The Chief End of Man
Every book has a subject. A textbook surveys a field of learning. A novel tells a story. A dictionary gives the definitions of words. But what is the subject of the Bible? The Bible deals with the so-called ultimate questions.
- What am I?
- Where did I come from?
- Is there a higher Being?
- What follows death?
- What is the purpose of my life?
Only a student of the Bible knows the right answers to these questions.
- Opinion leaders in the modern world insist that I am identical to my physical body, and that this body of self contains nothing besides matter; further, that my mind and personality derive from the activity of nervous tissue in my brain. But the sole substance of my brain is tiny atoms belonging to various elements. The same kinds of atoms are also swirling about me in the air, or filling the ground, or running through the ditch. Can these atoms outside me think? Certainly not. They do not know or care whether they have had a good day or a bad day. They have no sense that they prefer hot weather to cold weather. Nor do they worry about a nuclear holocaust. But according to secular science, if you put billions of material atoms together in the proper way, suddenly they can write poetry. The Bible tells me the truth—that I am a human being with a composite nature, involving body, soul, and spirit. The mind uses the brain, and the brain affects the mind, but they are not the same. The brain is only a nonthinking biological computer capable of death, but the mind resides in the soul, which never dies.
- Denying God, the unbelieving world says that I am essentially an animal, that my kind of animal evolved from lower forms, that these in turn evolved from inanimate things, and that ultimately everything came from nothing. But from the Bible I learn that in fact God created me in His own image, and as a result I have certain divine attributes, such as the ability to know myself, to reason, to love, and to mark things as good or bad.
- The world says, no, but the Bible affirms that there is a higher Being. He is God, who is infinite in power and wisdom, eternal in duration, and perfect in every virtue.
- Death is a gate with nothing beyond, according to the world. But the Bible reveals that after death there is eternal existence either in heaven with God or in hell separated from Him.
- Worldly opinion offers no satisfying purpose for life. If life is a momentary escape from nothingness before and after, what purpose could life have? Deluded by such hopelessness, most people today believe that the only reasonable goal of the choices we make is to get as much pleasure as we can while we are still breathing. But Christians take a different view. A classic formulation of their answer to Question 5 appears at the very beginning of the Westminster Catechism. The question is rephrased, becoming, "What is the chief end of man?" And the answer provided is, "To glorify God and enjoy Him forever." This is a wonderful truth succinctly and beautifully expressed. But while the wording of the answer comes extremely close to dead center, it is off ever so slightly. The precise answer rests upon the answer to another question, why did God create man? The key is the attribute central to His character. He is the fullest expression of love (1 John 4:8). His motive for creating man is therefore not hard to discover. He wanted somebody to love who could love Him in return. In other words, He wanted to love and be loved. Therefore, the chief end of man is simply this—to return God’s love.
Fellowship with God
If you love someone deeply, what do you want more than anything else? To spend time with the beloved and enjoy the beloved's company. I think of something that happened to me some years ago, when my wife and I were employed by a Christian school. Just before summer vacation, our upper-level students went on a school-sponsored trip to Washington, D.C., and I had to go because I was the only person available to drive one of the vans, but my wife was unable to go with me. About four days after we left, I became quite homesick. One evening when we took the students to a mall, I escaped to the food court and sat alone sipping my Cappuccino and feeling sorry for myself. The students, looking over the railing of an aisle passing overhead, thought it quite amusing. But what could I do? I could have called my wife on my cell phone, but how many times can you say, "I miss you"?
And so, the God who loves man has always sought to have fellowship with him. Before man's fall, God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen. 3:8). He later took upon Himself the form of a man, drew followers to Himself (John 1:14), and treated them as His friends (Luke 12:4; John 15:14-5). With His closest disciples He had a relationship of intimate daily fellowship.
What a privilege they had! But we also can have that privilege. We also can meet and commune with God daily. The time each day that a believer spends in fellowship with God has various names: personal devotions, quiet time, or God-and-I time.
In personal devotions, we speak to God and God speaks to us. We speak to God in prayer, and God speaks to us in two ways, through His Word (the Bible) and through the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. The Spirit's witness does not come to us in audible words, as though we were listening to another person outside ourselves. Nor do we hear another person's voice in our heads. Rather, the Spirit speaks by leading us to the thoughts and impressions He wants us to have.
The most common example is the Spirit giving us a burden for somebody. We might be walking or sitting or even sleeping when suddenly we think of that person and sense that he has a need. The reason is that the Spirit is prompting us to pray for him. Our response should be to pray for him immediately, with a heart full of compassion. Later, we may learn that we felt the burden and prayed exactly when the person was undergoing a difficult trial. Thus, although we should not live in a state of worry, we should remain sensitive to any concern that the Spirit places on our hearts.
Some Christians when attempting to describe the experience of being led by the Spirit use such language as, "God spoke to me." Others object strenuously to this language, on the grounds that God's Word is found only in the Bible. The way to resolve the dispute, like any dispute that is largely semantic, is to find a middle ground of clear distinctions. On the one hand, we should admit that the claim, "God spoke to me," is misleading. If I say this, some hearers will infer that I have gone through a mystical experience in which I seemed to hear God's voice. On the other hand, we should admit that God uses the Spirit to give us more specific guidance than we could ever find in the Bible.
Examples abound in the life history of every notable Christian. Isobel Kuhn was a missionary to China at the time when the Communists were taking control. As they advanced toward her home in a remote, mountainous corner of the country, she decided that she must leave, but the only escape route to Burma was a high pass over the mountains, and winter snow was already falling. Staying was dangerous and leaving was dangerous. What to do? Here was a question of life and death that her Bible alone could not answer. Yet she sought God's leading and through the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit arrived at the definite impression that she should go. Even as she and her party crossed the pass, snow was piling up ever deeper. A few hours later they would have died in the attempt. But they escaped. Was she deluded in her belief that her loving heavenly Father had told her what to do in her moment of desperate need? Certainly not.
Rather than say, “God spoke to me,” it is better to say that God led me, or that the Spirit led me. In trying to determine the Spirit’s leading, we must, however, observe two cautions.
- Another person's leading is not binding on me. I cannot easily test whether his leading is genuine. I must assume that if God wants me to know something, He will reveal it to me directly, if I am seeking His will. I am responsible to follow the leadership of an authority figure that God has placed over me, such as a parent (if I am young) or a pastor. Yet no leader stands between God and man as a mediator in the fullest sense, with the right to represent himself as infallible. A church leader is God's instrument for instructing the church in sound judgment, resting upon Biblical principles. He may even serve as God's spokesman channeling God's will to the flock, especially in matters relating to policies and programs of the church. But everyone in the flock has the right to judge whether the leader's guidance is indeed correct. Major decisions should be made by consensus or near consensus. When making personal decisions, a believer will always find the counsel of godly leaders to be helpful, but still he is responsible to seek the mind of God for himself and to follow it regardless of anyone's objection.
- I can never be absolutely sure that a subjective impression comes from the Spirit. The reason is that I (and you and everyone else) is a sinner, prone to substitute selfish desire for the real will of God, and to deceive myself that they are the same. Subconsciously, in recesses of my mind that I keep hidden even from myself, I may dress up selfish desire as the leading of the Spirit. To eliminate self-deception, I must submit to the Spirit's examination of my heart. I must face my sin and put it away before I judge God's leading. Only when I have taken the necessary steps to remove sin’s blinders can I be reasonably sure that I know God’s will.
Place of Devotions
The Bible is emphatic that we should commune with God in a private place (Matt. 6:5-6). Going into seclusion for devotions serves several purposes:
- It assures that our devotions will not be merely a show of piety, designed to impress others.
- It protects us from interruptions.
- It achieves privacy, so that we can be open with God. Prying eyes will not hinder us from expressing our feelings. Whether we shed tears or glow with joy, only God sees.
The Bible gives many examples of saints who sought privacy in their fellowship with God. Daniel went to his bedchamber (Dan. 6:10). Peter went to the housetop (Acts 10:9). Jesus went to a solitary place (Mark 1:35), the wilderness (Luke 5:16), or a mountaintop (Mark 6:46).
Time of Devotions
Several texts recommend meeting with God in the morning (Psa. 5:3; 88:13; 143:8). Others speak of devotional prayer three times a day (Psa. 55:17; Dan. 6:10). It is probably fair to say that most Christians throughout history have had their devotions in the morning, using them as spiritual preparation for all the day's duties and challenges. Many great warriors for God—such as John Wesley and Hudson Taylor—routinely got up early, hours before other people awoke, so that they might have a season of prayer without distractions. No doubt each was moved by a sense of responsibility to intercede for the thousands of people under his care.
Besides having devotions in the morning, many Christians pray before going to bed, and many also have devotional times with spouse or family during the day. In our family, we have always had personal devotions in the morning and family devotions in the evening. When our children lived at home, devotions at about 8:00 were the closing event in their day. Now my wife and I have them about 9:30.
Length of Devotions
You can meet with God as long as you want. Obviously, the longer the better, so long as the time is spent in vital communion rather than drowsy boredom. A beginner should not afflict himself with an unrealistic notion of his duty, lest he be tempted to quit. Let him start with ten or fifteen minutes and then, if he faithfully keeps it up, he can increase the time.
The Bible does not dictate any particular procedure during devotions. Every believer is free to design and practice devotions as he feels led by the Spirit. Yet it may be helpful for a beginner to become acquainted with a procedure that others have followed with good results. The procedure we will present here is called the seven-step method of devotions. The seven steps are these:
- Confession of sin. Sin puts a wall between the believer and God. It keeps his prayers from rising above the ceiling (Psa. 66:18). It invalidates his worship (Matt. 5:23-4). Therefore, it is always a good idea to confess sin and be forgiven before attempting to meet with God. At the beginning of devotions, listen first for any conviction of sin that the Spirit may bring to your heart. Ask Him specifically for criticism of your conduct the day before. For some Christians, devotions are dull and stale simply because they refuse to deal with besetting sins. You must put sin aside before you are qualified to enter the throne room of God and enjoy His communion.
- Praise and thanksgiving. The Scripture commands praise (Rev. 19:5; Ps. 33:1–2; 118:28; 147:1), as it also commands thanksgiving (1 Tim. 2:1; Phil. 4:6). Remember that God is not only our heavenly Father; He is also the great King of the universe. If you were a humble subject entering the presence of an august earthly ruler, your first words would not be about yourself. If you had any sense, you would first show respect and love for the ruler. Likewise when you enter the throne room of God, you should talk first about Him. You should give Him your adoration and praise, and you should gratefully acknowledge the favors He has shown you in the past. If we continually bombarded an earthly father with requests—saying gimme, gimme, gimme—and never thanked him for his goodness in fulfilling past requests, what would we be? Ungrateful. It is not only self-centered but also self-defeating to neglect thanking God. Our thanks bring Him joy and make Him more receptive to further requests.
- Bible reading. Bible reading in devotions is not the same as Bible study. In devotions, a few verses are sufficient, even preferable. The quality rather than the quantity of your reading is important. It is generally wise to put Bible reading before prayer because what you read will shape your understanding of what needs to be prayed about. We read the Bible in devotions because it is our sourcebook of guidance (Psa. 119:11, 105), correction, and all spiritual truth (2 Tim. 3:16-7).
- Meditation. Do not read the Bible as if it were a newspaper or novel. You should read it slowly and pay attention to each word. You should stop frequently and figure out the meaning. Then when you are done, you should think about what you have read and identify the important spiritual truths. Thoughtful interaction with God's Word is called meditation. The Bible itself recommends it (Psa. 1:2). Meditation should not be limited to devotions. Throughout the day, you should use idle moments to continue pondering the passage you read in the morning.
- Application. Having devotions is not an academic exercise. It should make a difference in your life. After you have read the Word and meditated upon it, you should seek to apply it. Ask, what demand does God make of me? What does He want me to think, or say, or do? You should make such applications during your devotional time. Then during the day, you should remember them and carry them out (James 1:21-5). As every situation arises, you should look for ways of applying the truth that God gave you at the day's beginning.
- Intercession. It is by no means wrong to pray for yourself. But it is a good exercise in selflessness to pray for others first. Scripture commands that intercession be made for all men (again, 1 Tim. 2:1). How is that possible? There is not enough time in one session of devotions to mention everybody. Some Christians solve the problem by restricting intercession during devotions to people in two categories: those known to have urgent needs, and those who appear on a rotating prayer list. The list might be constructed as follows:
- on Monday, immediate family
- on Tuesday, friends and acquaintances
- on Wednesday, church and school ministries
- on Thursday, people in the church and others on the church prayer list (perhaps distributed at the Wednesday night service)
- on Friday, selected missionaries and their special requests
- on Saturday, the nation, national leaders, and Christians worldwide under persecution
- on Sunday, oneself.
- Requests. Although you put your own needs last, you should not neglect them. From the Lord's Prayer, we learn two important principles that should govern personal requests (Matt. 6:11-3):
- We should pray primarily for needs rather than wants. That is, we should pray for bread, not for steak and lobster, not for truffles and caviar.
- We should include spiritual as well as material needs. Our chief spiritual needs are for forgiveness of sin, protection from temptation, and deliverance from the evil one.
Many Christians use their devotional time to "pray through" the coming day. They ask themselves, what difficult tasks do I face? What temptations will come my way? What opportunities for ministry will emerge? As they think about each circumstance, they pray for the Lord's help and grace, so that their conduct during the day will bring glory to God.
Some Christians keep a log, a journal, of their devotions. The practice is a good one, provided you can afford the extra time. If you write down the insights you gain through your Bible reading, you are more likely to remember them. If you record special prayer requests, you are more likely to notice how God responds. If you also record His answers to prayer, you will compile a history of God's goodness to you—a history that will strengthen your faith and serve as powerful encouragement during times of testing or peril.