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Looking for a purpose . . . or maybe not

“How do I justify my existence? What’s the meaning of life?” These questions haunted me for as long as I can remember and eventually, when I was in my early 20s, drove me to the Lord. So it was natural for me to include them in the cultural questionnaire I developed to use during my “Pickle time”.

Does your life have a purpose?

Practical Culture and Language time (PCL), affectionately called “Pickle time” for short, is a two to three-month interval where OMF language students move from having daily Japanese classes to having class one day a week. On other days, we go out among people, learn how they think and communicate, take part in various church activities, and find our own ways to use the language more.

I wrote a cultural questionnaire for my Japanese friends, hoping this would help me learn more about their worldview, as well as be good language practice. When I brought the rough draft to my language teacher, she said, “You probably shouldn’t just ask what their purpose in life is. They may not have one and they might feel bad about it. Better to ask whether their life has a purpose, and if so, would they mind telling you what it is.”

Whether their life has a purpose? I had assumed everyone thought about why they exist or why they do the things they do. But after mulling this over, I realized I also have American friends who would say their life has no overarching purpose; they just want to eat, drink, and be merry as much as possible. I was curious how my Japanese friends would respond to the question.

Asking the question

Away I went with my questionnaire. My first “victims” were a non-Christian acquaintance and one of her friends. When I got to the “What’s your life purpose?” question, the first woman replied, “To travel the world someday.” The second replied, “To speak English well someday.” We talked more about the English goal, and it turned out this was something that she really desired. But fearing her low language proficiency, she didn’t participate in any classes and never practiced, not even on her own.

“So you really want to improve your English, but you aren’t actually doing anything about it,” I said. (It came out much softer in Japanese, I promise!)

“Yes, that’s right,” she replied, seemingly content.

My next “victims” were four non-Christian friends from the local gospel choir that I had joined last year. When I asked the purpose question, most of them replied, “Nothing.” Upon further discussion, however, the three who were mothers changed their answer: “I hope I can raise my children well to reach age 20; after that, I hope I can rest.” The one who had no children replied, “I just don’t really have a reason for living, I guess . . . but I try to find ways to spend time with people, like in the choir.” We talked about this for a while and in the end agreed that building relationships and having a sense of closeness with people was an important part of what brought us joy in life.

Later, I had a discussion about these answers with a close Japanese Christian friend of mine. “I think we’re seeing the influence of Buddhism in these ladies’ outlook on life,” she said. “Buddhism doesn’t worry about meaning because they don’t believe there really is any meaning to life. They worry about form, about doing what needs to be done well, about serving a needed function faithfully and beautifully. Maybe it’s a fruit of Western philosophy and Christianity to think so much about why we do things or why we exist. Though, despite the fact that I came from a Buddhist household, I always wondered about the meaning of it all.”

What can I learn from this?

It seems that I need to spend more time listening to my friends, to discover the possible bridges from their hearts to Jesus, instead of assuming that I already know.

God really does speak to each of us in a way that we can understand. For me, this was through an intellectual search for meaning and purpose. For others, it may be through a heart search for relationship. For others yet, it’s a mixture of both. But if I am approaching evangelism solely from my own philosophically-centered worldview, I can easily miss what will actually speak to the hearts of my hearers.

In terms of longing for relationship, thankfully the Bible gives us a wealth of material to work with. Jesus is not merely our reason for being; it’s through Him that we can enjoy an intimate relationship with God. Jesus delights to be close to us: “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3 ESV). This awesome, all-powerful, creator God desires above all for us to know Him, draw close, and be with Him, day in and day out. I pray I can share God’s desire for relationship more faithfully with Japanese people, and share Jesus in a way that makes sense to my friends and speaks to their deepest longings. I pray they can discover how good it is to have a relationship with Him and maybe, along the way, discover the purpose behind it all.

Christina Winrich (US) serves with OMF and is currently studying Japanese in Sapporo. She can frequently be found enjoying coffee or sushi, though not at the same time.

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