Do what you were made to do. You are a dream of God; He made you for a purpose. How do you know what you were made to do? Look at your design. Remember the Frisbee? It’s designed to fly. You were designed to do something too. God hardwired that dream into you when he made you. So we’re looking at your design: your spiritual gifts and natural abilities, your passions and personality, and today, your life experiences—those experiences that shape you and make you who you are. God is able to use those experiences to make you what He wants you to be; today we’ll see how.
When someone makes a mistake, we smile and say, “Ah, well, live and…learn.” Lots of learning comes from living—from experience. When someone refuses to heed our wise advice, but insists on doing it his own way, we smile and say, “He’ll just have to learn…the hard way.” Here are some great truths about life that little children have learned…the hard way.
ILL: No matter how hard you try, you can’t baptize cats.
When your mom is mad at your dad, don’t let her brush your hair.
If your sister hits you, don’t hit her back. They always catch the second person.
Never ask your 3-year old brother to hold a tomato.
You can’t trust dogs to watch your food.
Don’t sneeze when someone is cutting your hair.
Dogs still have bad breath even after eating a tic tac.
Never hold a dust-buster and a cat at the same time.
School lunches stick to the wall.
You can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk.
Don’t wear polka-dot underwear under white shorts.
Live and learn. Each of you has some experiences that have shaped you and made you the person you are. God wants to use those experiences to make you the person He wants you to be, the person He dreamed up.
ILL: Last year, our pastors went away for a two day retreat and participated in a directed exercise called “refocusing”. Two men trained for this purpose led us through this exercise. It started by making a timeline of our lives on which we were to write down our major experiences, the most memorable, most influential experiences of our lives. Then we took time to reflect on them, write down the life lessons we had learned, and how they had influenced us. We were able to see how God was at work in our lives preparing us to do what we were made to do.
Today, I want to help you do the same thing, but in 40 minutes instead of two days.
What kind of experiences did we write down? I’ll name a few and give you some personal examples, and then have you write down your own examples.
Family and relational experiences. Your family of origin will probably be the largest influence in your life. But we all have different experiences. Some of you think of your family with deep love and respect; others of you wince with pain; or both. My dad was an alcoholic with a nasty temper—I could tell you some ugly stories. I’ve spent years unlearning some of my codependent relational patterns. (By the way, my dad wasn’t all bad—I can tell you some wonderful stories about him too.) My mom was a saint—one of the most wonderful, optimistic, fun people I’ve ever known. Much of my outlook on life has come from her. Each imprinted me deeply. Other relationships are also powerful influencers: marriage, friendship, teachers, coaches, mentors. I think of my wife, Laina; my father-in-law, Noel, who turned 75 on Friday; my best friend and partner here at Life Center, Rick Noll; and my pastor, Roy Hicks, Jr. I believe that God put these people in my life to shape me. Write down a couple names or important family or relational experiences.
Educational experiences. How many of you loved high school? Hated it? Can’t even remember it? I can think of specific experiences in high school and college that deeply imprinted me. The college I attended put a deep emphasis on understanding and being true to the Bible—that has shaped me as I do what I was made to do. What experiences in your education had a profound influence on you? Good or bad.
Vocational experiences. Some of you look back on a job you lost as a defining moment—a turning point. For others, it will be a job you got, or something that happened on the job that changed everything. I was fired from my first church job as youth pastor at Westside Church of Christ—that was a defining moment! Not long after, I was hired at Faith Center, a Foursquare church just 8 blocks away! My five years there transformed the way I thought about the church and my role in it. Gigantic experience. What vocational experiences have been defining moments for you?
Spiritual experiences. How many of you have had a life-changing encounter with God? More than one? The first one for me was the day I heard about Jesus and said yes to God. That changed everything! In fact, that has been the single most important and influential experience of my entire life. Or I think about the time in 1986 when the Lord spoke to me during my daily time with Him and did a major overhaul on my thinking. Huge! What spiritual experiences have shaped you?
Painful experiences. Some of the most memorable and defining experiences are the most painful. On the night I was ordained in 1991, I bawled like a baby for two hours because my pastor didn’t pray with me. There’s a long story behind that, and I’m not going to tell it, except to say that night changed me—I learned to get my affirmation from God, my heavenly father. It was a painful experience. I’ll bet that most of you are thinking of one right now.
Life experiences. These may not fall into any of the other categories. For example, when I was growing up, we moved a lot. I attended 11 different schools from first grade to seventh grade. You might be thinking, “Put that in the painful category.” But it wasn’t painful to me; it was a challenge. That experience taught me to make friends quickly and made me socially outgoing—a trait I still have. What are some life experiences that have made you who you are?
Please take some more time this week to work your way through this list and write down your major life experiences. We’ll think about them together.
1. God is at work in your life experiences.
Of course the classic verse is Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” God works in what? In all things. In every experience of your life, God is at work, for your good and for His purpose. “We know that God works in all things for our good.” When you know this—really know it—it changes the way you look at life. You see your experiences through a new lens—the God lens. God is working in this! God is working in you in these ways.
A. God is teaching you to trust Him.
I think that God’s top priority is our relationship with Him. So lots of the work He does is to build that relationship, to draw us closer, teach us to trust. I think He leads us into difficult or even impossible situations where we know we can’t do it, and we have to trust Him. That happened to the apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, he described a time of hardship.
We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? It was so bad that he thought he was going to die. That’s about as bad as it can get! Then he adds this:
2 Corinthians 1:9 “This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.”
Why did this crisis happen? To teach him to trust God.
ILL: I love the story of Gideon in Judges 6-7. The Midianite army had invaded Israel and was ransacking the countryside. God called Gideon to rally the troops and lead the counter-attack. 32,000 men answered the call to fight. That sounds like a lot, but the Midianite army was so huge that they couldn’t be counted, “like sand on the seashore” it says, “thick as locusts.”
Then God told Gideon, “You have too many men for Me to deliver Midian into your hands. You’ll think that you did it by your own strength. So let’s thin out the troops. Tell the men that anyone who is afraid can go home.” 22,000 went home!
Gideon must have been thinking, “Are you happy, God? I just lost more than two-thirds of my army!” God said, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the river to get a drink. Keep anyone who cups water in his hands and laps it like a dog. Send everyone else home.” Only 300 men drank like dogs! From 32,000 to 300 men—holy smokes! And God said, “Perfect! I’ll save you with 300 men…and there will be no doubt about who did it!”
What was God trying to teach them? To trust Him. What difficult or impossible situation are you facing? God is at work, teaching you to trust Him, drawing you close.
B. God is building character.
Romans 5:3-4 We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope.
God is at work in your life experiences building character. Suffering builds character. We don’t like to hear that, but we know that character is forged in the hot fires of suffering and trouble.
ILL: How do you build muscle? The dreaded E-word! By exercise—strenuous exercise. Why do we dislike it? Exercise hurts! It’s painful! If you really want to build muscle, you push yourself to the point of pain…and then beyond.
How do you build moral muscle, strength of character? It too comes through pain, suffering, trouble, hardship. God is using your experiences to build character.
ILL: They did an experiment a few years ago in Berkeley, California, with amoebas. They put amoebas into an ideal physical setting: a perfect amount of moisture, perfect amount of protein, and perfect temperature. Do you know what happened to the amoebas? They died. They all died because life was too perfect, because there was no challenge, because there was nothing for them to do. Entropy set in and they died.
If life is too easy, it’ll kill you. It sounds strange, I know, but it’s true. So God is at work building character. What experience have you been through that changed you, developed your character?
C. God is achieving His purposes.
God is at work in everything for your good, and for His purposes. We don’t always understand what is going on, but God is at work accomplishing His purposes.
For example, the apostle Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, unjustly imprisoned for over two years, and finally had to appeal to Caesar to save his life. That was like appealing your case to the Supreme Court; it meant that Paul had to be shipped as a prisoner all the way to Rome to stand trial before Caesar. More jail time. And he was innocent. Here’s the hard part. Paul was traveling all over Asia Minor and Europe starting churches and spreading the message of Jesus. Why would God let his most effective missionary be sidelined for more than two years? This would be like the owner of the San Antonio Spurs benching Tim Duncan for two years! It doesn’t make sense. So Paul ends up in jail in Rome, and from there he writes a letter to the church in Philippi and says this:
Philippians 1:12 “Whatever has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.”
What has happened to me has advanced God’s purposes. Paul was guarded every day by a Roman soldier, one of Caesar’s palace guard. Imagine being chained to the apostle Paul all day! You would be a captive audience! One by one, these guards became Christians and took the message of Jesus back to the palace. And so the good news penetrated the highest places in the empire. God was at work achieving His purposes.
Or think of the Old Testament story of Joseph. The whole first half of his life was a disaster! He was betrayed by his brothers, sold as a slave and deported to a foreign land. There he was falsely accused of rape and sent to prison where he was forgotten by everyone he had helped. But when Pharaoh had dreams that no one could interpret, God gave Joseph the interpretation, and Pharaoh plucked Joseph from prison and made him prime minister! Years later when famine wracked the entire region and Joseph’s brothers came looking for food, Joseph was able to help them and save his family. His brothers were afraid Joseph would seek revenge, but he said this to his brothers:
Genesis 50:20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
You meant it for evil; God meant it for good. God was at work accomplishing His purposes.
Can you see God at work in your experiences, achieving His purposes? Often we can’t, until later. I don’t think Joseph saw it when he was in prison, or Paul when he was first arrested. They didn’t see it until later. Hindsight is 20-20. Sometimes, we have to get on the other side of our experiences to understand them. In John 13, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, and then told them,
John 13:7 “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
You’ll understand later. So don’t be troubled if you don’t understand how God is working in your experiences; sometimes it is enough just to know that He is and trust Him. But we’ll finish with some ideas on how to understand what God is doing and make the most of it.
How to maximize your life experiences:
A. Identify your experiences.
We started doing that by listing different kinds of experiences, and I suggested that you take some time this week to make a timeline of your life. What are the experiences that have most shaped your life? Family and relationships, education, vocation, spiritual, painful and life experiences. This will take some time, but it’s worth it. Identify the experiences that have shaped you, then…
B. Examine your experiences.
What have you learned from these experiences? Plato or Socrates (or some other ancient guy) said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Someone else said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
ILL: Two hunters flew deep into remote Canada for elk hunting. Their pilot, seeing that they had bagged six elk, told them the plane could carry only four out.
“But the plane that carried us out last year was exactly like this one,” the hunters protested. “The horsepower was the same, the weather was similar, and we had six elk then.”
The pilot reluctantly agreed to try. They loaded up and took off, but sure enough there was insufficient power to climb out of the valley with all that weight, and they crashed. As they stumbled from the wreckage, one hunter asked the other if he knew where they were.
“Well, I think we are about two miles from where we crashed last year.”
Learn from your experiences, or repeat them. If we don’t take the time to examine our experiences, reflect on them and learn, we will simply do laps, repeating the same mistakes and relearning the same lessons over and over.
Galatians 3:4 (Good News) “Did all your experience mean nothing at all. Surely it meant something!” Phillips translation of Galatians 3:4 “Has all your painful experience brought you nowhere?”
“Haven’t you learned anything from what you experienced?” he asks.
By the way, you can also learn from others’ experiences. That is one reason that many of the stories in the Bible were recorded: so you can learn from others’ experiences and not have to repeat their mistakes.
1 Corinthians 10:11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.
Romans 15:4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
Read the Bible and learn from the experiences of others, both good and bad. Look around you and be observant and learn. I am amazed at how many people think that they have to learn everything firsthand, the hard way! I would be a poor person if the only things I knew were what I have found out for myself, by my own experience. Someone said, “A wise man learns from the experiences of others. An ordinary man learns from his own experience. A fool learns from nobody’s experience.”
God is at work in your life experiences, shaping you for His purposes. Take some time to reflect on those experiences and what God is doing. Examine and learn, then…
C. Remember what you learn from your experiences.
Deuteronomy 11:2 “Remember what you have learned about the Lord through your experiences with him.” TEV
Over 200 times in the Bible, God commands us to remember. Why so many? We forget!
ILL: A visitor was amazed when the farmer gave a whistle and his dog herded the cattle into the corral, then latched the gate with her paw.
“Wow. That’s some dog. What’s her name?”
The forgetful farmer thought a minute, then asked, “What do you call that red flower that smells good and has thorns on the stem?”
“That’s it!” The farmer turned to his wife. “Hey Rose, what do we call this dog?”
We’re forgetful! Remember the story of the Israelites coming out of the Egypt? God performed ten huge miracles to convince Pharaoh to let them go. And then when Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued and trapped them at the Red Sea, God did one more miracle: He split the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape and then closed it on the Egyptian army when they pursued them. How many of you think you’d remember that? They didn’t. They got out in the desert and forgot about what God had done for them, and grumbled and complained. “Where is God? Why doesn’t He do anything for us?” Incredible, isn’t it? But we do the same thing. God provides for us, but the next time we’re in need, we whine and say, “Why doesn’t God provide?” It is one thing to learn; it is another to remember what you learn.
How can you remember? Three suggestions:
Write it down. This is one value of a journal. You write down your experiences and what you learn from them. When I write, I slow down my RPM’s enough that I can reflect and examine and learn. And the writing helps me remember, and gives me a record of God’s activity in my life. This isn’t just a diary. It’s for reflection and remembering what God is doing in you. Write it down.
Make a memorial. In the Bible, God had people make memorials to remember certain events. They made a pile of 12 stones to remember how God brought them into the promised land. They made altars to mark important meetings with God. Jesus gave his followers bread and wine to remind them of His death. We do the same thing. I wear a ring to remind me of an important event that changed my life: my wedding. I have pictures and mementos at home that remind me of other important experiences. Make a memorial.
Share it with others. This is a great way to reinforce what you learn and remember it. Tell it to someone else. Every time you tell it, you reinforce it and you’re more likely to remember it. Share it with others.
Remember what you’ve learned.
D. Use your experiences to help others.
The last suggestion to maximize your life experience is to use what you’ve learned to help others.
2 Corinthians 1:3-6 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. 6If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.
God comforts or helps you so that you can help others. In fact, this suggests that sometimes God lets us go through something tough so that we’ll be ready to help someone else down the road. “Why am I going through this, God?” “So you can help someone else in the future.”
Don’t waste your experiences! Learn from them and then use them to help others who are going through similar things. You can help people that I could never help, because you’ve been through something similar to their experience and I haven’t.
ILL: Someone said, “The best substitute for experience is being sixteen.” I knew a lot more when I was sixteen than I do now! Same when I was 20 and 25—I had a head full of theoretical knowledge. But you live awhile and experience does things to your theories. When I had no children, I had several theories on how to raise them. Now I have several kids and no theories.
In my early twenties, before I was married and had any children of my own, I took it upon myself to write a letter to my sister filled with sage advice on how to raise her 4 year old son. My sister, wiser than me, kept the letter to taunt me later on!
My point is that you learn some things through experience, and when you do, you have something to share with others, something that can be helpful, something more than theories. Use your experiences to help others.