. But it is not a leaf that we are running from; we are running from the fear that grips our mind.

This is exactly the kind of fear that the book of Leviticus refers to. It is fear that comes, not primarily from our external circumstances, but from within our own minds. We flee as one who flees from the sword, and we fall even though no one is pursuing us. (Lev. 26:36) When there is a climate of fear within our minds and hearts, we see things to fear all around us--even when there is nothing to fear. If fear grips our mind, everything we see will become fearful to us, because for us as human beings, our minds are far more powerful than any external circumstance.

How do we fall into this climate of fear? For some people, fear is a rational reaction to actual conditions. Someone who grows up with abusive parents, or who is stuck in an abusive relationship, has real reason to fear, and to attempt to flee those oppressive circumstances as soon as it seems possible. Recovery from this kind of experience takes time; it takes time to be able to trust anyone ever again when those who should have loved us most have instead inflicted pain on us and driven fear into our hearts.

However, this is not the source of the fear that our reading from Leviticus refers to. That fear is said to come as a direct result of disobeying the Lord's commandments. The book of Leviticus gives many laws that were to be observed by the ancient Jews. Laws of sacrifice and Sabbath; of eating, drinking, and washing; of punishments for various crimes. Most of these laws we as Christians no longer obey in a literal fashion. In this, we take our cue from the Lord himself, who, when asked what was the greatest commandment in the law, replied:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" [Deut. 6:5]. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: "Love your neighbor as yourself" [Lev. 19:18]. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matt. 22:37-40)

Jesus quoted both of these commandments from the Law of Moses; the second one is from the book of Leviticus. So these are included in the laws that, if we disobey them, will cause us to run from a wind-driven leaf. And as the Lord teaches us, these are the primary laws that we must obey in order to avoid that kind of fear in our inner being.

When we disobey these laws, we are living only for ourselves, and disregarding the wellbeing of others. If taking advantage of another person will further our own goals, we will take advantage of another person. If hurting someone will help us, we will hurt someone. When we live in this way, we build up causes for fear both within us and around us. Outside of ourselves, we come to fear revenge from those we have hurt, and we fear the punishments of the law. We fear losing what we have gained.

Even stronger than these rational fears are the irrational fears that we build up inside of ourselves. When we live as a law unto ourselves, we view the world through eyes that are warped by our own twisted attitudes. We attribute to others all the motivations from which we act--even when others have no such bad motives. We see enemies all around us, because what we are seeing around us is a reflection of what is within our own minds and hearts. If we persist in this direction, we finally reach a state when, both literally and figuratively, we become frightened of a mere leaf blowing in the wind.

We also become the leaf blowing in the wind.

When we center our lives around anything but the Lord's love and wisdom, we become a slave to whatever it is that we put at the center of our lives. As Jesus says, everyone who sins becomes a slave to sin. In contemporary terms, every evil thing we get into the habit of doing becomes not just a habit, but an addiction. We become entangled more and more in its web, until we are powerless to extract ourselves. We may think that we are free because we have chosen to follow this particular way of life. But evil ways of life, by their very nature, become addictive and enslaving. If we exercise our freedom to choose evil, our freedom turns into a false and slavish freedom.

A prime example of this in our modern world is putting the pursuit of money before everything else. This seems to be a road to success and power. We often envy those who have plenty of money; who live in large, beautiful homes with lots of lawns and woods around them; who drive expensive cars and move in the upper circles of society. How could the pursuit of money be slavery?

Many wealthy people are not motivated primarily by money. But for those who are, money does become an addiction. Relationships, children, and happiness itself are sacrificed as their lives become focused more and more on acquiring wealth. If we step back from the allure of money and examine such a person's life, we will find that money is like a current of wind, and the person is like a leaf driven by it. Wherever money leads, whether good or bad, that person will go. Superficially, it appears to be freedom; but that person's soul is enslaved every bit as much as an alcoholic is enslaved by alcohol.

I would call this sort of living "living by mistake." When we make mistaken choices, and continue in the direction those choices lead, our whole life becomes a mistake. Our whole life becomes driven by something not worthy of a free and rational human being--and especially not worthy of the Lord.

We do not want to live by mistake. We want to live on purpose. We want to live a life that is not driven by external forces that will impose their will upon us. Rather, we want to live a life that is motivated by the genuine goodness that comes from God. As Jesus says, "if the Son," meaning the Lord, "makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36). Why is it that we are slaves when we are driven by things like money and power, yet we are free when our life is focused on the Lord? Isn't the Lord also an external power? Don't we surrender our freedom also when we follow the Lord?

This is how it appears to us when we are involved in things that go contrary to the Lord's way of life. If our life is focused on money, it seems to us that the choice the Lord offers us between serving God and money means that we would lose our freedom and our purpose in life if we were to forsake money as our primary goal and live for God instead.

But God is not a force external to our being, as money is. Rather, God is the source of our being. Everything that is truly good in us is good in us because it comes from God. Everything that is truly us is actually God within us. It is impossible to be enslaved to God because in following God, we are also following the best and highest that is within ourselves. In following God, we find the highest form of freedom, which is the freedom to live a good and loving life according to the inclinations and talents that God has given to each one of us.

This is what it means to live on purpose. When we make the choice to follow the path the Lord is showing us rather than our own mistaken path, then we are putting a purpose and a motivation that we can trust at the center of our lives. It is a purpose that will lead us toward happiness and joy, whatever hardships we may pass through on the way.

That path will be different for each one of us. Each of us is different; the right path for one person is the wrong path for another person. One of the challenges of our spiritual journey is to discover the purpose that the Lord has in mind for each of us personally--which is the same as the highest, most fulfilling, and most joyful purpose and motivation that we could have for our lives. For one person this purpose might be to teach and guide children or adults into knowledge. For another it might be to keep our neighborhoods safe to live in. For another it might be to provide one of the many goods or services we need to live our lives: food, clothing, housing, health care, and so on.

As we discover and follow a good and useful purpose here on earth, we also build up within our souls a love for the Lord and a dedication to the wellbeing of the people around us. This love and dedication frees us from our fears--both external and internal. For we know that whatever may happen to our bodies, and whatever may befall us financially, the Lord holds and protects our souls, so that no lasting harm can come to us. We can then feel the safety and the joy of knowing that we are not living by mistake; we are living on purpose.


Floating Leaf Script by
Dynamic Drive

Music: Dreams Do Come True
1999 by Bruce DeBoer